Will you be in my tribe?

Ari Versluis spots social groups all over the world. Now he has come to the UK

Do you think you stand out from the crowd? The Rotterdam-based photographer Ari Versluis has devoted his career to proving you wrong. Together with the stylist Ellie Uyttenbroek, Versluis has spent the past 14 years travelling the world to identify and document modern tribes, focusing his anthropological eye on groups as diverse as Brazilian beach honeys in matching bikinis and Dutch grannies in identikit beige macs. The project is titled Exactitudes, and its contention is that all of us, intentionally or otherwise, wear uniform.

For the past few weeks, Versluis and Uyttenbroek have been working on a UK series, searching through gentlemen's clubs, gay bars, libraries and shops for different identity groups. "There is always a sentence in what people wear," says Versluis. "That can be poetry, or shouting out loud. We try to catch that."

Recruiting an army of scouts, the pair identified burlesque-inspired pin-up girls, rich shoppers toting expensive handbags, neon-clad club kids and cardigan-wearing geeks. Prime examples of each set were invited to be photographed at a temporary studio set up in Selfridges in central London. The finished images, presented in regular three-by-four grids reminiscent of a sheet of passport photos or a specimen case of pinned-out butterflies, are now on display there along with examples of the pair's previous work.

Even after pursuing the project for more than a decade, Versluis is astonished by the tribal uniformity that he discovers. "We found a particular look that a lot of the young lesbians in London have: short hair with a long fringe, big jeans, graphic T-shirt, scarf round the neck. One of our scouts told us about it, so we went to some of the clubs she mentioned, and everyone looked so similar, it was amazing. I could have photographed dozens of them. It was only after I'd photographed several of them that I saw that they all rolled up their T-shirt sleeves, a little bit like James Dean. It's such a distinctive look - we couldn't have done this series anywhere else. There is such a young, vibrant lesbian culture here, and they want to be identifiable."

Other groups are less consciously uniform, even if their outfits look as if they were handed out by central casting. Closer inspection of Versluis's photos of a dozen nerdy-looking boys in cardigans and heavy-framed glasses shows that some of them are bona fide geeks whose jeans might well have been bought by their mothers, while others might be graphic designers, dressed in special-edition versions by Japanese designers. Versluis says that the genuine nerds are his personal heroes. "They are the ones that the fashionable people copy. When I saw one of the dorks, I thought, 'I don't know if you are very very hip, or completely uncool.' Even when I'd photographed him, I still didn't know."

Versluis laments the rise of chain-shop culture in the UK, which he says is diminishing people's ability to create original identities. "The first days we spent in London, we were really depressed. The streets are so bland - it's just Pret, Starbucks, Caffè Nero. It seems to me that this is happening more in the UK than elsewhere in Europe. And the same things are happening to clothes shops and the way people dress. When you just buy something out of the shop because it is what the adverts say you should be wearing, you're not constructing your own identity or saying anything to the people around you."

One suspects logically that Versluis is quietly classifying everyone he encounters, though his excitable manner and evident affection for the people he photographs stop him from seeming judgemental. On the day we meet, his outfit of vividly patterned cardigan, spotty cravat and jeans fits in with no tribal style recognisable to my inexperienced eye, yet he insists there is nothing wrong with looking like everyone else.

"I'm absolutely not taking away people's individuality," he says. "Most people want everyone else to know what kind of person they are as they walk down the street, and if there wasn't a common language in what people wear and what they look like, they wouldn't be able to. People accuse me of putting people into boxes with the photos, but they box themselves. I just register it in a very simple way."

"Exactitudes" is at the Photographers' Gallery, London WC2 and the London series is on display in the Ultralounge at Selfridges, London W1, until 20 April

This article first appeared in the 07 April 2008 issue of the New Statesman, British jihad

Photo: Getty Images/AFP
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Why is the government charging more women for selling sex but turning a blind eye to buyers?

Since 2013, the number of women charged for selling sex gone up while the number of men charged for buying it has gone down.

It’s no surprise that prostitution policy is an area rarely visited by our legislators. It’s politically charged - a place where the need to prevent exploitation seemingly clashes head on with notions of liberal freedom; where there are few simple answers, a disputed evidence base, and no votes.

There’s also little evidence to suggest that MPs are different from the rest of the population - where one-in-ten men have purchased sex. It is little wonder therefore that our report on how the law should change, published in 2014, was the first major cross-party intervention on the subject in twenty years.

Some take the view that by removing all legal constraints, it will make the inherently exploitative trade of prostitution, safer. It’s not just me that questions this approach, though I accept that - equally - there’s no consensus that my preferred measure of criminalising the purchase of sex, while decriminalising the sale, would fundamentally change the scale of the problem.

Where all sides come together, however, is in the desire to see women diverted from the law courts. It is still possible for women (and it still is women; prostitution remains highly genderised) to go to prison for offences related to prostitution. Today, in 2015.

The total number of prosecutions for all prostitution offences in England and Wales has been decreasing since 2010, but not in a uniform fashion. This does not reflect a reduction in the size of the trade, or the violent nature of it.

There were once consistently more prosecutions for kerb crawling, profiting, and control of prostitution. But since 2013, there have been more prosecutions for soliciting or loitering than for profit from prostitution and kerb crawling each year.

In simple terms, offences committed by men with choice, freedom and money in their pocket are having a blind eye turned to them, while women are being targeted - and this trend is accelerating. In the law courts, and in prosecutions, it is the most vulnerable party in the transaction, who is taking the burden of criminality.

Take on-street sex buying as an example. In 2013-14 just 237 prosecutions were brought for kerb crawling, but there were 553 - more than twice as many - for loitering and soliciting.

There is a similar pattern in the 2014/15 figures: 227 charges for kerb crawling reached court, while 456 prosecutions were initiated against those who were selling sex. Just 83 prosecutions for control of prostitution, or ‘pimping’, were brought in that same year.

These are men and women on the same street. It takes a high level of liberal delusion to be convinced that prostitution is caused by a surge of women wishing to sell sex, rather than men who wish to buy it. And yet women who sell sex are the ones being targeted in our law courts, not the men that create the demand in the first place.

This situation even goes against the Crown Prosecution Service’s (CPS) own guidance. They say:

“Prostitution is addressed as sexual exploitation within the overall CPS Violence Against Women strategy because of its gendered nature… At the same time, those who abuse and exploit those involved in prostitution should be rigorously investigated and prosecuted, and enforcement activity focused on those who create the demand for on-street sex, such as kerb crawlers.”

Why then, is this happening? For the same reason it always does - in our criminal justice system stigmatised, poor women are valued less than moneyed, professional men.

My debate in Parliament today raises these issues directly with the government ministers responsible. But to be honest, the prosecution-bias against women in the courts isn’t the problem; merely a symptom of it. This bias will only be tackled when the law reflects the inherent harm of the trade to women, rather than sending the mixed signals of today.

That’s why I welcome the work of the End Demand Alliance, composed of over 40 organisations working to end the demand that fuels sex trafficking and prostitution, advocating the adoption of the Sex Buyer Law throughout the UK.

This would criminalise paying for sex, while decriminalising its sale and providing support and exiting services for those exploited by prostitution. Regardless of these big changes in the law, I don’t see how anyone can support the current state of affairs where there are more prosecutions brought against women than men involved in prostitution.

The authorities are targeting women because they're easier to arrest and prosecute. It goes against their own guidance, common sense and natural justice.
And it needs to stop.

Gavin Shuker is MP for Luton South and chair of the All Party Group on Prostitution and the Global Sex Trade.