An Artful Critique of the Western Traveller

Max Siedentopf grew up in Namibia to 4th generation Namibian-German parents, before moving to Berlin when he was 18, and more recently to LA. He is now based in Amsterdam, and works for KesselsKramer Communication agency, where he does a bunch of interesting projects. His multicultural background, broad use of digital media and humorous touch form a distinct style reflecting our globalised generation. Max primarily uses photography and film but does not limit himself to any medium in particular. The playfulness present in his work shows a strong sense of social awareness. In a series of artworks looking at the ethics of global tourism, he carves a satire of the western traveller.

Max Siedentopf
Portrait of Max Siedentopf

Head to Toe (2016) creates a dialogue between the extremely cheap ‘beauty industry’ in Vietnam, particularly nail salons, and the many tourists who take advantage of the low prices. Max photographed the women working in the salons, printed their portraits onto fake nails which were then glued onto tourists’ toenails. This playful approach forms a connection between the worker and customer, turning the tourists’ big toes into miniature canvasses.

Selection from Head to Toe (2016) photo series

Funny Money (2016) offers an eye-opening approach to the common dilemma of Western tourists photographing local people while travelling in foreign countries. As Max explains it, Westerners and white Africans often want to photograph locals in African countries, but rarely attempt to document the reality of the person in front of them. More often their own ideas of African stereotypes are reinforced through the photographer’s position of power. By paying the subjects in an attempt to seem less exploitative, the transaction actually turns the photograph into an exploitation of culture, history and individuality. On his last trip to Namibia, Max came up with an idea to return power to the person being photographed. For this project he exchanged 100 Euros into 1700 Namibian dollars. He would ask his subjects if he could take their photograph and allow them to name their price. Asking them to pose however they wanted requesting only that the money be in the photo. The most money he was asked for was around 5 Euros and he finished his series when he ran out of money. By representing the money in the photo, he sought to break the ice between subject and photographer by using the one thing that so often creates an awkward interaction.  There is something jovial and authentic about this photo series, they are quite unlike any other travel portraits.

  

Selection from Funny Money (2016) photo series

African Facelift (2016) looks into typical tourist ‘souvenir’ purchases in African countries such as the mask. For this project Max bought 11 masks from street vendors in Namibia. However none of the 11 ethnic groups in the country use masks in their culture. These are made solely to be sold to tourists who want a typical ‘African’ object to bring home. African Facelift attempts to dismantle stereotypical views of tribal Africa. He combines here the traditional object  with images of contemporary Africans – taken by Africans – found on online forums and social media. These collages become a paradoxical visual culture of Africa. The masks are a canvas which the images are stuck onto, juxtaposing western stereotype to more accurate self-representations of African identity.

Selection from African Facelift (2016) 

What’s great about Max’s work is that the process of creation is  as engaging as the final product. In the different series discussed here, light-hearted to these controversial issues. He shows us (westerners) that there are in fact ways of challenging western behaviour abroad, reminding us to question our own stereotypes and not to reinforce our position of power by exploiting other cultures. You can find a whole other range of fun art on his website & Instagram, including watermelon-head family portraits, hipsters joined by the beard, mixed in with cool videos and gifs.

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