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