Character Thieves by Iris Maria vom Hof

Character Thieves, Imaginary Club and More
A Conversation with Oliver Sieber
By Iris Maria vom Hof

The photographer Oliver Sieber discovers cosplayers and lolitas, punks, visus and psychobillies, skinheads and mods all over the world for his portraits, documenting timeless moments in their faces in clubs, concerts or illegal parties. From his home base in Düsseldorf Flingern, he likes to visit the great Japanese corso around the Hotel Nikko on Immermannstrasse, where the local cosplayers meet. Whether around Puri-photo booths or taking a stroll through Düsseldorf´s Japanese Gardens, Oliver Siebers always moves among people who interest him. He observes, he respects, he endeavors to built trust. People who are part of Oliver Sieber´s world experience attention and are given time and leisure to present themselves in front of the camera. According to Sieber, he enjoys being on foreign territory, he profits by making himself at home there and his exposure to the foreign gives him freedom of thought. Oliver Sieber is on a quest for models of living that design valid alternatives to the dominant concept defining our society.
Ambiguity is a main characteristic of the comic strip “Calvin & Hobbes,” created by Bill Waterston in 1985. Calvin perceives his friend Hobbes as a living being, able to talk and act, although to grown ups he´s just a cuddly toy. Calvin, the boy, shifts between the grown up´s world and his own, parallel, imaginary universe whithout having the slightest doubt on the reality of each. Oliver Sieber is a collector of figures, as he has been as a boy. He searches, finds and identifies. Pointing to his extensive collection, he talks about having been a comic-kid. He mentions Spider Man, the glorious super hero of the 1960s who always struggled to cope with everyday life, as an early figure he identified with. Or the 1970s Big Jim, the American body builder with a whole cosmos of accessories.

“Reality continues to ruin my life.” Calvin, of Calvin & Hobbes

Today´s parent generation lives in a common, widely shared culture that depends on a social consenus. In a time of continuous observation, the systems of higher education, the labor market and the welfare state require binding identities. The established social morality necessitates the limitation of impulses and phantasies to conform social life to the demands of normalcy. As a consequence of uniform sets of values people get caught up in the push and pull between self doubt and assumed expectations. This directly impacts young people´s emotions. Pressed to realize their potential, they starve, gorge, jog, undergo therapy and refuse. Still, teenagers have to ask themselves why this kind of self-abandonment is supposed to make sense. Or why should they voluntarily agree to barely use or abstain from using the freedoms their imaginary worlds offer?
Diverse communities of teenage subcultures share the quest for belonging to a group and their effort to distance themselves from the mainstream. Key concepts such as individuality, self-realization or “myself in relation to others” constitute the approach to content. Oliver Sieber´s portraits point to this struggle for one´s personal realm.

“It’s not denial. I’m just selective about the reality I accept.”
Calvin, of Calvin & Hobbes

As a photographic artist, Oliver Siebers sets out this position for his portrait series “Character Thieves:” Depict an ordinary environment with regular people who live out their fantasy worlds there. The protagonists hail from cosplay scenes in Germany, Japan, Canada and the U.S., they are between 15 and 25 years old and strive to embody their figures as true to the original as possible. Absolute authenticity demands high quality workmanship in their homemade costums. They find their role models in manga, anime, video games or movies. Members of Japanese visual kei bands also provide examples for visual kei cosplay. Cosplay is mainly motivated by an urge for self-realization and gets exhibited creatively and imaginatively at anime conventions where it is rewarded and applauded. Only very few participants sell their photos or costumes. In his series “Character Thieves,” the photographer Oliver Sieber arrives at a place of great clarity. Figure, environment and space, real living spaces, bedroom, kitchen, balcony, garage—there´s nothing special about these places beyond the demarcation of a sociocultural relevance. But Oliver Sieber shows how many ways there are to understand this portrait series from it´s periphery. And, he says, the close proximity of the surroundings allows him an incredibly rich number of choices in approaching humans through their own sensibilities. Although Oliver Sieber gets quite close to his models, they never turn into objects for exhibition. Each and everyone of these portraits embodies idealistic aspirations and dignity, dynamic creation and a confession of standing up for one´s personal ideal image. All protagonists look at a point beyond the camera and remain with themselves at this moment. In the serie “Character Thieves,” Oliver Sieber emphasizes the harmonious relationship between costume and the person wearing it. According to him, the point is not to have it look like a costume. This way, it is not out of the ordinary to meet “Cake and Mister Brown”—she as sweet Lolita and he as a Japanese mascot—in New York´s Koreatown.

“If we couldn’t find any weirdness, mayby we’ll just have to make some!” Hobbes, in Calvin & Hobbes