You could never accuse Hans Eijkelboom of a lack of dedication. For his new book, People of the Twenty-First Century, the photographer and conceptual artist spent 20 years lurking around shopping centres – initially in his native Netherlands, later in America and China. Working almost daily, he would note similarities in the appearance of passers-by and surreptitiously photograph them, or take “photo notes” as he calls them.
“The process,” he says, “is simply that I walk to the centre of the city where many people are. Then I walk around for 10 to15 minutes. When something in the crowd intrigues me or touches me, I decide that will be the theme of the day. Then I start photographing for two hours. Many times, it goes wrong: I don’t see anything, so I don’t photograph that day; or I go to the city, see my subject, start photographing and, surprisingly, in the next two hours, never see my subject again. And then, for that day, there is no photo note.”
Eijkelboom’s previous works have included managing to insinuate himself into the background of every photograph that accompanied the main story in his local paper for 10 consecutive days; convincing wives whose husbands had gone to work to pose for a family photograph with Eijkelboom taking the place of the absent father; posing for self-portraits wearing entire outfits he’d bought for €10 or less. In those, the photographer was the star. With the photo notes, Eijkelboom effectively has to vanish.
“The camera is hanging on my body, with a wire that goes into my pocket,” he says. “That’s the way I make the photos. When you walk in the city and look through the viewfinder, people say, ‘What are you doing? Why this photograph?’ And so on. I don’t have time to talk about what I’m doing, I want to get it done in two hours. And when you make a photo in a normal way, you intervene in the situation: people will react to the camera, and will not be normal.”
Partly inspired by People of the Twentieth Century, August Sander’s mammoth attempt to document German society from 1911 until his death in 1964, Eijkelboom wants to create a kind of visual diary. “The work I did before was always about my own identity and identity in society. I always have the feeling I am more or less the product of the society I’m living in – and the photo notes are trying to visualise my surroundings.”
The results, collated in a 500-page book, are simultaneously mundane and compelling. Laid out in a grid, the shots of women wearing pink T-shirts or businessmen carrying briefcases have a hypnotic, repetitious quality, but the longer you look at them, the more nuances become apparent. Eijkelboom used a similar technique in an earlier project, Paris-New York-Shanghai, an exhibition and a trio of books documenting everyday life in those cities that was widely perceived as being a deadpan comment on globalisation’s effect on national identity. The point seemed to be that people increasingly dressed the same all over the world.
People of the Twenty-First Century offers a more positive message. Eijkelboom occasionally documents a fashion trend, or a tribal allegiance, where people are trying to look alike: bikers, Rolling Stones fans wearing the band’s logo. But more often, the similarities between his subjects’ appearances reveal themselves to be superficial. Eijkelboom might have chanced upon a dozen people all wearing yellow T-shirts, but they’re not a uniform and their significance changes with each person: one shirt is pledging allegiance to a football team, another to a band, another to surfing.
“That’s a very strange development in society,” says Eijkelboom. “That wasn’t the intention at the start of the project, but in the end you could say the book is about a fight, a war within society: more and more, big companies have their grip on people, in producing the clothes and so on. But in the book you see the possibilities to give it your own personal touch. When you now go to the Kalverstraat in Amsterdam, everybody has their own individual message on their T-shirt. But on the other hand, they all look the same, because they are all people with a message on their T-shirt. You can already see a little bit of change, making the power of the big companies weaker, I think. To own clothing by a brand is less important than five years ago.”
He thinks this might have something to do with the rise of the internet, which the book inadvertently documents: its earliest photographs come from 1994, an era that was “a little bit more friendly, a little bit more naïve”, when the internet was more discussed than used, when a feature about it in Time magazine still had to open by explaining what the web was.
“My project is related to the city and the crowd in the city. When I look at younger people now, I see more and more that the web is their city. It’s more important now to have an identity on the web, which is very different from an identity shown through your clothes, and you can see that in the book. But I have so much trust in people that I think everybody will find a way to express themselves individually. But in what way? I really don’t know.”
Whatever happens, Eijkelboom intends to document it. He no longer goes out five days a week, but his days of lurking around shopping centres are far from over. “It is very important that I do it for as long as possible – because the very first photo notes I made are now the most interesting. Time is an important part of the project. I’m now 65. I hope I can do it for another 15 years.” h/t – the guardian