In 2013, I wrote my bachelor’s thesis on the theme of ethical tourist photography. The topic lead me to explore alternative ways of photographing so-called “exotic” locations like non-Western holiday destinations, as well as to contemplate ways to cope with the inherent colonialism and racism often present in something as seemingly innocent as travel snapshots.After graduating, I found myself drifting away from the topic of exotic tourism. My work evolved organically into something new as I grew increasingly fascinated by the inanimate symbols of globalisation that are present in everyday life.This new interest resulted in the series Everything Everywhere, in which I investigate the visibility of globalisation, consumption, post-colonialism, urbanisation, gentrification and homogenisation in different parts of the world. I also dwell upon the nature of contemporary status symbols.In this companion text to the project, I attempt to provide some context for my photographs. I trace how the Industrial Revolution and its aftermath changed the role of clothes within society, and argue that the main role of dress in the 21st century is to signify – it is consumed not out of necessity but rather in order to build identity. I also analyse the role of appropriation in fashion and how globalisation affects styles locally. Finally, I write about the surface of my photographs: what is visible in the images and what to make of them.
In human everyday life, clothes construct identity. Through our dress, we communicate with our surroundings and place ourselves in a specific context or role.
Clothes, jewellery and body modifications have throughout history first and foremost fulfilled the role of signifiers; of aides in categorization. Up until the industrial revolution, clothing was a direct indication of a person’s societal position (Ewen 1985), directly revealing class and gender as well as religion and regional origin (Crane 2000). In modern times, clothes and accessories no longer communicate sure facts about their wearers. They do however act as tools for constructing the individual self.Among the biggest changes that the Industrial Revolution in Europe brought with it was the transformation of textile manufacturing, when steam power and various machines for making cloth or spinning thread were invented in the second half of the 18th century. Before that, clothes were often among a person’s most valuable possessions and poor people were likely to only own one set of clothes (Crane 2000). As mass production increased during the 1800s, clothes had gradually gotten cheaper and by the early 20th century they had become consumer items.In the United States since the 19th century there has existed a strong belief in upward mobility and in fluidity in social structures and hierarchies. The democratization of clothes and the transformation of attitudes was most pronounced in the US because of lack of titled aristocracy and the modest past of most inhabitants (Kidwell and Steele 1989, Banner 1984). An illuminating example of this are photographs of immigrants entering the US through New York’s Ellis Island taken by the clerk Augustus Frederick Sherman. Originating from the first decades of the 1900s, the images show newly arrived people dressed in clothes that underline their origin and position in society to a great degree. Sherman’s photographs include portraits like that of a woman from Alsace whose hair bow signals her marital status (single) and religion (Protestant). Immigrants emigrated from countries with enormous social differences, and upon arriving to the United States, they would take off their traditional clothing, thus shedding their previous identities which were so immediately readable from their old dress (Heinze 1990).Clothing was also globally homogenized outside of the Western hemisphere as a direct consequence of colonialism. In a photograph included in the book Twentieth Century Impressions of Ceylon (1907), an elderly Sri Lankan blacksmith is shown working outdoors, his chest bare, wearing only a veshti (a traditional garment) and a bowler hat, usually regarded as an extremely British accessory. In modern times, the bowler hats are perhaps most prominently visible in Bolivia, where women wear them, and where the positioning of the hat on the head is said to signal marital status. The bowler is integrated into Bolivian local traditional dress, yet it was only introduced in the mid 19th century by the British, soon after it was first designed in 1849 in London.
As industrialization revolutionized society, a new system of information embedded in clothes gradually grew into existence during the 20th century. The early German sociologist Georg Simmel (1858-1918) theorized that fashion was the imitation of the elites by their social inferiors, and that changes in fashion were born when the upper classes reacted to the popularization of their style.
Simmel’s writings simplify society and the dynamics of different classes, but there is an essential truth about fashion to be found in his theory. Parts of it definitely don’t hold up today – high fashion in the 21st century appropriates working class styles and ideas more than ever before – but the complicated aspirational aspect of fashion is ever-present.
British sociologist Douglas Holt argues that the elites have the power to set the terms through which tastes are assigned moral and social value (1997: 95, quoted by Crane 2000 and Cairns & Johnston 2015), and indeed this often holds true. Ultimately, it is the rich, the so-called one percent, that decide on taste and fashion as they are the ones with the purchasing power that steers the fashion markets.
