An anonymous bride selling her dress online, from the project Fairytale for Sale compiled by photographer Natasha Caruana
Natasha Caruana's series Fairytale for Sale, which is going on show at Photofusion and being published as a book called ONO by Here Press, collects together wedding photographs from the internet in which the faces are blanked out - in order to sell the dress. The photographs are part of a growing trend for defaced online portraits, which some suggest are the flip side of an image-obsessed celebrity culture.
Author: Diane Smyth
26 Jan 2012
“On one hand we put more and more personal stuff online – one simple search will give you a rich overview of somebody’s life,” says Ewoudt Boonstra. “But on the other hand, people feel uncomfortable about showing their ‘true’ faces. That paradox fascinates me.”
The internet is filled with more and more personal photographs, with sites such as Facebook allowing users to “tag” photographs to make it clear exactly who’s depicted. But, as Boonstra points out, some are opting to obscure the identities of the people they post online, obscuring them as they take the photograph or after the event with retouching. Boonstra has made a large collection of these shots, some of which have been published by KesselsKramer Publishing as a book called Anonymous and were on show in the From Here On exhibition at Les Rencontres d’Arles. “It’s a collection of different techniques that people use to make themselves, or others, anonymous,” he says. “I found the inventiveness and various amateuristic Photoshop techniques that they use very fascinating.”
Some of Boonstra’s images come from dating sites, others come from auction sites where people are trying to sell wedding dresses. In both cases, he suspects shame plays a part in their decision – either about looking for love online, or for selling a central component of their big day. “Often people will use an actual picture from their wedding album and deface it [to sell their wedding dress],” he says. “This gives the pictures a very sad sub-layer. People feel ashamed to sell their old wedding dresses, but are too lazy to find another way to photograph and show the dress. Maybe they are trying to sell a part of the photographic registration of their old happiness.”
Boonstra prefers not to get to know the people behind the images, opting to keep them anonymous and let the pictures spark off people’s imaginations. British photographer Natasha Caruana has also been collecting anonymous photographs of brides but she’s opted to take a different tack, posing as a prospective buyer to get to know the vendors. She says various approaches are used to sell old wedding dresses, from photographing them on hangers to taking a self-portrait in the mirror after the event, but she focused on doctored images of the big day “to specifically look at the staging, performance and excessive nature of weddings”. The series she collected, Fairytale for Sale, is going on show on 03 February at Photofusion in a solo show Natasha Caruana: Married Man and other stories; a book using some of the same images, which is called ONO, will be launched by Here Press on 10 February.
“With the whited-out faces, suddenly body language, setting and poses become prominent and, after collecting more than 60 images, the collection of photographs also told a story of the places and poses couples act out scenes of lasting happiness,” says Caruana. “For example, countless images of beaches, sunsets and trees emerged.”
For Caruana, such poses draw on our current celebrity culture – and the anonymous images are just the flipside of the image-obsessed coin. “People have more opportunity to show themselves [now] and I feel that this feeds into the image-obsessed and celebrity culture we currently live in,” she says. “There is a mass market for celebrity magazines – people want to see who is wearing what and what is the latest hangout spot – and this performance is mimicked through Facebook and online platforms. People use imagery as trophies. But it seems that because of this, within certain contexts and social circles people don’t want their image to be read or known. Then they choose to mask their face and present themselves anonymously.”
Boonstra has a similar reading. He argues that people are experimenting with new technical possibilities to “extend their beings in virtual form”, but he adds they carefully select what they show of themselves to build an online persona. “The line between public and private is getting blurred, but the question is how ‘personal’ the images are,” he says. “Images get edited by users, just like images get edited in newspapers. It’s hard to get an accurate reading of these people’s lives because people tend to exaggerate their virtual selves. People love to share their lives but I think ‘image’ determines what’s getting shared and what will stay on a person’s hard drive.”
Dutch picture editor Frank Schallmaier, who has worked on the daily De Volkskrant newspaper for 12 years, has also been collecting anonymous images, part of a wider project on the images people use to present themselves on gay websites. He’s gathered together about 15,000 images in 50 different categories over the past seven years, and some of his collection was also shown at From Here On at Les Rencontres d’Arles, including images of disembodied penises shot next to cans and keyboards to display their size, and self-portraits taken in mirrors, in which the flash obscures the face.
“In fact 99 percent of all the pictures I see on those gay websites fits into one of my 50 categories,” he says. “‘Flash’ is a type of picture that I see the most, mostly in (hotel) bathrooms. I guess that a third of the pictures are made out of clumsiness, not realising that the flash would go off, but then happy with the result. The other two-thirds is made by those who have seen that category and copied the style. Lots of people also use photo software, and that is the category where you see lots and lots of clumsiness. For example, not knowing how to use the software to place a big black circle over your head, but starting scratching with a very small pencil until the head is made anonymous by dozens of black stripes.”
To me, Schallmaier’s collection speaks of the commodification of sex and the sexualisation of identity, but he’s admirably unwilling to draw conclusions, simply describing his work as “an anthropological look at gay amateur photography”. “I think lots of my categories are more common under gay websites than under straight websites, and it’s more accepted on gay websites to present your nudity than it is on similar straight websites,” he says. “I don’t think too much about what this way of presenting says. I just see the similarities and think it’s beautiful and funny.”
Natasha Caruana: Married Man and other stories is on show at Photofusion from 03 February - 23 March. ONO, which costs £10, will be launched by Here Press with a wedding-reception styled party on 10 February. www.natashacaruana.com Ewoudt Boonstra's Anonymous is published by KesselsKramer and costs €15. To find out more about Boonstra, visit his website www.thisisabrowserwindow.com From Here On was an exhibition at the 2011 Les Rencontres d'Arles curated by Martin Parr, Erik Kessels, Clement Cheroux, Joan Fontcuberta and Joachim Schmid.
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