From the moment American photographers Amy Stein and Stacy Arezou Mehrfar first heard about Tall Poppy Syndrome, they felt compelled to go explore it. Growing up in a culture which celebrates achievement, distinguishing yourself from others and standing up tall, the idea of the syndrome – to cut others down when they are perceived as being too much of a stand-out – ran contrary to everything they knew.
Teaming up, the two took a month-long road trip around New South Wales, Australia, a place where the term and potentially the cultural phenomenon was known to exist. Was it a real issue? Was it just political rhetoric? What was the populations reaction to the idea of Tall Poppy Syndrome? Stein and Mehrfar wanted to find out, and in doing so the two created this arresting photo series, capturing the most populous state in Australia with film and medium format cameras.
The work has just been published as a beautiful book from DECODE, featuring 55 four-color plates of the thought provoking photographs. Stacy and Amy will be signing copies of the book at the New York Art Book Fair at PS1 on Sunday, September 30 at 3pm. If you’re in New York, stop by and say hi. MoMA PS1 is located at 22-25 Jackson Ave, Long Island City, NY.
Below, we caught up with Amy Stein to ask her a few questions about her experience creating the book.
Where did you first learn about Tall Poppy Syndrome and how long was it before it struck you as an interesting project?
“Stacy was visiting NYC from Sydney and we met for a drink to catch up. In the course of discussing life in Australia she mentioned the term. I immediately said that would be a great book. The term was so strange and arresting to me. When we realized that it represented a viewpoint and practice so far from ideas of American individualism and exceptionalism we knew that we potentially had an interesting project.”
Being from America, what is one of the things which surprises you the most about Australian culture?
“How similar the natural landscape and built environments are to the United States and how dominant American culture is there.”
In this book you collaborated with photographer Stacy Arezou Mehrfar. How did you share the creative work?
“We decided initially to try to share all the work as evenly as possible. Stacy, because she is based in Sydney, did all the initial research and ground work, while I worked on getting sponsors from US (Kodak generously donated film for the project). When I arrived and we began the trip, we decided that we would shoot together and separately; and in the end put all our film together and edit from there. We often made images together, working side by side behind the ground glass and also used our medium format cameras to investigate interesting subjects separately. Many of our portraits were already planned so we would take turns making images. In the end the series and book represent a truly joint effort and an interpretation of the idea of TPS.”
What was a memorable place you stayed during your month-long road trip?
“We stayed in a lot of cheapish motels in small country towns. Nothing too exotic, no yurts or tree houses or anything. One place was so filthy that when I accidentally touched the carpet and then rubbed my eyes I was temporarily blinded.”
What was an interesting reaction to the project, Australian or otherwise?
“The reaction in the US has been confused interest because people are not familiar with the term or idea here. I sort of like that. Many Australians I have talked to feel that the issue is important to address now because of its corrosive effects on the individual achievement and cultural innovation.”
Thank you Amy for sharing with us!
Stacy and Amy will be signing copies of the book at the New York Art Book Fair at PS1 on Sunday, September 30 at 3pm. If you’re in New York, stop by and say hi. MoMA PS1 is located at 22-25 Jackson Ave, Long Island City, NY.