A number of strands feed into Marc Erwin Babej’s artfully composed black-and-white photographs. His studies of history and early career as a journalist schooled him in social issues and human conflict and drive him to always seek out the fuller story beneath the surface. He is interested, as he writes, in “uneasy coexistences,” which he defines largely as the conflict between the individual and our sense of self and the norms and expectations of the society in which we live. His worldview and his photographs in turn are also shaped by the way he sees, literally. He is colorblind and uses only black-and-white film to ensure that he—and his viewers—will always be able to see the pictures he produces in their entirety.
Babej works in series and has tackled such complex issues as the legacy of the Nazi notion of racial purity, particularly as propagated through the films of Leni Riefenstahl; the history and contemporary politics of Tunisia; and the ideals of female beauty and their ramifications. Working with a cohort of models that he calls the “still-image ensemble” of his own “Mercury Theatre,” he stages and photographs scenes and scenarios to explore each one of his topics in depth.
In his “Mask of Perfection” series (2013), for example, he assembled a group of flawless twenty-somethings from his ensemble and subjected them to the ruthless, clinical gaze of a leading plastic surgeon—and, by extension, of contemporary society. As he describes the project: “[The surgeon] was given the assignment to do what it takes to ‘upgrade’ these ‘patients’ according to the standards of her profession. [They] were initially evaluated via a set of five clinical images […] and then examined in person. Finally, they were marked with preoperative markings […].” The resulting photographs hone in on these young women, whose youthful, beautiful faces are jarringly marked with little black Xs and dotted lines demarcating areas for improvement, via filler, Botox injections, and surgery. If this is how perfection is defined in our age, then may imperfection rule the day.