At the beginning of the 21st century, the post-war discussion about the distinction between art and mass media –art and propaganda—remains vivid. Whereas in the past critics and theoreticians have debated over the rhetoric of political parties, today they debate the status of publicity campaigns. And, as their focus has been shifting from party politics to the politics of consumption, photography has come to play a role of increasing importance –for photography is one of multinationals’ favorite media when it comes to their publicity campaigns. As few are able to, the upcoming photographer Viviane Sassen (Amsterdam, 1972) helps fuel this debate. Whereas it has become customary for many of her generation to alternate between personal projects and commercial assignments, in Sassen’s life and work, both intertwine in an unprecedented way. First attracted by fashion, Sassen soon came to realize that her true passion was the creation of images rather than clothes. After a couple of years studying fashion in Arnhem she went on to dedicate herself to photography—first as a student at the Royal Academy in Utrecht and then successfully completing a Masters’ in Fine Arts at the Royal Academy in Arnhem. In 1997, she was ready to start for herself; within a few years, she would produce an impressive body of work. Throughout this prolific production that includes both fashion assignments and independent work, she has developed a very personal visual language that invites us to reflect on the medium of photography and on the obsolescence of traditional boundaries of genres and contexts of display. 

Catherine Somzé: How would you define your endeavor as a photographer?

Viviane Sassen: Well, it would be difficult to answer in just a few words. I have gone through so many periods, and ultimately even I find it difficult myself to index it. For instance, when I look retrospectively at some of the work I made in an editorial context, it appears to belong much more to the area of my personal work. And the other way around, I have been producing work on a personal basis, which has become commercial, as it was released in magazines. So, to make a strict separation between independent and commissioned work wouldn’t really work in my case.

C. S.: Is this why you chose to organize your survey exhibition at the Jan Cunen Museum regardless of chronology or theme? On this occasion, just as on the moving gallery of your website, you seem to have opted for presenting your work more according to a suggestive logic rather than an explanatory one…  

V. S.: Yes, it’s a kind of ordered chaos, really. Also, I never work in series. I rather build collections of related images. I never know how many pictures there will be or how I will perform my selection. When I start photographing, I never know how things will develop. Of course, it’s slightly different with fashion commissions. Most of times these are series in themselves, and need to comply with the demands of the clients. 

C. S.: But still there is a genre that appears to be prominent throughout your work, right?

V. S.: You mean portraiture?

C. S.: Precisely.
 V. S.: Well, I’m not really that interested in a particular person. What I am trying to capture or produce is an archetypal image, an image that goes beyond the description of the physiognomic and psychical specificities of an individual. I seek to provide the work with a universal dimension, what I call the roundness of a work.

C. S.: But still, your work feels very documentary

V. S.: In the beginning, people like Nan Goldin and Nobuyoshi Araki have been very important for my work because of their formal language, but also because they depicted their own lives in a way that appealed to me. Yet, I am now increasingly staging my photographs—although composing, rather than staging, would be a better word to qualify my endeavor. Recently I have been to Ghana for the Prix de Rome and there I composed all my photographs…This hasn’t been always the case. In my Africa work, I first really wanted to know what it was about, what the people were about, and what my own ideas were about. Slowly I became increasingly free in my own interpretation. My various Africa works mirror this personal and artistic evolution, although it is true that it would be difficult to draw a distinct line between the documentary and the staged aspects of my work.
 C. S.: You mentioned the question of interpretation. Isn’t it an especially crucial issue in the case of the depiction of an other, of an ethnic other

V. S.: Yes, it is essential. Rather than pretending to reveal something about the person depicted, I prefer to focus on the process of addressing the viewer. My work is much more about the gaze of the viewer and about my own perspective than about trying to speak out some truth about the photographed subject…in fact, I would like to be some kind of mediator there…

C. S.: Between whom and whom?

V. S.: Between the person being portrayed and the viewer. Yet, I do so in an unexpected way, I guess, for instead of showing the person, I’m actually withdrawing him or her from the potential gaze of the viewer…
C. S.: For instance, with shadows projected from within or without the frame…or even, afterwards, by blackening specific areas of the print with a pencil …

