May 10, 2013 11:21AM

Oyster Interview: Viviane Sassen

Read an excerpt of our interview from Oyster #102: The Peace Issue — on sale now!

Viviane Sassen talks to us about her inspiration for her latest body of work, Parasomnia in Oyster #102: The Peace Issue - On sale now. Read an excerpt below!

Oyster's creative director, Shane Sakkeus, first introduced me to the work of Dutch photographer Viviane Sassen. We were compiling a wishlist of photographers we wanted to work with, frantically firing links back and forth over Skype, and when I clicked through to her work I stopped. "Wow," I typed. "Yup," he replied, with the nonchalant certainty of someone who knows they are acquainting someone else with something extraordinary. Sassen's work has seduced both the art world and fashion industry for almost 20 years, remarkably without her ever having to compromise her artistic vision. (Much like Juergen Teller has been able to do his thing, for example, although she's avoided any sort of cult celebrity status.) A compelling, arresting voice in contemporary photography, Sassen's work has elements of Guy Bourdin's unexampled genius — pop colours, abstract figures, bold composition — and yet it is entirely singular, beyond reference. 

Alice Cavanagh: Hi Viviane, how are you?
Viviane Sassen: I'm fine. And you?

I am well, thank you. What did you get up to today?
Oh, I just went to my studio. It's very cold here in Amsterdam. 

How long have you had your studio for?
We just moved studios a few months ago, in September. It's really amazing, it's a huge space — well, at least by Amsterdam standards.

What do you need for your workspace? What do you surround yourself with?
Um, my books [laughs] first of all, and then it doesn't really matter about much. But the studio we have is like an extension of our home, in a way, because we live in a quite small apartment.

You were born in Amsterdam, weren't you?
I was born in Amsterdam, yes.

But you spent some time in Africa when you were very young. Where did you live? 
I was in Kenya. My father worked there as a doctor.

What age were you when you lived there?
I was about two when I went there, and about five and a half when I left. So, I was really young. 

What memories do you have from your time there? 
I have a lot of memories, very vivid memories. Not so many stories — it's more moments and colours and smells, stuff like that. And people… 

Africa features often in your work — it obviously had such a big influence on you — and yet you were so young when you were there. 
I think you experience everything for the first time when you are that age, so things make a big impression on you. It's like a kind of blueprint.

How many times a year do you go back?
To Africa?

Well, it really depends. At least once… sometimes three times a year.

You love to photograph black subjects. Were you conscious of being white when you lived there? 
I knew that I was white and that I was different from my friends, but then I was totally not aware… That was just how it was, you know? When you're that young, you don't know anything about racism or different skin colours in a political way. It just doesn't exist. 

I don't know if it's intentional, but your work could be seen as quite political, although at the same time it's almost like you're trying to recreate what it's like to be a child — what it feels like when one is not conscious of those things. 
Yes, that's exactly what I try to do when I am making pictures. Boundaries just disappear somehow — at least, I don't feel them anymore.

Are you a political person?
Well, honestly I try to stay away from politics as much as I can — well, I think I have an opinion, a personal opinion, but I'm really not interested to bring that across in some way, I think.

When was your first experience with photography?
It started when I borrowed my father's camera and started taking pictures of my friends when we were really young, playing around with clothes and make-up. It was very playful, basically. Then, later on, I started studying fashion in the art school in Arnhem and I started working as a model as well, so I got to know all of these photographers and worked with them. I started taking pictures of myself more often than not, and eventually decided fashion was really not my thing and that I wanted to study photography.

Were you comfortable being the subject of a photograph? 
No, not really. But, I think there was something in me — I usually call myself a very shy exhibitionist. 

So, there was a part of you that wanted to do it?
Yes. I was living this life and pretending to be, like, super-comfortable, but then at the same time I was shy as well. I was never a full-time model, anyway.

Do you think being in front of the camera helped you to relate to your subjects?
I think so, yeah.

There is a suggestion of shyness in your photos — often the faces of your subjects are hidden. 
Yes. It's not intentional, but I end up selecting these kinds of pictures, somehow.

So, it's more about the edit?
Yeah, often it is. I am looking for archetypal images more than anything else. I think there are multiple reasons: sometimes I see myself more as a sculptor than as a photographer, and when you see a face it's much more about that particular person in the picture, while if you don't see the face it's much more the idea of the body as a sculpture. Also, we are so used to reading faces and people's expressions and their feelings, so, when you see a face in a picture, you are immediately drawn to it and it tells you a lot about how you should interpret that picture, but if you don't see the face it's much harder to make the right judgment. I kind of like this kind of mystery in pictures. I don't want them to tell a story right away — I'd like people to make up their own stories.

For the full interview pick up a copy of Oyster #102 today!

Interview: Alice Cavanagh
Photography: Viviane Sassen


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