Land Of The Free

Stephen Schofield's Klingons, a wookie and a Star Fleet officer go to the Black Box

In one of the photographs in the Land of the Free exhibition Chewbacca stands in a tiny suburban kitchen waiting for the kettle to boil. It is one of photographer Steve Schofield’s favourite images. ‘He was sweating buckets in that thing,’ he recalls mischievously.

Other photos include two Klingons relaxing on a white sofa (another favourite), a Stormtrooper using a payphone and a couple of cowboys cooling their heels in a kitchen. It’s UK fandom dressed up to the 1990s. But what – to pose the question that makes artists everywhere sweat buckets – is it about?

‘I was angry,’ Schofield says cheerfully. He is on his way across England for a photo-shoot and his Bluetooth keeps cutting out as he drives past fields. ‘It was four years ago, we were in Iraq and imposing western standards of culture on them.’

That got him thinking about how cultural infiltration works and how American popular culture is taking over the world. In Japan women have plastic surgery to look more westernized and in the UK people dress up like characters on TV. From war in Iraq to Jean-Luc Picard in London in three easy steps.

The classic fandoms – Star Trek and Star Wars – turn up frequently in the exhibition, along with a number of cowboys and Indians. There are a few from more obscure fandoms.

‘I didn’t look at anime or manga,’ Schofield says firmly. ‘Most of the fans involved in that are young and it didn’t have the same impact. You expect that sort of exhibitionism from the young.’

Besides, the exhibition is about cultural infiltration not cultural appropriation.

Not that Land of the Free is actually critical of fandom. Schofield might not appreciate how pervasive American popular culture is in society, but his portrayal of the fans themselves is at turns poignant and admiring. ‘How is it any different from solicitors dressing up in ridiculous costumes and playing golf?’ he demands. ‘It’s all about tribalism, about belonging.’

Conversely, unavoidably, it’s also about not belonging. The juxtaposition of fantasy and reality in the photos makes it clear how fragile the fans' fantasy lives really are. ‘They create these personal utopias,’ Schofield says. ‘But they can only stay in them for a short while.’

It is something that Schofield has explored before in his Hotel exhibition, which addressed the idea of fantasy as commodity. He was intrigued by the promises hotels make to their customers, promises that they can’t possibly live up to. ‘I photographed the staff as they were getting the hotel ready to open. There was a palpable reluctance, the staff dreaded the customers arriving to inevitable disappointment.’

In Land of the Free the fans themselves step into the role of judge, weighing their own efforts at embodying a fantasy against their peers. Schofield recalls that the fans were always very interested in the photos he had already taken, alternately admiring and pointing out mistakes made.

In the hands of a less sympathetic artist it would have been easy to turn Land of the Free into a modern day version of the freakshow, something Schofield admits he was concerned about. ‘I didn’t want to ridicule them,’ he says earnestly. ‘People should be laughing because they’re in on the joke, not at them. If they laugh at them then I’ve failed somehow.’

He doesn’t think he has, stating that the predominant reaction to the photographs at his shows is empathy. ‘At exhibitions I hang around behind people who don’t know I’m the artist, to see what they think,’ he explains his method for getting honest feedback. ‘Most people understand that desire to be different, to assert your individuality.’

In fandom four years is a long time. Some of the fans who stare out of the images as if they can see you looking in might have hung up their wookie suits or traded in their Next Generation uniforms for New Trek ones.

Yet in Land of Free the images remain, as if the subjects had found some way of staying in their ‘personal utopias’ forever.

Even if you aren’t a geek the exhibition is well worth a look. Schofield’s photography is blunt, there are no bells and whistles but the images don’t need them. He captures the humanity, the wistfulness, behind the costumes and latex.

Just be careful what you say, in case he’s lurking behind you.

Land of the Free is on display at the Black Box as part of the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival from April 29 to May 9.

Tammy Moore