Very few photographers straddle art and fashion photography as successfully as Viviane Sassen. This year the Dutch photographer has already exhibited In and Out of Fashion, an experimental show at The Photographers’ Gallery and her hotly-tipped solo exhibition at the ICA, Pikin Slee. The latter consists of a series of photographs taken in a remote village in Suriname. It’s a long way, both geographically and figuratively, from the studio sets and powerful lights of her commercial work – the village is unreachable except by canoe, and the Saramacca people who live there have neither electricity nor running water.
“I was instantly in love with the village! I don’t know exactly what it was that triggered it in me, but I think it has something to do with my memories of my own childhood in Kenya. The villages I knew from back then were equally secluded; there were maybe one or two dust roads. It was a very simple way of living.
“Suriname used to be a Dutch colony,” she says, “and I was always fascinated by the idea of speaking Dutch with people who live in the middle of the jungle in South America. The people there are descendants of former slaves who worked on the Dutch plantations near the coast, who escaped from slavery and fled into the forest.”
If this preoccupation with social history seems strange in a photographer whose name has become synonymous with dynamic and luxurious fashion editorials, then that’s fitting. Viviane’s work is wrought with contradictions. Her photographs feel hushed and still, but are struck through with bolts of bright colour and moving bodies. She makes fashion photos in parallel with her personal work, just as she pairs her western upbringing in a quiet Dutch town with three childhood years spent living in Kenya. Given its brevity, her time there was incredibly formative. “I remember the smell of the earth when it had rained, and going to the market and seeing the dead goats hanging upside down with their tongues out,” she says. “The light is so crisp in Africa, and the shadows are so dark. I think that kind of graphic quality, the vibrant colour has stayed with me in my practice as an artist.”
Why does she think it had so profound an influence on her? “I was always a very intuitive and sensitive child,” she says. “I think that’s probably why it made such an impression. When you are so young you’re still in the phase of… what’s the word? In Holland we call it ‘magisch denken,’ or magical thinking. It’s also a term in psychology. Magical thinking is what kids do: they make links between things that we, in our logic as grown-ups, don’t see as being connected. As we grow up slowly these links disappear.”
Given that Viviane is famed for working passionately and instinctively, dismissing pre-constructed shoots in favour of embracing the moment with her model, this childlike notion of magical thinking seems still to be present in her work. “It’s always been that way,” she agrees. “If I think about it too much beforehand, things get cramped and I don’t know what to make any more.”
The more she explains her ideas on the abstract and fantastical connections between seemingly unrelated objects, the more I begin to recognise them in the framed images from Pikin Slee that surround us in the upper rooms of London’s ICA. It’s a kind of fantasy which lends life to a collection of vessels full of rainwater, for example. “I felt like all these objects had a kind of meaning – to me at least, there was a beauty. It really has to do with sculpture in the end; capturing that particular shape from that particular angle. I have a very strong animistic way of looking at the work. A tree, or a rock, or a bowl, anything can have a kind of a spirit. In Aboriginal Australia or in Africa it’s a very animistic world, and lately I’ve been travelling in Japan a lot and it’s the same.”
Her understanding of the human body has been similarly influenced by her time in Kenya, when her family lived next to a polio clinic. “The children had very strong deformations,” she explains. “I have this very vivid memory of sitting on top of a climbing frame with one of my friends who had polio and that we were comparing our limbs in wonder, like ‘Wow! Look how different it looks!’ We were amazed by our bodies. I remember looking at my friend’s body kind of intrigued me, I thought that there was a kind of beauty in it. Of course I didn’t realise that this was a very serious illness. They were just my friends, you know? They were different, but so was I,” she says in reference to her whiteness, “just in a different way.”
Her fascination with the human body continued into young adulthood. “I was super skinny when I was young. I didn’t have an eating disorder, but in a very short while I had grown to one metre 82 (five foot 11) and I was like 55 kilos, so I was super thin. Sometimes I would stand in front of the mirror naked and I’d be amazed by my own body. I would make really weird body sculptures and look at myself in the mirror, and be like ‘Wow! look at this!’ I just found it really beautiful.”
In her work this morbid curiosity manifests itself in unexpected beams of light lending a kind of distortion to bodies, or subjects balanced on top of one another in strange new positions. It’s guileless and natural, and unusual in a photographer who shoots for fashion brands.
