The photobook Tall Poppy Syndrome by Amy Stein and Stacy Arezou Mehrfar utilizes metaphors to narrate their joint investigation of a subtle cultural trait in Australia. In Australia, as in some of the other regions of British cultural influence, the Tall Poppy Syndrome is a term to describe a social phenomenon in which successful people (the “tall poppies”) get “cut down to size”. A collaborative and indirect story about social conformity and maybe what it might feel like to not to fit-in or conform.
Their photographs frequently have a humorous undertone, sometimes subtle, sometimes bordering on cliché. They explore the visual metaphors for what it may feel like to be ostracized by a lager or peer group; a single cow in a meadow, a singular tree in a field, a women dressed in black (an interesting version of who might be the “black sheep”) who appears to be ignored by all of those who surround her as she appears to vainly stare into the camera lens. An interesting layering of the narrative is the double-page spread of the athlete group portraits, which opens to a double gate-fold of the four cut and topped trees.
They investigate an informal social policy that perhaps beckons back to the Australian founding fathers, as this region was established as a British penal colony, a group of individuals who probably did not have great social aspirations. Nevertheless, who has not encountered some aspects of social criticism at one time or another? As a society, there is usually a strong desire for individuals to belong to a group.
Yet in reflection, as an American I should not be throwing stones, as we can be cruel in our treatment of those who excel. Who has not heard the comment of someone having a “swelled head” or “bit too big for their britches”. Stein and Mehrfar raise questions about a cultural fascination with dwelling on the troubles of those who have achieved fame and fortune. Have we not heard of children in school, perhaps more so in the middle and high schools, about becoming ostracized for being “too smart”? When their peers perceive them as the “know it all”, that they are then at the risk of not being popular (or in my day “cool”). Thus to stay popular is to be seen as to not to excel, thus some children learn at an early age as to how to down-play their achievements and success. There are social consequences if one proudly gloats about their success, perhaps becoming labeled as being obnoxious.
An investigative story constructed from a social fabric and perhaps a resonating lesson for us all.
The case bound book includes a translucent belly band that is permanently attached to the inside of the covers, creating yet another interesting metaphor. The plates have a slight luster and read very well, with the page stock a slightly creamy color that works well with the overall book presentation. The color plates are numbered with the captions are summarized in a table at the end of the book. The accompanying text is minimal, only to provide a high level summary of their concept for this project. The book has two double-gate folds which creates a nice layering to their narrative, with one of the two gate folds provided below. The use of a gatefold is a layout design that appeals to me, as it is similar to peeling an onion to dive deeper into the narrative as a potential layered reading of the photographs.
Another photobook by Amy Stein reviewed on The PhotoBook: Domesticated