V. S.: This play of shadows allows for multiple interpretations. You can read them at different levels. You should always be able to judge a photograph on different grounds, on political, social, emotional, but also on personal grounds. While not willing myself as a photographer to impose a specific idea on or about my subject, I hope I leave enough space to viewers so that they are able to make up their own stories and interpretations…

C. S.: But then what is your relationship to your subjects?

V. S.: Do you mean in the African work?

C. S.: Yes, for instance.

V. S.: Well, as long as I can remember, I have felt very close to Africans. This is most probably due to the fact that I lived with my family in Kenya when I was a child. Yet, this very experience of closeness has also engendered contradictory feelings. While feeling to be a part of this world, I have also kept on being aware of the fact that I would never really be a part of it. Very soon, I have come to understand that I would always remain a stranger. In this way I try in my work to figure this ambiguity. You feel close but at the same time distant. And that is something that is most of times absent in traditional Western depictions of Africa, always clearly reflecting the interpretation and gaze of Westerners. I am trying to put that in doubt but at the same time, I am also that Western person so I can’t get completely free from that background. But I think doubt is always good.

C. S.: Doubt?

V. S.: Yes, I think that it is what drives me.

C. S.: Does that also hold true for your commissioned work?

V. S.: Yes, I think so, because it’s always much more interesting to try new things out.

C. S.: Also on the set?

V. S.: People working with me always tell me how relieved they are because of the fact that I seem to know quite well what I want. Yet, in fact, I am always trying new things out. And these contradictions are part of both my working process and my visual language in which opposites collide. It’s always about desire and fear, about making images that are both appealing and unsettling. Somehow my photographs are always slightly off; otherwise they would be very boring.

C. S.: What do you mean by that?

V. S.: When you have, say, a one dimensional image and there is nothing else but a beautiful girl in a nice dress…
 C. S.: But you also do publish in fashion magazines…

V. S.: Yes, absolutely. But magazines such as Purple and I-D, for instance, work much more as platform. On the other hand, mainstream magazines are more interested in pleasing their clients and thereby allow for much less artistic freedom. I have done a couple of assignments of this kind but I’d rather never do that again. And anyway, I don’t think that many of these kinds of clients would like to work with me. My visual language is much too dubious, capitalizing on ambiguities and not really willing to just sell clothes…

C. S.: But lately you have been very much in demand…
V. S.: It really all depends. It’s already six or seven years since I was asked to make the Miu Miu campaign for Prada. And although this is a very commercial brand, Miuchia Prada was well known at that time for her daring publicity campaigns. She would ask young and upcoming photographers to do these campaigns and to do their own thing. But then, it became obvious that I had been the last one in that row because after 9/11 everything collapsed in a way. Important brands didn’t want to take too many risks anymore and just went for established names again such as Mario Testino and Steven Meisel. As a result, less interesting campaigns have been made and it has increasingly just become “a girl with a bag.” I hope it’s going to change…

C. S.: And what replaces “the girl and the bag” in your own fashion photography?

V. S.: [Laughs] Well…my interest is not the interest of the fashion industry. My interest is to make fascinating pictures, images that have the power to capture your imagination and to keep your attention for more than a few seconds. Some photographers have succeeded in doing that. In my eyes, Inez van Lamsweerde is one of those who have been skillful enough to produce works that are both commercial and artistic. But, I’m not that interested in fashion anyway.

C. S.: Why is that so?

V. S.: Because I basically don’t care so much about clothes…But it’s true that I have done a lot of modeling myself when I was young. Since then I have actually stopped using make-up and dressing myself up. Maybe it was a sort of overkill.

C. S.: About your African pictures, just as in your commissioned work, you spoke earlier about the emotional charge of the use and meaning of shadows as an expressive strategy for withdrawing the subject from our gaze while remaining the object of the photograph…

V. S.: Maybe it’s because I am afraid of specific emotions and I try to formalize them. I’m a quite emotional person. It takes a while before I trust people and I can be myself. But then I’m very open.

C. S.: And does this openness help you when taking pictures?

V. S.: When I am in Africa, I am very social. It’s much easier for me to talk to, to relate and to have a connection with African people. When I am in Africa I’m less shy than when I am in Europe. [Laughs.]

C. S.: So you speak with people more easily…you can come up to a woman for instance and just propose that she poses for you.

V. S.: Yes, and I am much more physical as well. It’s like a different part of myself. It’s weird thinking about that. But maybe the pictures are still quite distant…what do you think?

