While studying at the Royal Academy of Arts in The Hague, photographer Josje van Stekelenburg found that students were steered to think about the medium through the framework of a series. While this pushed Josje to “work thematically”, as well as offering opportunities of “focus to research and reflect”, the intuition she felt as a creative was often pushed aside. Developing her style mostly within the documentary genre, Josje now combines this approach with a want to hunt for detail and meaning in photography. The result is a unique body of work that hints at a possible narrative while remaining abstract, encouraging the viewer to interpret her works as they see fit.
Leaving this door open to abstract interpretation developed from Josje feeling like “all the images I took at that time were really claustrophobic,” the photographer tells It’s Nice That. Looking for ways to allow her photographic focus to breathe, she found that “zooming in on things to reveal textures, lines and colours that are otherwise lost in the overflow of information,” is a way to offer visual suggestions to the viewer. It’s an approach that she also finds more enjoyable, like when the “subject is less defined by its surroundings [it] becomes a thing on its own. I want to stimulate the senses, she adds.” I need it to be expressive.”
The thinking behind her photographs can be spotted in each piece, whether it’s a wider thematic series or a singular image. Evoking a particular feeling is also a favourite task of the photographer’s, stating how: “Sometimes an image is just an image and that’s enough.” Being involved in a process was something Josje felt “was looked down on a lot” while studying, so her ability to communicate so much in just one shot really displays her craft as a photographer. For example in Apothesis Apophenia Echo, Josje photographs a still glass of water with such precision you could interpret it a thousand different ways. Carefully orchestrated, it features a tall glass of water sitting a top a surface so fluffy it could be a fleece. The texture creates a red backdrop which, at first, appears to reflect in the glass, until you look closer and see several colours, from a dark purple, a grey mist and an almost neon green swirling inside. A possible narrative is then furthered by the actual surface of the water, rippling from some unknown source.
Communication and control is also a powerful practice for the photographer. She adds: “I feel powerful when playing with perception by using symbols, textures or colours to steer towards certain feelings or associations,” she describes. A wider example of this is Josje’s ongoing series Beetroot Bites Back. Originally inspired by ASMR and the sound effects used in horror movies, the photographs (always featuring an ominous beetroot) have this odd ability to make your skin crawl. The series plays upon the process of creating both ASMR and horror soundtracks, as Josje considers how ASMR is made to evoke a pleasurable feeling and often showcases exactly how the sound is being made. Horror movie sound effects on the other hand are created in secret, as not to ruin the surprise. Taking this as inspiration, Josje merges the two concepts together, resulting in “a weird mixture of nice textures, and slightly disturbing visuals.”
The work's broad emotions and resulting responses leads Josje to reflect on her works as a photographic Rorschach test, which uses “symbolism and visual expectation to push the viewer to find thrilling stories in otherwise banal settings.” And while subjects or themes may change, this can always be found in any image she creates.
Josje van Stekelenburg: Apotheosis Apophenia Escapegoat (Copyright © Josje van Stekelenburg, 2021)
About the Author
Lucy joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in July 2016 after graduating from Chelsea College of Art. In October 2016 she became a staff writer on the editorial team and in January 2019 was made It’s Nice That’s deputy editor. Feel free to get in contact with Lucy about new and upcoming creative projects or editorial ideas for the site.