This is the first in a series of articles on photographic projects that explore our cultural similarities and differences.
Eighteen years ago, Dutch photographer Ari Versluis and profiler Ellie Uyttenbroek teamed up on a photo project that continues to grow today. Their project, "Exactitudes," echoes cultural anthropology as they document the dress codes of different social groups or subcultures around the world. Each series (now 136 in total) follows a strict sequence -- they are always a set of 12 photos, with all the subjects assuming similar (almost identical) poses and adhering to a precise dress code that they conform to in daily life. The result is an incredible record of hundreds of distinctive social categories. It's a fascinating project that, for Versluis and Uyttenbroek, is less about the juxtaposition between individuality and uniformity and more about not judging those around us. Read on for the brief conversation HuffPost Culture was fortunate enough to have with Versluis.
Please note: Because English is the artist’s second language we’ve cleaned up some minor grammatical and spelling errors.
How did the idea for this project first come about?
In 1993 we were asked to make portraits for a Dutch telecom company about youth culture. One of the groups we spotted at that time were Gabbers, an emerging big hardcore techno scene that we considered the first real Dutch youth culture, which looks fresh and is not copied from England or the United States. What was striking for us was the dresscode; a perfect example of uniformed identity: aggressive skinhead looks but in effeminate candy-coloured tracksuits. A very fashionable contradiction. From that first moment on we thought it was cool to take their portraits in a formal exact way because their cult was all about raving in big halls and groups and losing control as well as your individuality.
Next to our studio was a gay bar we used to chill in after hours. After the Gabbers we started to invite the clientele of this bar to come to our studio. This resulted in the second Exactitudes series: casual queers. The Exactitudes project was born.
How do you find the people to photograph? Does the individual person come first or the group/subculture?
We search for people everywhere -- shopping malls, bars, clubs, and churches. We can be chameleons... We always work with themes in our heads: European Identity, the relations between people and animals, or we take one city as a single source of inspiration. In the past years, some series have been commissioned by museums or other cultural institutions... the European Union, New York Magazine or our last series for Lavazza. The commissioned work gives you a framework, but we are always free to choose what groups we like to portray. As artists we are keen on this artistic freedom. The group comes first, and then you start to find the people. We like to avoid trends -- it should almost be a scientific anthropological record of people’s attempts to distinguish themselves from others by assuming a group identity.
On your website when you click on a series of photographs, (say for example, Yupstergirls New York 2006), you have a man’s voice give a little description of the group of people. Who writes these descriptions? How are they composed?
We write the descriptions. In the making of it we listen very carefully to the people. We write things down like in little interviews. It’s a man voice on the website because we like that old school BBC commentary of the fifties.
"Exactitudes" is such an interesting name. Can you tell us a little bit about where that title comes from, and what it means?
We like an attitude, people who -- consciously or even unconsciously -- make a real choice in the way they look, and we like to collect images of this. Like beautiful butterflies in an exact formal manner. Exact Formal Attitudes = Exactitude.
Has a general worldview emerged from this project? For example, is there some message you’re trying to get across in juxtaposing individuality and uniformity?
After nearly two decades of observing people and scrutinizing every detail, deep down, I’ve developed the rooted principle of never judging anyone. That’s a very humanistic kind of view, and might not be the way people interpret the project, but that’s really how we feel. NEVER JUDGE.