When Dutch photographer Hellen van Meene was commissioned by TIME to create a portrait of the climate activist Greta Thunberg, she knew that she wanted to portray the teenager in a different light to how the world has seen her before. “When someone asks me to make a portrait, I always think about the subject and my opinion of them. Thinking about Greta, I wanted this photo to be different, because her story is bigger than life,” van Meene says.
Van Meene’s photograph of the 16-year-old appears on the cover of the May 27 edition of TIME, and was taken near the Swedish Parliament in Stockholm during one of Thunberg’s school strikes in late April. She began her weekly strikes from school last year, protesting outside the Swedish parliament to raise awareness about climate change; the strikes have since spread to more than 130 countries worldwide. Thunberg was named to the TIME 100 list of the world’s most influential people in April and is now one of TIME’s Next Generation Leaders.
Thunberg does not travel by airplane because of the high carbon emission output, so I accompanied her by train from London to her home in Stockholm for the cover story. Similarly, van Meene also traveled by train on a two-day journey from her hometown of Heiloo, in the north of the Netherlands, to take Thunberg’s portrait in Stockholm.
In the photograph, Thunberg wears a green dress that the photographer chanced upon in an outlet store in Copenhagen during a stop on her train journey to Stockholm. The outfit is a departure from what the teenager usually wears, favoring more practical clothing like hoodies, jeans and tracksuits. For van Meene, the color has a deeper meaning, especially against the backdrop of a concrete archway in Stockholm’s Old Town of Gamla Stan. “The green for me symbolizes life,” she says. “And the darkness of the corridor is what we will end up in if we don’t pay attention to what Greta is telling us.”
The photographer’s teenage daughter also accompanied her to Stockholm, and van Meene says the 16-year-old has been inspired by Thunberg to strike from school in the Netherlands. “We shouldn’t see Greta as a young cute thing, she’s a serious girl with a serious message,” van Meene says. “Don’t get fooled by her age, listen to what she wants to warn us about. She and her generation will have to pay the price, and that’s why we should act.”
Since the mid-1990s, van Meene has been best known for her square photographic portraits of teenage girls, with her work exhibiting internationally including at both the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. She favors working outdoors in natural light and with a film camera, giving her work a timeless, painterly-like quality. “I like that you can’t really tell exactly when any of my work has been created, and that was really important in this portrait of Greta,” she says. “By making a photo not about her age, but about the personality she will grow into, it means that in 10, even 20 years’ time, this image will be important. It’s not so much a reference to her age, but a reference to her story.”