Her fascination with T-shirts began when she photographed a young woman wearing a T-shirt with an African mask print. The sight told Barnett something about the young woman without the camera having to show her face. By now she has taken more than two thousand photos that represent a period full of political, cultural and social issues with slogans like ‘I Will Save the World’, ‘I’m Muslim Don’t Panik’ and ‘Eat the Rich’. The photo exhibition in the Kunsthal Rotterdam presents a selection of more than 65 of Barnett’s photos, in which the typology of the images changes in a fascinating way with the years.
T-shirts as messengers
In her work Barnett looks for individuals who stand out in a crowd because of their T-shirt, often combinations of images and slogans that reveal (part of) the identity of the wearer. These Tshirts display the insignia with which their wearers communicate ‘I belong to this group, not to the other group’. The T-shirts show their dreams or ideals, often with a political undertone. They are messengers that show what kind of statements the individuals portrayed are prepared to make without any fear of criticism or recrimination. In addition, in the light of abuse and stereotyping, the photos aim for a better understanding of our own value judgements and prejudices.
Susan Barnett first studied art history before working for several galleries and auction houses. She learned more about the phenomenon of photography from her father, a fervent photographer. In New York she visited the Light Gallery, which specialised in photography, and was inspired by the work of Harry Callahan, Robert Mapplethorpe and Garry Winogrand. The focus on T-shirts arose during her time as a student activist, when she made posters and printed T-shirts for the protest movement against the Vietnam War with the popular slogan that she devised herself ‘Hell No! We Won’t Go!’. In spite of the enormous quantity of photos and her other projects, Barnett intends to continue photographing T-shirts in the ongoing project ‘Not in your face’ until everyone decides to wear only white T-shirts.
There is a catalogue to accompany the exhibition, ‘T: A Typology of T-Shirts’ published by Dewi Lewis Publishing (UK). Price: € 39,50.