The iPhone, which arguably has the highest status among smartphones, is a success because it was welcomed by consumers and not because it is objectively a better product than other corresponding phones. Classical music was originally composed and played exclusively for the elites, and has to this day retained its status as “fine” art. The pop star Rihanna’s newly launched make up-brand Fenty Beauty was a smash hit even before the first reviews of the products came in because of the rich celebrity’s affiliation with the company.
In modern times, a trickle up/ trickle down-process exists in fashion. Fashion designers frequently appropriate and use styles, subcultures and ideas that have come out of poor working classes or from the so-called fringes of society. These ideas are shown and sold to the elite on fashion runways in Paris, London and New York and then put into wider circulation via fashion magazines. Within a year, the styles will have trickled down to the middle classes who adopt watered down, chain-produced products based high fashion. What might only recently have been seen as ultimate ugliness or as “trashy” becomes attractive.
Recent examples include the high fashion luxury brand Balenciaga’s show at Paris fashion week in October 2017 where models stomped down the runway wearing Crocs, a trademarked kind of foam clogs that have repeatedly been dubbed the ugliest footwear ever. Time will tell if this fashion-affiliation will mean increased status for Crocs, but there is an earlier example which suggests it might. Some years ago, German orthopedic Birkenstock-sandals slowly but surely found their way from health stores for the elderly to high fashion runways and editorials and then ultimately as copies to every fast fashion chain.
A more bizarre example of the phenomenon of turning signifiers of “trashiness” into ones of status is the popularity of Russian designer Gosha Rubchinskyi’s clothes, which are partly influenced by the gopnik uniform. Gopnik is a pejorative describing the Russian equivalent to what in the US is known as white trash. Rubchinskiy’s clothes have been welcomed with open arms by privileged people outside of Russia who end up cosplaying poor criminals and wearing clothes emblazoned with cyrillic letters that they can’t read themselves.
Long nails have long been a status symbol in Asia because of the implication that the wearer doesn’t have to engage in physical labour, The expensive copies of subculture-uniforms fulfil a similar role: they communicate that the wearer is self-confident and successful enough not to have to conform to traditional signifiers of status. Things like these of course require initiation to be readable, but in the internet age, people are increasingly literate in the language of fashion and status symbols.
Clothes have often played an important part in overcoming the trauma of colonialism. Gandhi famously rid himself of his British gentleman style, only truly becoming the Mahatma after shedding the colonial fashion and dressing himself in nothing but a dhoti and a shawl. Indeed, one of Gandhi’s main advocacies was that homespun cloth should be produced and worn by all, replacing the imported British textiles.
In recent years, thanks to the internet, young people have pushed back against the use of certain originally non-Western fashion items or symbols in a Western style context. At its best, this has lead to wider knowledge of different cultures. However, calls against cultural appropriation are occasionally also misguided and ironically enough show a fundamental lack of understanding of the issue at hand. As activists on instagram rage against the usage of bindis outside of India, they both ignore the fact that the glittering bindi is decorative jewellery (as opposed to a religious or political symbol) and that almost every single kind of body modification popular today is appropriation, a result of earlier human interaction, globalisation and/ or colonialism. Some modifications, like the piercing of ears, have been popular all over the world for millennia, whereas others are relatively recently appropriated, like the so-called tribal motif in tattooing.
Tattoos as we know them in Western society today were imported to Europe from Polynesia in the late 18th century after British visits to Tahiti and other islands. Despite the upper classes occasionally dabbling in the art, tattooing was widely associated with sailors and criminals until recent decades, when it was in turn appropriated by different youth subcultures. These included punk, which in its turn has now been appropriated into the mainstream. And so goes the process of globalisation.
Since Edward Said’s influential Orientalism (1978), the term “oriental” has increasingly been seen as a Western colonial construction, a term to illustrate something that doesn’t exist in itself. Although the Orient refers to Asia, it has always been a term loaded with the connotations and expectations. The mere term brings to mind harems, opium dens and other exotic and heavily perfumed half-mythical places lost in history.
It is hardly surprising that Asian people, or people with Asian ancestry, object to being described with a colonialist term that is obsolete in the globalised world. However, many companies in Asia use the term in their brand names, re-appropriating it and using it to their advantage. In Hong Kong at least 80 hotels have the word oriental in their name, in Marrakech the amount is double that. The word acts as a kind of portal to an opulent past that has never existed outside of a small privileged circle of the European elite.
In the globalised world, re-appropriation often has unexpectedly inventive results, as with the naming of the spa Oriental Palm Spring in Hong Kong, which simultaneously refers to the exotic imaginary Orient and to sunny pastel-colored southern California.
