Seeing double: Portraits of girls and their American Girl dolls
A New York photographer spends more than a year exploring what it’s like to be a young woman in a consumer-driven culture.
Photographer Ilona Szwarc noticed something curious when she moved from Poland to New York City a few years ago: So many little girls were walking the streets of the Big Apple clutching dolls that looked an awful lot like themselves. This marked Szwarc’s introduction to the American Girl doll craze that has been captivating 5-ish-year-olds to 14-ish-year-olds for more than two decades now. It also led to this elaborate photography project.
Sisters Maya and Leela, pictured here with their American Girl dolls, were 10 and 8 when Szwarc photographed them last year at their home in New York. Leela said of her two dolls, “I like that they look like me, and I don’t like that their hair gets messed up.”
Kayla, Massachusetts, 2012
Kayla lives with her parents and her brother in a beautiful Victorian house in Boston, and Szwarc was excited to photograph Kayla there. “I felt that American Girl dolls were based on a Victorian idea, so to photograph a girl in that setting was underscoring where these ideas in contemporary American culture came from.”
Szwarc, 27, ultimately spent more than a year photographing more than 40 girls in their homes with their look-alike American Girl dolls.
Gillian, New York, 2011
Gillian was 12 when Szwarc photographed her at home on the Upper East Side in Manhattan. She attends a performing arts school and wants to pursue an acting career when she grows up. Of her six American Girl dolls, Gillian said, “I like that I can do whatever I want with them, and they don’t talk back. They’re like the best friend a girl could have.”
Jaelyn, New York, 2012
Jaelyn lives in Islip, N.Y., and her mother is a fan of American Girl dolls because they’re available with black skin and textured hair. Szwarc also observed that the dolls are available in a staggering array of skin colors, hair colors and eye colors. “Barbies are blonde and always smiling, and that’s not the case for many girls,” Szwarc said. “American Girl dolls represent so many types of girls ... but then the ones that are omitted become that much more visible.”
Jade, New York, 2011
Jade adores her doll, which she named Bailey, and treats it as her daughter. She told Szwarc that she dreams of being a good mom someday. “The doll ... helps girls carve out their identity,” Szwarc said. “Girls project their identities onto the dolls and then they experiment with them through mini-me doll play, and then when they’re ready they leave the doll behind.”
Ariane and Meridien, New York, 2011
Sisters Ariane and Meridien live in Brooklyn, N.Y., and they both said they viewed their dolls as role models. “They show you what you can be and give you a perfect example to follow,” Meridien said. Ariane said the dolls can help a girl become “a better person.”
Gillian, New York, 2011
This is another portrait Szwarc captured of Gillian on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. In addition to American Girl dolls, Gillian said she also loves Barbies. “I don’t agree with people who think Barbie is too perfect,” she said.
Sydney, Connecticut, 2011
At age 7, Sydney was Szwarc’s youngest subject. “She has a very strong voice and is very, very funny,” Szwarc said. “She wants to be a news anchor when she grows up.”
Sydney said that her American Girl doll makes her happy. “I can talk with her all day long and she will listen to me no matter what I have to say,” she said. “I wish she can help me with my math homework – I would definitely enjoy math more if my doll can do that with me. But I think she likes to be a leader in everything she does and that makes me want to be a leader too!”
Tiffani-Amber, New York, 2011
Tiffani-Amber lives in Long Beach, N.Y. Her mother is a firefighter and drives a Hummer. Tiffani-Amber likes the way American Girl dolls provide educational value for young girls, and she’s personally offended by Barbies, which she views as “inappropriate.” She said American Girl dolls teach “morals, such as beauty is on the inside, not the outside.”
School girls, New York, 2012
Tiffani-Amber is pictured here once again – this time with her best friends Kylee, Sophia, Elizabeth and Angelica. They attend a private Catholic school that requires students to wear uniforms – and their dolls are sporting uniforms that match.
Jenna, Massachusetts, 2011
Jenna lives on a farm with 60 horses, and she’s pictured here on her own horse, Peter Pan. Girls can accessorize their American Girl dolls in myriad ways, and, as shown in this photograph, Jenna has secured horses and horse-riding accessories for hers.
“I realized that these dolls – with all the accessories – are the most luxurious toys ever invented,” Szwarc said, adding that the children who own them are often “exposed to an extreme abundance of things.”
Sarah, New York, 2012
Sarah, 13, used to own multiple American Girl dolls, but now she has just one left because she gave the rest away to charity. The doll she kept looks like her.
Each American Girl doll costs about $100. That price can escalate quickly with customized clothing, furniture and accessories – not to mention treatments at American Girl stores’ doll hair salons, where dolls can have their tresses styled, get their ears pierced and receive refreshing facial scrubs. “It’s a surreal little world where these objects get to be treated in a very humane manner,” Szwarc said.
Amanda, New Jersey, 2011
Amanda keeps an impressive collection of 24 dolls with accompanying accessories in the attic of her New Jersey home. Her grandmother gave her the dolls, and her mother helps ensure the collection stays organized. “I have ... great memories with my grandmother,” Amanda said. “I have been so lucky to have so many [dolls]. I love each and every one of them.”
Lexi, New York, 2012
Lexi, 10, proved to be one of Szwarc’s most inspiring subjects, even though they barely spoke to one another during the photo shoot. “She was very quiet and shy,” Szwarc said. “We developed an instant connection that needed no words to communicate. Her favorite color is bright pink; this is the color of her room. She showed me her Halloween costume – the pink wig and a sparkly pink dress. ... It expressed her personality.”
Hannah, Massachusetts, 2012
Hannah, 12, is a cheerleader who owns three American Girl dolls, and she had a doll-sized cheerleader outfit custom-made to match her own. “I pretend they are cheerleaders on my team,” Hannah said of her dolls. “I put them in stunts and make them do tumbling.”
To see more of Ilona Szwarc’s American Girl portraits, visit her website.