Oliver Sieber. J_Subs

Do it as perfect as possible

Ah, but I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.
Bob Dylan 

It wasn’t a record she was handling. It was a fragile soul inside a glass bottle.
Haruki Murakami

The code decides. Who recognizes each other and who does not, who is let into the group and who is left out depends solely on the code. The decision is made within seconds, even before an encounter takes place: outfit, style, make-up, accessories, tattoos, hairstyle, facial expression. In the game of signs, these constitute the basic information that does not create a reliable platform until it has been placed in a semantic framework, enabling one to dependably categorize one’s opposite number as a potentially suitable contact. This process of visual recognition is similar to a systematic scanning process, during which individual features are first singled out and then reassembled – much like the selective inclusion of photographs on Wanted Persons posters. The question underlying this decoding process is as simple as it is complex, as superficial as it is existential: “Who am I in relation to the others, and who are the others in relation to me?”

Finding identity. Even today one may still detect the real motor that drives humans in the modern age in this widely used, abused, and outworn theory. Its burning glass is known to be called youth. In his essay “Aussichtslose Unabhängigkeiten” (Hopeless Dependencies), the art historian Oliver Zybok points out that more than ever before, the concept of identity is bound to that of alterity. The issue is ultimately nothing less than differentiation, role playing, and self-discovery. According to Zybok, this is why the concept of identity, which is arduously struggled for during adolescence, represents a social reality that is continuously produced through the experience and interaction of individuals. “Identity is apparently both things at once: the anticipated expectations of the others and the individual’s desire.”[i] Very early on the American social philosopher George Herbert Mead derived derived from this a notion of self that takes this highly ambivalent impulse into account. He distinguishes between a me, which includes the attitudes and expectations adopted from others, and an I, which holds ready the individual responses and reactions to others’ expectations. Youth means nothing less than to position oneself in the field of tension between me and I.


A picture of Keiko. Her gaze consciously glides past the viewer with the deliberate effect that she can be intensely observed. When looking at the photograph, a scanning process imperceptibly begins in order to make out the numerous set pieces of dress, pose, and person. Dark brown almond-shaped eyes, turquoise eye shadow, self-confidently applied red lipstick carefully coordinated with the color of the ribbon in her hair, which in turn crowns the ponytail barely visible on the top of her head. The color iconography has been skillfully balanced between artificial bleachedness and a bright shade of red, between coolness and Eros, between expectation and desire. A triangle of bangs falls over her forehead, underpinned by lightly plucked eyebrows, the lines of which gently taper toward the temples. Her outfit, too, pays tribute to the staging of the self. A bomber jacket with a spread collar, opened to a V-shape, reveals a leopard-skin-like shirt. Finally, a clef and two red dice hang from silver chains around her neck. Each of the dice are turned to show a five. With the result that the code suddenly draws a blank. Might it be that the numbers have a deeper meaning? Why is the clef mirror image? And what is implied by the coloured tattoo on her left ear, which shows two cherries?

A picture of Keiko. Analytical consideration gets lost in a pattern of decodification that raises more questions than it answers. The following may once again apply: “Who am I in relation to the others, and who are the others in relation to me?” Since everything in the photograph of the young woman is just right, and her self-portrayal seems to be nearly perfectly worked out. To European eyes, however, the recognition categories of me and I prove to be insufficient. What remains is the difficulty of adequately exploring the element of appropriation by Japanese youths of Western subcultures of rock ‘n’ roll, Teddy-boys, skinheads, and punks. The other truth is that the portrait reveals a transcultural identity transfer for which the code does not work.

