Published in Pop Magazine, Spring/Summer 2004, No.8, pp. 24 + 258-265, under the title "Between Friends", with an introduction that's different than the one reproduced here.
Interview by Charlotte Cotton with Hellen van Meene
Hellen van Meene's photographs of young women and girls are delicate balancing acts between self-possession and vulnerability, of individual identity and archetypal characterisation, childhood and adulthood. The beauty and the intrigue of van Meene's photographs is held in the potency of their uncertainty, it's unclear whether we are looking at carefully staged or awkwardly struck spontaneous poses, whether these are girls dressed up for the occasion or caught in unself-conscious play. It's tantalisingly ambiguous whether these are intimate moments that would be happening with or without the presence of van Meene, her camera and our appreciation or if they are fully directed scenes that simply have the look of something intimate and fleeting. As you might expect, the truth lies somewhere unfixed between the two positions. Van Meene's sense of what she wants to see in her photographs (choosing the site, the props and the models that will realise this) is coupled with a deliberate putting aside of the prepared script and photographing what then unfolds beyond the pre-conceived idea in these intense, performative moments. Van Meene has worked with her models, some of whom are friends that she has photographed repeatedly over a long period, in her home town of Alkmaar in Holland where she still lives. Within her close-at-hand environment van Meene creates playful yet trusting contexts in which she and her models develop strange and subtle scenarios that are carried into her magical photographs. All her photographs are made with natural light adding a further ungovernable element to the works revealing the sensuous imperfections of the girls and women that have aroused van Meene's photographic curiosity. In 2001, van Meene made what, for her, was a radical and challenging departure when she accepted a commission to photograph in Japan.
How did the Japan project come about?
The Japan Foundation invited me to make new work for the Japan Pavillion at the Venice Biennale in 2001. The theme of the pavilion was 'city of girls'. When I was first invited to photograph in Japan, I was not sure that this would be something that I would be capable of doing as I had not photographed outside of Holland by that point. It was a good thing to do because I learnt a lot through this commission. One thing was that I realised that it was possible to work away from my usual environments but also to work with very little verbal dialogue. I don't understand Japanese culture, I am not Japanese, so the usual cultural connections that I have with the people that I photograph were not there. I was very aware that I was a foreigner, essentially an outsider, and I didn't try to soften my Northern European identity nor treat the Japanese girls very differently from my European subjects in my work so far. I worked in my Dutch way. I don't know what the manner that a Japanese photographer would adopt would be like and it would have been fake for me to try to be any different than I am. Before I went to Japan I had thought that it would be their physical similarities that I would be drawn to. It's incredibly stupid of me to have thought that, it would have been the same as thinking that all Dutch girls wear clogs, and perform to a stereotype. But the variety of faces really struck me in Japan and I saw so many interesting faces and I could not stop making photographs. I went to Japan blind to the possibilities I would find in being a foreign photographer but soon saw that there were so many things that would visually intrigue me.
There are some similarities between the props and poses that you used in earlier work and the Japanese series and I wondered whether they have a literal or specific meaning or iconography for you? Or is it more that when you use these devices, people become themselves in front of the camera?
The props are really devices for getting pictures started. They may not be used once I've begun working with the model, they may or may not appear in the final selection, but they begin the process. It's the same as when I am working in the Netherlands with models who I'm photographing for the first time. I think that's something chemical rather than something invested in the physical properties of the props. When I am asking a model to do something that does seem somewhat strange, I treat is as if it is a normal thing to ask and I think that creates an atmosphere where it's not a strange or unnerving thing to ask of someone. Before I went to Japan I did wonder if I would be able to create the right atmosphere for the models to feel relaxed. It proved to be very possible and I realised that if I was just being myself and working in my genuine way, the models sensed that. Without words, literally without words in the Japan work, you do communicate on the level of trust. The Japanese girls, I think, really understood what I was doing. When you work with people that don't understand your spoken words, they still sense what you mean. I didn't think that could happen in Japan but it was a relief that it worked out really well. I, of course, needed someone to translate for the first meeting but I worked alone when photographing. It is really interesting in Japan, that on one level as a visitor I was met with great openness, but there is also a closing down and a self containment that is culturally prescribed in Japan, you hear only what is meant for your ears! It means you see them, yet you don't see them. It's intriguing in a way because you sense you know them, but have an awareness that you never really will. It was a different sort of negotiation, working in Japan, not only with the models but also with the light and the spaces. Going to a new place really forced me to look again and to test myself.
This was a project made over two visits in the spring of 2001?
Yes. I went for a week initially, then came back to Holland for two weeks, then went back to Japan for two weeks. I don't think the photographs I made on the first visit were the best, but it did prove that I could work in Japan. On a project like this, you just need to start. The first visit made me comfortable that I could work in Japan and I met a number of the models that went back to photograph on the second trip. It was as if the first time I went, I gained my confidence and when I returned the second time the photographs really began to happen.
