In February, we featured a series of photos by Suzanne Heintz with her mannequin “family,” (“Single Woman Spends 14 Years with Mannequin Family to Make a Point“). In the spirited comments section, the photos were called “creepy,” “brilliant,” and everything in between.
Since then, Suzanne and I have kept in contact, and a couple months ago I got the skinny on her planned “chapter two” of her project, officially called “The Playing House Project,” in which she and her stoic mannequin husband renew their wedding vows.
I took the opportunity to send Suzanne a few questions to get a deeper understanding of her project. She graciously took the time to thoughtfully answer them, and to give us an exclusive scoop on the renewal ceremony photos.
You’re the first to see these, so enjoy!
Suzanne, thank you for taking the time to answer some questions. I came across your work in mid-February this year and was delighted by it. Since then, on our site alone, it’s been shared 150,000 times on Facebook. And I know you’ve had a lot of press elsewhere too. But you’ve been committed to this project for a long time. How does it feel to see something into which you’ve invested so much time and energy garner the exposure it has recently?
It’s just like jumping into a hot spring. Shocking at first, and wonderful once you get used to it. I’ve said before that I’m pleased as punch to be born at the time I was. Not only because as a woman, I’ve got more choices in life than any generation before, but I’m also amazed at how much opportunity, and exposure, living in the information age provides.
I think of all the artists that have worked their whole lives in obscurity. Their accomplishments never noticed. I used to jokingly refer to myself as “The Great Unnoticed.” Now I need to come up with a new self deprecating nickname, because I’m not so fond of being called, “The Mannequin Lady.”
But it is a very bizarre transition to go from bleak obscurity to international notoriety in the span of one season. I still feel exactly the same, I have the same day job, I do the same things, but now people seem to treat me differently, as if I’m less normal Joe, and more of an entity. I’m exactly the same, but people seem to give me more credit, because now, the world has greeted me with both with a round of applause as well as few rotten tomatoes too.
Overall, what makes this experience as great as sitting in a hot spring is all of the letters people send me about how what I’ve done has deeply affected them. They tell me about how they now perceive their lives and themselves in terms of success and pride, instead of feeling like a freak and a failure. I’ve even heard from people who told me they saw my work and it gave them enough courage to say, “To heck with social norms, it’s time to come out of the closet!” That’s what’s so incredible about this experience to me. Talk about making an impact! That’s the biggest payoff I could ever imagine for the work I’ve done over all these years. Because of the internet, people can not only see your work, halfway around the world, they can just drop you a line and instantly tell you how important it is to them. THAT is the best thing about living in the info age.
The discussion around your project seems oddly polarized. For instance, the comments section on our post was filled with folks calling you insane to others calling you a creative genius. It seems you’ve hit on a deep cultural nerve where, at least in some cases, reason goes out the window. Why do you think people are so passionately for or against your work?
I do feel as though I’ve hit a cultural nerve. If I hadn’t, the project wouldn’t be so well known. I can only guess that it’s because I’m talking about a universal issue that is core to most people’s lives, and a paradigm that is not easily shifted.
The project, though funny, reaches into a lot of sensitive issues.
Image, tradition, women’s roles, sexism, marriage, the family, self definition, and self deception, social expectations, stereotypes, idealism, individualism, and most of all, hypocrisy. I’m calling bullshit where I see it. I’m walking in a mine field, of course I’m going to set of a few triggers. That’s fine by me. You don’t change how people think by being innocuous.
It seems that your defenders often deride your detractors for not getting the “joke.” Is this a joke? Or is it something more to you?
It’s satire, but it’s no joke.
Inherent in satire is a piercing humor that disables your opponent, making him look ridiculous if he gets up in arms. This makes it the most efficient weapon of all. I’ve found that using humor is the only way to change minds. You can’t come directly at people with a billy club. It changes nothing, and just makes them dig their heels in more. I mean really, how many people do you know that have actually come to Jesus by listening to a street corner preacher thump his Bible and threaten hell fire and damnation?
It’s tongue in cheek, but it’s no joke. I’ve used humor as a means to gently point out how ridiculously antiquated our assumptions are.
