Anna Stüdeli’s new book looks at the subtle messaging of advertising and gives it a different (and erotic) meaning

Advertisements are everywhere, from the food we eat, the drinks we sip to the media we consume on our phones. It’s an industry that dates back years, appearing first through printed newspapers and magazines in the mid-19th century. A crescendo arose in the 20th century with the arrival of advanced technology, unleashing its manipulative and consumerist ways onto more immediate outlets such as radio, the internet and the television. And now, the world has become so distilled in advertising that consumers – the western population – see it everywhere. It’s normal life. In fact, most might think they’re immune to its powers and are aware of how much of it is marinaded in cliche. But what happens if these images are taken out of context and given a completely new meaning?

Anna Stüdeli is doing just that in her new book Primal, published by Edition Patrick Frey and featuring around 120 close-ups of advertising posters in Zürich. The selected imagery is pulled from the photographer’s mammoth archive of over 1,2000 photographs, each of which has been cropped and zoomed in order to give a refreshed narrative to the work. She first started work on the archive in 2014, with the idea for the book following suit in 2017: “It all began with an advertising poster that caught my eye,” she tells me. “It was this advertisement for a milk substitute or something similar with a big baby face on it, that had his little mouth opened. I was totally fascinated by its pornographic appearance once I focused on the detail of the image and freed it from its content.” Paving the way for further exploration, this initial image sparked an interest and thus inspired Anna to continue photographing for the following four years, with an educational gap in-between while she studied media and film science at University of Zürich, and a photography course at Zürich School of Fine Arts.

“With Primal,” she continues, “I wanted to show a different and broader view on lust to the very homogenise image the advertisement industry confronts us with. I wanted to show eroticism in its whole, as something between lust and repulsion, something that originates in the combination of the two. Something that goes way deeper than the superficiality of today’s advertisement and which is deeply rooted in us – its primal. My book shows my interest in looking beneath the surface of things, into the depth, the hidden, the forbidden. If you take a closer look behind the shiny surface, it is all there: hair, wrinkles, holes and dirty fingernails.”

While finding inspiration for the project, Anna would take to the streets to consume everything she could in her surroundings – the moments from daily life and the advertisements that simultaneously bombard it. Or even ruin it, despite the modern day oblivion. Anna also shoots everything in analogue so that the minute details can rise to the surface with prominence: the dirt or raindrops sprinkled onto the posters, as well as the layers between the glue and sheets of paper. After time, though, the analogue prints were replaced with digital, but this doesn’t deviate from the bizarre intricacies placed onto the work. “Now, in 2021, only very few of those still exist in Zürich,” adds Anna. “So in that sense, my project is almost a historic documentation of a fast growing digitalisation of our world.”

Describing her favourite imagery from the book, Anna reverts back to the debut image once again: the one of the child’s mouth. “As explained before, it’s the first one I took. It shows how even a child’s mouth can be erotic, once you remove it from its content. If you know that it is a child’s mouth and you feel attracted to it, you feel caught in the act; you might feel disgusted with yourself. These are the emotions I am interested to evoke in the viewer.” Another image of a boy’s head looking upwards provokes a similar response as it depicts a movement of a head, “which looks like he was moaning with lust”. The up-close view magnifies the imperfections of the image – the crease, the marks on his face – and thrashes the stereotypical illusion of perfection often seen in advertising. 

Anna continues to choose another prominent photo, this time of an ice skater – picked for similar reasons mentioned prior. “I was shocked by the very obvious erotic posture of this ice skater and surprised that its makers maybe didn’t realise it. The ice skater is shown performing what might be a common pose but she is depicted as if her ice skates were about to ram into her vagina.”

Anna’s work with Primal illuminates our ever-increasing dependency on the digital world, and also our numbness to its effects. Advertisements are all around us, and Anna wants you to be more conscious and to concurrently repurpose its messaging for the better – “In the subtlest [of advertising] there lies a danger, because it has the potential to shape what we perceive as normal in this world,” she notes. “I feel tough, that in the last few years, there has been an effort to make advertisements more diverse, when it comes to race for example, which is obviously positive. But that doesn’t change its general impact on us.”


The Nairobi-based multidisciplinary artist creates worlds of inexplicable beauty 

Presence and absence – Joel 2021

There’s something rather exponential about the work of Shitanda, a multidisciplinary artist from Nairobi, Kenya. Open to interpretation and riddled with passion for craft, each image resonates with power, storytelling and a careful consideration of tactility. You’re not quite sure how or where these images are made, or what they’re suggesting in their complex form and visuals. But that’s exactly what Shitanda strives to achieve in his work; an allusive feeling that sings to a distance memory, time and place. 

From grainy textures to experimental shadow play, Shitanda’s painterly pieces are produced with a vintage-like quality. He lenses subjects adorned in fashion and places them amongst a coloured backdrop or setting, each littered with intrigue and an artistic language that’s “unexplainably beautiful”. Here, I chat to Shitanda to find out more about his evocative practice.

Mind and body -Juma 2021

What drew you towards photography over other creative media?

Well I can’t really say I chose photography over other media. It’s been a journey of constantly exploring different channels that allow me to visually translate my thoughts and mental experiences. At first, I was particularly drawn to photography because it allowed me to visually experience and relive moments that I was physically present or absent from. I’ve always been fascinated by the thought that I can’t rewind time, but photographs allow me to do so mentally. It’s thrilling to experience that soft nostalgia.

Overtime, photography gave me the chance to present my world to people and, in turn, I also get to experience the minds of those I photograph. A moment when we’re blind to any constraints that reality creates. It’s absolutely beautiful to watch someone reach out to cross that unseen line that separates their fantasies from reality. The honesty, the rawness, the vulnerability, the freedom to touch your dreams and the shared goal of creating something beautiful by our own terms is simply breathtaking. 

Mind and body – Phoebe 2020

You’ve developed this immensely cinematic and nostalgic quality throughout your work. What’s influenced you to work this way?

The images are a visual representation of what I think my perception of life would look like if it was an object. Unclear, rough, uncertain, textured but sometimes difficult to feel, yet still so unexplainably beautiful. It’s like a silent noise that evokes a sense of nostalgia for a time and place I’m yet to experience.

How do you go about creating one of your photographs – what tools or methods do you use?

I don’t really have a particular way of making my pieces. I allow my mind to wander and settle where it feels most at home. Every image will carry its own emotion. Sometimes I’ll take photographs and think ‘I need to destroy these’, sometimes I’ll keep them for months without doing anything to them. And other times, I’ll take some and think ‘this story is complete’. I see them as paintings or poems, not to be rushed or overly controlled. 

La femme noire – Phoebe 2020

Can you talk me through a favourite piece?

The face of anxiety is an unwritten love letter to the minds that were never meant to be understood. Those that present their own kind of beauty that can’t be explained in words. 

Is there a particular message you’re trying to convey?

The poem Risk by Anaïs Nin: ‘And then the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.’

What’s next for you?

A design space that’s yet to be named, home to the dreamers and an experience for the minds that wander. 

Presence and absence (la femme noire) – Viaana 2019
Rest and the repossession of self – memories of non existent times, Didi 2021
Rest and the repossession of self (Didi unwinds)
The blank page
The singer and the red rose
Presence and absence – Gombek 2021