There is a Sylvia Plath quote I think of often: "Why can't I try on different lives, like dresses, to see which fits best and is more becoming?" Well, hold the phones, because Czech photographer Dita Pepe has sorted it out in a compelling photo project titled, aptly, Self Portraits With Men.
This idea of inhabiting multiple identities and worlds is at the heart of this series, which places Pepe at wildly different cultural and economic intersections and settings, not to mention life stages: She is young and old, childless or familied up, bold or exhausted, and paired with a range of people who demonstrate a variety of tastes, preferences, lifestyles, and backdrops.
According to Feature Shoot, Pepe first posed with acquaintances, but then expanded the project to include complete strangers. Pepe is so immersed in each family and coupling to the point that it takes a minute to register she's role-playing. Her daughter also sometimes appears in the photos, and each shot acts as a kind of fantastical roll of the dice reflecting the myriad ways any one woman's life could turn out, depending on choice, luck, environment, class, preference, and assorted other arbitrary data points (She also does self-portraits with women, too, some of which are compiled here and shown below, and all of these and more can be seen on her site). But make no mistake, these photos are your life. (All photos used with permission.)
Like, what if you loved a metal dude?
What if you were a boss business lady?
Hey, how did she know about your sophomore year college boyfriend?
Maybe one day you'll do some senior traveling.
Remember how much you loved him?
Not your best era. And yet, dirtbike dude loved you the best.
It was a good year.
You could've gotten really into biodynamic wine.
You were going to open a gallery.
You could've traveled the world this way with the right person, really (and also re-made the Mad Max series.)
Maybe the sheer simplicity of it was enough.
You made him this jacket, didn't you?
Remember how you've might've ended up with the Assistant DA?
Pepe is just brilliant in this one:
He talked you into the green wall color, but not the giant fish.
And so many more!
Things I love about this project? It's whimsical and transformative, and manages to both reflect the way the quality of a woman's life can be the direct result of the man she ends up with or doesn't, for better or for worse, and whether or not she has kids and how many — while also subverting that notion. She's an everywoman while also highly individual. Though she's partnered in every photo, her income and class and taste are reflected in the clothes she wears, the house she resides in, the number of children she is linked to or not, and the look on her face.
This one is just utterly absorbing and mischievous:
Some commenter on the Feature Shoot piece called it "subservient" for Pepe to portray herself as changing in relation to the man she's with in each picture, but I see it as more about immersion in the environment and choice. Or rather, I think it could function both ways. This is still a world where a woman's quality of life is absolutely elevated or dragged down by the mate she chooses, but this work also acts as a commentary on woman's immersive identity as part of her family, no matter how high-powered and urban or rural and offbeat. It is, to me, about the way possibility is both limitless and limiting. Guys, this is the Sliding Doors of art projects, and it is amazing.
Plus, she has the same series with women, which makes it less obvious that it's about roles at all:
Feature Shoot notes:
Though obviously comparable to the work of Cindy Sherman, Pepe's chameleon talents focus more on how relationships can utterly transform an individual than embodying specific female identities. Questions of origin, influence and choice all come into play, the "what-if" manifesting in a sometimes comical, sometimes surreal interpretation of different paths we all could have taken.
And it's this idea I think is really the most compelling. Who do we become in a family or couple or just with others, and how much does that determine the course of our lives? Note also that the idea of women's lives as full of rich possibility is a very new one in our collective consciousness. We often think of our life trajectory as limited to our birthplace, neighborhood, class, gender, and while those things have inarguable impact on our outcomes, here, the focus is on our inherent adaptability.
And ultimately, we are reminded that inside every partner or mother is a woman who is both generic and unique, someone who could've been a million other places, with a million other people, leading a million other kinds of lives.
There are so many more. Go. Inhabit.