Meet the Dutch cowboy Kees in Sabine Rovers’ sincere, vulnerable and humorous photography
Viewing photography as a two-way act, the grad from The Hague’s Royal Academy of Art is able to tell the most intimate of stories – like that of a Dutch cowboy she’d met five years ago.
Sabine Rovers has an open minded view on the world. So much so that she often meets her photographic subjects on the off-chance, whether it’s by accident on the street or given a few opportune encounters. It’s this exact personality trait that transfers so distinctively into her photography practice, which not only solidified her work as one of this year’s Grads in an instant, but also allows her to meet, and work with, an astounding range of people.
Kees is a fine example of this. A Dutch cowboy, Sabine spontaneously met him around five years ago. A year later, after plucking up some courage, their relationship blossomed and her project Cowboy Kees was borne. Never before had she met a Dutch cowboy before and his tranquil, nature-rich and slow-paced way of life is one that can instantly be deemed as admirable – and, for some, quite enviable.
In other works, her inquisitive eye has led her to Het Rosa Spier Huis, a documentation of the residents at a home for elderly artists in Laren, and she’s also captured the hobbies and interests of 22 retirees for her series What to aspire, after you retire? We chat to Sabine to hear more about her social documentary style of photography, how she finds her alluring subjects and why Cowboy Kees might be a perfect antidote to one of the strangest years on record.
GallerySabine Rovers: Cowboy Kees
It’s Nice That: How did you come to find your voice and visual language, is there someone or something that has helped shape your practice?
Sabine Rovers: I’ve always been quite a nosy child, peeking into people’s houses and gardens and wanting to know more about their lives. I also loved everything by Roald Dahl, which sparked my first interest in storytelling. I think it’s this childlike curiosity that still drives me in my work; I have an urge to share my sense of wonder with the world. Social media has made it a lot easier to do this and by sharing what I love doing the most – exploring and discovering new stories – I’ve slowly found my own voice.
My visual language is something that has gradually developed over the years, but I’ve always loved collecting images and making mood boards of everything that speaks to me. By surrounding myself with things I like, I’ve quite naturally developed my own visual style. Apart from that, it’s mostly just photographing a lot and intuitively feeling when something works or not. I’ve learned most just by doing, trying different techniques and then finding out what works and what doesn’t.
I still don’t feel like I’ve got one ‘voice’ or ‘visual language’ though. My style is forever changing and developing, depending on my mood, interests, things happening in the world and the subject I’m focusing on. I think it’s important to stay open to things happening in and around you and to work from that energy.
GallerySabine Rovers: Cowboy Kees
INT: Your work tends to focus heavily on your subjects, producing intimate portraiture of people, communities and subcultures. How do you find your subjects and what’s your relationship like with them usually?
SR: This differs per project and subject. I don’t have one way of working, but in general I have an open attitude in life which helps me connect with people around me quite easily. Sometimes this can just be a fleeting encounter, other times it can be a long-lasting relationship, depending on what I’m working on and what the subject wants. For me, photography is a two-way act, so I find it important to not only get what I want, but to give the subject something back as well. This can just be some care and attention, a listening ear, a memorable day, a physical print or even a new friendship. Most of the subjects I meet are by chance on the streets or by asking around, if I’m looking for someone specific. Then, if there’s a click – a willingness for both parties to be vulnerable and to give a little bit of yourself – you know it can be the start of something special.
GallerySabine Rovers: Cowboy Kees
“I have an open attitude in life which helps me connect with people around me quite easily.”Sabine Rovers
NT: Tell us about your project Cowboy Kees. What’s it about and why did you want to make it?
SR: I met Kees quite coincidentally five years ago. I was photographing a Dutch band that played rootsy Americana music and we wanted to borrow someone’s old American classic car for the shoot. I have this vivid memory of me and the band waiting for the car to arrive in a beautiful, quiet place in the Green Heart of Holland. Slowly we heard this loud, low, rumbling sound and saw a white Lincoln Continental driving towards us through the flat, Dutch meadows. A guy with bright blue eyes, a large, grey moustache and a cowboy hat stepped out with a big smile and that was Kees. I had never seen a cowboy in Holland before and was immediately intrigued by the whole setting. I took one portrait of him that day and we exchanged numbers to keep in touch. It took one year and some courage, but I finally visited him again and that was the start of a really special friendship and photography project together.
We’ve now made a first dummy for a photobook that takes you into Kees’s world and shows what the Dutch cowboy lifestyle means to him. For Kees, being a cowboy is not only about wearing a cool hat and leather boots, it’s about the lifestyle that it represents. Simple, free, slow-paced and more in touch with nature.
I think that a lot of people dream of a similar life, but they just haven’t had the courage or don’t know how to step out of their daily routine. Kees also lost everything dear to him, before he could finally listen to his heart and choose to live his own kind of life.
Every time I visit Kees, he reminds me that we don’t have to be stuck in the rat race and have the power to live the life we want to live. Especially in these times, with so much going on in the world, I hope this story can function as a little break from our busy, stressful lives and remind us of the beauty of simplicity and the power nature can have to ground ourselves again. Kees is my natural self-help book in modern society and I hope his lifestyle can inspire others too.
INT: Would you say there are recurring themes throughout your work?
SR: I’m mostly interested in the smaller yet essential aspects of life that we tend to lose contact with in our current society. I prefer making work about topics that are close to home that people can relate to, whether it’s elderly people, our fast-paced, digital lifestyles or our relationship with the landscape around us.
I naturally look for feelings of sincerity, vulnerability and humour, and I hope these universal feelings can touch the viewer as well. Engagement and collaboration with my subject are also really important; they should feel comfortable to tell their story and then I can provide them with a platform and a voice. By making work that evokes a sense of humanness or commonality in us all, I hope to open up perspectives and share worlds that otherwise might not be seen or heard.
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Savine Rovers: What to aspire, after you retire?
"It’s important to stay open to advice and critique, but also to stay true to yourself and listen to what you want to make"Sabine Rovers
INT: What's the most important thing you learnt during your time at university?
SR: Be yourself! Don’t try to be the artist someone else wants you to be. Listen to what makes you tick and follow that urge to create. Your teachers and peers are all going to give you different advice and opinions, and that can sometimes become really confusing and leave you feeling even more lost than you were before. It’s important to stay open to advice and critique, but also to stay true to yourself and listen to what you want to make. Sometimes actually taking a bit of time off school and tuning in with yourself again can help you find the essence of what you’re looking for. As Cowboy Kees would say: “follow your intuition, just like animals” and “be a little rebellious at times, but always with style.”
GallerySavine Rovers: What to aspire, after you retire?
About the Author
Ayla is a London-based freelance writer, editor and consultant specialising in art, photography, design and culture. After joining It’s Nice That in 2017 as editorial assistant, she became online editor in 2022 and continues to work with us on a freelance basis. She has written for i-D, Dazed, AnOther, WePresent, Port, Elephant and more, and she is also the managing editor of design magazine Anima.