Most Americans travel to Europe to experience its unique culture, tradition and history. So they might be surprised to stumble on a rockabilly festival in Hungary, or a Civil War reenactment in the Czech Republic, or a Wild West theme park in France.
Photographer Naomi Harris visited them all for her series EUSA. The project documents cultural appropriation on both sides of the Atlantic, with American-themed events in Europe and Europe-themed events in America. It’s a humorous look at how a nation’s culture can go global, while at the same time losing valuable nuance. “Being enthralled by another country’s way of life does not mean it’s always an accurate portrayal,” says Harris. “Rather it becomes a sentimental and idealized depiction—an homage to a heritage that isn’t one’s own.””
Harris is among many Americans with distant European roots: Her “great-great-great whatever” grandfather on her mom’s side was supposedly Mayflower captain Myles Standish, and her dad’s Jewish ancestors emigrated from Poland to Canada. But most of the family’s cultural traditions are completely gone. Harris grew up in Toronto shopping at GAP and now lives in Los Angeles in an apartment full of Ikea furniture.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re in New York, Paris or Frankfurt, we eat the same foods, wear the same clothes, and talk on the same phones,” Harris says. “We’re part of an international community hard-pressed to be unique and stand out from one another.”
She noticed this for the first time in 2008 after stumbling on the half-timbered German shops of Helen, Georgia, which boasted a disconcerting inventory of Black Forest cuckoo clocks and Confederate flags. Weirdly enough, the faux Bavarian village doesn’t have any German heritage—all that gingerbread was just a ploy to bring in tourists. Harris was fascinated, and began seeking out locations in the US and Europe with misplaced cultural tributes.
Over the next seven years, she visited 26 events in America and Europe. She saw watched locals parade around dressed as Vikings for “Danish Days” in Solvang, California and people sporting cowboy hats, calico, and guns at a frontier theme park in Kulltorp, Sweden. Each event, she wandered around with two light stands, portable strobes and a Mamiya C330 camera, making portraits of festival goers and chatting with them. Some attendees treated the events with utmost seriousness, painstakingly sewing costumes and even ditching their phones for historical accuracy’s sake; others simply threw on a lederhosen t-shirt and called it a day.
In both the US and EU, many of the people had never actually visited the country they were celebrating, though that didn’t stop them from celebrating the idea of the country—and Harris’s sun-washed photos capture just how unabashedly weird those ideas can be.
Harris is raising funds to turn EUSA into photo book on Kickstarter until October 7, 2017.