Free Fall by Tom van Schelven aims to capture the feeling of losing control

The photographer and filmmaker recruited 45 volunteers to jump off a five-metre-high platform into a pool of water and shot them mid-air, making for addictive viewing.

17 November 2021


When the pandemic took away many of the civil liberties and luxuries we rely on every day, many of us experienced a similar feeling: loss of control. Dutch-English photographer and filmmaker Tom van Schelven wanted to explore this sensation but in a more visceral sense, so embarked on Free Fall, a huge project that comprises a vast photographic series, film and digital platform. He recruited 45 volunteers from “all walks of life” to take a daunting five-metre leap off a platform into a pool of water, one by one, and photographed and filmed them doing so. The results are gripping, watching them fall in slow motion, one after the other on a mass scale, and seeing their myriad reactions. “It’s witnessing the physical state of losing control,” Tom tells It’s Nice That. “Even the participants who were experienced climbers express themselves in unexpected ways, from the facial expressions through to how they move their body.” He adds, on an interesting note, that some of the older generations “actually seemed more at peace with the fall than the younger, more athletic participants”.

The project is one of countless to come out of the pandemic, as so many creatives have used their art to explore feelings around the cataclysmic event, and while Tom’s is unique in output, it was borne from very familiar sentiments. “As someone who’s always worked for themselves, I’ve always had a real sense of control over my life and how I use my time,” Tom explains. “The consistent theme between people I spoke to during the pandemic was a loss of control, from not being able to go on holiday, all the way through to losing jobs, homes, loved ones. We couldn’t control what was happening around us, but almost more importantly we also couldn’t control our response. We were literally locked down.” Tom says, with this project, he looked to portray that universal feeling, but also hoped to highlight the distinct inequalities between how different people were affected by the crisis.


Tom van Schelven: Free Fall (Copyright © Tom van Schelven, 2021)

Once a year, Tom works on a large-scale personal project; his last, titled In Flight, focused on a group of rehabilitated addicts who found a new life through learning circus skills. Shot against the “graphic serenity” of the Atlantis sand dunes in Capetown, the series saw Tom photograph and film the acrobats in motion, using the sand as a material “to exaggerate motion”. “After shooting that, I loved the abstract nature of seeing someone in the air, with no relation to how they got there,” Tom notes. In some ways he sees Free Fall – his next annual piece – as an evolution of that project, “but this time shooting people who don’t have control while they’re mid-air”.

Each participant is photographed mid-air, then in the water, and after getting out. Each subject was also interviewed and asked to describe their pandemic in one word, with answers including “enlightening”, “soul-crushing”, “breathless”, “scam” and “fear”. Tom then worked with poet Shareefa Energy and composer Noha Baghdady to create a spoken word piece that acts as a voiceover for the short film, exploring how varied the responses to both the fall and the pandemic could be – “a kind of response to the notion of ‘same storm, different ships,” he says. Tom worked with editor Daniel Nickson, colourist Faith Millin and Nomad Production on the film, which you can watch below.

Tom van Schelven: Free Fall (Copyright © Tom van Schelven, 2021)

GalleryTom van Schelven: Free Fall (Copyright © Tom van Schelven, 2021)

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Tom van Schelven: Free Fall (Copyright © Tom van Schelven, 2021)

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Jenny Brewer

Jenny oversees our editorial output across work, news and features. She was previously It’s Nice That's news editor. Get in touch with any big creative stories, tips, pitches, news and opinions, or questions about all things editorial.

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