American photographers Amy Stein (b. 1970) and Stacy Arezou Mehrfar (b. 1977) present in their jointly produced book the concept of 'Tall Poppy Syndrome', a phenomenon whereby those who stand out for their successes are cut down by others. Dating back in usage in Australia to the year 1864, the syndrome raised the eyebrows of Stein and Mehrfar, who decided to travel around New South Wales, looking for signs of incident or expression of these so-called tall poppies.
"As Americans, we are taught to strive for success," the book's authors explain, "and celebrate those who distinguish themselves from the crowd. Tall Poppy Syndrome runs contrary to everything we know." Though it sets up the motivation for the project and explains the cultural construct that pulled Stein and Mehrfar into intrigue, the thought itself is hyperbolic and more than a little naïve – read any American celebrity gossip magazine for a quick view of how visceral is the bloodthirst for bringing down some versions of success. Yet, starting points aside, where does the journey take us, when looking at the idea of exceptionalism versus blending with the herd?
Showing predominately portraits of 'un-exceptional people' and allowing their individuality to stand out, Stein and Mehrfar make a commentary on the absurd nature of trying to blend in. People in uniform are photographed together, or their photos paired together in the book, allowing a simultaneous expression of both originality and belonging. Various scenes from New South Wales are interspersed among the people: a wall painted with a single kangaroo hopping out ahead of the herd; a small group of sheep, one of which has a black face; and, occasionally a little too literal in its message, the stump of a tree that's been cut down.
Though lacking in nuance, where Stein and Mehrfar succeed is in capturing the awkwardness of average. There aren't 'freaks' to be found on these pages, or stunning beauties – these are the people who precisely do not stand out. By giving them their own space in the book, and presenting plain people plainly, the photographers invite the viewer to examine his or her own ideas about 'normal' and fitting in, or even the value placed on individualism. While the content of the images does not inform us of the photographed subjects' successes or failures – and therefore perhaps the real likelihood of their being a 'tall poppy' – the questions remain for speculation. Who, within these pages, would deserve attention, or deserve to be cut down for their successes? Or, would I, as the reader, deserve such a thing?
As a journey to understand the collective urge to drive outliers towards the middle, Tall Poppy Syndrome does seem to answer its own question with regard to recognising and celebrating the uniqueness of a person. Readers may come to their own conclusions, however, based on their own interpretations when viewing these images of (almost exclusively white) Australian people. After all, it's all individual.
Tall Poppy Syndrome is available for sale from Decode Books.