The last month my home has been graced by the presence of fellow dumpster warrior and photographer, Tara Stewart. We’d been scheming for months about what to do during her visit, one of those schemes was a photography project, parts of which will be viewable–just for you dear readers!–on the internet until Saturday, June 20th. The a.d.d. version of the project goes something like this: take the aesthetic of fashion photography and take a set of photographs using wagenplatz residents as models and the wagenplatz itself as the background. But the long version (courtesy of Tara), goes like this:
“I’ve always wanted to be a model because I both love and hate being told I’m beautiful. I hate it in that I’ve heard it too many times, and it’s become meaningless. It’s something that has been said to me in bars when someone was trying to sleep with me, it’s something that was repeated to me over and over growing up, as if I should somehow feel accomplished for the fact that genetics granted me the type of features that our society currently finds to be aesthetically pleasing. I want to be appreciated for my skills, for my mind, for the things I’ve had to work to develop.
“And yet I still crave those words, even though when I finally hear them I dismiss them out of hand. I secretly, as I think do so many others, love to have my photo taken when I know it will turn out very well. I need some proof that I’m beautiful, that I’m worth photographing, because there are many, many times when I find myself in front of the bathroom mirror crying my eyes out because I hate myself and can’t help but tie it into the way I look. We’ve all been raised to think we need to meet some impossible standard most of us couldn’t even define, and that constantly leaves us lacking, and hating ourselves because of it.
“In response, many of us turn to the unconventional, wearing things intended to cause an adverse reaction in the people around us, because at least then we aren’t trying to adhere to their standards and failing. It feels safer, in many ways, to start out knowing “normal” people aren’t going to approve of how you look, and in many ways it confirms our own fears about ourselves.
“I’ve always had a problem with this, though, in that I love clothing. It is one of my passions, in fact, and despite my hatred of the fashion industry for its unreachable standards and its promotion of women who look like they never eat, I still voraciously consume fashion magazines to see the clothes, and most especially, for the fashion photography. If you can somehow separate out the message from the pure aesthetics of these photos, there is no denying they are beautiful: they are well shot, well set up, well lit, and the clothes, though sometimes fairly ridiculous, are more often pieces of art. There are certain arrangements of shapes and colors and patterns that the human eye naturally finds pleasing, and if we were able to divorce meaning from visual affect, as abstract art attempted to do in the early twentieth century, we would perhaps find the concept of beauty a little easier.
“Unfortunately there is a message in those photos, as there is in anything created by human hands. To be beautiful, you must be rail thin, wear expensive clothes, and arrange yourself in a ridiculously uncomfortable position you would never naturally find yourself in. You must also follow trends: those vaguely definable and ever changing whims of the industry that eventually drove me to drop out of fashion school from sheer frustration. I don’t give a shit what other people are wearing unless I like it, and I never want to define my aesthetic to what is currently in “fashion.” This has left me, somewhat uncomfortably, somewhere between the people who pay attention to their clothing but who shop in trendy stores and spend money on their clothes (another thing I inherently rebel against), and the people who claim not to care a whit what they wear and will put on just about anything as long as it covers the essential bits.
“Thus I set out to find a form of alternative beauty, which, the further I pursued it, turned out to be regular beauty, that I had been defining as alternative out of some leftover standard that had been impressed on me by the media and fashion school and growing up in modern society. I have had the fortune of being a frequent visitor at the Haus Mainusch wagenplatz in Mainz, Germany, where my cousin has been a resident for some time. Leaving the homes of my other German friends, who, with the best of intentions, typically wanted to spend my visits shopping and talking about shaving and makeup, all things I have no patience for, the wagenplatz becomes a sharp contrast, and one that initially forces me to spend several days reexamining all my own preconceived notions of the world. I am eternally grateful to the residents of the wagenplatz, not only for allowing me to take their pictures, but for their unquestioning welcome, their unconscious acceptance, and their willing and unforced tendency to share what little they have, even with someone who may start as a complete stranger. The few times I’ve brought my “conventional” friends here, they’ve been rather out of sorts, but here I find that, if I come in with an open and accepting mind, there is endless bounty, delicious food, warm smiles, and a freedom I have yet to find anyplace else in the world.
“When you step into the wagenplatz, it’s as if a thousand unconscious expectations have been lifted from your shoulders: suddenly, with a sigh of relief, the weights that daily press on our minds somewhere just outside our conscious thoughts lift, and in their place is room to breathe. That is, if you don’t continue to push those expectations on yourself, which may be the hardest part of all.
“Once inside, dirt is ok. In fact, it’s encouraged, and a clean foot is not only rare but somewhat out of place. You don’t need to excuse yourself after burping. Or farting, for that matter. It’s just something people do. Deodorant is seen as slightly ridiculous, and when it accidentally finds its way inside, everyone decries it as the foul smelling chemical substance it at heart is. When you find the most pleasing scent to be that of your dearest friends, and that smell is entirely human, the prospect of disguising it with something that smells like “steel” or “moonlight” is somewhat offensive.
