Decoding the Powerful Narratives Behind These Surreal Photos

Pin It
Still Life with Camel, 2016, United Emirates, (c)
Still Life with Camel, 2016, United Emirates© Scarlett Hooft Graafland, Courtesy of Flowers Gallery

Travelling to some of the world's most unforgiving landscapes, Scarlett Hooft Graafland works with local communities to create vivid, joyful photographs – but their undercurrent is decidedly more difficult

The work of Amsterdam-based artist Scarlett Hooft Graafland is humorous and charming, spilling over colour, but to assume that this is all there is to it would be to miss out on the innate power of her images. Travelling to some of the most demanding and difficult-to-reach places in the world, Graafland spends many months working with local people to extract the essence of their cultural history, using everything she finds out along the way to inform curious performances she stages with them. Everything about these works is laboured over, from the construction of the elaborate sculptures and installations she builds for the photographs, most of which takes place without fixers or guides, in spite of language barriers and local regulations, to making the images themselves – “I still use analogue photography, and so I print later directly from the negatives, and those prints are quite large,” she tells me over the phone.

This autumn a new exhibition comprising four years worth of work, entitled Shores Like You, takes place at Huis Marseille in Amsterdam, inviting visitors into Graafland’s distinctive and eye-opening universe. She chose the title as it seemed to pick out a common thread across the projects featured. “Except Bolivia, the projects are all on islands,” she explains, “the islands of Madagascar, of Socotra in Yemen, Vanuatu in the Pacific Ocean. But the way we put the book together is to mix all the images; the idea is that's it's not so much about that particular place, but it's more universal. It should be more about the magic of the image than about where it is taken.”

She was met with varying enthusiasm, she continues. “There were certain areas where people were really open-minded and had fun doing these things; I found that in Madagascar people are really open, and also in Iceland – that was one of the countries where people were really easy-going. But, for example, in China it was really difficult. People would do stuff, but in a rigid way, so most of the photos didn't work out, because you need some kind of spontaneous atmosphere. So that's always a challenge: how to find people who want to cooperate.”

The exhibition is accompanied by a suitably vivid catalogue of her photographs, designed by none other than 'Queen of Books' Irma Boom. Perhaps even more startling than the photographs themselves, however, is the pared-back explanation Graafland supplies for each image in the Index of Works which precedes them. Take Blue People, 2012,  for example: “Six children painted blue, seeking shelter from the sun beneath the roof of their hut, their feet bathed in sunlight. 'Blue People' was a term that referred to slaves,” Graafland writes in its explanation. Likewise, for Look Cook, Look!, a photograph taken in 2015 in Vanuatu, an island in the south Pacific which was devastated by famous explorer Captain Cook when he came across it in the late-18th century. “A model of the HMS Resolution being held by a tribesman of Maskelynes Island, dressed in a ceremonial outfit,” the caption reads. “Nowadays, two and a half centuries after Captain Cook’s ship appeared out of nowhere at that same spot, members of the tribe still talk about his arrival.” 

There’s a deliberate slowness to these photographs, a layering of sculptural elements with quiet, nascent themes and a cheeky humour designed to attract. “She mixes with unknown people, identifies with a region and a culture, and appears to seek maximum authenticity,” writes Maarten Doorman in the book’s foreword. “Because, in today’s visual culture, everything is forever being photographed.”

Following a stellar reception to the exhibition in Amsterdam, we caught up with Graafland to find out the stories behind some of her powerful images.

On how strong landscapes can compound the stupidity of societal limitations…
“I use the landscape – that's the scenery – but then I do things inside the landscape to make it more relative. So you often see images of people who are restricted, or situations of social constraint, but then by placing those situations inside really wide or strong landscapes it becomes almost like a chorus, like a classical comedy or a tragedy. The landscape, and the freedom you feel in these places, shows that actually we humans sometimes have strange social rules. That's one thing I try to do.

I think it's also beautiful to show this in lots of different places; so, the situation in Yemen is of course totally different to what it is in Vanuatu or Madagascar, but they have an overall theme that is more universal, I think. Then also, because sometimes they're kinda heavy subjects, like overfishing, or climate change, I try to keep it kind of light, or at least have some humorous aspects, so it's still bearable.”

On photographing women in burkas holding balloons on the beach in Yemen…
“I made those photographs on Socotra Islands in Yemen in 2014. You cannot go there anymore as it's too dangerous, and already then it was a bit tricky. I was a bit hesitant as to whether it would be still possible to go, but I contacted a friend of a friend of mine, a war photographer from Sana'a called Amira Al-Sharif, who was also on the islands, and she said 'yeah, you should come'. So it's actually through her that I got to know these local tribe people from the islands.

I explained to them that, to me, the shape of the women in burkas has a similar shape to these long balloons I had brought with me from Holland, so I asked if they wanted to be in the photo and they agreed. We had to walk a long way to find that spot. We left at four in the morning, because I always like to make the photos in the morning when you have the good light, and when finally we got there they really wanted to put all their make up on, so that took a long time, and I was really impatient [laughs].

What I really like about it is that it's such a playful and energetic photo, and it’s a really amazing landscape – but also the kind of ridiculous thing of the burka, when you have it placed on this amazing landscape, it's really powerful. I was really thrilled when we did that, especially because nowadays you see so many negative stories on the news about women in burkas. I wanted to do something very different.”

On her favourite photographs…
“The women with cotton candy in their hands on the salt flats in Bolivia is one of the first photos I ever took, and I was really happy when I could make that. I heard about a Bolivian artist who organises all kind of special art events, but also he invites artists and musicians to do performances on a green lake. I really liked that idea, so I sent him an email with an idea for the green lake, and he wrote back, ‘well just come and we'll make it happen’. That attitude is so cool. I didn't know him at all, but I decided to just go there and see. Then, on the way to the green lake we crossed the salt desert.

The work I made in the green lake didn't work out very well, I never showed it or used it. But then I did so many things, especially in the salt desert, because it's such a powerful and surreal place. For example, the women on the little mountains who are holding the cotton candy, those people are the indigenous Aymara people who live close to the desert. These women have really rough circumstances, so I thought it would be beautiful to place them on a pedestal and to give them this proud feeling, but also the women always have sweet names that they’re called, like 'sweetheart', so there’s the sweet against salt.”

Scarlett Hooft Graafland, Shore Like You, runs until December 4, 2016 at Huis Marseille, Amsterdam. The new publication, Scarlett Hooft Graafland: Shores Like You is published by nai010 and is available from Flowers Gallery.