A more radical example is a man I encountered in Jaipur, whose yellow cotton t-shirt was emblazoned with a huge swastika. In it’s home country India, the swastika is untarnished by its despicable use in European 20th century history, and it is highly visible in everyday life. In other words, there was and is nothing strange or controversial about wearing a swastika in the Indian subcontinent. However, this man’s shirt did not depict an original swastika, but rather the swastika as stylized by the Nazis: rotated 45 degrees from its original position and enclosed within a circle. For him, an edgy version of an auspicious symbol. For me: a symbol of hate. Both of our interpretations are right.
Appropriation doesn’t only happen in problematic and colonially charged ways. Jeans were, as everybody knows, originally created in the US to be used in heavy labour. For over 60 years, jeans signified ruggedness and physical labour, until they were famously adopted by marginal groups such as motorcycle gangs in the late 1940’s. Through early 50’s Hollywood films like The Wild One, starring Marlon Brando as a bad boy, jeans became associated with rebellion and classlessness, eventually becoming an icon for American values of individualism (Crane 2000). Through this metamorphosis, jeans went from signifying work to signifying leisure in a way similar to how the connotations of tattoos have shifted.
In his writings on fashion, Roland Barthes uses semiotics and the theories of Ferdinand de Saussure as a way of approaching the subject. Barthes calls dress a “total social object”, one that cannot be reduced to merely its protective or ornamental function (Barthes 1957/ 2006 p. 11). Clothes signify: “such and such an outfit can notify concepts of psychological or socio-psychological appearance: respectability, youthfulness, intellectuality, mourning, etc.” (ibid p. 13).
Earlier in my text I already made use of the term “signify” when writing about the meanings embedded in clothes. Pre-teens, usually girls, who are forbidden by their parents from wearing certain things, such as a risqué top or a choker, are often told to think about what they are “signalling” with their appearance. The signifiers of clothes are often seen as overriding other clues to a person’s position and status. Despite it being obvious that a well-kempt prepubertal 12-year-old is not being sexually suggestive towards her surroundings, parents see the choker as having a connotation so strong that it is unsuitable for their child.
The signifiers in dress used to be strictly visual: a certain hat, the length of a skirt, the style of a jacket. In the second half of the 20th century, brands and logotypes started appearing on the outer surface of garments, directly communicating with the outside world. Status symbols soon became as much linked to these visible corporeal signs as to valuable materials and execution, and t-shirts with printed text made their entrance.
In her seminal book No Logo (1999), Naomi Klein calls the logo an active fashion accessory, which it has remained ever since the 90’s. Nowadays sneakers are popular status symbols and the Adidas-logo rarely signals “I am on my way to the gym”. Through popular culture and the internet, sportswear has become leisure clothing and logos have become equivalents of patterns or of ornamental brooches. During a 2014 visit to the Andaman Islands, a secluded archipelago in the Bay of Bengal, I tried to find a t-shirt or bag for sale without a print or logo. It was impossible; counterfeit Nike and Adidas surrounded me.
Logos of different brands are frequently taken out of their context and adopted as symbols to relate to and to idolize. An extreme example of this is the case of the rapper Soulja Boy, who got the luxury brand Gucci’s logo tattooed on his forehead in 2012 (he has since had it removed with laser), or the popularity of Chanel’s interlocked CC-logo as a tattoo, as illustrated by the thousands of results on the google search “chanel tattoo”.
Less permanent but equally perplexing are the connotations of the Calvin Klein logo. In the 1990’s Calvin Klein was accused of launching the look dubbed heroin chic and caused widespread moral panic due to their campaigns picturing gloomy emaciated models. Some year ago, Calvin Klein-underwear came back into fashion with a bang, aided by a huge marketing campaign in which the hippest photographers in the fashion world shot the hippest celebrities writhing in their #mycalvins. On social media famous feminist it-girls and artists post selfies of themselves in bras and panties with the ubiquitous Calvin Klein-logo plastered in huge letters along the elastic bands. The fiercely outspoken queer intersectional feminist rapper/ singer Princess Nokia is frequently seen sporting the Calvin Klein logo.
This fascinates me greatly. Why are these subversive celebrities choosing to wear the name of an elderly, white, heterosexual millionaire cis-male over their hearts? How can the meanings of brands and logos be so imaginatively re-contextualized and re-negotiated that expensive capitalist underwear produced in poor countries transform into status symbols among socialist activists?