My joker’s smile smacks of pretense and feigning happiness, going through life by rote, rather than by choice. How empty life can be when you simply check off the boxes of life achievement, because, “that’s just what you do when you grow up.
You also defend yourself and work with grace and humor. But I know it’s not all shits and giggles when you’re on the receiving end of the Internet’s unfiltered thoughts. How has all the attention, both positive and negative, affected you?
While I’m thrilled about the positive feedback I’ve received, I’m still shocked by some of the negative comments. They seem so off base. The bulk of the negative responses don’t seem to be based on a rejection of my point. It seems to stem from an ignorance or misinterpretation of the concept. That is why I’ve chosen to shoot my photos in Public. It gives me a chance to explain and ask questions too.
However, when one is introduced to the project online, it seems so easy for viewers to gloss over the copy, just look at the images, and then just take me for the Freak of the Week, and then get snarky from the safe cover of their own laptop. Sometimes the misunderstanding stems from the Press. Many publications, particularly non-english speaking ones, have sensationalized the story and misrepresented it as “Crazy Lady Lives with Mannequins!” Then there’s those people who think I’m anti-marriage or anti-family, which is also incorrect. I’m the opposite.
It’s frustrating. Unlike most Artists, I feel I’ve done everything I can to make the message as clear as possible, because how can I change public opinion if my message is too obscure to understand? I even made a movie about it to help people understand. Yet for some reason, I’ll just never get through to some people. People hear what they want to hear. They judge quickly without enough information to pass true judgement.
Ironically, Judgement is what I’m fighting against. Cultural norms, assumptions, lack of awareness of how insidious our judgements are and how they affect other people. We’ve all been judged, and we know how unfair and unfounded it can be, yet we all turn around and pass judgement on the next guy as if it’s nothing. It’s our God-given right to judge everyone and everything, right? Isn’t it? Answer that question for yourself, and listen to how you sound in your own head. Listen to how you sound when you see someone that irritates you. Ask yourself why they irritate you? Listen to that voice. That is the sound of Judgement.
I must irritate a lot of people. But I also make them laugh.
But as the writer, Anne Lamott, says, “When people try to tell you who you are, don’t believe them. You are the only custodian of your own integrity, and the assumptions made by those that misunderstand who you are and what you stand for reveal a great deal about them and absolutely nothing about you.”
So how has it affected me? It’s made me want to take this all even further. It’s let me know, I’m onto something that needs to be addressed.
Clearly you still have your resolve, as evidenced by your recent renewal of vows with Chauncey, part of a second documentary project called, “THE VOWS.” Now that you have a larger platform, what are your hopes for the project going forward? Have you felt you’ve made your point, or is there more you want to accomplish?
While I was trying to make a statement with this series, I never really expected it to be heard, let alone have such an impact. After leaving my mannequins in France last year, over the cost of shipping, I was in no hurry to go out and replace them. I was tired of all of the effort and strain. I thought, “Maybe this is enough. How can I say anything more than I’ve already said with this project?” I took a break from photography for a good six months while I worked on the film, and took a long time to think about where to go next.
As the film started taking shape, my editor and I found that it was a great start, but it was incomplete. It explained why I began the series, how funny it was to watch me work, how much the public enjoyed the interaction, but not why it resonated so much with them. It was missing something that connected it to the bigger picture of what is going on in human history at this particular time. The film begged to expand. I had to do something, but what? It was precisely at this time that my project went viral. I found that people were indeed listening, and my work was starting to have an impact. Spirited conversations were sparked, and people let me know about it. Interview, after interview request, let me know people wanted to understand why I was doing this.
So, though it seemed that I dumped my “husband” as well as my commitment to this project on the streets of Paris last year, I needed to pick up the pieces and recommit, if this project was actually going to make a dent in the public psyche. So, I decided to Renew the Vows, both literally and figuratively.
No, I did not actually marry a mannequin. Yet, I did put myself through everything Bridal for this film, the whole process, from soup to nuts. I used myself as a Guinea Pig to truly and sympathetically experience the fantasies and realities involved in this ritual of all rituals, so I could speak from experience. I used the platform of a vow renewal to discuss commitment as the penultimate act in giving life meaning. It’s also an examination of how the Process of Matrimony has come to be driven not only by tradition, but by commerce, as a means of financeable fantasy fulfillment.
