One night in 2015, as she rode her motorcycle through the expansive Nevada landscape, Dutch photographer Robin de Puy stopped outside a casino in the small town of Ely. That evening she met Randy, a teenage boy who would become the subject and inspiration behind a powerful, long-term portrait series.

Over the course of their friendship (three years and counting), de Puy created a raw, revealing portrait of American adolescence. The setting is sparse and unremarkable: an arid landscape punctuated by spindly towers, or a car’s shiny, plasticky interior. Randy and his brothers cavort through this terrain, their wiry bodies and sharp, angular limbs stretching across the frame of de Puy’s photographs. Randy himself is magnetic. The veracity (and intensity) of his emotions translate seamlessly from reality to image; rarely are we, as viewers, presented with a subject who is so vulnerable and unreserved.

In this video, de Puy tells the story of how she and Randy met and describes the quirks in his personality that she found so absorbing. Below, in addition to the video interview, you’ll also find an excerpt from de Puy’s journal.

—Coralie Kraft

June 5, 2017: Ely, Nevada

One more night and then I will leave Ely, Nevada. Away from Randy. I am trying to prepare him as well as myself, but realize there is little to prepare for—I am leaving and both our lives will go on.

Communicating, Randy’s school report tells us, is not his strongest skill. For the first eight years of his life, in fact, he didn’t speak at all. Nowadays he does, although his words are sometimes inaudible. But he is communicating, albeit in his own way. A few days ago, I started to cry while Randy was standing right next to me. I was trying to hold back my tears and be strong. That didn’t really work out, but it was okay. Maybe I felt that I owed him something after all that he gave me.

Once Randy began talking, he kept on talking. He shared his tearful moments, told me that he often had to cry when he didn’t know how to react. ‘I feel lonely at times too,’ he said. ‘I don’t really have friends I can hang out with, and I miss my (half) brothers and sisters.’ His brother Austin lives with him, but a large part of the family lives elsewhere—mostly in Utah. Randy hardly ever ventures outside Ely, let alone the state of Nevada.

The first time I photographed Randy and asked him to look straight into the lens, I forgot to mention that he was allowed to blink. He stared into the lens until tears were rolling down his cheeks: not once did he blink. Now I know he needs to be told, ‘Stay like this,’ but also, ‘Blinking allowed!’

Other things I now know about Randy: he gets quiet in busy crowds, and he likes Dr. Pepper; he gets really upset when he disappoints someone; he loves animals and is caring in his own way; when he grows up, he’d like to have three kids and wants to be a cop; he laughs when he’s in pain and is almost always hungry.

I also know that Randy makes dance-like moves when the sun goes down (because he’s been feeling mosquitoes all over his body since learning recently that mosquitoes drink blood); he wonders whether his beloved Mountain Dew actually kills sperm (like his friends told him it did); and he smokes his mother’s little cigars—a confession he hadn’t dared to make until last night.

Every morning I pick him up. When I get there, I call his name and he comes out. Rarely do I enter the house. Once he’s outside, I usually send him back in to wash his face. He always answers with a neutral ‘okay.’ Then he returns with a cleaner face and we leave. After a few minutes (or even seconds), he’ll usually say that he’s hungry. But today was different. When I arrived, he called out ‘I’m coming!’—an excited, adult sound. He came out, sat down next to me. Seeing his clean face, his clean ‘new clothes’ that he had carefully picked out, I noticed that he smelled nice. Randy then told me that he had fixed himself some breakfast with strawberries and banana—he was looking after himself.

‘Will you miss me?’ I ask him. ‘Yeah, I like being with you,’ he replies. ‘But you’ll be back.’

—Robin de Puy

Robin de Puy’s series “Randy” was the first prize winner in our Portrait Awards 2018. Explore work by all 39 of the winners, finalists, and jurors’ picks.