Local Photographer Kickstarts Conversation on Cultural Identity
By: Elise Hugus, August 20, 2012
For those who pick up a paper or trawl the blogosphere, our country’s economic troubles pale in comparison to what is happening across the Atlantic.
From mass youth unemployment in Ireland, Portugal and Spain to austerity measures in the UK, Greece and Italy and the rise of the right wing in France, it seems quite possible that the euro—if not the European Union—will soon collapse.
“Changes will happen dramatically in Europe in the next five years,” says Matthew Soltesz. “Any trouble anywhere starts with the economy. Religious and civil unrest all begins with economic hardship.”
We’re sitting on a grassy hill in Woods Hole across the street from Pie in the Sky. Soltesz, an East Falmouth photographer who makes a living tending an oyster aquaculture plot in Waquoit Bay, is dressed in his characteristic black T-shirt and rolled up black Carharts. Black flip-flops dangle from his feet as he sits Indian-style, drawing on a hand-rolled cigarette.
We couldn’t be further from Europe, but that’s where Soltesz is headed next month, embarking on a multimedia journalism project in Marseille, France.
His mission? To document the changing face of France in the historically multicultural city, at a time when he says the country—if not the entire continent—is facing an identity crisis.
As noted in a recent National Geographic article, Marseille is an example of multicultural harmony—a stark contrast from the tense and segregated cities that broke out in riots in the summer of 2005, and have been smoldering ever since.
“Through all this, Marseille has always been a place that had an influx of cultures blending together. It wasn’t a governmental policy of tolerance; it was purely because they had to,” Soltesz says. “My question is, ‘In a place where multiculturism should work, is it, during this economic crisis?’”
Using an antique film camera and a digital audio recorder, Soltesz will pose that question in black and white film and a collage of sounds he collects from the streets of Marseille. Focusing on second- or third-generation North Africans, the multimedia project will explore what cultural identity means in the aftermath of France’s colonialist past.
“What have these second and third generation families created in France? Is it their own culture, is it French, or is it something new?” Soltesz asks, questions that raise a more fundamental inquiry into the definition of nationality in a globalized world.
What’s happening now in France is “reverse colonialism,” says Soltesz, in which immigrants from Algeria, Morocco and beyond import their own culture to their former colonial ruler, changing society merely through their existence.
While Westerners wouldn’t bat an eye at French architecture in Tangiers or French cuisine in Phnom Penh, Soltesz plans to investigate how French Marseillese view, for example, the mosque minarets dotting the city skyline.
The same inquiry could be applied on this side of the Atlantic, says Soltesz, referencing immigration and anti-terrorism policies that have resulted in racial profiling of Muslims and Hispanics.
“This project is important because the same tensions in France are happening here. The need will come for a serious evaluation of our cultural identity, beyond the border regions,” he says.
After graduating with a degree in post-colonial Middle Eastern history from the University of New Hampshire, Soltesz worked as a photographer in Holland and Thailand. Far from a relaxing or lucrative livelihood, he perennially returns to recharge on the Cape.
When he returns to the Cape in mid-December, Soltesz plans to organize a multimedia art show and produce a photo booklet with a CD sound collage. Intended to be enjoyed separately, he says the audio-visual format gives viewers a more complete picture of his subject.
“I’ve finally found an artistic concept that I feel excited about and people are interested in,” Soltesz says. “As a multimedia essay, it’s more intellectually stimulating [than video] but it’s also more of a challenge. I want to see if I can translate what’s in my mind.”
In order to defray the costs of the project, Soltesz has launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise $1,700 for film and travel expenses.
Though he admits being shy about asking for money, Soltesz also appreciates the concept of crowd-sourcing for artists.
“Instead of making a product and hoping I can sell it, I’m getting contributions in advance and creating a product in return,” he says. “It changes the relationship between the artist and the contributor. It forces you into a dialogue from the beginning, and it’s heartening to see people support your ideas.”