There is a lot of text in my photographs. Supposedly, an image should speak for itself. A written detail can’t carry the image, but I find myself unwilling to adhere to this unspoken rule. A new theme materializes: the pervasiveness of English language and of Western symbolism around the world.
When visiting China in 2016 I greatly appreciated the experience of finding myself behind a language barrier. Never before had I visited a place where the English language had absolutely no relevance. It was humbling and inspiring. Traveling is easy in the time of smart phones and internet, and as practical problems were quickly solved with some online help, I found myself enjoying the general illiteracy I faced.
Growing up in the Western hemisphere, one is used to seeing Eurocentric maps and viewing knowledge of English as the number one asset when traveling. Visiting China, I learned that the most common Chinese name for the country is Zhongguo, which literally means central state. This mentality of China as the middle of the world mirrors Eurocentrism. Together with the fact that the country has over 1,3 billion inhabitants it is not difficult to understand why the knowledge of English is largely irrelevant. And yet English can be found in abundance in one specific place in China: on people’s clothing.
As with the non-Russian speakers who wear clothes with Cyrillic letters and the Westerners that got tattoos of Chinese characters in the 1990s, people with non-Latin alphabets wear Latin letters as decorations. The meaning of the letters combined into words is empty, but the act of wearing the foreign text is one that signals street style, attitude, fashion.
In an episode of the Japanese variety show YamaPi no Kiss Eigo from a few years back, the host Tomohisa Yamashita walks around in Tokyo talking to people with English-language shirts. All of them sheepishly admit to not knowing what their shirts say, laughing when they hear the translations: Selfish, Naked, Shoplift, Diarrhoea. In these prints, the fonts and colors create the message, not the meaning of the word itself.
The same also holds true for a lot of clothing sold in Western countries, especially to men. Prints are a thing in themselves, and meant to signify through visual style rather than actual content. Shirts with generic texts relating to things like leisure, surfing and sports convey an attitude rather than a literal meaning, as do the band shirts sold at chain stores like H&M.
USA comes up time after time in my pictures. Editing them, I am surprised at how ever-present American imagery is wherever I have travelled. Should I be? After all one of my inspirations for this project was the documentary We Come As Friends by the Austrian film-maker Hubert Sauper (2014), in which a displaced man living in inhuman poverty in South Sudan crushes stones without a breathing mask while wearing a t-shirt with the American flag printed on it. A bitter, horrible reminder of the fact that actual freedom and upward mobility doesn’t exist in the world other than for a tiny fraction of people.
In her book Dressing the Colonised Body (2003), Nira Wickramasinghe writes about clothing in her homeland Sri Lanka. She discusses big sartorial changes that followed liberalisation of the economy and the growth of the export-oriented garment industry: “the less affluent classes, concerned rather with practical problems of price and availability than with fashion, have enthusiastically shed their cloth and jacket, synthetic saree and sarong for more globalised outfits” (p. 126). The globalised outfit, consisting of prints and jeans, of imperialist symbols and of the logos of multinational corporations, is not always a choice.
In my series Everything Everywhere I have consciously decided to mainly focus on people for whom clothes and accessories are signifiers. This is a project that is concerned with how and what a person consumes in order to be a global citizen and an individual.
In her book Luxury (2014), Patrizia Calefato writes about kitsch surrogates of luxury, referring to the fact that luxury itself can never be democratized because that is against its inherent nature. It can, however, be imitated. My project traces these surrogates and the way in which people simultaneously circulate the same old status symbols as always (like gold) and come up with new ones.
I have a few key words that I relate my photographs to: post-colonialism, globalisation, consumption and urbanisation. What is actually discernible from the final image is of course dependent on the viewer: as a photographer I can provide the picture, but I can’t dictate how it is perceived.
One of my photographs depicts men shopping for huge crickets at a market in Shanghai. It’s an absurd picture: a man dressed completely in black leather holds up the insect for another man to inspect. For the initiated, it’s easy to spot that the man in the middle is wealthy: from the chest pocket of his shirt a pack of Chunghwa cigarettes – a Chinese status symbol – pokes out. The significance of the cricket is double: it is a lucky symbol, but it is also used in cricket fighting, a gambling sport with a thousand-year history in China.
Does the photograph become a better picture if the viewer understands these meanings embedded in the details? Does it exoticize? These are the kinds of questions I’ve grappled with during the processes of both photographing and editing.
I mentioned earlier Roland Barthes in relation to fashion. He has, of course, also written a highly respected modern classic within the field of photography: Camera Lucida (1980). In it he proposes a way of analyzing the effect of photographs upon the viewers, and comes up with a terminology for it: studium and punctum.