“Clothes are patched, but most tears are left as they are. It doesn’t much matter so long as the item still serves its basic function, ie to provide some coverage from the elements. It’s not that there’s no thought to style, far from it. Black is a common theme, as it has the fortunate quality of hiding the spills and smudges and things you’ve wiped off on your pant leg. In addition to being the favored color of what, at heart, is still something of a punk influenced scene. Therefore nearly everyone also has their favored denim jacket, sleeves ripped out, which has been carefully tailored with a choice selection of patches and, in many cases, spikes.
“But it doesn’t matter what you wear. There’s a resident who prefers smart sport coats with a handkerchief in the breast pocket, and another who favors a bathrobe and a cowboy hat. Still others stick with your average day to day outfit that you’d see outside- jeans and a tshirt, and not necessarily with a single patch or tear.
“And it’s all breathtakingly, painfully, beautiful. Painfully because this haven of safety, of trust and welcome, has to fight for the right to exist alongside the far larger and more unrelentingly aggressive mass of modern society, who cannot tolerate an existence so different from its own. But yes, beautiful, in the bright contrast of a flame red wagon next to the vibrant green of the happily sprawling trees, of an orange zucchini flower turned toward the sun, of the open, impeccable blue sky stretched above the tree tops and the weathered roofs. And the people, too, are beautiful.
“It’s hard to call people beautiful in a place where the aesthetics of the body have been so rigorously abandoned. But I think, and this was in part my rationale for taking these pictures, that we didn’t need to attempt to abandon aesthetics entirely in order to lay claim to the right not to shower or use deodorant or patch our clothes. I don’t think we can abandon aesthetics. An integral part of human nature is to seek out the beautiful, the things which it finds pleasing to the eye. It seems difficult, when beauty has become so inexorably entwined with the conventions of our society, for it to apply to anything that isn’t polished and intentional. But that’s just the thing- conventional society defines beauty as the clean and refined. We can define beauty however we like. The human eye will seek the aesthetically pleasing no matter the context. No one would fault a wildflower for being beautiful, it does so naturally and without thought. And so I think we all need to reclaim beauty.
“It is without doubt true that I love these people for their spirits, for their ready laughter and unquestioning acceptance, and not for their appearances. But I also think I love them even more for their unintentional beauty. They set out to defy conventional standards, and often choose their look as something against something else, or for purely practical reasons, rather than as a thing unto itself. But I am hoping that with these pictures I can show that they are in fact beautiful, and that this isn’t a dirty word. If we choose how we look, including what we wear, according to what pleases our aesthetics, there should be no harm in someone else telling us when what we’ve selected pleases their eye as well. It’s ok to be beautiful when this is something you’ve defined for yourself, when it’s something that makes you happy, and when it exists in its own right, not in defiance of something else, but because it’s inherent, and a part of you, and your right to claim for your own. To be, finally, comfortable in your own skin.
“These things are hard to talk about because they’ve been, for so long, co-opted by a society that tells us, be comfortable with who you are, while simultaneously telling us we need to shave our legs, smell like a rainshower, and wear make up to be beautiful. It might be generations before a person can rightfully feel ok about being beautiful the way he or she was born, without the pretensions or masks we are constantly hiding behind, even those of us trying to defy conventional standards. We’re still not comfortable with ourselves, either, as so very often the ripped clothes and spikes and the rest are intended more to put people off than anything else, to hide the natural beauty that we’ve been taught to disdain from years of seriously fucked up attitudes toward our own bodies. Whether you grew up matching the conventional definitions of beauty or not, almost everyone who tries to escape conventions at some point reached the decision that in order to find respect for their person, and not their appearance, they had to be anti-fashion, anti-beauty, and, in some sense, confirm their fears that they really weren’t beautiful at all, when society inevitably began to look down on them for being so far outside its normal standards.
“This is why I didn’t want these photos to be anti-fashion, or anti-beauty. I don’t want them to be anti-anything. I’m not trying to promote punk style, or say this is in some way better or more free than conventional beauty (though it typically does provide a far greater measure of freedom), because it is just as much a trap as the conventional standards. It’s still, when it defines itself in objection to conventions, by trying so damn hard to be everything society expects someone living an “alternative” lifestyle to be, not any more self confirming than someone wearing clothing straight out of a fashion magazine. It’s still a type of conforming.
“Instead, I hoped these pictures would capture at least a little of the beauty that all of these people have inherently. I think it’s easier to see in people who are being themselves, first and foremost. And yes, maybe I am to an extent promoting a particular style, because I, like anyone else, am still trapped by the same ridiculous conventions that have me, like anyone else, despite all my talk of inherent beauty and natural aesthetics, looking in the mirror on occasion and hating the way I look.
“But maybe, just maybe, we can help each other forward to a place where we can look at one another and say, you’re beautiful, and have it be a true, heartfelt compliment that we can accept for what it is, embracing our bodies as the beautiful things they are, as beautiful as flowers and trees, who are entirely unashamed to find themselves pleasing to the eye.”
The selection of photos currently available for viewing is not the final selection, and still contains many of the silly “outtakes” kept for a chuckle rather than for their aesthetic or specific value to the project. The final exhibition and accompanying publication will contain a smaller selection and will be accompanied by the writings of the Madames Stewart (that is, by Tara and I) about redefining beauty, trash, and wagenplatz life, among other things. And if you look sharp you will find me in a picture or two. May your comments flow to our inboxes like Chilean bananas to the dumpster.
(All photographs copyright TSHolste.)