Where few photographers succeed in transitioning from art to fashion or vice versa Viviane crosses between one and the other with ease. “For me they are quite separate, they represent two parts of my personality,” she tells me. “I see the fashion as my extrovert side, working in large teams, with so much energy. There’s a swiftness and a disposability to fashion that I love. It’s kind of instant. And then the art is much more my introvert side – much more personal on many levels. It’s more of a solitary process as well.
“I feel that it’s often complicated to really mix the two. Of course there are a lot of formal aspects: they feed on each other, in the sense that it’s still my pair of eyes, my brain, me constructing those images.” It’s clear that there is no hierarchy is the way Viviane views the two. “I just enjoy taking pictures,” she explains. “I enjoy it so much that I want to do it as much as possible.”
Viviane has come up against some difficulty in her commercial work in the past. On several occasions her clients have overlooked her decision to work with black and dark-skinned models, in favour of pandering to white western ideals. “You know what they say now?” she asks, an element of incredulity in her voice. “They hide behind the marketing. They just say, ‘I’m really sorry, we’d love to have a black girl, but it just won’t work for the Asian market.’”
Given that her work naturally triggers conversations around subjectivity and relationships of power, I wonder if she struggles with the politicisation of her images. “Sometimes I do, yeah, because I’m very much aware of all the political issues which naturally come with the work I make. But I try to go beyond that and to have an open view of things, almost like a child.” I sense that this is a subject she has grappled with in the past. “You can’t stay naïve for the rest of your life, of course, because then it becomes a kind of ignorance, but it says a lot about people, and I’m aware of that.
“As you get older you realise all the stigmas which are hung on Africa, which makes you start to see things in different way,” she continues. “It’s rather problematic because all of a sudden you have what almost feels like a burden. There’s racism, with a capital R, and there are all these ideas about Africa as the black continent, and HIV/AIDS, and hunger and disasters, and all these things. Or, it’s beautiful nature and tribes, you know? It’s funny how people in the west project a lot of their fears and longings onto Africa. If the whole world were to go into psychotherapy I think Africa would be like the shadow.”
Responding to my blank expression, she goes on to give me a crash course in psychoanalyst Carl Jung’s theory of the shadow. “The shadow represents all the things which are hidden in our subconsciousness,” she explains. “Things we don’t want to show, or we are afraid or ashamed of. It’s about our fears and our fantasies, basically. It can be sexual, but it’s not only that. So I often think that somehow over years and years, the image of Africa has become something like that, the shadow. I don’t have the idea that I can change anything about it,” she clarifies, “but I do think there was something missing in that whole idea about Africa. So I felt that I should be able to put something next to it; a very small piece of me.”
Compounding this difficult relationship is the fact that her own view is inherently idealised. “It’s very double, because it’s also personal.It’s my longing for my childhood, so it does connect to the idea of Africa as exotic.I often I ask myself, okay, the work I make, is it offensive? And maybe it is! I don’t know, it’s not on purpose, but maybe it’s in my unconsciousness because I’ve idealised it in a way.”
Ultimately though she hopes it can be seen as a kind of Picture of Dorian Gray, reflecting the viewer’s own feelings back to them. “As an artist you can never make work which will be appreciated by everybody. It’s just not possible, and it’s also not the purpose of art. So it might be offensive for some people, but other people will find something of themselves in it. I think it also has to do with the viewer. What are you as a viewer thinking? I hope it kind of bounces back to you. How do you perceive that image? What does that say about our preconceived ideas? Hopefully in that sense the photographs can also work as mirrors.”
At the end of the day, her principle concern as an artist is with her subjects. “Ultimately it’s my own responsibility towards the people I work with when I’m in Africa. Because I’m also in a position of power, as a white lady with a camera – which is a tool of power. I put a great deal of energy in trying to make my work a collaboration which is based on trust.
“The people I work with are mainly girls – or women by now – who were brave enough to open themselves up for me so they could really get into the mood, get into this character, and experiment.
“People say, ‘Oh, you can’t do that!’ And I say, ‘What are you talking about? These people I work with, they’re just like you and me. They’re students who do theatre, they go to the university. They’re just friends.’ Or they ask me ‘How do you communicate with them?’ and I say, ‘We stay in touch through Facebook every week!’ They don’t have a clue.”