“American Girls” by Ilona Szwarc

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Conversation with Ilona Szwarc

By Paola Núñez Solorio

How did you begin American Girls?

When I first came to New York City I wanted to become a street photographer, so I began going out every day and photographing on the streets. Following the steps of master street photographers like Joel Meyerowitz and Garry Winogrand, I would go out on 5th Avenue and take pictures. I started noticing girls carrying their dolls that look like them and wearing matching outfits. At first, the girls just began appearing in the corners of my frames, then eventually I sought for them and I would stop them on the street and take their portraits. For the next two years, while working on my street photographs and on a personal project on the life of my mother-in-law, I was developing and researching the idea for the “American Girls” project.

My initial attraction was towards the visual image of girls walking around with their mini versions of themselves. I thought this would be very interesting for the photographs, especially with a long and rich history of photographers using dolls

(Laurie Simmons, Hans Bellmer, Cindy Sherman). The more time I spent in the US, I was wondering what it means to be a woman in the US and what it means to be

American. I was struck by the fact that the product was actually called “American

Girl”. I thought that it clearly meant that the company imposes stereotypes about who a contemporary American girl is.

To me it felt really exclusive – only about Americans and for Americans – and I began to wonder where do I fit in this scenario and if I could ever fit in. So the doll in the project becomes a vehicle for me to get access and to meet girls and their families, to see how they live, spend time with them and to discover what it means to be growing up in the US and what it means to be an American girl, that is — a future American women. I am interested how gender and identity are constructed.

In your project statement you mention that “American dolls offer an illusion of choice therefore an illusion of individuality”, do you think the illusion of choice extends throughout their life? What would it take for that illusion of individuality to become real?

Yes, in my statement I say that American Girl dolls offer an illusion of choice therefore an illusion of individuality, because the idea behind the dolls is that you can create a mini-me doll, a customized look alike doll, yet all of the dolls basically look the same. They have mostly the same features – the only choices that are given to girls are different skin colors (three: light, medium and dark skin), different eye colors (around forty options) and many hairstyles (more than eighty options), yet the basic face mold and figure of all dolls stays the same – slim, petite and androgynous shape. So I began to further question how is individuality manifested in this world and how is it communicated to children. As all the dolls really look the same, the only denominator of individuality relies in the hairstyle and fashion, of which girls are given the most possible choices. Constructing female identity happens through the choice of hair color and style, and the choice of clothes or fashionable accessories. On the other hand American Girl dolls create a false sense of physical identity. Although girls can choose from different skin and eye colors– all of the dolls evoke the features of contemporary American society: a very standardized, democratic look. They all share the same face features and body shape. However they show a significant shift from what Barbie’s troubling appearance was –
they promote a body shape of a little girl, more on the chubby side, yet still very, very pretty. Although so many types of girls get represented, all are very slim, the boundary towards a fuller body shape is never crossed by the manufacturer. The idealized self is always slimmer than the real.

Do I think the illusion of choice extends throughout their life? Probably, if we are examining consumer choices. It occurs to me that even among adults consumer culture affects formation of individuality – for example a person who is perceived as a big personality, an extraordinary individual usually attracts the attention by the way they are dressed and then, by their performance. So self – expression, on a surface level, comes across through some kind of a fashion statement.

 

What do you think is the main difference between girls and boys role in this identity-individuality illusion?

I think I can only speak for the girls in the context of American Girl dolls, as I got to know them and hear their opinions. I also got a chance to examine a cross section of girls who play with those dolls and these are my observations. I don’t really know about boys, however even now when I think of it, I don’t think boys identify themselves and look up that much to role models from the culture. Perhaps I simply don’t know, but it seems to me that girls are more prone to compare themselves and mimic some influences from the outside and that it is particularly difficult for them to establish their individuality and femininity having to negotiate between different influences from celebrity and consumer culture, and school and family.

What do you seek in a photograph when you are editing your work?

I am seeking a surprise. When editing I try to remember what was the most surprising to me when I first got to know my subjects and their environment. I try to evoke that moment of surprise that I felt for myself then and make sure it’s communicated in the photograph that I present to viewers. I am also looking for a certain level of complexity- a tension between the subjects and their environments and how the two relate and influence each other.

 

What would you say was your largest obstacle in the project?

Something that I didn’t realize when working on this project was that, as an outsider, I had a different point of view on American Girls dolls. To me, it was a cultural phenomenon and a marker of time so I wanted to take a closer look and study the issues behind this trend. I was examining identity and gender in the context of American culture. However I found that many people would just notice the surface and view the photographs as if they were promoting those dolls. In that sense my work was much better received in Europe, where people would not have a connection to this product and would immediately see the meaning behind this cultural trend.

About the artist

Ilona Szwarc was born and raised in Warsaw, Poland. In 2008, she immigrated to New York City, where she currently lives and works. Szwarc’s photographs have been exhibited internationally – in Paris, London, Bilbao and New York. Her work has been published by numerous publications worldwide including TIME, The Sunday Times Magazine, The Telegraph Magazine, Surface China, PDN. She is also a finalist and winner of several international photography competitions and awards, among which are: PDN Annual Winner, Personal Category, People’s Choice Award, Photoville, One Life Contest Finalist, Artists Wanted: Exposure Finalist and Hub Scholarship, School of Visual Arts.

For further information about Ilona, visit: www.ilonaszwarc.com

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