Before We Could Drink

Leah Judson dismantles blinkered attitudes with her portraits of eight remarkable youngsters – championing exceptional accounts of individualism, courage, and tenacity

Photo 2022 © J. Eun | FUJIFILM X-T4 and XF16-80mmF4 R OIS WR

The inaugural tipple has long been a staple symbol of maturity. The first beer, the introductory cocktail – it’s a legal and figurative means of validating the first forays into adulthood, keenly observed across various cultures and societies. For some, the milestone proves trifling and trivial. But for others, it’s a landmark event: drinking in all that’s to come, all that age promises. Strange, then, that this preface to adult accountability should be hampered, soaked in stupor, unsteady, and erratic…

In America, the legal drinking age currently sits at a federal 21. It’s distinctly older than voting and army registration stipulations – both of which could easily be construed as development signifiers, arguably more so. For a lot of youngsters born and raised in the US, ‘coming of age’ is an all-round head-scratcher, particularly when it comes to their passions and ambitions. Experience and expertise are often linked, but aren’t mutually exclusive. As youthful desires become dampened by detractors, that ever-present anxiety invariably rears its ugly head: just how old is old enough?

Photo 2022 © J. Eun | FUJIFILM X-T4 and XF16-80mmF4 R OIS WR

Photo 2022 © J. Eun | FUJIFILM X-T4 and XF16-80mmF4 R OIS WR

Photo 2022 © J. Eun | FUJIFILM X-T4 and XF16-80mmF4 R OIS WR

Considering the widespread implications of this issue, Washington-based photographer Leah Judson elected to challenge the prevailing cultural attitude.

“This first season is dedicated to youth under 21. The discussion is centered around the idea of having a passion, but being spoken down to, just because you’re a young person,” she explains. “I often find that youngsters’ experiences are focused on the notion of adulthood being granted to them at a certain age. In my own life, I’ve been really frustrated with that concept, as I’m sure plenty of others have.

“They’re constantly being shunned, placed in the corner. A lot of that is a misperception about experience. So many are pushed away and ignored, even when they have incredible ideas and abilities. Too often, it’s because they don’t fit the repertoire of ‘grown’. I wanted to create a series that disproved that. I didn’t want to just focus on their abilities – I also wanted to hone in on these individuals, exploring the defining characteristics of each.”

Photo 2022 © J. Eun | FUJIFILM X-T4 and XF16-80mmF4 R OIS WR

Traveling across the US in an old, converted minibus, she revealed enthralling tales of dexterity, all of which formed a fascinating basis for this upcoming cycle. Distinctly multifaceted, Before We Could Drink underlines the importance of uniqueness and dedication, presented as a selection of riveting shorts and portraiture snaps, created with FUJIFILM X-T4 and GFX100S.

“Fujifilm has played an invaluable role in making this whole thing possible,” she notes. “Most importantly, they helped me believe in myself, encouraging me to be limitless in both my ideas and approach.”

Shifting an established zeitgeist was a tricky task – but this was a cause Leah felt deeply for. Naivety was swiftly abandoned, and a tangible goal set. Large-scale societal change was contingent upon smaller acts of transformation.

“It’s not about changing lives. It’s more about getting people to respond, and modify their bad habits. Maybe they’ll adopt a different attitude.

Photo 2022 © J. Eun | FUJIFILM X-T4 and XF16-80mmF4 R OIS WR

Photo 2022 © J. Eun | FUJIFILM X-T4 and XF16-80mmF4 R OIS WR

Photo 2022 © J. Eun | FUJIFILM X-T4 and XF16-80mmF4 R OIS WR

“Sometimes, people in my industry expect an extreme shift from their audience. I’m trying to be realistic. I’m more about moving someone for a moment, an instance. That’s enough for me to walk away from this and feel like it was a success on some level.”

Originally from Panama, Judson’s creative outreach is impressive in scope, embracing an assortment of countries, continents, and specialisms. A BFA in art therapy gave way to an MFA in new media journalism, and from here, she set up BEHOLD.HER: a Washington-based initiative aimed at bridging social barriers for women. She’s interviewed 400 participants to date.

“I’ve had the pleasure of living all over, experiencing different cultures at a young age. Before We Could Drink marries my two loves – people and art. I aspire to create work that has depth. I want it to make people curious; I want to elevate overlooked voices and narratives. As a Latina and extensive traveler, I found I was often rejected to the background.”

Photo 2022 © Leah Judson | FUJIFILM GFX100S and GF45mmF2.8 R WR

Discussing some of the project’s themes and aims, Leah’s quick to dispel any possible misapprehensions. Platforming such a remarkable slew of youngsters is bound to have its drawbacks, but it’s also a shortcoming she anticipated.

“The goal wasn’t to disparage adults. I wanted to emphasize the idea of jealousy being futile. When we sensationalize certain individuals in certain activities, it can make viewers feel incapable. In this case, it’s less about the activity, and more about the individualism. The mindset is ultimately what makes these kids successful.”

Confronted with the skill and self-assuredness of those significantly younger than ourselves, we can be compelled to look inward and question our own capabilities, reinforcing a pressure to match up and surpass. In some cases, this may even be the root cause of condescension. Although entirely natural, a sense of comparison is something Leah strived to avoid. Instead, she envisaged this series as incorporating an additional message – a rallying call to adults who may feel like they’ve missed the boat.

Photo 2022 © Leah Judson | FUJIFILM GFX100S and GF45mmF2.8 R WR

Photo 2022 © J. Eun | FUJIFILM X-T4 and XF16-80mmF4 R OIS WR

Photo 2022 © J. Eun | FUJIFILM X-T4 and XF16-80mmF4 R OIS WR

“Even if you don’t have the skill set yet, you still have time. Some adults can get sour about their own regrets – neglecting to pursue what they really wanted to do as youngsters, for whatever reason,” she explains. “I see it as cyclical. Their older generations may have convinced them to believe in certain ideals, detracting them. This was also about creating an anthem for those who feel like it’s too late, or that they missed out when they were a similar age.”

As Leah got to grips with each person, elements of the everyday gradually began to seep into the work. Resultant episodes became reflections of ordinary kids engaged in extraordinary endeavors.

“These kids are phenomenally familiar – they’re not TikTok superstars. They’re common people. We may perceive what they do as weird or astonishing, but what really struck me is just how totally normal it was to them.”

Photo 2022 © J. Eun | FUJIFILM X-T4 and XF16-80mmF4 R OIS WR

Self-aware and satirical, Judson’s project name is a somewhat contentious thorn in her side, but misinterpretations fuel her drive. “Some people have got bent out of shape with regards to this title – they think that I’m encouraging drinking, or that it’s somehow important,” she laughs.

“They’re completely missing the mark. It’s meant to be a point of conversation, deliberately intended to ruffle feathers. We have kids who can join the military at 18, but at the same time, we have all these other arbitrary restrictions. When it comes to dreams and proficiency, it’s about time we all embraced our inner child.”

 

You can find all episodes of Before We Could Drink here

Photo 2022 © J. Eun | FUJIFILM X-T4 and XF16-80mmF4 R OIS WR