The Tales Inside a Woman’s Bag

French photographer Pierre Klein takes a photo of what’s inside a woman’s bag. (Photo courtesy of IFI)

French photographer Pierre Klein takes a photo of what’s inside a woman’s bag. (Photo courtesy of IFI)

Sandra Siagian

It’s not uncommon for artists to find inspiration where they least expect it.

This was the case for French photographer Pierre Klein, who stumbled across an idea for a project after a late-night session at a gym in Paris.

Klein was on his way out when he noticed an employee that was closing up the gym rummaging through her handbag in search of something.

While he had never said more than a few words to the woman in the few months he had been there, Klein was curious enough to stop to see what she was looking for.

He started questioning the things she pulled out of her bag, even after she found what she was after.

“When I saw all the items on the desk I said, ‘That’s quite a photo,’ ” Klein explained about the girl’s possessions.

“I realized that in five minutes I had learned more about her then in the few months that I had seen her during my visits to the gym.”

There was pepper spray in her bag, for example, which led Klein to discover that she was from a small town and had been told to be careful when she moved to Paris.

“I knew where she was born and knew about her fears just from looking inside her bag,” he said.

“It was then that I thought there is something interesting in that idea.”

That night Klein went home and started writing up his thoughts and soon he had the concept for his next exhibition. He asked himself, “Why not photograph what other women in Paris are carrying in their bags?”

“I wanted to know why women carried so much for a day when I as a man could just carry everything in my pockets,” Klein said.

“I was curious to explore that reason of why women carry bags.”

And so a new project was born.

The ‘serial bagger’

Klein enlisted the help of 50 random women in Paris of different ages and social status to carry out his project, which took more than a year-and-a-half to complete.

Instead of telling the participants what the project involved, the 49-year-old photographer and videographer simply told them that he was working on something artistic involving women with photos and video.

Klein recalls the shooting process, which he completed in 2011, as somewhat similar to a “shrink” setting.

“It would just be a woman sitting about two or three meters in front of me, alone in a room. And then I would tell her to ‘empty your bag,’ ” he explained.

“But in French, to empty your bag means two things — to literally empty your bag and to also say what’s in your heart, to let the cat out of the bag.”

Of the 50 women, only one of them did not bring along a bag.

“She just had her subway ticket, a cellphone and ID,” Klein said.

“It was even more interesting to me to see why she didn’t carry a bag and she said that what she brought was ‘enough for the day.’ ”

After Klein took a snapshot of the contents, he explored the relationship women had with their bags, asking participants to write a letter about what their bag meant to them. While most of them said they couldn’t “live without their bags,” Klein didn’t expect the women to divulge as much as they did.

“At first the women asked me, ‘What do you want me to talk about?,’ as they didn’t realize that I just wanted to see inside their bag,” said Klein, who also created a film about the experience.

“But after they emptied their bags they started talking about their life without me even asking them to. It was as if I was a shrink as they would explain their problems and feelings.”

Along with the common items Klein would find in most of the bags, such as a wallet, keys and makeup, the photographer said he often found items not necessarily used by the women, such as gloves in the middle of summer or an umbrella when it wasn’t raining.

“It was quite funny because most of these women packed as if they were ready to live in a fantasy and meet an Indiana Jones and escape the city on an adventure,” he explained.

“It’s like a survival instinct for European women, to pack enough so they don’t have to go home.”

The photographer said he turned into a “serial bagger” during the project, constantly analyzing women’s bags when he was out.

“For me it was like being an actor to play a role,” he said. “For a year-and-a-half I couldn’t go out without being curious and questioning what a woman was carrying in her bag when I was out in public.”

Reprising a role

When Klein received a call from the L’Institut Francais d’Indonesie (IFI) to bring his exhibit to Jakarta this year as part of its 2013 Printemps Francais art and culture festival, he was a little skeptical at first. More than a year had passed since he completed the original project, so he wasn’t sure if he could get back into character.

But when he went to shoot the bags of six women in Jakarta over the weekend, as a comparison to his Parisian subjects for his “Elles Vident Leur Sac” (“She’s Emptying Her Bag”) exhibition in the capital, Klein did not find it too difficult.

“I had a whole day to shoot a woman in Paris and here I did six in two days,” he explained. “I thought it would be much harder but it was easy.”

One of the biggest differences that Klein found was that Jakarta’s women were much more practical.

“Eighty percent of bags here [in Jakarta] are filled with things women use everyday and 20 percent are ‘just in case’ items,” he said, adding that the Jakartans were also unaware of what the project involved prior to the shoot. “In Paris, it’s the contrary. Eighty percent is ‘just in case’ and 20 percent are everyday items.”

While Klein thought women in Paris were addicted to their phones, he was surprised to find the bags he looked at in Jakarta carrying two or three cell phones.

“Everything in a woman’s bag in Jakarta is filled with everyday items, like a wallet, several cell phones, extra batteries. I thought in Paris we were addicted to telephones, but here it is more than an addiction, it’s like part of your hand,” he said.

“In Europe, because I know the culture, I can tell a lot about a person from looking inside their bag. And most of the women in Paris told me that they would look at their bag differently after the experience.”

Check out the print version here.