I get a sense with your photographs made in Japan that the opportunity to work in a new environment triggered a very fluid way of working for you. I know that in your working processes in Holland you may start with pre-conceived ideas that you work with your models to develop, but remain very open to what, more unpredictably and spontaneously, can happen when working. This seems emphatically so in your Japanese photographs.
I think that's why I like photographing in daylight, because you see immediately what you have. It's why I don't work in studios with lighting because I see this as closing down one of the coincidental possibilities of photographing. In a studio, everything has to fixed and you have to think before you see, create before you photograph, and I think the concentration of the model fades while this construction of an image is happening. You can play much more outside of the studio. I'm not a pre-thinker, I like to react to what is happening in front of me.
One way of describing the difference between photographing in a studio to the way you work is that being in a studio is often about chasing an idea or a pre-conceived picture. The hard work goes into the re-creation, of sorts, of a mental picture or a Polaroid test. What you are describing is an emphasis on being highly sensitised to find the pictures within what is unfolding in front of you, a combination of aspects that you are controlling and those that you are not, or cannot. In essence, it is about being open to images that are already there, regardless of your choreography or staging.
With the kind of pictures that I photograph, you just have to see them. I know they are there. You may get to the same point by working in a studio, but the process is different. It's a race to find something, especially in Japan, it was a process of being comfortable when I looked into the camera that something will be there. It made my senses completely open, it forced me to think quicker and to be able to take what I do to another place. It is often a basic idea or tiny observation that gives me a handle on the situation and something to aim for. But you have to develop and deviate from it in order to create something that engages with what is unfolding in front of my camera. You can't change the situation into another one and you have to be able to be comfortable enough to see what happens.
One of the photographs that most impressed me from your Japan project shows a girl wearing a modern kimono with strands of her hair spreading around her face. I know you have used this device in the Netherlands but in the context of Japan, it takes on a new set of references and ones that seem very attune to Far Eastern calligraphy and aesthetics.
I met the girl in the street and I had made an appointment to photograph her later in my visit. Her mother phoned me on the morning we were due to meet to say her daughter had a bad toothache. I didn't know if it was an excuse but I really wanted to photograph her. I had already made the photograph in my mind. But luckily the mother called back later and the girl was well enough to come to be photographed. I prefer to photograph in the morning light and the sun was already going down because of the delay in our meeting. But it was this that gave the feeling of radiance, as the light changed and it suited her and the composition perfectly. It's a good example of being open to the immediate possibilities and reacting to them.
That's a really interesting example of letting go of the pictures you have already conceived in order for others to happen. Were there instances where this happened for the model rather than for you?
One of the models had been photographed by a Japanese photographer and had clear ideas of how she wanted to be photographed. It's always very difficult to explain to a model what I am seeing, and I need the freedom and the space to direct in my own way. It's not that I don't want to learn from them because if they do something, I am often happy about that, but I do see what I want to photograph. Most models that I photograph are not used to being models. I give them the feeling that I know what I am doing, and then I give it over to them to respond in their way to this. When it works, they feel relaxed enough to give something to the photograph. When I took this photograph I knew it would be a good photograph but I did offer to then photograph the model in the way she had wanted, by which point she was happy with my approach and preferred to stay in the character we had created.
After photographing away from home, have you gone on to photograph in other places?
I was invited by the Folkwang Museum in March 2003 to photograph in Essen in Germany. I knew there were two dancing schools in Essen so I went to see classical ballet classes and modern dance schools. I saw so many interesting faces in the modern dance school. I sat in on four classical dancing classes, but their appearance was, as you might expect, more classical. I photographed in a room in the boarding house that I was staying in. I was working with really harsh daylight, which is unlike me. But I wanted to do something different from what I normally do and I photographed all of the dancers in this space. These are little steps in extending my photography over a long period of time. I'm still relatively new to photography in life terms, but you have to always try to move away and experiment. I always do what I think I will like, I cannot care too much whether it succeeds or fails. It's a way of keeping mentally focussed and able to make new observations.
You occasionally photograph boys rather than what you are well known for which is portrayals of girls and young women. How does this fit with the development of your work?
In 1998, I met the brother of a girl who had modelled for me. Lawrence was sitting on a couch, knitting, which is something very peculiar for a boy to be doing! He was 12 years old, and I was really enthusiastic about photographing him because he had that mixture of feminine and masculine qualities that some boys, not all, of that age can have. I left the photograph that I took of him for about two years, and looked again and then started making more photographs of him as he and his body went through changes into manhood. I also thought that it would be interesting to combine portraying him with a girl. I tried in 1996 to photograph more than one model but at the time it was somehow too difficult and I never liked the results. Working with Lawrence became a resolution of two things that had been previously difficult for me: to move into photographing boys, away from photographing women and girls which I felt I understood, and also into photographing more than one model. It's always little steps for me and photographing in Japan was another step. I have made a lot of photographs in Holland and will continue to do so, but my time in Japan proved to me that I was ready to work in other places and in new ways and I hope that I will continue to do this.
Curator of Photographs
Victoria and Albert Museum