In January 2004, at a time when the French government was debating the banning of religious and political signs from schools, Catherine Balet started taking pictures of signs, labels, codes and icons that have a social and aesthetic significance in the world of teenagers. Extending the project from Paris to London, Berlin, Barcelona and Milan, it quickly became a record of the dress codes in European schools, referencing the tribal subdivisions.
Teenagers in their struggle for identity and self-esteem and troubled by an urgent desire to be different, usually adopt the codes of a group, often inspired by music trends. In each city Balet discovered the same music, fashion, brands, bands and labels. Only details are different from one city to another as they reflect the complexity of the history of one country and the influence of its migrant population.
In London and Barcelona, where the uniform is a school institution, Balet captured the way these young pupils customised their outfits. Casting her subjects in the street, she composes large portraits always framed in the same way. Only the background reveals the location. Richly descriptive, these portraits combine a documentary style with a poetic sensibility, capturing this complex mix of fragility and determination in the eyes of the portrayed teenagers.
Editor's note: This series seems especially appropriate this week as the government of France's ban on headscarves and veils goes on trial again. Read more in The New York Times.