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"Families": Photos That Make The Whole World Kin

'Families': Photos that make the whole world kin

By Matt Schudel
Arts Writer

July 1, 2001

Nothing in his past life prepared Uwe Ommer -- or us -- for the divinely mad idea that came to consume his life. A German citizen living in Paris, he was a successful advertising photographer when, five years ago, he was possessed by a visionary urge to capture the faces of families all over the world.

"Why, I can't tell you," he says. "It just came like a flash. It was an immediate decision."

It was a notion brilliant in its simplicity but forbidding in its ambition. In four years Ommer traveled 156,000 miles while taking photographs of 1,251 families in 130 countries. The result is the compelling exhibition "Families" at the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach.

The Norton is mounting a broad outreach program to accompany the show, which runs through Aug. 26. Of the 150 large-format (50-by-50) photographs on display, about a third will be hung outdoors on the construction fence for the Norton's new addition. Others will be shown at various venues around Palm Beach County, leaving about 85 inside the Norton. The wall notes inside the museum are in three languages (English, French and German), and Spanish-language booklets are available in each gallery. The Norton is also inviting people to submit family portraits for inclusion in a special "Family Atlas Wall" at the museum.

You wouldn't necessarily call Ommer's images high art, and there is nothing particularly exciting about his photographic technique. In most cases, the family stands or sits in front of a white backdrop, gazing straight at the camera. What the works lack in visual imagination, they make up for in cumulative impact. For Ommer, the artistic act isn't necessarily the pictures that document his quixotic journey to photograph the families of the world, but the journey itself.

Berbers in Egypt stand next to Indians in South Dakota. Australian aborigines take their place beside Bulgarians, Mexicans, Eritreans and Tibetan refugees in India. (Written on a window, in English, are the phrases "We want justice" and "Long live his holiness, the Dalai Lama.")

In all their differences and similarities, these people express the variety of the world itself. There are families of several generations, single parents, mixed-race marriages and same-sex couples.

Ommer made his own travel arrangements and did his own driving, helped only by an assistant in each country. He spent 11 months in Africa and about nine months each in Asia and the Americas, and made shorter trips around Europe. With only a few minor sponsorships from film companies, he paid most of his own expenses. He wasn't even sure his work would be presented in a museum.

"I would have done it even if it hadn't been shown," he says.

He sometimes used bribes to cross borders ("just normal procedure") and defused a touchy situation in Angola when he took Polaroid photographs of the armed border guards. After each guard posed with his rifle, Ommer was allowed into the country.

One inescapable thing he noticed was the widespread American cultural influence on the rest of the world. A girl in Belarus wears a Kurt Cobain T-shirt, while her little brother has an Orlando Magic cap.

"What hurts me," says Ommer, "is when you go to these exotic places, and children wear Western T-shirts, and the parents are still wearing traditional dress."

His favorite countries were the ones least influenced by Western ways, such as Bolivia and Bangladesh.

"It's very poor, but it looks more real," he says. "I think that's one thing a traveler wants to discover."

He found his subjects by simply approaching people on the street. He offered nothing to them except a free family photograph.

"Nobody found it strange," says Ommer. "The people who refused were more in the Western world. They thought we were investigating something."

About 15 percent of his photographs are in black and white, with the rest in vivid color. Using a square-format 21/4-inch Rolleiflex camera, he shot two rolls of film -- 24 images -- of each family. Ommer usually placed a white canvas background behind his subjects, "to put them all one the same level, rich or poor," and people could pose any way they wanted, wearing whatever they chose. Ommer did not ask them to smile.

"The only thing I told them was to look at me," he says.

Some people posed with musical instruments, tools or pets. A strangely beatific-looking young tribesman from Ethiopia casually held a Kalahsnikov rifle behind his shoulders. A German buffalo rancher living in Venezuela sat atop one of his buffaloes. A Nepalese family stood beside their elephant. Others posed with pigs, cattle, horses or camels.

Ommer sent an 8-by-10 photograph to each family, and many of them have stayed in touch, telling him about weddings, new babies and deaths in the family.

"One thing I realized is the behavior of families is the same," Ommer says. "Everybody is very proud. All of them have one concern: to give an education to their children."

This moving show is reminiscent of the famous "Family of Man" exhibition organized by Edward Steichen at the Museum of Modern Art in 1955. It also recalls the documentary work of August Sander, who roamed the German countryside in the early years of the 20th century, taking candid photographs of ordinary townspeople.

But Uwe Ommer has done something exceptional. He has become a modern-day Marco Polo and has given us nothing less than an album of our human family.

"People are discovering the world through these photographs," he says. "After a while, you have the impression that people smile to the photograph -- and the people in the photograph smile back to you."

Matt Schudel can be reached at or 954-356-4689.

Copyright © 2001, South Florida Sun-Sentinel

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