My breakthrough moment: Lauren Greenfield

After struggling to find her feet as a photojournalist, Lauren Greenfield returned to her native Los Angeles to document the city’s teens. Here, she explains how going back to her roots helped her find her voice

Fast Forward: Growing up in the Shadow of Hollywood was not only the project that put me on the map work-wise, but also the one where I found my voice creatively.

When I was studying photography and filmmaking, I didn’t really think I could make a career out of it – partially because I didn’t know if I was good enough and partially because there was no clear path like going to law school or medical school. I remember one of my teachers saying, ‘you have to go to war – young photojournalists have to go to war’ and nothing about that felt like my path.

Miraculously, I found my way to National Geographic and after an internship, got my first assignment on the Maya in Mexico with me as the photographer and my mother – a professor of psychology who had studied the Maya – as the writer. While I loved the long-term embedded photo-driven stories of National Geographic, with the Maya, I was struggling with a culture that I didn’t deeply understand and photographing people that didn’t want to be photographed. In a way, it wasn’t really my story to tell – it was more my mom’s.

We were renting a house [in Mexico], and on the shelf was an old copy of Bret Easton Ellis’s Less Than Zero. When I read the book, I started thinking about the world I had grown up in in L.A. as a possible subject and how interesting it was as a place where popular culture and the media emanates from.

I’d been living in London the year before, and had seen how kids were watching Beverly Hills 90210. Even though it’s a sitcom, there were things about it that rang so true for me. In the show, there was a kid who lived alone in a hotel and that really resonated with a kind of abandonment of kids I had witnessed [in L.A.]: young people who had so much independence and freedom [and] parents with so much money. In Less than Zero, there was a loneliness and alienation associated with money and excess that really spoke to me and made me want to go back to my hometown and document my own culture, with a rigour and depth that photojournalists and anthropologists usually save for the foreign.