C. S.: Well, for instance, Rineke Dijkstra uses a flash exposure and shoots at specific moments of the day. This specific lighting lends monumentality to her subjects while also creating a certain distance between the viewer and the subject photographed…

V. S.: Yes, and there is also the posing. It is an agreement between the photographer and her model.

C. S.: And in your case?

V. S.: The agreement is never that clear.

C. S.: And what kind of lighting do you use?

V. S.: I most often use the natural light, just the sun.

C. S.: And with which kind of camera do you shoot?

V. S.: I always have my Mamiya 6×7 with me. It is quite light and allows me to be very flexible.

C. S.: It must be very different to shoot on a set.

V. S.: Yes, when I travel to Africa, we are just the two of us, me and my fiancé. We always travel very low profile.     

C. S.: And can you tell me a bit more about your work on a set?

V. S.: Well, it really depends on the assignment and on the magazine. In general, we are just a few people, me, the stylist, the make-up and hair artists and of course the models and my own assistant. But sometimes, the crew can add up to thirty people!

C. S.: When I hear about these full-scale productions, I would expect highly slick images. Yet, most of your editorial work feels very casual…devoid of plastic perfection…

V. S.: Well, lately I’ve been doing a bit more with the computer, retouching. But most times I never do that. I think that something beautiful is even more charming when it’s not too perfect. You don’t want to feel the artificiality of the image, you want to believe in it. I feel related to reality, while slick images feel exchangeable.

C. S.: So you think there is magic in daily reality…

V. S.: Yes, but this has always been a love-hate relationship. As a child, I was always very much in my fantasy world. Somehow, photography became a way to grow up, to face reality. Fantasy and reality are opposites, and all my work is about these oppositions. Fear and desire, light and shadow, death and sex…

C. S.: Your early work deals with several series dedicated to sexuality; I was once told that in the past you declared a desire to become a porn star.

V. S.: [Laughs.]

C. S.: Don’t worry, it was just a joke!

V. S.: It’s not true, and in fact I profoundly dislike porn…
C. S.: But some of your pictures do remind me of amateur soft-porn photography to be found on the web…
V. S.: I’m sure I never wanted to be a porn star. [Laughs]. This homemade, soft-porn photography, is a phenomenon that interested me in the past. But now, I am kind of finished with this phase. But, maybe—who knows? There will be another moment in my life in which I will pick this up again…Anyway, I like this home-made feeling. There is something very charming about that because it’s reality footage. But at the same time, an image should never only be a snapshot.
C. S.: For instance, the girls in your series for Purple Sex indeed clearly strike poses.

V. S.: Those pictures are also a bit tongue-in-cheek, like slightly humoristic. And this allows me to make a work that is about women and their status in society. Maybe it had something to do with the power of women to expose their own body both in a conscious and ironic way. And there is also the question of me being a woman and the photographer. At that time, when I took these pictures, I was influenced by male photographers, who took pictures of women like Helmut Newton and Araki, and also I was assisting the Dutch photographer Carli Hermes. On top of that, I was myself being photographed as a model by numerous male photographers who wanted to depict me as a sexual object. Maybe I had the feeling that I had to empower myself, to put something next to these male visions of women but still using their own visual language.

C. S.: These were the photographs you made for Purple Sex, right? Did the magazine commission these?

V. S.: At that time you had Purple magazine released in different theme-based issues. You had Purple Prose, Purple Fashion, Purple Fiction and Purple Sex. I was really intrigued by these magazines. At the beginning they often published works by Terry Richardson. I had interest for the baldness of his work, and the whole Purple Sex as an issue was something I had never seen before but somehow was in line with what I was doing myself. So then, I just proposed work, and they published it.

C. S.: And the series for Fantastic Man?

V. S.: Well, this was later. First there was RE-Magazine, then Butt and Kutt, and then
Fantastic Man by Jop van Bennekom.
 C. S.: And how did you come in touch with these magazines?

V. S.: First I found them in the local bookshop. I was really intrigued. For instance, I had never seen something like Purple before. It was like this scruffy, underground, magazine. It was very thin, printed in black-and-white on newspaper. It had a feeling, which I thought was really new. And then I just started buying it, and other magazines. I had just finished art academy when I sent in some work. I was really surprised when they liked it and published it.


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