“I was deeply interested in the phenomena of pseudo luxury and imitations," says Anna Ehrenstein of her eye-catching project on a certain strand of contemporary Albanian women
“Very often when dealing with Albania, artists, photographers and journalists – especially those who don’t come from the country – deal in a very repetitive form with the poverty, the post-communism, and the old and sporadically still-practiced traditions,” says Anna Ehrenstein. “All in all they focus on the otherness of the people and the country.”
Brought up in Germany but of Albanian heritage, Ehrenstein has done something very different with her project on Albania, Tales of Lipstick and Virtue. Rather than focusing in on picturesque, unchanged farming life or remaining vestiges of the Eastern Bloc, she hit contemporary values on the jugular, photographing women into “a certain kind of aesthetic that can be found in Albania, but comes from all over the globe”.
“My work deals with a global phenomenon in which Albania and the woman [depicted] form the stage of a discourse that could take place in every country of the world,” she explains. “But I chose Albania as a stage because Albanian society was confronted by post-communist capitalism and globalisation at the same time. Because of that, some global phenomena tended to intensify.”
Ehrenstein shot the project over two years, going back and forth between Germany and Albania, and largely basing herself in the capital Tirana but also travelling to other cities. She picked out women with a “special relationship to material culture” and, though she often visited Albania as a child, says she didn’t know any of them before she started shooting.
All of the women are photographed wearing their own clothes, but none were shot on the hoof; instead, arranging to make a portrait with them, Ehrenstein encouraged her models to consciously pose for the camera, and to think about how they wanted to represent themselves. “Sometimes the women brought different outfits with them, and then I chose the ones that had clear references to popular culture,” she says, “for example through a certain kind of hairstyle, accessory, symbol or brand.
“I was deeply interested in the phenomena of pseudo luxury and imitations, as well as the anthropological and sociological backgrounds of this aesthetic,” she adds.
Ehrenstein was still studying at the University of Applied Sciences in Dortmund when she shot Tales of Lipstick and Virtue, but continued to work on it after graduating and took a book dummy of the project to the Encontros da Imagem festival in Portugal last year. While doing a portfolio review she met French publisher Pierre Bessard, who runs the respected Editions Bessard and who was immediately interested in the project.
“I was asking for constructive ideas about the work, and what he thought would be a good strategy to publish it, and he directly said he would like to work on it with me,” says Ehrenstein. “It was an amazing surprise, as it was the first review I had done with it.”
Finalising the publication with Bessard, Ehrenstein “spent a lot of time thinking about what visual language would best support my ideas and references about digital culture, advertising, fashion, gender representation and material culture”. It was printed as part of Bessard’s Bespoke series, and Ehrenstein is now at Arles with the publisher, promoting the book plus a signed c-type print.
Tales of Virtue and Lipstick costs €46 and is printed in a limited edition of 250 plus a c-type print. Editions Bessard is running a pop-up bookshop at Arles, in the Communist Party HQ in Place Voltaire. http://annaehrenstein.com www.editionsbessard.com