For Barthes, the punctum of a photograph is a highly subjective detail, something that is unique to each viewer based on their past experiences. Barthes wrote Camera Lucida as an elegy for his late mother. When he writes about the punctum it almost seems as if the idea of it is sprung from that feeling of emptiness and longing that comes after a loss, when everything acts as a reminder of what is gone. Therefore, when he thinks back upon a photograph by James van der Zee that he has seen, it is a pearl necklace visible in the image that he finds himself stuck on, because it reminds him of something from his childhood.
The sadness permeating Camera Lucida is tangible: “ there is always a defeat of Time in [historical photographs]: that is dead and that is going to die...” (p. 96). In some readings, the melancholy is touching and beautiful. Other times it is weepy and irritating. The main reason for this latter reaction is Barthes’ tendency to put great value in any picture that “pricks” him and to put down photographs which do not. He reasons that it is “doubtlessly” because the photographer has “put [the punctum] there intentionally” (p. 47).
As an example Barthes mentions a photo from 1973 by Bruce Gilden in which nuns are are juxtaposed with drag queens – this deliberately framed combination, contrast, irritates him. It is too obvious, and the photograph is thus cheap. For me, this brings to mind how in today’s world of photography, the word “uncanny” can be found in many artist statements. The usage of this word evokes a line of thought similar to Barthes’: the photograph that doesn’t parade its subject on the surface of the image is the most powerful one.
I happen to agree with Barthes on Gilden (who seems like a nasty and exploitative person), but I am myself guilty of the same effect which Barthes criticizes Gilden for. I, too, decide what the central point in my photos is. I, too, juxtapose and create contrasts with moral implications. Barthes would’ve probably hated my photographs.
I find metaphorical or symbolic images too vague to depict the crude banality and humour in the tangled web of meanings that emerges in the intersection of global and local culture. I am also unable to confine myself to an overly strict framework, especially since a successful highly conceptualised photographic project on globalisation already exists: Exactitudes by the Dutch duo Ari Versluis and Ellie Uyttenbroek.
Exactitudes has been called a photographic argument against uniqueness, and consists (to date) of 154 mosaics, each containing 12 portraits. Every mosaic represents a different subculture, and Versluis and Uyttenbroek underline the homogeneity within groups by posing all the models from a certain contingent in an identical fashion. The project, which has been ongoing since 1994, has meticulously categorized people of different backgrounds, ages and religions, and laconically shown how nobody is unique in the slightest.
Everything Everywhere is, like Exactitudes, a never-ending project. Disregarding the “local is global”-mantra and attempting to illustrate something explicitly global is a fool’s errand. It is slow and painstaking, expensive and difficult. Currently the series only includes photographs from two continents: Europe and Asia. In the future I shall have covered all seven of them. Well, maybe except for Antarctica. In the meantime, I edit what I have in the hopes that the material will communicate something about 21st century globalisation to the viewer.
Banner, Lois W. 1984. American beauty. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Barthes, Roland. 1981. Camera lucida: reflections of photography. New York: Hill and Wang.Barthes, Roland, and Andy Stafford. 2006 . The language of fashion. Oxford: Berg.Cairns, Kate, and Josée Johnston. 2015. Food and Femininity. London: Bloomsbury Academic.Calefato, Patrizia. 2014. Luxury: fashion, lifestyles and excess. London: Bloomsbury Academic.Crane, Diana. 2000. Fashion and its social agenda: class, gender, and identity in clothing. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.Ewen, Elizabeth. 1985. Immigrant women in the land of dollars: life and culture on the Lower East Side, 1890-1925. New York: Monthly Review Press.Heinze, Andrew R. 1990. Adapting to abundance: Jewish immigrants, mass consumption, and the search for American identity. New York: Columbia University Press.Holt, Douglas B. 1997. Distinction in America? Recovering Bordieu’s Theory of Tastes from Its Critics. Poetics 25: 93-121.Kidwell, Claudia B., and Valerie Steele. 1989. Men and women: dressing the part. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press.Klein, Naomi. 1999. No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies. Toronto: Knopf Canada.Said, Edward W. 1993. Culture and imperialism. New York: Knopf.Simmel, Georg. 1957 . Fashion. Americal Journal of Sociology 62 (May): 541-58.Wickramasinghe, Nira. 2003. Dressing the Colonised Body: Politics, Clothing and Identity in Sri Lanka. Hyderabad: Orient Longman.