It doesn’t end there. In the final chapter of the film, “Playing House: The Next Generation,” the action will be centered around Mary Margaret, the child mannequin, in school room settings.
After the photo shoots with her schoolmates, I’ll be interviewing the kids about their view of how life is “supposed to be.” I’m hoping to shine a light on how our cultural norms, coupled with the effect of social media, is shaping the freshest of perspectives on life expectations.
After that, I might just take up a few of the many requests to bring the Family on the road to cultures in need of a kick in the pants, such as China, and Latin America where family and cultural traditions are particularly difficult to change. My Mother thinks I ought to go on an international public speaking circuit. Now, that’s a 180. Not a bad idea, really.
I found it interesting to learn in your The Telegraph interview, “My Fake Plastic Family,” that you were raised Mormon. As someone also raised in a fundamentalist tradition, I find that interesting. Do you feel that your art project is a response to an extreme cultural context such as Mormonism? Or would you make the case that your experiences are part of a broader cultural norm that modern women still grapple with?
We’re all saddled with something when we’re born into any cultural tradition. Mine was a tradition steeped in righteousness, virtue, and all things family. The model I was exposed to looked like this: women subservient to the head of the household, and children by the handful with hands clasped in prayer as they knelt by the bed each night. Ironically, I remember praying that the fights between my parents would stop, so we could get some sleep. Ultimately, the fights did stop when my parents divorced. It was anathema to the teachings of the church, but a big relief to me.
So, while the image of marriage and family was glorified by the church, the reality of the institution was, in my experience, anything but glorious. My background did make me sort of choke on the idea of the perfect family. “Perfect” is an illusion. I think the concept of family ought to be based on the opposite of illusion. It ought to be built on the true grit of the human experience, not how we want it to appear.
Family is a support system. It can mean very different things, and it can look very different from the traditional image. Particularly at this time in human history, globally, social change is happening at a rate like never before. To cling to antiquated notions of how life is “supposed to” go is like putting your head in the sand. We will suffer if we live in denial. I’m suggesting that we just accept, and move on with our lives.
So, I’d have to say, yes, being raised in the Mormon tradition did shape my views of idealization of family as fantasy, and fallacy. Yet, I think this is something that goes beyond my personal childhood experiences. All cultural traditions present an idealized image of how life is supposed to look. Rarely does that image reflect an honest reality.
As a result of going viral, I’ve been fortunate enough to receive feedback from around the world. Scores of people have told me that they’ve gone through he same thing, particularly in countries in which family influence is even stronger than in America. This underscores my belief that it’s a universal issue. We’re going through a new wave of cultural change as a result of the information age. Yet at the same time, we all grapple with the cultural norms set by previous generations.
This is a transitional time, and with that comes growing pains, as we judge ourselves, and our success in life, based on assumptions about gender roles which stem from a dying breed. Please don’t take this to mean that I am saying that marriage is passé. It is a fine institution for those who truly desire it. However, my point is that no one should be judged as abnormal who, either by choice or by circumstance, is unmarried. No one should judge themselves as a failure in life if marriage is not, or is no longer, part of their life path. Every part of your life is equally valuable, not only the time you spend in union with a mate. I’m trying to get across that your life path is unique, and that you need to embrace it for whom it has shaped you to be, rather than feel our of sorts because it is not what you or others had expected it to be.
One of the things I found so compelling about your work was its commentary on our cultural obsession with getting the perfect family picture. Why do you think we’re so rabid about not only taking such pictures but also sharing them, often with complete strangers online?
Ah, the toothpaste grin.
The maximum expression of false happiness, puffed up like the chest of a bird when he is trying to impress others of how great he is. When we project an image for other people, say for instance, on Facebook, we are marketing how we want our lives to appear. We’re all familiar with the terms, “Image Crafting,” or presenting a “Curated Self.” When I produce a smile like that, I am satirizing the preoccupation we have with the formatted image of a well-lived life. Why is it that when a camera is present, we automatically put a smile on?
