The art of perfect coverage

A retired electrical engineer from London started to publish images of himself  ‘fully veiled’ on Flickr, wearing clothes found across the Muslim world, hoodies, headscarfs and more.

“This new idea translates the idea of perfect coverage as understood in Afghanistan and Pakistan to the English high street, for anyone who enjoys anonymity, luxury and a sense of drama,” he writes. “It’s easy; all it needs is a sense of adventure and courage.”

A selection of these images have now been published by Here Press, the small publishing house behind Edmund Clark’s Control Order House, David Moore’s Pictures from the Real World, Ben Roberts’ Occupied Spaces and Seba Kurtis’ Drowned. Working with the anonymous gentlemen behind the veil, they have produced a slim but thought-provoking book, 2041named after the author’s online identity.

The book features a small selection of the 60,000+ images the author has made of himself – or maybe other people – swathed in fabric, and was a collaboration between 2041 and two editors, Lewis Chaplin and Ben Weaver. BJP asked Chaplin more about the project.


BJP: How did you come across the 2041 images?

Lewis Chaplin: I came across 2041’s images four years ago when I was idly researching how Flickr was being used by people with highly specific or marginal fetishes or obsessions. Many of these fetishes, it seems, did not have anywhere near the coherence or precision we now see post-internet, and the idea of the communicative and anonymising powers of online communication actively boosting or facilitating the psychological or impulsive nature of fetish really gripped me. While doing this research I came across many groups dedicated to the art of full coverage, entire bodily cloaking, being ‘fully veiled’. As is I suppose the intended effect, these images can be very difficult to work out in terms of intention, or the pleasure point in them. However 2041’s pictures stuck with me, I kept returning to them again and again – it was not only his meticulousness but the skill of composition, and the real performativity that seemed to come with the act of sharing online that was quite different.

BJP: Why did you want to publish them as a book?

LC: The thing I kept coming back to about 2041’s photographs was this compositional quality, and the idea that while they were made for quite a specific purpose, they actually reveal much more about the dynamics of photography – as performance, about visibility and concealment, or the constitution of identity through physical essence. To publish them in a book allowed me to acknowledge the authorship and artistry at work in these images but it also changes the context, which hopefully gives more conceptual space for some of these other statements about photography to become a bit more self-evident.

BJP: Did you publish all the images or make a selection? If the latter, how did you choose what to show?

LC: Ben [Weaver] and I edited down around 60,000 photographs by 2041 into the selection you see here. Initially we were working with his uploads to Flickr, numbering 2000 or so, but then we got access to his whole hard-drive. It’s funny being asked what we ‘chose to show’ seeing as there is actually very little to show in the images! The edit was guided by a mixture of points; some purely aesthetic and compositional, others that have emphasise the performativity of this gesture, some that have more of ‘him’ in them. Obviously these images are very oblique, but it was important that we kept making the imagery kept throwing you curveballs – be that the addition of other people into the frame, his movement outside, or going from humorous to more sinister compositions.

BJP: How did you sequence the images?

LC: Very, very slowly. We spent almost a year on it. As I said above, it was important to try and actually narrativise this work, it isn’t supposed to be a typology or a catalogue raisonné, it’s a photobook. There is a rhythm that hopefully flows through the book, mainly this move from the images being at once extremely normal and domestic in their execution, but also surreal and quite confusing.

BJP: How closely was the author involved?

LC: He has been completely involved at all stages. He gave us the completely freedom to work his images as he saw fit, but oversaw all the edits of the book. He also contributed three texts to the book, some of which we commissioned and some already written. It was really important to me that this book didn’t fall into the distanced and postmodern trap that a lot of artists working with vernacular imagery hit – where using irony or reappropriation is a way to avoid some of the trickier questions of permission or, for that matter, the relevance of the work beyond a simple, flat visual punchline. He is the author of this book, they are his works. 2041 is a slight alteration of his online name, as he wanted complete anonymity. His actual online name is similar, and is from his WWII army conscription ID.

BJP: Does the meaning of the images change by taking them off the web and publishing them as a book? If so, how?

LC: Yes, enormously – this is really the purpose of making these into a book. Publishing this book removes 2041’s images from a very context-specific visual economy, where the transmission and showing of images was to gratify the peculiar desires of an online community. We still try and acknowledge this subtly in the book, as I think the fact of this work existing at all is due to an obsession like this being one where like-minded individuals can actually form community around it now – which is purely down to the internet. As an artist I am constantly trying to find out how subtle shifts of context can alter the perception of imagery, and books are context-making machines, I guess that is why I’m drawn to them. Publishing this work enters it into a visual dialogue with art and other books that allows so many other meanings to flow out of the images.

BJP: Do you see the use of Muslim items of dress, by a man, and by a man with a self-confessed fetish, as provocative in any way? How does this book intersect with contemporary politics?

LC: It is important to clarify first of all the nature of 2041’s fetish. Freud spoke about fetishism as being an irrational desire or association with something, and in anthropology, which I have a background in, the fetish is an object bestowed with supernatural powers. I guess the point I want to make is that a fetish isn’t necessarily erotic or perverse. It is an irrational obsession through which he derives pleasure as it allows a supernatural transcendence beyond that of corporeality. For me that is sort of a meeting point between these two definitions of fetish. Secondly it’s important to see that his fetish is for anonymity and concealment; it isn’t a fetish for Muslim women, for subverting cultural norms or an expression of some Orientalist desire to deflower the nonwestern female body. Of course we are aware of how these images could be provocative, which is why the way in which we contextualised this work in book form was of such importance. I think it is impossible to not speak about politics when speaking about photographs, but the politics at work here are more ones relating to identity and portrayal, and also about the hijacking of cultural symbolism, and how as an audience we confront this within the image.

2041 is published in an edition of 500 by Here Press, priced £30 (including shipping).

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Story updated 26 January at 20.49.

Diane Smyth

Diane Smyth is a freelance journalist who contributes to publications such as The Guardian, The Observer, The FT Weekend Magazine, Creative Review, The Calvert Journal, Aperture, FOAM, IMA, Aesthetica and Apollo Magazine. Prior to going freelance, she wrote and edited at BJP for 15 years. She has also curated exhibitions for institutions such as The Photographers Gallery and Lianzhou Foto Festival. You can follow her on instagram @dismy