Toronto-born photographer Naomi Harris's latest project is heavy on the past. Starting in 2008, Harris traveled across the United States and Europe documenting heritage-themed towns and festivals—and the results are deceptive. Girls in traditional Swiss dress and men wearing lederhosen are actually right here, in America, while Civil War re-enactors standing tall in front of the contested Confederate flag are in Sweden. In each location, the photos capture the antiquated stereotypes of culturally specific fare that still persist in the face of globalization.
EUSA, which is on view at Circuit Gallery in Toronto until September 19, highlights the enduring allure of otherness and exploring cultures that seem distinctly different from one's own. I spoke to Harris on the phone about the show.
Broadly: When did you first come up with the concept for EUSA?
Naomi Harris: I was actually shooting the last swingers party for my book, America Swings, and it happened to be in the mountains of Georgia. Because I had time to kill, someone recommended that I check out this town, Helen, that was 45 minutes away. So I drove there and it was essentially a Bavarian-themed town. It was filled with tourist-y stores selling cuckoo clocks and then shirts that said, "It's a southern thing, ya'll!" It was a very strange combination of Bavaria and the deep American south. What's most bizarre is that the founders of the town aren't even German: Apparently, the town's origin lies in a financial crisis. After the silver mine in the town closed, the people of Helen were facing a recession, so at a town meeting they decided to just put gingerbread up on all the buildings and turn it into a Swiss-themed town. The town is on a beautiful river, and it's actually a beautiful place—so it makes sense. Helen boasts the longest Oktoberfest in North America, actually. It starts in September and runs through November.
Anyway, I went back to my hotel room that day and thought that if this town exists in Georgia, what other places exist like this? This was back in 2008. After doing some research I found Frankenmuth, Michigan—which is another Bavarian town—and a couple of Dutch towns in Iowa. Once I saw that there were enough places in the US that were European-themed, I wondered if there was anything American in Europe, and they're actually all over. There's some in France, Spain—basically every country has a wacky, Wild West theme park. They have a real love for Pioneer Day Americana. They're, like, fascinated with Native Americans and cowboys.
It seems crazy that the German-themed town in Georgia has no actual ties to German heritage. What a weird, capitalistic cultural appropriation. You mention in your artist statement that one of the themes of your show is nostalgia. That's very apparent, especially in the photo of the girls dressed like German maidens at the Bavarian festival. They're in period dress, but they're texting and looking very bored and very much like contemporary teens transported to a different time. It's an amazing shot.
That's in Frankenmuth, Michigan. I just stumbled upon them and thought it was a funny picture. The Europeans definitely take their re-enactments more seriously than the Americans do. They'll do re-enactments with authentic tents, and all their costumes are handmade. They're very into accuracy. Whereas in the States, it's not as serious. If someone's wearing a lederhosen T-shirt, then that's good enough.
When you were plotting out your trip, did you leave room to discover places by chance, or was every location that you shot planned?
Basically, most of the events in these towns happen only in the summertime, mainly because of weather and kids being out of school. Every location I went to was mostly planned out, but the project spans multiple years. I began the project in 2008 and shot again in 2009. And then everything I shot in 2010 (close to 60 rolls) I stuck in my freezer because I didn't have the money to process it. I went on to shoot across Canada in 2011 and across the US in 2013. Then my friend, who had worked in a photo lab was quitting her job, offered to process the film for free and I started the project up again in the spring of 2014.
The Europeans definitely take their re-enactments more seriously than the Americans do.
I made a trip to Europe—I actually went to Europe, then back to Canada, then back to Europe within the span of six weeks—and I was sort of just flying by the seat of my pants. I would just get in my car and try to figure out what was around me. Essentially, I would either crash at friends' houses or sleep in my car. Now that I have a Honda Element, which is like a station wagon, that I sleep in all the time, I have a really great air mattress that I bring with me. If don't feel like spending 60 EUR to sleep for the night, I just blow up the air mattress and jump in the back of my car. In France I had reserved a teepee at this teepee park called OK Corral. It was expensive—it was like 250 EUR for two nights. But I got there, and they had given my teepee away! I ended up sleeping in my car that night.
I was curious about your travel around America, because your first book from Taschen, America Swings, was kind of about Americana as well—the interior lives of suburban, middle-class couples who are swingers. As a Canadian, why do you find America so interesting?
Part of it was that I was becoming a US citizen. I was living in New York on a green card, but I wanted to go back to Toronto, though I also knew that if I wasn't in the States for six months, I would lose my green card completely, so I decided to apply for citizenship. And since I had to take the naturalization test for my citizenship, I just drove around the country to learn what it was to be an American. That's another project. I call it "U S of Eh"—because, you know, Canada. I haven't done anything with it yet, but I'm hoping to get to it next. I always have sort of Canadian sensibilities when I drive around the States. Sometimes people think that if you're not from the US, and you do any sort of project centered around the US, that [the project aims] to mock and ridicule the country, but I'm not trying to do that.
**While I romanticize a lot of things, I don't think people of color can actually be that big into nostalgia. Historically, it has never been a better time for us in America, and it's still not that great. One thing that I noticed in your photographs for EUSA is that there are *very few images of people of color*. *I certainly think that speaks more to the nature of these attractions and the brand of nostalgia that they represent than to your photography. Were the majority of these places overwhelmingly populated by the white people?***
When I was in Helen, Georgia I saw two black men in lederhosen with their white girl friends in dirndls. But it's true, it really stands out when you see someone of color in this context. Almost everyone is white. In Europe it was also mainly white people. Though in Germany, for example, they're interested in the Wild West culture because as children they all read this popular series of books called Winnetou by Karl May. He wrote around 27 books about an Apache guy named Winnetou and his sidekick Old Shutterhands. [Ed. note: In the 1960s film adaptions, Winnetou was played by a white, French actor. The character of Winnetou has also been said to promote the stereotype of the "noble savage," aiding in the German's confused notion of non-European otherness.] The two of them would travel around America running into bad guys. It was very good vs. evil, and good would always prevail. Their adventures were very popular with German kids from that time period in the 1920s—I mean, Hitler apparently loved this series. So a lot of these festivals stem from the popularity of those books, which were read by the mostly white, homogenous population 40 years ago.
Can you talk about the photograph you took of the Swedish couple in Civil War dress in front of the Confederate flag?
It's actually a father and daughter. The daughter is dressed in a sort of can-can, brothel-looking outfit. This was taken at the very first event that I went to photograph, three hours outside of Stockholm. There were people who were dressed up as soldiers and fur trappers. It really varied. That man—I have another photo of him dressed as a fur trapper. Many of these people, they switched out of many different costumes. There was another guy I photographed who was dressed as a union soldier, a fur trapper, and then a Mexican at one point. It didn't really make any sense. He had a sombrero.
Oh my God, why was he a Mexican? I don't believe there were any Mexicans in the Civil War.
I don't know! I guess because at one point Americans fought the Mexicans in Texas? I guess they just condensed all the wars. But even though this guy from Sweden probably didn't have any relatives that fought in the Civil War or have any ties to a fur trapper or Mexican culture, there was definitely a sincerity. His participation in the festival was coming from this historical nostalgia. A big part of this project for me was sort of the homogenization of our cultures. Now, if you put me on a plane and dropped me off, blindfolded, in most cities in Europe, I'd probably be hard-pressed to figure out where I was based on what people are wearing.