In “experimenting with the body and space”, photographer Melissa Schriek conceives of her role as that of a “photographic choreographer” creating staged compositions. Based in The Hague in the Netherlands, Melissa pays acute attention to the physicality of her subjects, looking for the sculptural qualities in people and objects alike. Having graduated from her photography studies at the Royal Academy of Arts last year, Melissa has cultivated what she refers to as a “subtle strangeness” which exists “between fiction and fact” and lies at the heart of her photographs.
Melissa’s practice constantly blurs this distinction between choreography and spontaneity that typically differentiates studio or editorial photography from street or documentary photography. As she says: “Some of the images I make are found exactly the way I portray them and others are totally staged. I enjoy looking for that border between documentary and fictional photography. I actually studied documentary photography, but at some point, I realised I could make my own images instead of merely documenting. For me, this felt like a way to make an image mine – a way of showing how I perceive the world. Photography fascinates me when I can see the world in a completely different way because of the eyes of the photographer. I have no interest in the ‘truth’; I’m interested in someone’s personal truth.”
With her project, A Study of Uncomfortable Positions, Melissa is investigating her compulsion to curate bodily configurations. She states: “I often try to find their limits when I position people, and I wonder why I feel the need to sculpt their body. Why do I want to mould it together with the space? Maybe I started the project to understand the core of my work better, to understand my way of looking at the world.”
There is a subtle humour in the photographs, particularly the exterior shots, which make use of the absurd comedy that arises from incongruous behaviour in public spaces. A figure bends over a bollard in a residential street; two people sitting on a curb mirror one another in an overextended backward bend; a man folds his body over a gate as if hung up to dry; a woman leans her head purposefully against a wall, hands clasped behind her back.
Of the street shots, Melissa says: “The city is constantly moving and interrupting the mundane, but daily routines have put a blindfold over our eyes. I explore the interruptions of everyday life and how the urban environment can be perceived with both eyes and body. The street scenes I photograph are somewhere between truth and fiction – sometimes I found the situation, sometimes it’s totally staged. The inspiration for the street scenes came by observing how the choreography of the streets work, how do people experience a city, how do we move our body while we walk in a busy street?”
Describing how she creates her compositions, Melissa tells us: “When I want to make a staged image, I first test out the position I want the model to be in myself. I think it’s necessary to see how a position ‘feels’. Because I can’t draw – I’m really bad at it – I write out the positions I have in mind, something like: ‘Blonde girl with two stones under her bent neck, feet turned upwards, she is looking away, arms twisted to the right side.’ I’ve actually thought about incorporating these notes into A Study of Uncomfortable Positions.” Because of the often strenuous nature of these positions, Melissa has “a special interest in dancers and people who are very physical. I feel like dancers understand me very easily and also broaden my limits.”
In spite of the bodily discomfort they convey, there is also a pleasing aspect to Melissa’s photographs, achieved by the visually gratifying merging of people with the shape of their surrounding. The figures fit themselves into and among their physical environments so that the body becomes an element in the scenery. As such, Melissa departs from portrait photography’s tendency to foreground the emotive and characterful aspects of the human subject.
This departure is heightened by the fact that Melissa’s figures rarely show their faces. However, while the sculptural effect and emphasis on form that this produces is integral to Melissa’s photographs of bodily arrangements, she questions her approach, saying: “I wonder why I have the need to hide faces? I think I’m scared of faces because I don’t know what to do with that direct confrontation. I also feel like I can’t make a face mine – it already belongs to somebody. Lately, I have been making more portraits where faces are visible. I think it’s very important to challenge myself to do things I avoid.”
Melissa’s great strength as a photographer is her curiosity – her use of photography as a space to explore and challenge her own perceptions, her own motives, her own limits. Sourcing her inspiration “on the streets, in cities, in small villages, when I’m outside, in dance, in the way the curtains of my neighbours slowly move in the wind, in small details of daily life, in gestures, body language, books and objects,” Melissa interrogates her optic and tactile relationship to the things around her, and shows us a world that is marked with her unique brand of “subtle strangeness”.