We chat to Ari Versluis to discuss the photo project he's been compiling for the past two decades.
Exactitudes, the photo project started in 1994 by Dutch photographer Ari Versluis and profiler Ellie Uyttenbroek, is probably the best way of crushing any persisting dream you have of individuality, if that's the kind of bizarre, masochistic thing you're into. Spanning almost two decades, Exactitudes is an anthropological study of every social group and subculture the duo can get into their studio, from the Beijing kids obsessed with Scream Records, and fur-loving Italian women, to stay-at-home dads and religious rockers in Rotterdam. Every group is photographed in a super uniform way and placed in a grid, to accentuate their similarities and differences. I spoke to Ari about the project and what it's all supposed to mean.
Skaters, Rotterdam, 1997.
VICE: Did you realize Exactitudes was going to become such a mammoth project when you first started?
Ari Versluis: No, the start was an accident, actually. A Dutch telecoms company commissioned me to portray youth culture, and gabber culture had just sprung up in Rotterdam, so I took some portraits of three gabber guys and that was that.
A while later, we were sitting in the studio, drinking a little too much wine, and thought it would be great to have hundreds of these identical portraits, so we went to Nightmares, this big gabber party at Energy Hall in Rotterdam, and asked loads of them to come into the studio. Most of them were pretty drugged-out, but we managed to get a few in, and the Dutch media loved it, because people had written about gabber, but no one had managed to properly photograph them until we did it. Then, from that moment on, we never stopped.
Did fashion play a big part at the beginning? Or, was it more just about capturing social groups?
Well, fashion is a language. It can be a very delicate language, or one that you can shout out loud, and there's always an identity aspect connected to it. We try to find identities rather than trends but, of course, the first thing you see is fashion, clothing and apparel so we try to be very precise with what we portray, because styling is all in the details with these groups.
Gabberbitches, Rotterdam, 1996.
Do you style the models yourselves at all?
No, not at all. That's why Ellie doesn't like to be called a stylist anymore, she prefers to be called a profiler. When we started, styling really wasn't a big thing at all. The British had some stuff going, with Simon Foxton and that early i-D thing, but everyone is a stylist nowadays, which has devalued the term. And it brings confusion because people think we dress the people up, which we never do. If we see someone we like in the street, we ask them to come in wearing the exact outfit we saw them in.
How do you decide which new groups are worthy of being photographed?
We try to be very open and blank when we approach a new project, it's actually very difficult because you always have a vague expectation of what social groups are going to be around, but you have to be careful, otherwise you’ll cliches, which aren’t ever exciting. The last series we did, for example, consisted of us going everywhere we could in Milan–shopping malls, clubs, theaters, supermarkets–and just looking and analyzing until we found something relevant.
So a group has to have a real culture behind it if you're going to bother making it an Exactitude?
Yeah, I think so. But, that's the most interesting part, only history can tell if this social group is really as relevant as you thought it was at the time. It's like that Susan Sontag quote about how, as a photograph gets older, it either becomes much more important, or it proves to not be important whatsoever.
Gimmies, Praia, 2004.
Are there any groups that have come and gone that you regret not having photographed?
Yes, a lot actually, but that's also part of the drive that keeps you going. There are plenty of reasons why we haven't photographed these groups, though. For example, they can be too cruel, too political, too religious, and all those factors make it very hard to infiltrate a group to the point where you can take their photo. For instance, here in the Netherlands, the young Moroccan boys and the fashionable Islamic girls are very difficult to get on board. Even if a group is very visible in the streets, it doesn’t mean it’s easy to portray.
Can you talk me through some specific Exactitudes. Are there some you've put labels to, yourself? Like Cocktails & Dreams, for example?
Yeah, Cocktails and Dreams are girls from the Dutch Antilles, who are a group very visible in the Netherlands. They're really Caribbean, not Dutch, so that's why we called them Cocktails and Dreams. We could have called them "Girls from the Dutch Caribbean," but that's not exactly a fun name.
Ghoullies, Rotterdam, 2002.
Very true. What about Smas?
Oh, Smas is Dutch street language for a rough girl. There's a lot of Dutch-specific ones, actually. Speedfreaks, for example, is very Dutch. There was a big club here in the Netherlands called Now & Wow, which had a night called Speedfreaks, where people dressed similarly to the Tektoniks in France–loads of gel on their hair and stuff. That one marked an important change for social groups in the Netherlands because it involved lots of Islamic people, who weren’t so visible in youth culture groups before, so that was quite an emancipatory thing for them to do.
Cool. What about the Chillers? They look like cool kids.
That was a whole series about the first year you spend in your second school. After seeing many, many school classes, we noticed there was always one guy who stood out and did things differently. He was the first skater, or the first to dye his hair, or whatever, and he was always very chilled. No one really understood him, and he always had that deep-rooted feeling that he was slightly different from the rest, but always managed to command a certain amount of respect.
Cassettes Gang, London, 2008.
I saw you shot the Cassette Playa crew, which is a different approach to the one you usually take. Why was that?
Yeah, it's not a real Exactitude, in the sense that it's based around a designer rather than a particular social group, but we were in London and just really liked Carri Mundane's stuff, so thought it would be cool to invite her and a few of her friends to the studio. We've made a few similar ones in the same vein, like a Haider Ackermann one for example, but Cassette Playa was the only one that made it into the book.
That’s cool. I reckon the best way of measuring success in fashion design is whether a whole new scene springs up around the designer. Is that something you notice often?
Yeah, there have been a few times. French Touch, for instance, was shot in Bordeaux at the high point of Hedi Slimane’s grip over fashion. If you went to Paris during that time, every boy of a certain age had taken on that Hedi silhouette, but it was more interesting for us to portray this phenomenon in Bordeaux, 600 km from Paris, to see how those influences stretched. Also, the Naturals series is all of models off the catwalk, and it turned out that 95 percent of them were wearing Helmut Lang, which we hadn’t planned and didn’t know about until after, which was funny. Saying that, we do prefer to look more at things people have created themselves, rather than something created by a fashion designer.
Leathermen, Rotterdam, 1998.
Fair enough. Which group has been a real passion project of yours to shoot?
The Gabbers. It's the first series of the whole project and just so fascinating to me. It was the first real Dutch youth culture, and it happened to be kids who listened to hardcore, aggressive techno and chose to wear candy-colored neon tracksuits, which was amazing. Rotterdam went from having zero record companies to suddenly having 2000, all selling gabber, and this was before the internet so it was all very local and organic. Also, it really changed the way we looked at street fashion in the Netherlands–it made us reassess what could be done. So yes, for us, I think that is the key series.
I think I’d have to agree with you. Lastly, is there any message that you’ve developed through the years you’ve been working on the project? Or, is it purely a documentation of subcultures?
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 I feel.