Guest review by Dia Yunzhi Wang •
As a female photographer, I would always have the desire to document the moments that I let ‘myself’ out. I’d be hopping up and down on empty streets with arms waving high, shaking my body like a disco-maniac when the playlist shuffles to a love dance song and then diving into bed after a thorough cleanup of the room. The instinct of a photographer would then instantly sense the essential element of an intriguing picture – vibrant dynamic from a free soul. The second the thought of photographing occurred, I was already observing myself as a third person. A compulsive creative duty jumps in before the mask-free state can last a second longer. The prompt awareness of the arrival of freedom nonetheless resulted in its transience, which made me envious when I read Anja Niemi’s book In Character. She manages to forget about the existence of the camera and be present just for the character she is in, no matter if it is herself, or someone else.
Aside from the airy Nordic color tone, one of the most noteworthy features of Niemi’s photos is her acute performativity. In different costumes and environments, she invites us to see her delicately designed monodramas as a theater with lit stage and open doors. Each detail of the scene is prudently arranged for the visual exquisiteness and the viewers’ experience. The only thing that is not pre-determined is her performance, which according to Niemi, is purely instinctive. After the scene is established, she sets up the camera, strips off her persona and liberates her hidden ego.
In her series The Woman Who Never Existed, the artificiality of the environment bursts into the organicity of a liberated mind, allowing an emergence of the coalition of pictorial tension and spiritual power. On the other hand, being the character and the first-person narrator at the same time engages the viewers in a way that telepathically initiates empathy and immersion experience. Owing to the faceless figures, instead of watching someone else perform, we see ourselves in the pictures – dancing ballet in the light, falling on face into a suitcase, holding a dead blue bird, attacking the other self with a water pipe, and merging into the wallpaper as if becoming one with our own prison. The character turns into a vessel for emotions and thereupon our belongingness that was nowhere to be placed can now anchor on a fertile land.
While the confrontation between ego and the environment oftentimes provokes puzzlement of acceptance, what would the combat be like for inner conflicts? In the series Starlets, the situation seems to be aggressive, rebellious and destructive. The act of introspection creates doppelgängers, which in Niemi’s photos are created by two identical figures of herself. They are incompatible with each other regardless of their physical adjacency. Invisible barriers between inner desires and moral conscience create imprisonment for ego, which then leads to self-disapproval and tendency of self-destruction.
Instead of physical impugnment, Niemi chooses to present the violent interaction between the doppelgängers by setting the two conflicting figures perfectly rigid, almost as if they are frozen statues, to suggest the imperatorial, determined and unyielding standpoint of their own. It is like a heating pot of molten iron covered by a thin layer of cement, under the placid appearance lays a catastrophic force. However, in Darlene and Me, with the disguise of another character, the doppelgängers seem to coexist in a nicer harmony, for which I’m guessing Niemi is trying to convey the idea that we are always more comfortable in our persona than dealing with our true selves. ‘Self’ here, rather than representing an individual, becomes more of a symbol, which also works as a metaphor of reflection, autognosis and cognitive struggle.
From 2011 to 2019, Niemi’s storytelling technique evolves from result-oriented single images to multi-channel process-based photo series that unfold more of the journey. Sacrificing no aesthetic elegance, she manages to achieve a higher concentration of liberation in her photos. In She Could Have Been A Cowboy, the boundaries between narrator, character, performer and creator almost cease to be visible, she is rather some lady who simply enjoys what she is doing. By serving as a female icon she encourages women to world away from dreary domesticity and defend their ideality. With greater confidence she becomes patient enough to show an empty environment or single object that doesn’t necessarily direct the story, the connotation of which though creates increased imagination space and subjective initiative for viewers.
The distinctive uncanny aura continues to captivate and allure audience to her mysterious theaters – you walk in as a spectator, and end up being the character.
Anja Niemi – In Character
Photographer: Anja Niemi, born in Oslo, Norway, resides in Norway
Publisher: Thames & Hudson Inc (New York, NY, USA); © 2019
Introduction: Max Houghton
Hardcover book, sewn bound inside pages; 240 pages with 176 illustrations; 23 x 18 cm; printed and bound in China by Toppan Leefung Printing
Photobook Designer: Studio Kunze