The Wide Lens View of Photographer Henk Wildschut
Henk Wildschut ’s photographs tackle charged situations with a subtlety that bucks emotional contrivance. The Dutch photographer’s latest project, Ville de Calais, offers a structural and less manipulative look at the evolution of a French refugee camp. Immigration, food, climate change – his interests swing wide and are always a study of fundamental global issues, but seen on a human scale.
A version of this exclusive interview first appeared in the pages of the 13th issue of ODDA Magazine.
Q: You started out shooting for magazines and design agencies, do you still continue in that line of work?
A: I still do it when it’s around and have the time, my projects start to take a lot of time. At the start of my career I was basically a portrait photographer. I was good at telling a very small story in one portrait. A good example is the portrait I took from Geert Wilders, a famous Dutch politician. It was at the start of his career but he was already known for his extreme ideas. I wanted to show the human side of him by making a picture of him sitting alone in a Chinese restaurant. With this awkward situation I wanted to underline the position of a man believing in something in a strange world. I became known for this kind of subtle portraits with a story.
Q: Since 2005 you’ve been photographing the makeshift refugee camp in the French seaport of Calais, the final stop before the prospect of England. Those trips have culminated in the books and exhibitions Shelter (2010) and the recently published Ville de Calais. Why did you return?
A: In Shelter I focused mainly on the individual, how they tried to find a better live in Europe. But then, in 2015, we didn’t talk about individuals anymore, we talked about groups. I saw a cartoon with a boat full of ISIS warriors coming across the Mediterranean Sea. At that point I realized immigrants were no longer individuals and were starting to become, in the minds of many people, a threat. The urgency of the new developments drew me back to the story and I was shocked when I came back to Calais and saw the forest was filled with shelters: 2,000 people. After 10 years, the situation was the same. No help from the government… Then, one month later, the police forced them from the old forest to this new place in the dunes just outside the ring road of Calais, where they started to build this new camp. In the first weekend, I saw what was a basic infrastructure on that gravel road. There was the starting point that I thought: “Oh, somebody is actually planning this. Somebody cared. This is a new chapter.”
Q: Your exhibit materials mention how when police started demolishing the informal camp to build an official one, it was not the residents but rather the volunteers “who found it most difficult seeing the camp being demolished, which they attempted to make into something permanent, against their better judgement.”
A: After 2015 people started donating, and then the camp grew. There was a theatre. There were tourists that came in…You have to understand that the refugees never wanted to be there. But for the volunteers, it became their life. For refugees it was only a temporary solution. For them the only goal was to go to England. So then the camp was destroyed, they didn’t care, because they didn’t want to be there anyway. So when you see volunteers crying, I thought, you didn’t understand the whole point of this place. I always find them, the immigrants, so resilient. When the camp was destroyed people were for a short time angry but next they thought, let’s move some other place. Then for the French government, the problem was not solved, you close the camp but the immigrants spread around and go to another place.
Q: Our next issue is themed to the major, the personal response. Many of your contemporaries use up-close portraits to provoke human empathy, while you do not. How does that affect audience appeal?
A: I don’t want to communicate with big clichés. In the Shelter book I chose to not show any portraits, because the portrait is a little overrated in what it tells. It shows a person, but there is no connection between me as a viewer and what I see in the picture. But as soon as you see an interior where people sleep but there isn’t anybody, you can see yourself sleeping in that place. And second, it’s not in their interest. If you’re an illegal immigrant, you just want to be unseen.
Q: What about the nature of exhibiting projects with Middle Eastern and African subjects in the West, where viewers will primarily be Western?
A: I am aware I am a Western photographer. I make in-depth background stories with reflect on the Western ideas about that particular subject. It’s really difficult to exhibit my work with a different context from the one I made it for, the Western public. Once I showed my work in Nigeria and they didn’t understand why I chose to show a shelter, because they have them everywhere. But in Europe, when I started, nobody knew; it was a shock. That’s also why I think I need to move on, because immigration is so widely covered now. I like to find stories which people have a prejudice about, and then show it in a different way so they start to rethink about that pre-assumption.
Q: To what extent was your Food project at the Rijksmuseum a passion of yours, versus a commission from the museum?
A: This started as a commissioned subject for me. When I started, I thought I would show the world how bad the food industry is. But I started to investigate and slowly I started realizing I didn’t know anything about the food industry and I only thought about showing pictures I’d seen a million times. So, I thought: “Let’s turn it around and focus on the positive side.” Suddenly I saw that it was true and I became passionate. There is a big connection between the way people create a slum area and the way people deal with food issues…People think about food in a nostalgic way, but there are some great inventions like indoor farming and meat without animals…if you only think in a nostalgic way, we lose the ability to create solutions. Same for immigration. This is only the beginning.
Q: How do you prompt political change when only a limited number of people will access your work in books or galleries?
A: I don’t want to be political, but I am, I know. I don’t start off with the idea that I want to change the world. I want a broad audience but my work is quite difficult. I always try to educate the viewers or the readers of the newspaper I work for. I don’t want to make it easy on them. It’s my ambition to make people think on what they are seeing and make them rethink about prejudices. In a way I have quite a big audience with my work, even it’s in galleries or magazines. If you’re a photojournalist, the next day your picture will be the garbage bin–so my work is spread all over the place. I also thought about this book that will only be available for a small elite who’s buying it. I know. But I really admire the intentions and the resilience of the guys in that informal village. I focused on the attention they put into building a restaurant or a house. So, why should I just make it only political, when I want to show their dignity? Due to that, I wanted to make a book as a monument of this camp and its inhabitants and give the viewer the changes to make their own ideas about the subject.
Q: Where do you go from here?
A: I’m working on refugee gardens. When I came into a refugee camp in Lebanon, I met a man who had beautiful flowers around his tent. He told me he really needed to take care of flowers and plants, because he had been through so much. Seeing something positive grow was his way to ease his mined. Probably that will be the last story I tell on refugees, through a flower… then next I want to make a combination of food and immigration and climate change, in my way.
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