BORN 1981, EINDHOVEN, THE NETHERLANDS.
LIVE AND WORK IN AMSTERDAM, THE NETHERLANDS.
Though I have a background in documentary photography, I gradually felt constrained by the restrictions of the craft. In order to tell the stories I want to share, I branched out into a more conceptual application of photography, using video, sound installations, composited images, along with documentary photography.
As a teenager, I was drawn to the 19th century Dutch classic Max Havelaar, a novel documenting colonial exploitation in the Dutch East Indies. Though a distant family connection through my grandfather with author Eduard Douwes Dekker certainly played a part in my fascination, above its stories kept me returning to the book. This was an emotionally formative experience which made me realize how much I wanted to be a storyteller myself.
Upon graduating the Academy of Art and Design St. Joost in Breda, I embarked on exploring different cultures and societal landscapes. I travelled from South Korea to Las Vegas, from Istanbul to Dubai. In Dubai I photographed four stories in 2008, its topics ranging from sheiks’ daughters and their luxurious teenage lives in an upper class Arab society (ELLEgirl) to a story about modern day slavery in local labor camps filled with migrant workers (VICE). Though my editors were excited by my photographs, I felt documentary photography failed to do justice to the stories I wanted to tell. Trying to break out of the limitations of documentary photography, I started to devise ways of composing images that better visualized the experiential beyond the immediately visible.
Since then I have initiated projects in China, Cuba, and more recently in Pakistan and North Korea. In 2015, I began my project Shadows of Pakistan, where I deal with the plight of Afghan and internal refugees living in the slums around Islamabad. Despite the extreme hardship, I was struck by the lively imagination of the children playing there. I was inspired by the miniature art of the old Persian Empire, to which current Pakistan once belonged. Using the visual language of those miniatures in my own images, I created fairytale palaces for the children I encountered and photographed in Islamabad. A preview of the project showed at Photoville in New York City in 2017. At the same time, I happened to start a second phase to my North Korea project.
I had travelled for the first time to and through North Korea in 2013. I had a longstanding fascination for the country, fed by a deep desire to make sense of the world we live in. Often presented as a polar opposite from the rest of the world, I thought touring North Korea would serve as a perfect mirror. My quest into North Korea started by turning to North Korean art as a source of inspiration. I looked into the complex relationship between propaganda paintings and everyday reality. This journey resulted in North Korea, a Life between Propaganda and Reality. The project got embraced by the photography world. It won the Folio Review at Les Rencontres d’Arles, was exhibited in photography museums from Chicago to Moscow and got reviewed in Le Monde, Stern, the Guardian, TIME and the New York Times.
Though this project met with public acclaim, it also confronted me with persistent preconceptions and prejudices regarding North Korea. Caught in a static narrative, my project was often interpreted as a political statement despite my protestations to the contrary. The acclaim coated in misinterpretations further peeked me into digging even deeper into North Korean reality. I wanted to meet the artists producing the artwork that had inspired me. By meeting the artists, I hoped to pierce the bubble of propaganda images, theirs and ours.
A chance encounter with Koen De Ceuster, an authority on North Korean art from Leiden University, made this possible. Joining him during fieldwork in North Korea, we devised a collaborative art project with six North Korean artists. Over three consecutive visits, I got to know them as mentors, fellow artists, warm individuals and eventually friends. I challenged them to visualise what it means to be an artist. Their unique and diverse sketches force me into questioning what it means to me to be an artist, to reflect on my role as an artist in our society. Their inspiration has become my inspiration. This collaboration has broken down barriers and let humanity shine.