Belgian photographer Sanne de Wilde focuses on people on the visual outskirts of society. Her Snow White pictures, which show extremely blonde children, their pale palette range highlighting the otherworldly appearance of her subjects, gained her plenty of international attention straight from her Master’s degree in fine arts photography in 2012.
But it was her next series, The Dwarf Empire, that really caught people’s imaginations. The Dwarf Empire is about a home for “77 little people” – little people who earn their keep by performing a song and dance routine twice a day in a theme park that combines entertainment and social care. Founded by “a tall, rich man who was determined to do something good for the little people”, The Dwarf Empire is a place that perfectly fits the 21st century spirit of Chinese capitalism.
In her surprisingly light images, de Wilde mixes pictures of the park attractions with interiors. She goes into the kitchens, bedrooms and living rooms of The Dwarf Empire and, in this sense, the series also acts as a study of the world of Chinese interiors.
In the exterior shots, there are pictures of tourists posing with the little people: a smiling woman who is less than three feet tall stands on the palm of a posing security guard’s hand. She’s smiling, he’s smiling, everyone’s smiling as a set of Hobbit-like concrete turrets rise in the background. But the twist comes with the way the story is turned back on de Wilde.
Emma Bowkett, photo editor of the FT Weekend Magazine, says this is what drew her to de Wilde’s work. “What’s interesting for me is that Sanne goes to China with the idea of investigating objectification and commercialisation in a theme park of dwarves, yet this was soon to take an unexpected turn when she herself became the spectacle. As a blonde Westerner, tourists would ask her to pose for photographs. Rather than shying away, she turns the camera on herself. I find the resulting intimacy and understanding between subject and artist uniquely compelling and surprising.”
These pictures of de Wilde posing with visitors and residents of The Dwarf Empire appear in a book dummy. In a strange echo of her earlier Snow White project, the tall, blonde alien-looking de Wilde becomes the star attraction, subject to a thousand standard tourist portraits.
This dummy also played a major role in elevating The Dwarf Empire above a standard story: it’s an over-the-top affair, bound in shiny gold paper. Inside, documentary is mixed with the vernacular tourist portraits, as well as affectionate pictures of de Wilde with the little people, with inserts and pull-outs making the book a true tactile experience. “I saw Sanne’s book dummy, The Dwarf Empire, at Encontros da Imagem in Braga,” says Bowkett. “Filled will her own pictures, letters, postcards and photographs given to her, it’s a visual feast.”
See more of de Wilde’s work here.