Visual Arts

Photographer Sarah Haney discusses why Barbie keeps making such bad decisions

Sarah Haney takes pictures of Barbies in compromising positions. Her art could be construed as a feminist discourse, commenting on the pressures of womanhood, and some of that is true. But for the most part, Haney's just being hilarious.

Currently, she's spending most of her time experimenting with different forms, developing a new fairy tale concept for a new series of work and participating in her membership at Core New Art Space as director: "Someone has to be in charge," she explains. Haney talked with us about why Ken feels empty, the challenges of photographing miniature inanimate objects and why she names all of her dolls "Barbie."

Is there an inherent challenge to taking pictures of inanimate objects?

Yes, in that every image takes about six hours to set up and shoot just because I'll get it all set up and then she'll fall over -- she's just balanced on her little tippy toes and if I step too hard then everything falls over and then everyone in the studios around me hears me screaming. Also, her arms are bent in that angle that they are bent at. I can't change that, so it's hard to get her into a lot of different positions, just because of the way the Barbies are made.

But, on the plus side, she's a pretty easy model because she never gets tired, and if I have something to do I can leave her for a few days and she's right there where I left her.

In previous interviews, you said it was the ever-present smile of Barbie that got you doing this -- has that changed?

It has moved away from that a lot. First it was like, "Oh, it would be really funny if Barbie was getting a DUI and still smiling." It's sort of evolved from there. Now it's more what I think your life would be like if you were Barbie; what it would be like to live in that state of mind, where you're your appearance are just everything.

They've gotten a lot darker in that sense, and also more realistic. You would see it and recognize, "Oh yah, I know that person," instead of seeing Barbie in a silly context. Silly, in the context of Barbie. Not just silly.

How do people usually react to your work?

Most people think they are hilarious -- I've seen someone spit out their wine laughing once. The only time I really got a negative reaction was when I got a booth at a doll show. I just got waves of hate off these women who were like, "I can't believe you are doing that to Barbie!" But, all the husbands who were dragged along thought it was great. It was like four men deep at my booth.

To my knowledge, no one from Mattel has seen them yet, so I don't know what they think.

How many Barbies do you have?

Oh god, I have six Kens and I have 12 Barbies. Maybe a couple more because people give me random dolls pretty regularly. I have one Barbie that has turned into my main character; there is just something about her that I find appealing. She reminds me of the doll I had when I was a kid. Her arms are both bent and her hair is in reasonably good shape, because we know how Barbie's hair can get. That's not just a kid thing, either. That's an adult thing, too.

Have you named her?

No, she's just "Barbie." They are all Barbie -- they may have variations, but they all look the same: blonde hair, blue eyes and big boobs. They are pretty interchangeable.

Do you feel connected to her in some way?

I feel more sorry for her. She keeps making all of these ridiculous decisions, but I'm like, "No Barbie! Come on, did you think that was a good idea?"

In my more recent series, I end up focusing more on Ken and I'm not sure if that's because I had more Ken ideas at the time, or if I got sick of looking at Barbie. I thought he needed a turn. In the earlier pieces, he was always sort of the bad guy -- he's cheating on her, or he's not calling her -- we've all dated that guy. But I wanted to play a little bit with whether Ken was still leading the life of chasing multiple Barbies, and driving around in his spiffy cars, or if he was leading a pretty empty life.

Are you going to keep going with the Barbies?

I've been doing it on and off for a long time and right now I am in an off phase with it. But, it's something I keep coming back to. Like with the fairy tales. I think I am going to use the Barbies some, but I also want to branch out with this, and then do something completely different, and then come back to the Barbies again . That's pretty much the pattern I have been following.

I have a lot of fun doing this, though. My seven-year-old self would be thrilled to know that I made a career out of playing with Barbie.

For more information, or to contact Haney, visit her web page.

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Tiffany Fitzgerald