01 Dec An Interview with Jack Van Heutgen
OC: What or who has influenced you to take pictures and, as you’ve said before, “stop time”?
JV: It is difficult to tell what or who influenced me to start taking pictures. I started as a young boy, with an old Agfa Clack given to me by my father. The will to shoot emerged from somewhere within myself. Nobody told me to take pictures, nobody stimulated me or told me to keep taking pictures. It was and is just something that comes from deep down inside, with no real or rational explanation. I felt, and still feel, that it’s just an inherent part of me, nothing more, nothing less.
I think I’m an observer of life as I never really felt I was actually taking part in life around me. It’s as if life is a stage, a movie, and I am back-stage, in the wings, watching as the play goes on. That’s why I take pictures; to get a grip on the world around me. Almost as a substitute for life itself, a camera is my therapeutic means to witness, get a hold of and live life, like a way to stop the clock so that I am to be able to step in, to feel what’s happening. I just want to stop time to keep the world, and anything in it that I love, close to me. I don’t want the beautiful things to fade away, I want to remember everything. And taking pictures is the best way to establish a strong memory which helps keep everything close. I’ve got my personal archive of about 20, 000 prints (not trusting the hard disc on my computers) which I consider my concrete memory. I’m part living in the past but the past was present just a second ago. I cherish that fresh past, I cherish the second before…
OC: You seem to have a deep understanding of the simple moments we can all overlook. Why and when did you see this emerging in your work?
JV: I think it’s an inner melancholy that makes me see the environment in a certain way, and accordingly I take a picture. It is a kind of longing, like an old romantic desire to find paradise. I don’t really consider it something special; I simply walk around, wherever I am, be it on a job, in a strange city, at home, or in bed when the sun rises through the curtains; and am guided by my eyes. They see beautiful morning sun rays on the wall, or a melancholy landscape, a beautiful face in the crowd, and I stand still, in awe, fascinated. There’s no theory behind it, no artistic method: things just capture me. And as I am not really bothered with reality, the economic world, or the future; as my life does not have a strict goal, things can fascinate me by merely being what they are, and the inner or outer beauty the convey. I am quite influenced by professional photographers, painters, authors, scientists, that have unconsciously conditioned my eyes, my feelings, my vision. People like Henry Cartier Bresson, Helmut Newton, Roberto Salgado, Monet, Van Gogh, Picasso, Modigliani and Giacometti, Goethe, Baudelaire, Kundera, Marx, Weber, Baudrillard. They have all influenced what I see, and how I see. But, I don’t see anything ’emerging’ in my work. It’s just there, subconsciously. Pictures I took at the age of seven, are basically no different from the pictures I took yesterday.
OC: How has going digital affected your photography?
JV: I was a late adaptor of digital photography. I preferred my old camera’s, like the Nikon F3 and the Minolta X700, and their great solid prime lenses. And in fact, I still prefer those cameras, and certainly the output of film. Look at the old black and white photographs in newspapers! That still is the ultimate for me. But, after adapting to the digital way of life, it moved fast. Well, not that fast, because it took me some time to get familiar with the idea of digital photography itself, being able to change ISO for example, or convert color to black and white. This whole new technology is still magic to me.
Whereas I developed maybe 20 rolls of film a year in the nineties (roughly 700 pictures), I am now taking a few thousand of them. And I experience an enormous amount of freedom and possibility to experiment now. It is so easy now to grab a camera, and take a picture. Billions and billions of pictures are taken every day. Go, and have a look at the Sacre Coeur in Paris—everybody is taking pictures. It’s really incredible, millions of pictures every day, thousands per hour! And mobile photography to me is a real revolution. The availability of a camera phone in my pocket, does change the way I’m walking around. I am now, more than ever, looking and searching with a photographic eye, be it in the supermarket, on the road, in my own house; everywhere. Of course, that changes my overall way of living. ‘Being photographic’ all day long comes at the expense of other equally important things like reading, talking, or ‘not-looking’. I mean, the progress of digital photography brings new disadvantages, new problems. Sometimes I say to myself: today there’s no need to activate your ‘camera eye’, because today you are not going to take any pictures and it is liberating. For me, digital photography is an incredibly beautiful technology, but created an addiction/obsession at the same time, even more so with all those great possibilities to share your pictures with like-minded people all over the planet.
OC: What kinds of photographs are your favorites to capture?
JV: They are always pictures without people, and usually with some movement in them. I love the dynamic of literally a tiny moment in time as a glimpse in eternity. It could’ve gone unnoticed, but by sheer accident, it was noticed by me, only by me. Nobody saw it, and nobody will ever see it in exactly the same way. These types of images represent small transitions, unnoticed by the world which is busy living and doing more ‘important’ things.
OC: What touches you, draws you in, to other people’s photographs?
JV: I love seeing other people’s photographs, be they professionals or amateurs, especially on Instagram. I follow people from all over the world, and in the morning, when I wake up, and made my cup of coffee, I take my tour around the world. I enjoy experiencing the world in a single moment; from Japan to Venezuela, to South Africa, to Italy, to the United States. It makes me feel part of that same world, and makes me feel good about people in general. Looking at other people’s photographs, especially professional documentary photographers, I can watch a street scene in Syria, a volcano eruption in the Philippines, and a political scene in The Netherlands all in the same minute. More than the written word, and even more than video, photography gives me a sense of immediacy, of being a true witness. Sitting at my table in my humble house in The Netherlands, in a far away place close to the border of Germany, I live multiple lives, thanks to the internet and social media. It’s unprecedented. I am here, I am everywhere; in the present and in the past.