As any new parent knows, a child becomes “camera aware” at about 2 years old. Somehow, right after we teach them to speak, we get started ingraining a strange sort of call and response game that never leaves them. “Jr., sit over there and look at the camera. Say cheese.” Wait a minute. Say “cheese?” Look what you just did! You just taught them to show you a fake expression of joy, and then you praise them for that. You frame it, and share it, and again reinforce an even bigger payoff for LOOKING as though they are ecstatic, even when they are not. We slowly begin separating how we look from how we feel. With advancing technology, and the increasing ease of taking and sharing images, we begin earlier and earlier to be more aware of what happiness is supposed to look like than what it feels like. Until we’ve become so engrossed in the process of image crafting that we’ve virtually disengaged from the life experience those images are supposed to reflect. Forest for the trees, I say.
Your pictures are artfully crafted and the framing is spot on. I’m curious, how much time generally goes into planning a shot and executing it?
I’m not a quick worker. As a card carrying Virgo, I do follow suit by meticulously staging my frame. However, each circumstance is different, requiring more or less time to set up. It could be anywhere from 2 hours to all day to get the shot. Sometimes, afterwards, I find I’m just not happy with the shot, and I’ll go back and do it again when the light is better. Much of the time spent is as a result of the fact that I shoot self portraits, and I can’t see what I’m shooting. I often pop off a few takes with a remote, and then run back to the camera to check placement, light, expression, and the placement of passersby. I’ll keep going until all the elements align the way they need to in order to get across that image of plastic perfection.
When I used to shoot film, I worked more quickly because I couldn’t self correct, and I’d limit the number of rolls of film I could use. Yet, now that I work in Digital, my image success rate is much higher, though I spend a lot more time crafting the shot. Yet with this recent Renewal of the Vows shoot, I had to raise the bar to nine images in one day. I’d never done more than two. It was the toughest shoot of my career. But with a small army of volunteers, we managed to pull it off.
It seems to me that one problem with gaining fame as an artist on the Internet is that you have to fight to not become a caricature of yourself. You’ve had a successful career as an art director. Do you ever lament the fact that most people only associate you as “the lady who takes pictures with mannequins”? is there a part of you that hopes to be known for much more than just this particular project?
My career as an Art Director, while successful, has been for a corporation. My work for them has been anonymous, and I don’t mind. I don’t care that nobody recognizes me for that. That’s what I gave up for a regular paycheck. Yet that professional experience has given me every tool and connection to a network of creatives that now power my personal work as an Artist.
My photo work has only been exposed to the public briefly, in an extremely abridged and sensationalistic way. I see how easy it is to get pigeonholed. Isn’t that how it works for anyone who gains notoriety in any field? But I’ve employed these mannequins as metaphors. They are extremely flexible in what they can represent. I am most interested in uncovering layers of hypocrisy.
I’ve found that the best way to do that is through humor. The mannequins are just so preposterous that it allows me to fly under the radar of most people’s defenses. I can critique almost any human foible without encountering the immediate rejection that stops most social criticism in its tracks.
So, at this point, I don’t feel at all limited in my subject matter. But yes, at some point I will tire of these props and want to move on. Hopefully, I will have gained the trust of those who got something from my methods the first time, to realize that I have meaty content in my images. No matter what method I employ, my work will continue to provide content personally valuable to the human experience, and it will never stop being appealing to look at. That is what television has ingrained in me. If you want to reach people, you need to appeal to your audience in a way that entices them, or it will simply fall flat.
Following up on that, what are some other projects you’d like to pursue in the future?
Aging and the change of self concept has always held an appeal for me. I’m chewing on ways to manifest that. However, ironically, I already am touching on that with the work I’m doing with the Mannequins, they remain as youthful as the day they were manufactured, yet I keep aging.
Thanks again for your time. Where can our readers go to find more information about both this project and other projects you’ll be doing in the future?
The Playing House Project’s reason for being is to raise awareness and spark discussion about topics where cultural pressure meets the self, to question the reasons behind the “shoulds, the oughtas, and the have tos” that have so many of us feeling like we’re never quite right as we are. I invite the public to participate in conversation by leaving their comments on changing topics there. Information about the films and the newest phases of the project can be found there as well.
The photographs of Suzanne Heintz published in this page are copyrighted. She requests that they not be re-published on any Internet site without prior written consent from Suzanne Heintz or Polaris Images.