Unprofessional by Matilde Søes Rasmussen
(I'm going to put up some of my older reviews of favourite photobooks here - you can also find them in the writing section. Short new ones will also follow. Click on the image to see the original site and images)
Fiction, fantasy, documentary, biography, and text combine in Matilde Søes Rasmussen’s excellent new photobook Unprofessional. The only question is in what order and in what proportion.
Who quite knows what is going on in Unprofessional. On the one hand, it’s a documentary on being a young, white, European female model in Asia. There are hotel rooms, there are sullen-looking models, there are breasts and butt plugs, boredom, bad makeup, fridges filled with beer and soft drinks, all against a backdrop of phone-fiddling, interminable restaurant meals and studio setups that have been put together using the diceman method of art direction.
On the other hand, it’s a biographical fantasy piece where Rasmussen’s economic but incisive text hints at a netherworld of loneliness, mental health issues, and the fringes and beyond of the modeling industry. Where we are we never quite tell, so for the purpose of this review, we’ll take everything as gospel because that’s at least partly what we’re supposed to do anyway.
The text is great. It starts on the back with a poem.
At age 12 I tell my mom I hate museums
At age 21 I become very interested in photography
At age 22 I become very interested in cooking and cocaine
At age 27 I become very interested in sex
At age 28 I suddenly develop an interest in poetry
Follow your heart
Unprofessional is the summation of those lines, a poetic distillation of Rasmussen’s 13 years as a model. And if you’re in any doubt as to what that means, we see her on the peacock blue hardcover with a simple headshot of her against a sky blue background. It’s the same kind of background often used for domestic servants. That wipes away the cosmetic layer of glamour.
Go into the book and the same background comes up repeatedly, all with models doing deadpan looks full frontal to the camera. It’s a miserable existence, tedium mixed with toxicity in an environment where birds can’t exist, where the distance between the brain and the heart is about 20 cm. It’s an existence that Rasmussen continually questions, in particular in the press release included in the body of the book.
WRITING MY OWN PRESS RELEASE IN THE CASTING CAR.
Matilde earns a living by working as a model. She is ashamed of it but is absorbed by the fashion world’s glamorous ups and downs and amazing salaries. Out of it comes a book, in which text and photography depict her hedonistic journey into the chaos of Asian multi-million cities, the encounters with the other models and, not least, herself.
‘Why do I do this?’ she continually asks both herself and the reader? ‘…because you pay me three hundred bucks’” is her answer.
The ‘this’ could include anything from being paid to be the ass stand-in of a famous actress and having the make-up artist bleach her eyebrows and smear makeup on her face till she looks like a clown – and it’s her ass they’re photographing remember. It could be being paid to sit in a bar where the Turkish owner controls what you wear and the toilet is ‘overshat by models on cocaine cut with laxatives’, or the sitting ‘on a stool with my genitalia exposed… my face says: I don’t care… your face says: I don’t care,’ and then the shoot ends and it seems that everybody does care. It might be being told to submerge yourself in a bathtub with ‘two bearded Chinese carps swimming above me.’
The pictures tie in the nihilism, the greed, the inertia, the greed. There are repeated images of cut fruit, watermelon, and dragonfruit and strawberries, a great pairing of a crab split down the middle running alongside a tail image of a plane hurtling through the sky. There are two models in a studio, one in flippers and a mesh and fleece gown, the other with roller skates and a Dracula red outfit. It’s like any job, only here you are wearing the futility of your profession.
The money-on-the-bed shot shows her looking miserable on the bed, and then she gets the negatives back and ‘…I laughed so hard that I peed my pants a little…. There I lay looking like Gollum on top of a large pile of damp banknotes.’
Stupid requests and rank amateurism abounds, as does the sheer tedium of it all. A pair of images show models all dressed in white flicking across their phones, another shows a group in a restaurant, marginally more engaged with the world as they drink their beer and wine.
There’s UFO Afrofuturism with Chinese characteristics, a light-leaked image of a town with an Eiffel Tower effigy at its centre and the question is posed (in Rasmussen’s interviews about the book) of what it means to have ‘…a 16-year-old child posing as an adult in front of the camera.’
Unprofessional has a happy ending. The birds emerge from the Chinese smog, Rasmussen grows some armpit hair, and all is good with the world. Or not, depending on what you want to believe.
All photos © Matilde Søes Rasmussen, from the book Unprofessional
Unprofessional by Matilde Søes Rasmussen
Published by Disko Bay in 2021 // Screen printed hardcover with tip-in
21 x 28 cm // 290 pages // 129 colour & 9 monochrome plates // English / Danish
Matilde Søes Rasmussen is a Danish-Swedish artist based in Asia. She works with photography, writing, and video. She holds a BFA in Fine Art Photography from HDK-Valand Academy of Art and Design and this year she was granted the Swedish Art Associations one-year working grant. Follow her on Instagram.
Colin Pantall is a photographer, writer and lecturer based in Bath, England. His latest book, All Quiet on the Home Front, focuses on family, fatherhood and the landscape.