Dina Litovsky (1979) was born in Ukraine, but moved to the US as a child, and as such, has made a name for herself as a photographer who studies the social dynamics in American culture from an outsider’s perspective. Though she originally graduated from NYU with a degree in psychology, the gift of a camera from her parents led her to discover that she could explore human interaction through recording the behaviour of those around her, beginning with the New York night life. Her work encompasses many great American traditions, transforming them into visual anthropological essays, from the middle-aged men who dress up as Santa Claus and meet at a professional conference in Branson, Missouri in the July sun, to women making the most of their ‘last night of freedom’ in indistinguishable hotel rooms and night clubs, littered with sexual paraphernalia and vodka bottles. Litovsky speaks to GUP about the bachelorette party as a feminist act, exhibitionism and the loss of the private space.
Your work focuses on group dynamics and social performances. Was this always something that you specifically targeted, or did you only realise the theme after you started taking photographs?
This originally interested me when I was studying: I concentrated on social psychology and the ideas of social dynamics and performances. Then, after I graduated, I put it away and didn’t really see how photography related to it until I did my MFA graduation series, Untag This Photo (exploring the exhibitionist behaviour of women in a party context).
All of a sudden, everything I studied came flooding back and I realised I could combine my previous study in psychology with photography. Before this, I was struggling to find something that I felt strongly about shooting, but once I did Untag This Photo and saw how everything that I studied contributed to the foundation of the work and its ideas, it became very clear to me that this is what I wanted to explore.
How does your Ukrainian background affect the way you see these very American/Western rituals?
I see it more as a foreigner, rather than specifically Ukrainian. I came to the USA when I was 11, and was raised in a non-American household. I don’t really consider myself Ukrainian anymore, but I still look at American culture through the lens of an outsider, if just a little bit. Being able to compare it to another culture puts such rituals more in perspective.
I didn’t have a bachelorette party myself. I was exposed to these rituals and traditions as a teenager, but they never became internalised. Even though I’ve been here much longer than I was in Ukraine, my upbringing is still not American, so I could observe them from a distance.
What led you to start taking photographs of Bachelorette parties?
Just a curiosity after attending my first bachelorette party. It was alien to me. What I had read or knew about the bachelorette party before was pretty negative, because in popular culture, the women are drinking too much and it’s very silly and over the top, but the first bachelorette party that I went to, I saw that the women were in fact very liberated.
Instead of them just being ‘girls gone wild’, it felt as if they were in control and really owning what they were doing and using it as a release. I found that interesting because I didn’t expect to see that.
The more I photographed, the more I saw it as a feminist ritual in a sexually charged culture
How did that affect the way you photographed them?
I think the more I photographed, the more I saw it as a feminist ritual in a sexually charged culture. I found there is a tension of being in control and still being part of a male ritual. On one hand, the woman can indulge in drinking and hire a male stripper. This is the one night where where society not only lets them get away with it, but encourages it and even their parents allowed them to go crazy.
On the other hand, this behaviour is still part of the male culture and is just a copy of the male bachelor party. The women are mimicking the bachelor party, rather than creating their own rituals.
When I think of a bachelorette party, I don’t really consider it a particularly feminist act.
No, I didn’t think so either, but when this work was published, I started getting really, really negative comments. A lot of men and women would write to me and tell me it was disgusting, ask why women were allowed to go out like that and why would someone marry them afterwards. To me, that was such a reflection of how feminist the origin of it really was.
Did you get that response from a wide range of people, or was it more of a specific group?
I had a lot of American responses, but this was also published in Russia, which is somewhat backwards in terms of women’s rights, and their comments were even more vitriolic. There aren’t as many bachelorette parties in Russia, at least I don’t think, and the idea of it still irks a lot of people, which was really surprising to me. But that just confirmed that even though it has been bastardised and commercialised, that it is a feminist ritual. The essence of it is the courage, this type of freedom in breaking down gender norms.
I guess it’s choice feminism at its best.
Yeah, sometimes at its worst, too.
Your subjects for Christmas in July couldn’t be more different in terms of the people you’re photographing. What differences did you notice in their performances?
It’s so different that it’s difficult to even compare. With the bachelorettes, their performances are somewhat forced, as it is a one-time event coupled with a lot of alcohol.
For the Santas, it’s just a different scene: this was a convention of professionals and there was a lot less performative play, even though they’re all in costumes. It was very natural, because this is what they do. Nobody was drinking, for example, and it was very candid in a way, even though it looks much more unusual than the bachelorette parties.
I expected more of a costume ball, but it was just a bunch of professionals coming together, sharing stories and making friendships
Did you have to approach the Santas in a different way than the bachelorette women?
I was just friendly and told them my purpose. I photograph with an isolated flash, so I have to get very close and I can’t really get away with people not noticing me. As always, it took some time before they would get comfortable with me. On the first day, people would still try to pose and I would say, “no please, don’t mind my camera”, and by the third day, I was just a fly on the wall, everybody knew me, so I could get really close and not influence what was happening.
It must have been quite a surreal experience to photograph these Santas in the middle of
Yes, or just to see hundreds of Santas. It was a really weird experience.
Is it the case that we notice how strange these rituals are when we see them out of context?
Yeah, I think when I heard about it, it seemed really outlandish. It was hard to go beyond the costumes in the beginning and I guess that was the main struggle. That’s why in the images, I tried to go beyond the idea of just seeing a Santa in July and talk more about their interactions and relationships, paying attention to individuals, rather than reiterating the obvious.
Everybody was very candid, polite and courteous. I think I expected more of a costume ball, but it was just a bunch of professionals coming together, sharing stories and making friendships. I mention the costumes, but I also forgot about them after a day, because all the Santas were so natural.
You’ve also said you’re interested in the difference between public and private. What are the biggest differences you see in behaviour or interaction in these two different spaces?
I don’t think I got to see the private behaviour of the Santas, because when I saw them, they were always in costume and in public. There are some pictures where I went to the room where one of the Santas was staying and there are some pictures of him getting ready, but I don’t feel like they got out of character the whole time they were at the convention.
Everybody's always taking pictures of themselves anyway, so my camera becomes less intrusive
Have you noticed the behaviour of your subjects changing over the years, now that cameras are constantly accessible and ‘selfies’ are the norm?
Definitely. I started photographing in 2010, before the selfie explosion and before there was such a focus on cameras. When I began photographing exhibitionism and nightlife, a lot of people asked me why I was interested in this phenomenon. More and more people started getting cameras and slowly that transformed into selfies, and into iPhones that are constantly pointed on yourself. In terms of behaviour, apart from that everyone is now always on their phone, I find that people are much more sensitive to the camera. Everyone seems to know their best angle.
It was less for the Santas, because I hardly ever saw a Santa on a phone; I think it’s just a different generation, there’s definitely been a big change since they were young. With the bachelorette parties, a lot of the time, the girls would want to be photographed a certain way because it was the angle in which they were photographing themselves: very aware of the image and very aware of the self.
Do you think that everything we do is a performance and just a part of the social construct?
It’s a layer of exhibitionism. Everybody’s always taking pictures of themselves anyway, so in a way my camera becomes less intrusive in this context. I see it even more and more all of a sudden, now everyone knows how they want to be photographed, what they want to do, how the camera works, what kind of filter they are going to use. People are much more camera aware and image savvy.
Even those bachelorette parties that I photographed, those spaces would have previously been very private – the bachelorette party is a very private event – but now a lot of the girls would be on their phones right away, putting it on Instagram or Facebook and opening the spaces up to a vast anonymous audience.