Have you ever encountered a homeless person and thought they looked like royalty? Or felt the need to live in a psychiatric hospital for research purposes? How about wanting to invite a bunch of Chinese strangers to pose on your bed as a way of bonding with a different culture?
You have?! WTF! Me too!!
Unfortunately someone already beat us to it. So here at Lodown we settled for the next best thing and talked to the guy who did it first - Jan Hoek, a 35 year old Dutch writer and photographer who insists on finding beauty in the funky crevices of life.
When Hoek photographs homeless people or heroin addicts, something strange happens. You look at his pictures, and instead of feeling a natural sensation of pity or sadness, you instead are invited to see beyond their current condition and into their deepest hankerings, understanding exactly what makes them special in a sea of uninteresting “normals”.
Hoek transforms muses, inspirations, and subjects of his work into one and the same as he revels through a fascinating undertaking to demystify beauty as an objective thing. Alternative people rule his world, and if you look at enough of his art, you will start to understand why - they make things much more fun.
Lodown: In many ways, the line between real life and art is always blurry in your work. At what point do you feel confident that your photographs have transcended a simple illustrative plane, and have become actual pieces of art?
Jan Hoek: Hmm. I don’t know. [laughs] I think that’s a tricky question because for me I don’t care so much about those labels, for me it’s not that important to make art. I think mainly with photography and art it’s a way to meet the coolest people I can imagine and enter their lives and become friends with them and start adventures with them, which you normally would never do. At the same time I don’t think I have a responsibility to make art from it or work from it. I think I’d rather say work than art because otherwise you need to talk about what is art and what is journalistic photography or obsession. In the end I just want to tell a story.
LD: When you travel to different countries, do you make a conscious decision to go there in order to create work?
JH: Sometimes yes, sometimes no. Sometimes I just go to a place and then I see what happens. Sometimes I go to a place and have a vague idea of what to do. […] But every time is different and sometimes you get asked do you want to come to this country and make something? So it really depends.
LD: When you work with people, do you hope to achieve more than just that partnership in the moment of photography?
JH: Well, no. I don’t want them to change, because they are always outsiders. And I work with outsiders because I really think they are the coolest people on earth and are so much cooler than all the other people that are normally photographed. So I really don’t want to change them or educate them or bring them to another level because I think they are already the coolest people I can imagine.
It does happen sometimes, but it’s never my goal. Maybe that’s the thing - sometimes it happens, sometimes it doesn’t happen, you never know what happens, it’s also different with every person. Sometimes you also try to do a good thing and you go on an adventure and the person I’m working with was really looking forward to it but at the moment she really hates it, so things like that can also happen. And sometimes I take pictures of someone and I feel really guilty because I feel like the photograph wasn’t so good or wasn’t true to the person, but the person later tells me it completely changed their lives. Even though I think you have a responsibility to try to think about all the ethical questions, at the same time I also think the result is sort of magical for the person you collaborate with. You can never predict this at the beginning exactly.
LD: You want them to remain true to themselves, but it sounds like you’d also like to see their lives improved right? Even if you don’t want their essence to be lost.
JH: I don’t know. Why should I improve lives? Maybe I want my own life to improve and I have a feeling I can learn things from them, and I have a feeling the rest of the world can learn things from their lives.
LD: Your subjects are pretty international, do you have a plan when you start out? For example, how did you find the ghost rider?
For the ghost rider I was just in Nairobi for another project, with a friend of mine. We were in the slums and suddenly I just saw the ghost rider. He was just standing there and then I saw his bike and he looked so cool like he really came from a movie. At the time I started thinking, if I order a motor taxi I’d only want to drive with the ghost rider but then I found out there were so many more characters like him who customized their bikes to look cool. In that case I went with one plan in my mind, but then something else happened. So I think in the end, it’s about keeping your eyes open for the unexpected. A meeting with the ghost rider can completely switch all your plans.
LD: Thinking about wild experiences you’ve had, what comes to me is the dog owner that wanted to have sex with you when you asked to photograph her dog, what is the wildest experience that your work has led you to?
