The initial impression I had when going through the photo series “Mädchenland” or “Kingdom of Girls” by Karolin Klüppel was one of a deep perturbance. I thought my sense of disquiet would dissipate if I read interviews with the artist Karolin Klüppel but I was mistaken. I found myself feeling ever more uneasy, if that were even possible. The photographer states that her series attempts to capture the sense of empowerment that a matrilineal community would impart on its girls. She goes on to say in the same article that these pictures were not quite meant to document the culture of the Khasi but instead this aspect would emerge from a presentation of the girls of the community instead.
The girls, who are the subjects of this photo series, are from Mawlynnong, a village known as a tourist destination, both to those from Meghalaya and elsewhere. It is popularly known and marketed as “the cleanest village of Asia” or “of India” at different times. (Closer scrutiny of this description, however, would reveal a significant use of polythene bags left behind in no small measure by the visitors who frequent the place, ironically, because of that very name.) The point to take away from this is that this is a location that frequently has an outsider gaze cast on its people. Consequently, the inhabitants of the village, as they become aware of this gaze, also behave according to the expectations that come with it.
This is a location that frequently has an outsider gaze cast on its people, the inhabitants of the village, as they become aware of this gaze, also behave according to the expectations that come with it.
For example, one can sometimes see children picking up stray leaves off of the road, speculatively because of this reputation for cleanliness that the village has. One could argue that the photographer could have chosen a more “remote” location as opposed to one that is so easily accessible to explore the phenomenon of matriliny within Khasi society. Another problem of this accessibility is the way the people seem to be primed to respond to an outsider gaze. Perhaps, a more sincere representation could have emerged from locations that were more remote.
At the same time, there’s no denying the fact that Mawlynnong is home to a Khasi community, one that is known and recognized for its matrilineal social structure. I realize how alluring it would be to capture this rare form of societal and cultural organisation would by anyone who has had their fill with the ubiquitous examples of patriarchy. The name “Mädchenland” itself is an embodiment of this desire of the photographer.
One should note here however that there are several ways to arrive at such a conclusive title. One of these is to observe, record and appropriately classify what one infers from the preceding steps. Another way is to begin with such a statement and then mould one’s material to fit such a description. The latter is a method reliant on the confirmation bias of an observer, i.e., one sees what one wants in what one is viewing, rather than what is revealed by evidence.
One sees what one wants in what one is viewing, rather than what is revealed by evidence
This distinction is relevant in understanding this series because the girls who form the subjects in this collection of photo seem to be found in just the right frame at the right time. It may be wrong of me to suggest that these were staged shots especially when the photographer had said that she wanted to capture culture that emerged from the girls themselves but it seems apparent especially with some of the pictures I will mention in due course.
I should be careful here and say that the author did spend nine months in the midst of the people from Mawlynnong to supposedly learn about their culture and, in that time, it is possible for her to have captured these photos candidly. They are, without a doubt, skillfully composed.
Pictures like this are examples of keen eye for an aesthetically appealing frame. This sense of the aesthetic is exactly what makes these photographs disconcerting. I get the impression that the photographer decided, a priori, to say something through her pictures, which she admits is the “self-confidence” of the girls. What emerges in her pictures, however, is the way she has framed in her mind to be “self-confidence”. The poses offered by the girls are often languid, bizarre and even forced at times. Unless explicitly stated that these were spontaneous postures taken up by the girls, what’s would be the difference in asking boys to pose similarly? How does this series therefore capture how matriliny impacts girls’ behaviour?
Why must only this prima facie impression of the Khasi community be presented with the immediate assumptions that follow this premise? This predetermined decision to focus on one possible outcome of matriliny, i.e. empowerment, is akin to putting on blinders. It doesn’t allow one to notice other interestingly patriarchal facets of the system. For instance, women are not allowed to attend or speak at dorbars which are local administrative and decision-making bodies. Even newer forms of social institutions like Presbyterian churches don’t hear women’s voices from the pulpit with very few exceptions. In the lingua franca of the region, women are considered to be shibor (having one unit of strength) while men are khatarbor (twelve times this unit). Within households, a male figure, the maternal uncle to be precise, acts as the consulting authority with matters to life decisions of the children. In three quarters of a year, if one was open enough to the possibility, one could have perhaps seen and brought out these deeply gendered inequalities that exist even in a society of supposedly empowered women.
The photographer, in other words, falls into a trap of the confirmation bias mentioned earlier on and proceeds to exoticize, and more problematically, fetishize these girls for the sake of what she wishes to depict, for what she wishes to see. The matrilineal girl captured with insects or hooves or a fish necklace becomes a mere object to be sculpted into and presented as an epitome of empowerment merely because of the premise that such a lineage system automatically transfers power to the girls/women. They become commodities to sell this idea that has so enamoured this photographer. The desire for girls to behave differently within a seemingly different structure, therefore, overshadows any evidence to the contrary. From what I can observe, the only aspect of this work that depicts matriliny and what it does to girls lies in the context behind the pictures. Without that background, this is, sad to say, a blatant exhibitionism of the girls of the village, culminating in a series that doesn’t quite capture the empowered status of these girls but antithetically subjugates them to the desired outcome of the viewer who in this case is Karolin Klüppel and a media hungering for the exotic.