Scarlett Hooft Graafland – Photographer, Netherlands

“Soft Horizon”

LS: In your series the magical element, dreamlike, taken from popular traditions becomes all one with nature. It blends in to get lost in a limbo in which re-creates a new reality. Often you portray ancestral animals, stars of vision. There are many series, where there are animals, eg: “Soft Horizon”, “The Day after Valentine” and “Beaver”. Tell me about those photographs where the animals are the stars of the vision.

SHG: There are very different reasons why I used animals in my work, so it is hard for me to give one solid answer. I am mainly interested to work with landscapes and their inhabitants, and some of them are animals. In ‘Soft Horizons’, a photo series made on the Altiplano of Bolivia, not that many animals live in that harsh environment, but there are lamas; they can survive in these dry areas. In the “Salar”, salt desert there is hardly any sign of life, the only animal there is the flamingo. I was very interested to work with these flamingos, such a bright splash of colour in the whiteness of the salt. Together with the people I worked with over there we were searching for flamingos and it took us hours to find a small group. Then one person went to chase them with hopes they would fly through the image. Very luckily they did! That is the nice part of working with (wild) animals, you don’t know what will happen, it is hard to manipulate. In ‘The Day after Valentine’ I made one photo with a white horse. It was a coincidence really. I was driving through a forest with some people and then a white horse walked by. Amazing, just one horse in the middle of a forest! Later on we heard there was an owner and we asked if I could use the horse to make a photo. In this case I wanted to make a pure image, also a ‘mourning’ image. White is the colour used for mourning in China. I liked the repetition of white legs, two of the girl and four of the horse and how their hair was in one line as well as the contrast of the white and the very dark black hair.

LS: You worked in rural China, Iceland, in the deserts of salt in Bolivia, in the Finnish and Canadian Arctic. You lived four months in an igloo in Igloolik, where the nights are endless and the dominant colour is the deafening white. How do you choose your travels?  

SHG: I mainly chose my travels through friends or friends of friend who know someone in that area, and of course because I always wanted to go to these particular regions. For example the Canadian arctic; I once had a school teacher who did study the court system of the Inuits and travelled for a few years with the traveling courthouse all over Nunavut. His stories always fascinated me, especially the nomadic way of life of the Inuits, so close they live with nature. It might also be… I feel that in the society in which I grew up, these strong bounds with nature are lost, and it is a search to get a better understanding of what it would be like to live in a more ‘natural’ way. And especially these harsh circumstances, the arctic, the high lands of the Altiplano, Iceland with the empty landscapes without trees, it interests me to travel there and try to make some work. It can almost be a metaphor of life itself, how small we humans are in the big world,  the wideness of these landscapes only emphasizes this feeling.

LS: Tell me about the series ‘Reindeer’, realized in Norway, in which groups of reindeer dominate the glaciers! They look like a contemporary reinterpretation of the ‘Battaglia di San Romano’ by Paolo Uccello…

SHG: The ‘Reindeer’ work was made in Norway in 2009, where I stayed with a Sami family who are reindeer shepherds. The number of reindeer, more then 2500 animals in one herd, was amazing to watch. The image might remind you of the huge amounts of horses in the ‘Battaglia di San Romano’ of Paolo Uccello; there as well you see this movement of the incredible number of animals. One difference is that these reindeers are semi-wild animals, walking freely in the Norwegian mountains without borders. It was also a challenge to get close to the herd, they are quite shy animals and to have them close to my self-made blue reindeer was complicated. The shepherd helped me with this project, he could let the herd move to certain directions by using his dogs. Because of the huge amounts of animals I thought it would be nice to have one standing out, made of blue plastic. It took a long time to make the right photographs, I stayed for a couple of weeks with the Sami family; this was a very nice experience. They live quite close to nature, herding the reindeer, living in the woods.

 

LS: I am always struck with awe in front of your work: ‘Journey’, in which the antlers are suspended and floating in the sea. How did you shoot it?

SHG: ‘Journey’ was made in Igloolik, Nunavut, the arctic Canada. It was at a time when the sea was frozen during the spring time. It was high tide, so the water was on top of the sea ice. With high boots you can still walk there, although it is a bit dangerous to go to far, in case the icy water gets higher. I placed the caribou antlers in a row, as if they were walking under the ice. It looks very unreal because of the color of the icy water, and to me it felt a bit like a fairy tale, though a sad one. In the Inuit tradition, in many of their ancient stories there are half human half animals living under the ice in the sea. This journey of the antlers gives you the impression something is happening under the ice

LS: Come how feed your imagination?

SHG: It comes from different directions. Partly it is the energy of a place, the people I meet and the culture I get to know, both by communicating and by staying with locals in their houses/tents, as well as by reading about the region. Also the art history is some baggage you carry around, and sometimes my work relates to well known land-art works or abstract painting. And partly it is luck, things I find on my way, materials, landscapes I come across. I like to work in an intuitive way, participating on things that happen around me, or weather circumstances, to let things happen. I never have a strict plan in mind beforehand. Like in the work ‘Polar Bear’, me dressed in the skin of a polar bear in a white icy landscape, this would not have worked in bright sky. It needed the immense heaviness of the grey sky, as if the sky were falling down on the shoulders. It sometimes can take days before the weather circumstances are right, you need a lot of patience to wait for that moment. I use analogical photography so no chances to change the image afterwards, every thing has to be right at that one moment.

LS: Tell me about natural landscape!

SHG: I always aim for landscapes that are natural, but sometimes look so incredible that you hardly can believe it is real. Like the salt desert in Bolivia for example, or certain icy landscapes in the arctic, and how we humans relate to this huge powerful wilderness.

LS: Your works are a contemporary interpretation, with its amusing and disturbing juxtapositions. Echoes the aesthetic of surrealists such as René Magritte. What do you feel you’ve recovered from the Surrealist movement?

SHG: I am very much interested in Surrealism; I think it is a very important movement. I love the freedom of Magritte’s work, where every thing is possible. It is a fresh mind-set to watch the world around you and it communicates on a larger level.

LS: In your work animals are like shamans. How much influence the local traditions of the countries in which realized the shots?

SHG: I think in some of my works, animals have a more prophetic, shaman like, quality. It has to do with the beauty of their appearance and the magic. Like the beauty of the polar bear skin, as if the dead animal is trying to tell us some lesson. And the power of the immense herd of reindeer in the Norwegian mountains, it’s fascinating how they live in such large groups. It also mimics something of our human conditions.

LS: How strong is the influence from local traditions in the countries where you shoot?

SHG: There is quite some influence of local traditions in my works, because I do work closely together with locals, they help me to provide me with stories, background information, the travels, to stay in their houses/tents. There is quite some trust involved, I need to find people I can trust and who would trust me. In a western society where in politics there seems to be a tendency toward some kind of mistrust in people of different cultures, I think this work is a good counter point. Though for sure it is not always a smooth ride, not all that easy to find generous people but if it happens, it makes a lot possible, a  big influence on my work.

LS: You have many admirers. What about your next projects?

SHG: I am not sure yet about next projects; at the moment I’ll still be working in Bolivia for some time.

www.scarletthooftgraafland.com

Interview curated by Camilla Boemio