Kiwi photographer’s epic project: Find 26 teens in 9 countries, 16 years and 3 children later

Jessie Casson's 'What becomes of me' project involves visiting nine countries in four months to find 26 teens.

By Karyn Henger
Sixteen years ago Kiwi photographer Jessie Casson married her husband Matt Hockey. They were 26 and 25, respectively, and Jessie, who originates from England, hadn't envisaged herself marrying so young. Fearing they might become 'boring' the couple embarked on a nine-month honeymoon, travelling around Latin America.
Jessie's career in photography was also only just beginning to take off and she didn't want it to lose momentum so she incorporated a photography project into the trip, randomly selecting and photographing 26 teenagers during their travels and interviewing them about their hopes and dreams.
The last question she asked each of them was 'where did they see their lives in 20 years' time?'
Now Auckland-based Jessie and Matt, who at the end of their 2003 honeymoon visited New Zealand and never left, are about to embark on the project of a lifetime.
They're returning to Latin America with their three children, aged 13, nine and six, in September to find the former teenagers, rephotograph them and find out what they're doing now.
Of the 26, Jessie has managed to track down 10 using social media and the internet. The other 16 will be a case of "rocking up to their town and seeing if they're still there," Jessie explains.
The quest will involve visiting nine countries over a period of four months.
Jessie and Matt with their three children, Iris, 6, Dylan, 13 and Otis, 9.
Jessie says she's prepared for being confronted with difficult news.
"One of the teens, Roberto, was a 13-year-old miner from Bolivia and the conditions in the mines were so bad that his life expectancy after starting down them was only 15 years. So he might not even be alive," she says with sadness.
Roberto's life expectancy dropped to 15 years when he started working in the mines in Bolivia. Image: Jessie Casson
There are others, too, who have stayed in particular with Jessie over the years.
"Noel [from Tupiza in Bolivia] loved horses and wanted to work with horses for the rest of his life, but his father wanted him to be a teacher. I'm interested to find out whether he was able to pursue his passion."
Jessie has Noel's photo on her kitchen wall and is reminded of him daily.
Noel, from Bolivia, loved horses but his dad wanted him to be a teacher. Image: Jessie Casson
She was also struck by Rosa, a 17-year-old girl who lived on the very small island of Tequila in Peru.
"Her ambitions were so humble. She just wanted to do good knitting and grow potatoes."
Rosa is one of the 10 that Jessie has already tracked down and she's curious to find out if having access to the internet changed Rosa's hopes for the future.
"When we did this trip the internet was only just beginning to take off. We had to use internet cafés and everything was so slow. Now I wouldn't be surprised if everyone's got a mobile phone and access to the internet. How does that change what you want to do with your life from a teens' perspective?"
Some of her subjects, she knows she may not find.
In the video, above, about the project Jessie's husband Matt points out, "South America has a population of 350 million, and you're looking for 'a guy called David'."
Jessie nods, "When you travel many hours on a bus and then discover they're not there any more... yes.
"But that's all part of the journey. Some things don't work out. Everything is not perfect and part of life is being able to accept that."
Rosa's ambitions were humble - she wanted to become a good knitter and grow potatoes. Image: Jessie Casson
"I also think we remember the things that go awry - not too awry! - and they become much better stories. The difficulties you have to overcome are what makes life interesting."
While for the most part Jessie is excited about taking her children on this adventure, she has some anxieties too.
"As a mother... I googled New Zealand and it's regarded as the safest country in the world... so taking your children anywhere out of New Zealand seems to be a risk. I have to really work hard on not letting my mind get carried away with thoughts of 'what if'.
"But we traveled through Vietnam and Sri Lanka with the children when they were younger and what has spurred me on is knowing that if we were to stay here for those four months in New Zealand we would never remember them.
"We are going to have four months of adventure and discovery and learning."
Videographer, Sara Guix, will accompany the family and document their journey.
Jessie will be using the same camera she used 16 years ago - for the photography buffs among us, a Hasselblad.
It's heavy and cumbersome and she can only shoot with it using a tripod. She will be shooting with film, which means she won't get to see how her portraits have turned out until she gets into a dark room to develop them at the end of her trip, just as she did the first time round.
She will also only be taking 24 frames per person. But that's doubling her odds of getting a great shot. The first time round she only shot 12 frames.
Jessie hopes to hold an exhibition featuring her 'before' and 'after' shots and a documentary of the family's journey. She will also be approaching galleries in the nine countries the family travels to, to discuss featuring her work there, too.
The first time round it was like "going hunting", she says.
"We'd walk the streets, find them, circle them, approach them," Jessie says.
"This time it feels a bit like I am reconnecting with long-lost friends. Although my initial encounters were relatively brief I have looked at their pictures and thought about each individual many times since 2003. The people I have managed to find have been excited and enthusiastic to be part of the project and meet me again and welcome my family into their homes."