Originally published over at Don’t Panic Online.
Focusing her lens on Americanness, Ilona Szwarc isolates and examines peculiar, innocuous aspects of American pop culture. I talked with Szwarc, a Polish photographer working in the States, about identity and connectivity.
Let’s talk a bit about the American Girls series. Those images are haunting, intimate. Could you speak about your inspiration?
When I first came to New York City, photographing, I started noticing girls carrying their dolls that look like them and wearing matching outfits. At first, the girls just began appearing in the corners of my frames, then eventually I sought for them and I would stop them on the street and take their portraits. For the next two years, I was developing and researching the idea for the “American Girls” project.
My initial attraction was towards the visual image of girls walking around with their mini versions of themselves. I was struck by the fact that the product was actually called “American Girl”. I thought that it clearly meant that the company imposes stereotypes about who a contemporary American girl is. I have discovered that there are almost no girls born and raised in America who did not have those dolls. As an artist I was interested in this area where the product creates the culture and defines the people.
In American Girls, as with your other work, your approach to photography seems to have a fine art as opposed to documentary aesthetic.
I think it is very difficult to say whether my project is documentary or fine art, I actually think it is both. I do think about it as being both documentary and conceptual. I find girls who are passionate about their dolls, I photograph them with their own dolls, in their own houses, as they are. This set of rules, although conceptual, brings me closer to being true in depicting their reality in a documentary manner. In that sense, I am not constructing a reality that is not there.
Could you talk a bit about how you craft your photos, and what elements you consider?
I decided to work with a 4×5 camera which changed the look of the photographs and meant I had to slow down my process. The photographs became a collaboration in a sense that girls would react to me and my personality, and being involved in a slower process of taking pictures they would open up to me. I would always have an idea what kinds of photographs I would want to take, but I would always try to stay open to what may come up. Now looking back at how I was working it seems to me that by just placing the camera in a certain spot creates a situation in which my subjects would react to it. By asking my subjects to stay in one spot for some time I would observe how they would react and what would they do and then try to notice and capture something interesting, peculiar and personal from their behavior.
What do you mean about the placement of the camera and its effect on the photograph?
Working with the large format camera on a tripod is something unusual. Especially when working with kids, who often have not been photographed before, except for posing for family snapshots, it creates an unique situation in which my models react to the camera as well as they react to me. I found that often with kids, who are very intuitive and free, we communicate without words – we connect on different levels and they often open up their imagination and that informs the photographs, too.
Why is it important that these are American Girl dolls, as opposed to other kinds of dolls?
To me it felt really exclusive – only about Americans and for Americans – and I began to wonder where I fit in this scenario and if I could ever fit in. Through those dolls I wanted to investigate identity and gender, what it means to grow up in the US and what it means to be an American girl, a future American women.
The doll is a way that helps girls carve out their identity. Girls project their identities onto the dolls and then they experiment with them through the mini-me doll play and then when they’re ready they leave the doll behind. The doll comes also with a baggage of culturally and socially conditioned gender performance that is passed onto girl’s behavior – dressing up, grooming hair, tea parties – all very traditional feminine and domestic activities. So in my project I am questioning how much freedom do we have in choosing our identity and gender in contemporary American society.
What did you find about that freedom to determine gender and identity through American Girl dolls?
This lack of freedom became visible to me after I met one of my subjects, Jade. She described herself to me as tom-boy over the phone and I thought that was wonderful. She explained that she didn’t really have anything to choose from at the American Girl Place that would reflect her own style and personality. She had a very strong feminine side, but didn’t want to fit in the American Girl scenario, where dressing up, getting the doll’s hair done and attending tea parties with your dolls are the most popular activities. In that sense the definition of gender in consumerist culture is limited- the most popular and the best-selling items influence how broad is the definition of womanhood.
So the American Girl culture is more definitive than reflective?
To me, the most powerful statement lies in the choice of the name of the company – American Girl. Every time I talk about either the dolls or girls in America I use the same defining phrase – ‘American Girls’- and that overlap creates this tension and interest for me. Obviously the company wants to appeal to American girls and it is doing so. There is a culture created around those dolls – going to the store with moms and grandmas, having birthday parties at the American Girl Place. This is not so much reflective. I think it is creating certain consumer behaviors.
I also think that American Girl dolls are based upon Victorian ideas and that those ideas are taught to the girls through the emphasis on the historical girls and the recreation of their domestic spaces from different time periods. So in that sense it is also creating and defining rather than reflective.
Your Canadian, TX series also deals with American-ness. How did this project evolve?
It’s a further investigation of an aspect of American culture. In Anna – the project I did on my mother-in-law, I was looking at aspects of Polish immigration in the US, in American Girls I was examining American childhood and definition of femininity in contemporary America. In Canadian I am want to open up to what it means to be American. I work in the same way where I photograph people in their environments and I am introducing some landscapes to the series as well.
Canadian, TX is a small town in Texas Panhandle where I used to live. I was a foreign exchange student, lived there with an American family for a year and graduated from High School there. I made a lot of friends and it became a very special place for me. I think it is very unique that I ended up living in Canadian, TX especially coming from Poland – such a small town in the heart of Western culture. It is a very exotic and foreign place to me but at the same time it feels very familiar. I wanted to create work from that place of tension between the familiar and the foreign. It was always intriguing to me that this town is called “Canadian”. It implies the foreign-ness of Canada, therefore I think it functions as a great title for my new series. It implies foreign-ness yet it is familiar.
What was the most interesting or intriguing aspect of working on this series?
I think I am still in the most interesting and intriguing part of working on this project, as it is just at the very begininning stage. I have made two trips over there to photograph and to find the core of the project. I have produced a lot of work and discovered few different threads that can lead me to few separate projects – so this is a very exciting moment for me. Although, working with people and places where they live always is a very special time for me. To get to know them, connect with them, see who they are, where they live, what their dreams are and capture all that in a photograph that will communicate a nature of that exchange and therefore to relate to a universal human experience is always my greatest challenge.
Could you talk about the relationship between photographer and model in your work?
Working with people and places where they live always is a very special time for me. To get to know them, connect with them, see who they are, where they live, what their dreams are and capture all that in a photograph that will communicate a nature of that exchange and therefore to relate to a universal human experience is always my greatest challenge. It is about spending time together and sharing moments, about connecting. That connection becomes the spine of the portrait.
Tiffani-Amber, Kylie, Sophia, Elizabeth, Angelica.