Oliver Sieber, who in 2006 made portrait photographs of Keiko and other youths in Osaka and Tokyo, says that Do it as perfect as possible could be a fundamental maxim for Japanese adolescents. The forty-year-old photographic artist stresses that this is a general characteristic when it is a matter of underscoring one’s personal style. Sieber has devoted himself to the photo documentation of youth cultures for the past eight years, and along with Katje Stuke, he recently received the Art EX grant from the Osaka Prefectural Government and the Ernst Poensgen Foundation, which enabled him to take portrait photographs of members of the youth scene in large Japanese cities. He tells of their great effort to find a niche for themselves in a strictly hierarchical society. “In Japan you can get everything (not only in fashion) and everybody seems to spend a lot of money to get the most perfect style, the most fashionable haircut, and the latest model of any kind of product. Some of the people I met in concerts seemed to have verified every single detail of their outfit.” He believes that perfectionism is as characteristic as being open to global orientation, the ambiguity factor becoming the dominating principle of style. Oliver Sieber consequently called his series J_Subs. “The J_SUB is an actively driven 2-way bass-reflex design“ is one of its definitions in the Web.[ii] The description may be accurate, although it was a concert by the legendary English punk band UK Subs, which performed in Tokyo last year, that inspired the choice of name for his most recent series of portraits. And so without revealing its code, the abbreviation ultimately reminds us that subcultures have always sought their identity in musical currents in music. Sieber knows only too well that it is also necessary to mistrust language when one forms opinions about adolescents. Consequently, he provides a minimum of information in each of the titles of the photographs in his series, citing only the subject’s first name or pseudonym: King J, Chigu, Keiko, Akane, Fukatsu, and so on. Identification once again gets stuck halfway, because the intimacy resonates by the forty-eight names collides with the simple insight that it is not possible to assess the portrayed persons by looking at them. All in all, the emphatic J_Subs portraits by Oliver Sieber primarily represent a crash that exposes the construction of youth as a pure projection surface.


“YOUTH … forms an ideal projection surface for Utopias of dedifferentiation of all kinds. Whether young people are viewed with sexual or aesthetic interest, or as a generation to be educated and revolutionized, youth is in any case, understood as a resource whose ability to regenerate itself over and over again ensures that, for centuries not very much has needed to be changed in the social constructions of youth.”[iii] As the Bochum-based literary scientist and mediatician Niels Werber perceptively diagnosed, in that battlefield of projections, it becomes necessary to desire and to educate, to use and to take advantage of new young people in a society every ten or twenty years.

It is obvious in Oliver Sieber’s series that, at the visual level, his photos follow a sensitive impulse to again force back these socially formulated instrumentalizing and demanding projection surfaces in favor of questioning the individual personality. Back at the turn of the millennium, Sieber produced SkinsModsTeds, a fifty-three-part portrait series of youths in the retro scene, whom he encountered in the Düsseldorf area and whose outward appearance is reminiscent of rebellious role models of the 1950s and 1970s. The series is an irritating déjà vu and at the same time shows that for those involved, the polar thought structures that characterize the image of youth have long since given way to more complex strategies of localization. Conformity versus rebellion, image versus identity.

Individuality versus uniformity may still be the reference parameters. Today, however, there are other motives for dealing with them. The photographer reports that the punk Mici, who lives in Sieber’s hometown of Düsseldorf, had his Mohican shaved off when the hairstyle trend swept over Europe in early 2003. The fear of suddenly becoming mainstream was too great.

High School

Oliver Sieber’s photographs are evidence of a counter-reflex and often of an attempt to find a suitable niche in order to remain authentic and to survive adolescence. It is no coincidence that the portraits contain a certain defensive and melancholy element. As pictures of a person’s head, shoulders, and chest, they make reference to a traditional form of the portrait in painting, which focuses on the individual before a uniformly light gray background. In his arrangement of the photographs, Sieber follows in the tradition of the English and American high-school yearbooks, which contain rows of pictures of all members of a class in alphabetical order. The comparability factor is built in. Sieber emphasizes, however, that he is not concerned with a typological classification, as was the case for August Sander’s epochal project People of the 20th Century. In Sander’s time the concept of youth was still rudimentary. Cologne’s great photographer left it at an occasional photograph, for instance of a young farmer. According to Sieber, today, in the age of me and I, one has to redirect one’s view toward the individual anyway, and to listen to him or her: “In the end, the focus is still on the individual personality, on the individual human being.”

Asked about his preferences, after a slight hesitation Oliver Sieber replied that his favorite occupation is leafing through empty exercise books. He smiles and adds that white sheets would simply do us good.


© Christoph Schaden, 2007

published in: foam Magazine, 11, 2007, p. 112-114.


[i] Oliver Zybok, “Aussichtslose Unabhängigkeiten: Kein Ende des Jugendwahns!,” in: Coolhunters: Jugendkulturen zwischen Medien und Markt, eds. Klaus Neumann-Braun and Birgit Richard, Frankfurt am Main, 2006, p. 207.

[ii] http://www.dbaudio.com/en/systems/j_series/j_sub/, accessed on May 21, 2007.

[iii] Niels Werber, “Sex and Pop: On the social use of a regenerative resource,” in: Die Jugend von heute / The Youth of Today, ed. Max Hollein and Matthias Ulrich, exh. cat. Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt am Main, Cologne, 2006, pp. 116–131, p. 127.

Oliver Sieber

text published in:
Foam Magazine
Nr. 11, 2007, p. 112-114 

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