A cursory Google image search of “Helen, Georgia” will reveal something wonderfully bizarre: a “Bavarian” village of rainbow gingerbread houses located in an otherwise stereotypically Southern part of the country (local gift shops sell German cuckoo clocks and Confederate flag shirts). The town’s Oktoberfest is one of the world’s longest-running, and it’s documented with humor and curiosity in the latest book from photographer Naomi Harris, EUSA (from German publisher Kehrer Verlag), which was released this past November.
EUSA’s title is, clearly, a portmanteau of “EU” and “USA,” and its subject matter is an exploration of cultural imitation taken to the extreme: America-themed parks in Europe and Europe-themed festivals in America, kitschy simulacra of eras and histories to which many attendees have little connection.
The EUSA project had its origins in 2008, when Harris was working on her previous book, America Swings — an endearing photographic chronicle of mate-swappers and their parties. At a nudist camp in Georgia, Harris’s host suggested that she visit the nearby Bavarian-style town.
The town of Helen, Harris later learned, was once a logging community that faced a recession in the 1960s. “A resident, who also happened to be a World War II veteran, suggested they give it a makeover, turning the Appalachians into the Alps,” she told Hyperallergic over email. Bemused, Harris was “curious to see if there were any other places around the United States” like this one, “and if there were any places in Europe resembling America.” There were many, including: Tulip Fest in Orange City, Iowa; the Last Indian Wars in Březno, Czech Republic; and Danish Days in Solvang, California.
The awkward visual space between the familiar and the absurd can be alluring, and it’s a pleasure to see it through Harris’s lens, whose images are rich in their strangeness and colorful, William Eggleston-style saturation. Everything is awash in bright blues and yellows; bratwursts shine like jewels.
Harris empathizes with her subjects with a fearlessness usually reserved for method actors — when she shot America Swings, she often disrobed, storing her camera in a tool belt. This approach has granted her a gift specific to all good documentary photographers, if they’re lucky: the innate knowledge of when to get close, and when to get out of the way. On one page, a white-haired man at a Maifest in Leavenworth, Washington sips coffee, a mountain vista at his back; he’s hardly aware of Harris. But a smiling woman in a Dutch bonnet — photographed in Iowa’s Orange City — looks as close and candid as a friend. It’s this easy transition between portrait and landscape, between participant and observer, that makes EUSA enjoyable in its fun and sympathetic images of improbable subcultures and celebrations. The exception to the book’s cheerful tone is the smoky-looking Rock & Roll and US Car Weekend in Agárd, Hungary; otherwise, the images are primarily of Bavarian festivals in the US and Wild West theme parks in Europe.
“The American locations were more of a nod to their heritage, as many of the residents were descendants of Dutch, Germans, or Danes,” Harris told me. A citywide attempt to reconnect with one’s ancestry is admirable and charming, even when it is predicated on much beer-drinking. But “in Europe … I would say it’s more about fetish. There is an obsession with Native Americans in countries like Germany and the Czech Republic, which stems back to their childhood, when they read a series of books by German author Karl May that had a Native American protagonist named Winnetou.”
Harris is a good photographer, and her subjects are given space to face her as they wish. The mostly white children at these festivals, cross-legged and with their faces adorned in paint, are disturbing to look at — especially knowing that European tradition has relatively few qualms about, say, blackface. Hitler himself was a fan of May and his fictional Apache chief Winnetou (Harris mentions this in her book’s preface). That these reenactments take place so close to countries that committed repeated genocides of First Nations people lends the whole practice an unsettling air of absurdity — particularly as First Nations people’s fights for land and cultural heritage continues in the US. Equally disconcerting are the European men dressed as Confederate soldiers, a stomach-churning costume even stateside. They’re quite comfortable standing next to fake cannons, feet proudly apart.
Throughout EUSA, there’s a series of emails between Dutch curator Erik Kessels and Los Angeles Times art critic Carolina Miranda. Harris introduced the two after after the curator requested an email conversation with a US citizen in lieu of writing an essay for the book. They ask questions like, “Why is a bald eagle called a bald eagle when it isn’t actually bald?” and, “I get the sense that Europeans have this view of Americans as unsophisticated hicks. Why? … Our language, systems of government, standards of beauty, and views on race are all inherited from Europe.” The answers are interesting, but the questions are more important. Mythologies of symbolism, race, and heritage seem innocent enough in costume, but they’re all inextricably tied to dirty legacies. As for Harris, who set out to learn “why we fetishize the other,” she — like the rest of us — still has no idea. But she does a beautiful job documenting her attempts to answer this question.
Naomi Harris’s EUSA is now available from Kehrer Verlag.