JH: Hmmm, I don’t know. I gotta really think about it.
LD: Maybe let’s rephrase that question then, have you ever been dragged into the project, when you kinda lost your focus and became the subject yourself?
JH: Well Kim, who I became friends with, just died a few months ago, but I’m still very sad about it. She lived in my hometown, normally I can’t keep a connection with a lot of the people I photograph, but with Kim there was always a new phase and Kim had been addicted for 15 years and had quite a difficult background, it became really complicated what we meant for each other. In the end we really became friends and I knew her for so long and saw all the social workers that kept changing around her, so I kept staying in contact for a much longer time period than most social workers who came and went in her life. And besides her boyfriend, I was the only person that didn’t go away. I also started to give her financial support. I took her on her first holiday with her boyfriend too. We went to a hotel, and suddenly I’m having a real holiday with someone who had never been to a 4 star hotel. So that holiday I think was the most intense thing, because we actually got kicked out of the hotel and it was also weird for me, because in the end, it really didn’t matter for me if we got kicked out or not, I was just really on her side.
With her I think it’s sort of a good example, because of photography all the borders of your work and your life can blend in with each other. So all the time we had to figure out how to relate with one another.
LD: Now, changing the subject a little bit, who were some of the big influences on your work?
JH: What I now sometimes think about is that I had a friend who was a writer and he was working for so long on this book and he already had a contract with a publisher and he was sort of a success, but after a while he just felt he wasn’t happy anymore. So he just stopped and started making drawings to sell on Instagram. So for me that’s maybe more of an example of how you should live. Diane Arbus is kind of the counter example, because she was so good and so consistent with the things she was doing, but then it became such a complete obsession til she committed suicide. So to become a very good artist maybe you should become a little like Diane Arbus, but in the end I would like more to become like my friend and just go in a completely different direction if you think that’s what you need. And for me my models are maybe more my inspirations than other artists.
LD: So kind of relating to that subject, that artists might be “borderliners”, it’s obviously something that interests you, and you did that comic book Mental Superpowers about that, right?
JH: Yeah, and with Mental Superpowers it shows how the outsiders and the outsider art are my inspirations. Diane Arbus was also an outsider artist. For Mental Superpowers I lived in a psychiatric hospital and also collaborated with people in the hospital and did some research on the difference between being brilliant and being crazy. I think the only difference between artists and psychiatric patients is that artists learn to source their craziness in a productive way.
The Spider: from the series 'New Ways Of Photographing The New Masai' - The First choice of Godlisten
The Machete Rider: from the series Boda Boda Madness in collaboration with Kenyan/Ugandan fashion designer Bobbin Case
Kim & Paul: in collaboration with fashion designer Nada van Dalen
Naked Breast Girls: from the series $€XXX in collaboration with designer Nieuw Jurk and sex magazine Foxy
Glory Hole: in collaboration with Duran Lantink
Crowdfounding project: Sistaaz of the Castle
Give all the trans workers in Cape Town their own activistic fashion magazine! Photographer Jan Hoek, fashion designer Duran Lantink and trans sex worker organisation SistaazHood present Sistaaz of the Castle, an ongoing project about the colorful looks and lives of transgender sex workers that roam the streets of Cape Town, South Africa.
SistaazHood is a trans sex worker support group in Cape Town that is run by the trans sex workers theirselves. Jan Hoek is a photographer/artist from Amsterdam in whose work the outsiders are the real super hero's of this planet. Duran Lantink is a fashion designer who turns all the rules in fashion upside down.Gerda van de Glind is a freelance journalist who writes about contemporary art for magazines as Mister Motley, Vice and Metropolis M.
The publication is designed by Merel van den Berg.
The crowd funding movie is made by Laura Rijnties
This projects is supported by AFK (Amsterdams Fonds voor de Kunst), The Art of Impact, Stimuleringsfonds, Mondriaanfonds, MIAP (Message In A Photo) and Stichting Varda.