Some things stand out for me. I collect, observe and document until a certain idea is born about what I want to show and what I can do with that. I do most of my research online, in databases, but also with simple tools such as Google Images. My work is only completed in the final phase, where I present it and when it is brought to the viewer. The form of presentation arises somewhere during the process.
Taryn Simon developed a website that lays out, in a visual list, the top image results for any given search term by country. Stacking top images from the U.S., Syria, India, North Korea, Germany, and dozens more in horizontal rows, the project provides an aerial view of how terms like “party," “love,” “fail,” “war,” “nazi” or “future” are popularly interpreted across region and culture. This sheds light on interesting cultural and political differences.
Are there any other artists or photographers that you admire or that are an inspiration to you?
They are mostly artists that work in an analytical and process-driven way, or that work with the same subject of photographical identity. Examples are Alfredo Jaar, Charlie White, Tomoko Sawada, Taryn Simon, Cindy Sherman, and Hans Eijkelboom to name a few.
No one is better at showing the power of an image than Alfredo Jaar. His work focussing on the horrible situation in Rwanda—which he made when the rest of the world was still mostly unaware—is incredibly impressive.
The serie In het nieuws (In the News) is an early work of Hans Eijkelboom. He went looking for places where something newsworthy had just happened and tried to get inconspicuously photographed, in order to get an appearance in the newspaper. He confronts us with topics such as appearance, group mentality and human behavior in general.
In The Do it Yourself Selfie Guide your investigation of identity is very prominent. How did this project come into existence?
I’ve been working with found self-portraits for years. I’ve worked on more projects that revolve around these kinds of pictures (Showroom, Showroom Girls, both 2010) and I already had quite the collection of selfies that I came across on the internet. Mind you, at that time they weren’t called “selfies” yet in general. I wanted to start a project with these found pictures, but I couldn’t find the right approach yet. So inevitably the material ended up in a drawer to be worked with on a later date.
When the term “selfie” had suddenly started popping up everywhere in the past couple of years I thought to myself: “This is the time to continue that project”. I took my old material out of the drawer, starting to do more research and develop the selfie project.
For En Vogue I put myself in the pose of the original model, for Rejected Identities I followed a strict regime for the taking of the photographs. I studied the poses that many people take and subsequently tried to play with them while working on Showroom Girls. By combining the method of these projects I was able to gain the necessary insight into my fascination for selfies.
So you observe interesting phenomena in current events and subsequently start looking for a way to give form to your criticism on this subject?
My subjects don’t always find their origin in current events and also I don’t believe I’m always criticising something. I don’t think the selfie is such an incomprehensible phenomenon—I too like taking pictures of myself. On the whole it’s not my goal at all to criticise the subjects I choose. I’m simply sharing my fascination and view on things. A good example is my project En Vogue: Everyone knows what the covers of Vogue magazine look like, but by intervening in the image I make people aware of what they’ve been looking at all this time. Exaggerated: it’s easier to travel halfway around the world to a country in conflict and come back with beautiful impacting photographs than to stay here and surprise people with what is happening right under their noses. I’d like to show something that people thought they already thoroughly knew. I don’t pass any judgement on the subject, that is left to the viewer.
What exactly is your interest in the phenomenon of the selfie?
I'm fascinated—without criticising—by the fact that people are taking a seemingly endless amount of pictures of themselves. Some people even have a strong urge to do so, and the phenomenon has become a widely accepted form of a self–portrait.
It struck me that selfies have a specific look to them, a very specific aesthetic. I decided to investigate what it is that makes a selfie a selfie, and how you can take the perfect selfie. I studied countless selfies, internet forums, Youtube tutorials, celebrity selfies, news articles and academic research inquiries. Eventually I focussed on the tips, the 'rules' for how to take a good selfie—because apparently these unwritten rules exist. They say something about how we as a society look at this habitual form of the self–portrait, and with that these do's and don'ts are probably also connected to how we look at ourselves at this moment in time.
The walls of your studio are riddled with research material. What were your findings during this investigation?
While searching for selfie tips I came across a lot of hilarious videos and photos, but at the same time I found scientific papers that helped me look at the selfies in a more analytical way. Another finding was that the best way to take a selfie is not necessarily the best way to portray yourself as pretty as possible. The taking of pictures to illustrate the 66 rules—I shot a total of over 1400—was more detrimental than positive for my self–image. This correlates with the scientific researches stating that generally speaking the habitual or excessive taking of selfies can lead to depression, the development of a narcissistic disorder and negative effects on self-image.
Can you tell me something about the final form that the project took?
I ended up with a box containing 148 passport photos. Among them are the 66 rules to make a perfect selfie, and 66 selfies I took to illustrate those rules.
It's not my goal to have people go through them all one by one. I hope the format of loose cards in a box invites the viewer to browse through them and to go look for weird or funny pictures. Obviously they are more directions than actual rules: They invite you to think about what a selfie looks like, why we recognise a selfie as such, and what it implies when you take a selfie.
The final 66 rules envelop almost every detail of my research. Their multitude gives them a certain authority through the extensiveness, while at the same time it's a bit of an absurd amount. I think that is an interesting contrast.
Why exactly did you choose for the format of the passport photo?
I worked with passport photos in my Rejected Identities project and the fact that I applied this idea to the selfie project was one of the reasons that this time around I did get the ball rolling. While there are many rules to the taking of a passport photo, all imposed by the government, it can also be a very intimate thing. It's small, it's a real print, and you can give it to a loved one. When you're standing in line at the supermarket and you catch a glimpse of the pictures in someone's wallet, just for that moment you look through a window into their private life. But nowadays it's not that common anymore to share a copy of your passport photo. Now that there's Facebook and Instagram apps on your phone, why would you need a photograph of your loved ones or friends anymore? I thought that was a beautiful notion. It helped me make the decision to put all the rules I proclaim as 'truths' on the format of a passport photo: An object that has a certain value yet that's worthless at the same time, intimate yet something that you'd want to share, interchangeable yet specific. Again a set of contrasts I think fit the idea I want to convey.
Did you collaborate with anyone during this project? And what did their expertise add to the project?
I recently gave a lecture on the presentation of oneself on the internet for the Hasselblad Foundation Symposium. There I was able to juxtapose my work to Sarah Kember's theories, a professor of new media at Goldsmith University. We've kept contact since the symposium, and out of that grew a publication (Auto. Self-Representation and Digital Photography) with texts by both her and me. The ideas that sprung from this collaboration were very influential in my decision making within the selfie project. My wife Nienke Draaisma, with her background in literature and gender studies and her ever critical eye, has also been a great help in my work.