Two recently published projects by Swiss photographer Yann Gross explore subcultures informed or influenced by fantasies of American culture. Horizonville focuses on the often incongruous Western-themed delights of the Rhone valley, while Kitintale builds a picture of the community that gathers around east Africa’s only skate park. Gross spoke to Guy Lane about the work.
“I started the Horizonville project four years ago; at the time I had no money, but I wanted to travel. So I got a small very slow moped – it went about 30km per hour – and I decided to go on a road trip in my own neighbourhood to try and discover, and create, my own Route 66. I was looking for exotic things.”
“The pictures were all taken in the Rhone valley. People know the area because it is one of Switzerland’s most popular destinations for tourists. It is famous for its ski resorts – Zermatt, Verbier, Saas Fee – but nobody really stops in the valley itself. The resorts are very posh and touristic; the valleys are completely different. They are where middle class and working class people live, while the rich have their chalets in the mountains
“During my three-month trip I started to meet people who were dreaming about America. They were developing a sense of belonging to a culture they didn’t really know. They were just fascinated by what they saw on TV, and they tried to re-create and live that dream at home. But they were all like me – they’d never been to the US.”
“Most of the people I photographed just wanted to be a bit different and have their own lifestyle. For example, some of them pretended to belong to the Indians, saying ‘the colour of your skin doesn’t really matter; it’s what you have in your heart that counts. If your heart says you are an Indian, then you are like an Indian.’
“In my work I was just trying to re-create the dreamworld that those people were living in. So, before starting the project, I spent a lot of time with them in order to understand what it is they are interested in doing. I had to forget about my prejudices, and then I could really understand what I was talking about. I don’t want to make fun of them, for example. I think the work is funny, but it’s respectful.”
“It is called Horizonville because at the end of my road trip I passed a gas station with that name. Its architecture really reminded me of Hopper’s paintings and Ed Ruscha’s photographs; and the name made me think of those famous American cities like Nashville and Louisville. At the same time the horizon is something far away which you cannot really reach. The funny thing was, after the work was shown in Madrid last year, I got emails from people in America saying, ‘We’re planning on going to Switzerland, and we’d like to go to Horizonville, but we can’t find it on the map. Can you tell us where it is?’
“But the city doesn’t exist, except in that dream and in those people’s minds.”
With Horizonville completed, Gross was holidaying in Uganda when he began working on a project that proved to have unanticipated parallels with his Rhone valley work:
“There is a car park at the Mandela Stadium in Kampala, and on Saturdays and Sundays there are a lot of skaters around. I started talking with one, and he said, ‘Yeah i have a ramp at my place’. So we went there and found this skate park, right in Kitintale, a poor suburb of Kampala. After a while I realised that people were skating in this exact suburb only, and once you left there, no-one knew what the sport was. It was the only skate park in all of east Africa.”
“I loved the place so much I stayed two months, skating with the locals. Then I found some distributors in Switzerland and got some more boards because at the time we had maybe one board for every five kids. My idea was to promote skateboarding – though nobody really knew what it was – so we organised a contest and went to local newspapers and TV for promotion. We were trying to find ways to develop the game in Uganda and get more people involved.”
“But there is no market for it. Those kids are really poor – they can’t afford to go to school, so they can’t afford to buy shoes or skates. Some of them were skating barefoot. The pictures, then, are only a small part of the project to expand the sport. I take them because it’s fun, and I’m really interested in how subcultures work. And I started to realise how I could relate the Kitintale work to my previous series about people living their dream. Even if they cant afford it, they create their own style and they try to create their own subculture.”
“I think it’s really important to realise how television, the media, magazines, the internet and movies can influence all areas of the world. The Americans are really good at creating myths and dreams and wherever you go you can find American products. But it starts to get interesting when people adapt this kind of culture, and mix it with their own. Then it becomes something inbetween: something which is not really African or American or Swiss.
“Sometimes you just have to make it yourself.”
Horizonville – publ. JRP-Ringier (€36)
Kitintale – publ. CIE (€12)