We are used to seeing photos of people who stand out on the street – those who are snapped by fashion mags for having a ‘look’ all their own. But what about the rest of us? We might just find a place in Hans Eijkelboom’s new book, People of the 21st Century…
The book, published by Phaidon, chronicles a body of work created over a 22-year period. Each page features an assemblage of shots all taken in an individual place: Eijkelboom sets up camp for a short period in an area of a city (usually a busy shopping district) and then picks a ‘type’ to photograph. The grouping could be made through a particular item of clothing, or object, or by a behaviour – couples walking arm in arm, for example. The day’s shots are then organised as a group and dated.
The book is fascinating to flick through – in part to see the changing fashions (remember when everyone was wearing lumberjack shirts?) but also in the deeper questions it provokes. Are we all fashion automatons? Do we not have any unique style? When advertising is so often focused on promoting the idea of free expression and individuality, it is somewhat disheartening to see that in actuality, we all end up looking the same.
Eijkelboom describes his work as being rooted in “identity” and states that this project was sparked by a desire to explore his place within a society dominated by commercialism. “When I started the project, I wondered whether I was a product of the consumer society, rather than my own man,” he says in a recent interview. “I wanted to make the series almost as a mirror, in which to see myself. If I can see the surrounding society, then I can see what makes me who I am. I think ‘how can you be so naïve to go to a shop, to buy clothes that sum up your personality, and not realise that, at the same time, 10,000 men and women around the world do and think the same things?’ But I do it too, of course. We’re told we’re individuals, and we buy these things, and we are a product of the culture that we live in.”
In the introduction to the book, David Carrier argues that beyond the common factor grouping the figures, much diversity is revealed, yet it is difficult not to see Eijkelboom’s work as a statement about our conformity and desire to fit in. This is reinforced by the snatched style of the images – Eijkelboom grabs his shots via a remote trigger hidden in his jacket pocket, so the passers-by are oblivious to being photographed. The style sets his work apart from other recent photographic projects such as Brandon Stanton’s Humans of New York, which, through the combination of short interviews and carefully shot portraits, serves to highlight the individual rather than the crowd.
Eijkelboom’s work draws comparison with Ari Versluis and Ellie Uyttenbroek’s Exactitudes project, which also groups people according to their clothing styles, though in a more formal setting. It also falls within a lineage of documentary photography that includes the work of Martin Parr. Yet there is something undeniably contemporary about Eijkelboom’s exploration of conformity and individual expression, and also in his demonstration of the fact that we are more conscious than ever that our clothes are vehicles of self-expression. Even if it turns out that lots of other people express themselves in exactly the same way.
People of the 21st Century by Hans Eijkelboom is published by Phaidon, priced £24.95. The book is designed by Hans Stofregen at Phaidon Press. More info on the title is here.