Henk Wildschut – Photographer, Netherlands



LS: What movement or artist influenced the most your beginnings? Where can the roots of your work be found?

HW: I think the most important influence on my work has been the Dutch visual culture. As a child, I was a great admirer of the photographic books of Ed van der Elske and Johan van der Keuken. These photographers showed me the world through their eyes, creating beautiful works. But these were more than just picture books; these artists’ personal vision on the world was more important than just recording what there was to see.

LS: You have some ideas you want realize. How do you develop your project? How do you approach the landscape while working on your project?

HW: My ideas usually start from a personal involvement with the subject. This involvement can be my own sense of outrage about a current topic, such as unlawfulness, but it may also be about minor, less relevant things such as running. When developing my projects, I look for new ways of drawing attention to a subject, working from the clichés associated with it. By taking the edge off of this cliché or even by confirming it, I hope to evoke a reaction in the viewer. With the Shelter project I focused my attention on the beauty of the temporary shelters built by illegal immigrants. I hope to build a bridge by confronting the viewer with these unintentional and intentional human creations built by people from whom one would least expect it. A bridge between the world of the viewer and that of my subject for the purpose of creating a greater consciousness and understanding of the world around us.

The landscape is of secondary importance to me in my work. For me, it is about the big picture. The subject I am studying is located somewhere on earth, and I try to get the most out of it photographically. The place or landscape always has a certain significance in my work.

LS: Every place or landscape is full of meanings and peculiar stories. Could you describe your experience of photographing a place you have never been before?

HW: As I described in my answer to the previous question, I never travel to a certain place or landscape without a reason. The subject I work with has a relationship with where I am. The landscape can have a very stimulating effect on the photographic style and the way in which the story is told. This was the approach I took in the series I did on a freighter and its crew. I sailed across the Atlantic Ocean, from Rotterdam to New York. The ocean was so new to me that I devoted a lot of my time to it, focusing on portraying it in a different way.

LS: Could you tell us something more about the importance of people in your photographs? How do you approach people for your portraits?

HW: People are the most important subject in my work because I can easily empathise with them and have something meaningful to say about them. The portraits I take for magazines are usually a reflection of the ideas I have about the person portrayed, or the moment at which they were taken. I do not have the idea or the intention to show the soul of the person I am photographing. I don’t think this is possible or even valuable.

LS: I’m interested in your body of work, Sandrien with Raimond Wouda. Could you tell us something more about the creation of the book (concept, editing, design…)? What do you think about self-publishing?

HW: In 2001, I read about this ship Sandrien, in the newspaper, which had been anchored in the Amsterdam harbour at the time. It was not allowed to leave the harbour because it was contaminated with asbestos. The ship was manned by a crew of 25 Indians, and this fascinated me; it was like there was a little piece of India in Amsterdam. When I went on board with my friend and colleague, we were immediately taken aback by the reality on the ship. It was an old ship, filled with bored men who were facing an uncertain future. This situation continued for 18 months, and during this time we were able to take photographs. After the publication of the photos, a public outrage erupted about the fate of the crew. By taking photographs, we were essentially able to contribute to solving the crew’s problem.

After taking photographs for a year and a half, we decided to put together a small book about this story. Together with graphic designer Katja van Stiphout, we published the book Sandrien in 2003. What makes the graphic design of this book so unique is that each page was printed using 1% more orange than the preceding page. This has the effect of ‘submerging’ the reader deeper and deeper in the story, with each page he or she reads; this was our intention, at any rate. I think that a book’s design should play a role in telling the story, and I think we have achieved this goal with this book.

Self-publication is vastly becoming THE way to publish books. The Internet has made publishing companies less and less relevant. You can easily sell books yourself through a website, thus making you less dependent on a distribution network.

LS: During the narration your work evidences a different combination of elements: sometimes contemplative images, sometimes documents, occasionaly intimate or dramatic. Where can the common thread of your work be found?

HW: Since I tend to look for the most ideal form of photography in portraying subjects, my work is not unambiguous. The common themes found in all of my work are my quest for nuance, and humanity. I try to show the viewer that there’s always another side of the coin.

LS: Referring to your project Shelters… The climate changes, the migratory flows, the new hierarchical relationship between the city and the countryside and the enlargement of the global market have contribuited to assimilate very distant worlds similar (also in misery signs…). To what extent does your work represent and reflect the present?

HW: Shelter touches on all the major topics that are currently relevant in the world. Although migration is a timeless subject, lately, there have been huge shifts occurring. Globalisation makes the need for progress and prosperity felt throughout the globe. This results in a greater move to the cities and areas where work may be found. I have chosen to bring the subject back down to human proportions, that of one of the basic needs: shelter.

LS: What’s in store for you in 2012, photographically or otherwise?

HW: Next year I will focus on the food chain. I will be investigating this subject for the documentary ‘Document Nederland 2012’. This is a major project that the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam assigns to a Dutch documentary photographer, with different topics each year. The food chain is a beautiful and complex subject, and a rather high-profile one these days.


Interview by Gianpaolo Arena