Interview with Jesse van der Tuuk

By Abril Cisneros

A: Why did you become a photographer and what was the journey into doing what you’re doing today:

J: I remember where I first really started to get into photography was when I got interested in art but I couldn’t draw really well. I was always at a skatepark with friends and I would go to gigs. I grew up in a town in the countryside in between two larger cities so I was always either at the skatepark in town or somewhere in the cities. I don’t recall my friends really recorded anything of that other than pictures taken with phones  which were not really a thing back then because social media wasn’t either. I started using an analog camera I found in my attic and just started to take portraits and photos of the things Im did. A lot of the stuff I did when I was like 14/15 really looked like a prototype of what i’m doing now; portraits, my friends and interesting things I found in the street. That developed into me going to study cinematography & photography as a pre study and then actual art school at the Royal Academy of Arts. I think I remained consistent with subjects and styles, while it developed over the years it always has been really focussed around the same themes.

A: You have a page on IMDB – and you have studied cinema, how did that happen?

J: Yes I do actually! I did a pre study in cinematography & photography before I went to the Royal Academy of Arts in The Hague. My pre-study was back in the North in Groningen. It was like a really technical study focused on people who are going to do work with tv or do commercial photography. That’s where I graduated with my Croatia project in 2017. I made a short film with some classmates of mine that was basically my only released film project which had some success at  film festivals. I wrote the concept and did creative directing for it and it was really great but i was never really motivated to do anything with moving imagery. With film or movies, it just takes a lot more time. It’s a different process compared to photography and it didn’t work out for me, so I’ve been sitting on ideas for film screenplays for a really long time but i just leave them on my shelves usually.

A: I saw the photos in your article for Vice Magazine, and also for the japanese magazine Sabukaru.  I wondered why none of the photos from Walking Distance, which is the main series in our online exhibition, features portraits – in the Vice and Sabukaru series people are a big part of your work.  I understand it for the second two series, but for Walking Distance is there a special reason?

J: So for the Croatia project it made a lot of sense to take portraits, because it was about the local people from the town in that part of Croatia. For Walking Distance, firstly there just aren’t that many people outside nowadays. In part, maybe because of lockdown, but i think generally since it’s a residential neighbourhood, people go from point a to point b or to the supermarket or to the tram. Moreover, I wasn’t looking for that connection you have with people when you take a portrait of them. Maybe because I longed for solitude, or maybe because of COVID too. I did have some photographs in my selection of Walking Distance with people in them but it wasn’t the main focus for me.

A: What would you say is the main focus then, the city or?

J: Yes the neighbourhood. Because this neighbourhood was built in the early nineteen hundreds, there is a lot of history in the surfaces, you have these old buildings which are constantly changing. Like the facades and doors, or the textures of the walls, or graffiti being covered by other graffiti or by cleaners from the municipality. I really like when people drop a bucket of paint from their car or something, that will stay on the surface for years to come. These things then build up in the environment which are really easily overlooked but they really characterise the neighbourhood. That’s what you see a lot here, that’s what i’m interested in. 

A: A common denominator I find in the three series of this exhibition is the city as a protagonist. I don’t know if it is a very broad question, but what was the journey to find your visual emphasis in the metropolitan space? Is there a reason as to why you’re interested in the urban environment specifically?

J: Maybe because I am from a small town myself and i’m really intrigued by how cities expand over the years to also host different architectural styles and new innovations that might clash with things that were there before. Again, there is a characteristic feeling in the textures and environments that intrigues me.

A: If it’s about how the city evolves and how the metropolitan space changes over time would you consider your work to have a documentary focus to a certain extent?

J: Yes, at theRoyal Academy of Arts, after the first year you either specialise in fictional or documentary photography. I chose the documentary department, where I also focused on a single person or social group, things like that. In the end, it often ended up being me documenting the spaces where people went rather than making portraits. I still do make portraits but because of the  lockdown i don’t see a lot of people and don’t make a lot of portraits. Usually my portraits are better when the connection with the person is better, like friends or people I have followed for a longer time rather than strangers I see in the street. The connection is different, and I feel that with photography and documentary, you already ask so much from other people. They have to open up in order for you to photograph them.  When there is a personal connection I feel like I can give back more of that.

A: As a confession, Skate Mag collages is my favourite series. I think you achieved something extraordinary because when I think about the history of collage, the goal was to highlight and put signifiers together, so different snippets of different subject matters, but all essential to construct a narrative. You did the opposite! You selected the surroundings, what frames the ‘main’ subject matter in a skate photograph, and with those fragments that usually remain in the background you created something new! Love it. How did you come up with this idea of ​​removing the main focus of the images?

J: I’m a real hoarder of visual culture, I collect a lot of imagery and save it. Years ago I found a stack of Vice magazines in a thrift shop and it was on my shelf for years. The same with skate magazines. I was cleaning those up recently and realized that the imagery and the magazines feature a lot of advertisement. My own photography is not really technical but more about the subject. The whole thing about skateboarding is that there is an interaction with the environment. Similar to what I do with photography in a metropolitan area, is that you find surfaces and objects you are interacting in. While with skateboarding you leave marks and damages, taking a picture might do that too, but then by capturing something in that state forever. In my collages, I play with this idea. I can for example take out the advertisement and the punctum of the picture itself, but that still leaves the frame of the photograph and the surfaces. I think this came about because I grew up inspired by subcultural stuff (graffiti, skateboarding) which is also about the interaction you have with the environment, the using and taking something from your surroundings.  

A: The tree in the yard series. The notion of portraying the same subject but in different environments. That also changes very subtly, in between pictures, sometimes the light is different or there is fog. This reminded me a lot of an avant-grade cinema of the 70s movie: Larry Gottheim’s Fog Line, which also features a tree, slowly changing. Your background includes some cinema studies. So I wanted to know if there is some cinematic relation to how you’ve created this project? Or how do you think about this?

J: Yes there is for sure. When I started, it was misty as well, so that is one thing. But the backyard that the tree is in, the yard, looks like scenes from Rear Window by Hitchcock. There is a photographer who looks at his backyard, which looks similar to mine, and he sees his neighbors going about their business, which ends up backfiring on him. I initially made a video project about my neighbors on their balconies, similar to Rear Window. But that was not very visually interesting. Then I just focused on the tree in the middle of the yard, which has a big presence. The grey tones and the yard reminded me of Hitchcock as well. When I was starting this project, I looked at The Twilight Zone series from the 50s which was also set in neighbours alot as well, In New York or suburban areas. 

A: How do you decide to shoot something in black and white or in colour?

J: Usually, when it isn’t summer in The Netherlands, everything looks very dull. In The Hague and especially my neighborhood, there is a mere look of red brick and grey stones. The colours are so flat, that if you convert them to greyscale, they gain more depth. For me it depends on the project. I do use colour sometimes.

A: If you could photograph any city, which one would it be?

J: Just before I started Walking Distance and before the lockdown, I was about to shoot a similar project in Budapest. No idea when that will be possible again. Either Budapest or New York, or maybe Tokyo as well.