Staging Reality, Documenting Fiction

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Jan Hoek - The new ways of photographing the new Masaii

WRITTEN BY: Shannon Lawrence


Your work is very much about this theme of staged or constructed realities. What do you feel are the ethics of this technique? How do you go about forging the bizarre and finding the quirky moments you seek to document?
In our mind we all make constructed realities. There is never a true way how we can see each other. But normally we forget that the way we see a person is always is a constructed reality. Sometimes specific groups or subcultures are seen in the same way by society, but even then the way people see them is conctructed (only in this case it is the group that constructed this reality). In my work I want to show this proces. When I portray mentally ill homeless people in Ethiopia as kinds, a ex-junkie as a super model or the always traditionally shown Masais in a modern way, it's al ways about this theme. It is possible to see people in so many many different ways. Everybody has sides you wouldn't expect. That a lot of my photo's can give a quirky feeling, is probably because the way I look (and by that the reality I construct) is quirky. I dont make any extra efforts to gain this effect
What are your thought process when preparing a project? Is there something specific that you know you are looking for, or do you begin totally open?
It always starts with looking. And take the time for the that. Normally, I don't make any photo's till I found a idea or an angle for a project. I believe you first have to look with your eyes, before you should look with your camera. The same when you approach people. First approach them as a person, only later you can approach them with your camera.
When shooting the New Ways of Photographing the New Massaii series how much did the Massaii influence the types of shots you took?
The decision of every photo was a consequence of the things the specific Masai told me. His or her wishes, likes, dislikes, dreams, favorite colors and self image where leading in the way how I would photograph them. Frtom each of them I took three photo's, showing different sides of the same person. In the end they could judge with photo they liked the most and the least. Their first choice photo is when exhibited always printed really big, the second choice in a more normal size and their last choice as big as a post card.
Much of your work your seems to be an attempt at making the obvious visible. With the New Massaii series it feels like you are commenting on the absurdity with which people still choose to view Africa in the 21st century. Even with a tribe as traditional as the Massaii, it is clear that the stereotypes don't hold up. Do you think this is an accurate assessment of?
Yes. Although I also believe the cliché is true as well, it only doesn't tell the whole story.
The photo of the three Massaii men on the bed has a sexual suggestion. In fact even looking at your Accra images it’s clear that a lot of your work has an implied sexuality. Is this a theme you intended to show? Do you think of your work as trying to make a broader point about sexuality and challenging stereotypes?
Sex is never the main theme in my work. But maybe there is always so much sex in my mind that it still comes out in my photo's. In a bigger perspective I believe that everything we do is driven by sex. Everything we buy, the people we hire for jobs, the countries we go to, the movies we watch, the people we photograph, sex is always a hidden force.
Looking at your work more broadly I am keen to ask you to walk me through it photo by photo discussing what your intentions were. In the interest of space I’ll single out a few...the guy dressed in bike gear on a beach in Accra...what is that about? There is something both primal and modern about it, he is the urban character taken out of context and made vulnerable innature to the tides...
This guy created his own constructed reality. He takes tourists at the busy Lambadi beach for a ride on his motorcycle. He is the same a realistic creature as Mickey Mouse in Disneyland. The only difference is that he is not wearing a mask to hide his real face. That makes him more vulnerable then Mickey.
Obviously the Supermodel Kim series works with this theme of sexuality. She is alluring but in a totally surprising way. What are you saying about mass media sexual stereotypes with the way you have chosen to shoot Kim for this series?
I don't want to say anything about mass media sexua l stereotypes. In this series I just try to make Kim's dream to become a model come true, well, at least for one day. I photographed her before when she still was a drug using junkie. Then she told me she had this dream to become a real fashion model. For me that was so touching. I think because there was such a big difference in the way people see her and the way she wants to see herself. But it is true that the photo's are quite sexual, but Kim is quite sexual as well in the way she presents herself. But as I said before, that can also be my mind. Or maybe it's only there in your mind,that's off course also a possibilty. Who knows?
I love the work your assistant created on the Sweet Crazies, perhaps in a more direct way this series highlights a constant theme you work with, which is this idea of the vulnerability of humans and humanity. What are your thoughts on this theme?
We never know what other people think and expect from us. That makes us really vulnerable. When you point a camera that feeling increases. Suddenly a person is aware of that feeling: 'What does the person behind the camera is seeing when he looks at me? But that we see other people as vulnerable is also in our mind. That we see the Sweet Crazies as vulnerable has to do as well with the way we frame them. The combination of homeless, a bit crazy and African makes that the most people see immediately vulnerable creatures in them. In reality some of them were stronger and more imune for everything around them then the most people I know.