Why I Pretended to Be a Ukrainian Sex Tourist

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The camera never lies. Except when it does. Which is all the time in this heady age of social media. Sometimes a picture tells a little fib: an Insta filter on your vacation pics to make you look more tanned; a smile that says, “best party ever” when it should say, “I was actually in bed by 10 PM.” Sometimes photos are meant to fool. Other times, the truths they cover raise troubling questions about the world in which we live.

Artists have long explored and questioned the nature of photography and its relationship with reality. From Marcel Duchamp’s photos of his alter ego Rrose Selvay to Amalia Ulman using Instagram to document her (fake) life as a wannabe LA starlet to highlight how femininity is a construct, the ways in which photographs have been used to distort reality are myriad.

Swiss artist Romain Mader is another photographer to use his camera to blur the lines between fact and fiction. His latest project, Ekaterina, which is on show at the Tate’s Performing for the Camera exhibition, tells the story of a lonely sex tourist who comes to the Ukraine to find a woman. The photos look like the holiday snaps of a new young couple. Except, of course, they’re not. I caught up with Romain to talk selfies, sexism, and pretending to be on the hunt for a mail-order bride.

VICE: How did the series come about?

Romain Mader: The idea was to do a documentary about sex tourism in Ukraine. It’s an issue that’s been done a lot already by other photographers, so I decided to write a piece of fiction about the topic and use the aesthetic of documentary photography. That way, you don’t really understand what is real and what is not.

You put yourself into the story—does it bother you that some people might think that you really are a sex tourist?

It doesn’t matter to me whether people like the person in the work or not—nobody knows how I am in the real world. I don’t necessarily want to paint myself in a bad way, but I think it’s interesting how people judge me. It shows a lot about what people think about sex tourism.

There’s a deadpan humor to your work—some of the pictures are really funny…
Yes, intentionally. There is humor and irony in most of my work. In 2009, I did a project at the car show in Geneva [Moi Avec Des Filles] and posed with the hostesses so I could pretend to my friends that I was a success with women. Since then, I’ve gone to do these stories about myself. But they’re not really just about me—they touch a larger public too.

From your past projects, it seems that you’re interested in relationships, and in particular the way men relate to women.

I always like to work on subjects that I find disgraceful or silly or that make me angry. For example, for my series The Girlfriend Experience, I hired a seduction coach who had written a lot of books on the topic that are all really stupid. I find these kinds of topics really interesting, so I kept on going with them.

Is that what prompted you to look at sex tourism?

Well, I’m not sure. I went to Ukraine for the first time in 2009—around the time the Femen movement was starting to grow in France. I took a train around the country, and I thought it was a really nice place. The people are really friendly, and there are lots of things to see and do. I was struck by how different the reality was to how people from Western Europe think about Ukraine—that you only go there to find a girl. I decided to do something with that.

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