School uniforms are common in elementary and middle schools in many countries. They symbolize class equality, quality, and structure. Photographer Annie van Gemert visited Belgium, where pupils still wear uniforms in many schools. From 2009 to 2013 she created probing (group) portraits of boys and girls in school uniforms. These photos led to a new publication, School Uniforms: Education in Flanders.
The new series indirectly reveals the changes that have taken place in Flemish education over the last twenty years. In 1997, Van Gemert’s book of photographs, Uniformity: Girls’ boarding schools in Flanders, was published. A world on the brink of disappearing. By 1998, almost all schools were co-educational. Schools which had a reputation as elite institutions for either boys or girls exclusively were giving way to the co-ed model. More than in the past, pupils come from different social demographics and bring with them a larger diversity of cultural backgrounds. Van Gemert’s photo series records these developments, particularly the changed function of the classic school uniform in a modern multicultural society. Everyone is equal, regardless of their culture, religion, or origin. Because education is becoming more international and racially mixed, the standardization of the uniform takes on a different meaning. Schools use it to promote equality between cultures. The school uniform becomes a symbol of the way in which we, as a society, strive for equal rights and opportunities for everyone.
In an engaging and penetrating manner the photo series School Uniforms: Education in Flanders focuses on the tension between uniformity and diversity, assimilation and distinctiveness, and groups and individuals. Behind closed doors.
Since 1990, Annie van Gemert (1958, Vught) has become known as a photographer with a predilection for worlds that are on the brink of disappearing or, as in the case of this new series, changing. Driven by her curiosity about lives that play out, to a large extent, behind closed doors, she has created photo series about girls’ schools, teenagers’ rooms, monasteries, and large families. Typically, she follows and observes these closed worlds for years. The identity and relationship of the subject of the portrait with his or her environment are central. The children look intently into the camera, and the background and composition are of equal importance. The stately architecture of the historic school buildings, the classrooms, gym, cafeteria, chapel, corridors, staircases or enclosed schoolyards forms the backgrounds against which boys and girls from different cultures come together. The big question this new series raises is how wearing a school uniform – group identity – is related to the development of individual identity. Equally, the series asks how the school uniform can bridge different social and cultural backgrounds.
Dresscode (dSWeekblad, 31 augustus 2013)
Author: Annie van Gemert
Publisher: Annie van Gemert i.s.m. uitgeverij van Halewyck
157 photos: 61 in kleur en 96 in zwart/wit duotone
Pages: 224 bladzijde.
Format: 24 x 30 cm oblong
Price: 39,50 euro
The book is for sale in Dutch and Flemish libraries. You can order a signed copy via contact [at] annievangemert.com
A selection of the photographs is exhibited at the Museum voor Moderne Kunst Arnhem starting 27/09/2013.