Joep Hijwegen (b. 1994) is a street photographer from the Netherlands. He also a founder of 'Beyond the Digital’ magazine that aims to bring a great selection of contemporary street photographers out of the digital sphere and into the world of print. Hijwegen is a GUP New photography talent 2020 and also, Haute Photographie Talent 2020. The photographer’s main inspirations are literature, especially existentialist philosophy and fiction, music and cinema. His unique vision shows that nostalgia, love, mystery and terror, the things we usually seek in cinema or recreations of reality, can also be found in everyday life.
ARTIBOOKS invited Joep Hijwegen for a chat which resulted in this inspiring interview.
1. How did your passion for street photography start?
It started photographing as a way of coping with anxiety. I felt a fear of ‘fading away’ in the business of modern life and felt I couldn’t connect to anyone or anything. This made me feel distant to life, and with this distance came both an appreciation of observing life as well as a frustration of not being able to connect to it. A camera seemed a logical way to combat all these issues, to capture the stories and moments I saw in a way that captured my alienation, but also allowed me to show it to others and hopefully feel more noted and understood. I bought a small polaroid camera and started taking pictures during my daily walks. At first just of trees and buildings, then mannequins, and finally people. My fear of being caught or getting in trouble forced me to use reflections and shoot through layers, hidden away, and my crappy camera forced me to embrace abstraction and atmosphere. Very quickly, the camera turned my alienation from a tormentor into inspiration and I came to love and appreciate the simultaneous distance and intense connection I felt to the things happening around me. Street photography very quickly became not about preserving moments but about creating them, and it is this feeling of being able to create meaning and beauty out of randomness that drives my passion to this day, and has made me a much happier person as well.
2. I know that you are inspired by Saul Leiter and William Eggleston, what exactly attracts you in their style and way of photographing?
Both are photographers that consider their instinct as sacred and infallible, and really do not set out to create stories or have a style, it just flows from there. They don’t shoot to create something, they just shoot and learn what they are trying to create from looking at their images. I’m much the same way. The most important lesson I’ve learned from their work is that initial trust in instinct, that anything that draws you in is worth photographing and even important to photograph. A lot of the visual elements in my work that remind people of Leiter and Eggleston were there before I even found out about them, and also flow from this instinct. The subframing and vertical obscuring lines of Leiter are in my work for probably the same reason they are in his: because a busy environment requires some blocking of background to isolate subjects. As for Eggleston, it is the diagonal lines and slightly offset perspective, which is something that I believe happens deeply unconsciously. Eggleston once said he subconsciously drew the Confederate flag in every image he made, hinting that his work is more about dealing with the past of his surroundings than he wanted to let on. For me it is the crucifix that comes back everywhere in composition, which I also do not think is a coincidence. Photography for me was about redemption, about rebirth, and about making suffering meaningful to start with. Had I set out to create something, a planned series or something, I’d never have learned what my work was about in the same way.
“Shooting in colour has also made life more coloUrful in general."
3. Do you also take black-and-white pictures?
I experimented with black-and-white in the early days. Some of my first digital images were quite architectural. I was trying to use modern buildings in my city to create space colonies like landscapes, with twisted, almost Escher-like [Dutch graphic artist Maurits Cornelis Escher (1898-1972)] perspectives. When I look at those images now, they have the same kind of drive to make internal states visible in my surroundings, but they just made me miserable. There was no hope or tension or drama in them. I felt I needed colour to do that. And as soon as I switched to photographing images of people, I really needed colour. Black-and-white felt too documentarian when shooting people, more about them than about me. The layers and abstraction I used also just were not ‘readable’ without colour, things blended and I could not compose how I wanted to. Still, it took me a long time to be able to do anything in colour. It makes you more dependent on light, and it makes it more difficult to keep an image simple - too many different colours or different shades and it just becomes chaotic. I don’t think I ever want to go back to black-and-white again. It’s just not how I see the world anymore, and I’m thankful for that. Shooting in colour has also made life more colorful in general. So colour came about both as a way of making photography and my worldview more dramatic and positive, it was both an artistic and psychological necessity.
4. How did the idea of creating Beyond Digital become more than just an idea?
As soon as I was featured in GUP NEW I figured I wanted to do something to give back to those who got me that far. The street photography community has been so loving and helpful and such an inspiration and being mentored by a Dutch gallerist and collector Roy Kahmann made me feel like I wanted to help other people as well. I saw both the usefulness and the limits of Instagram: I made a lot of connections and friendships, but also saw that it is an echo chamber and gives very little real satisfaction when it comes to exposing work on it. As soon as I pitched the idea to Matthijs (van Schuppen) of a fine art photography magazine specifically around contemporary street photographers, he became very enthusiastic and wanted to help with the design. In the days of the GUP expo it went from a vision to reality from day 1 to 3. We never did something like this before, but the combination of my love for analysis of images and art history, Matthijs’ design expertise and Roy's and the GUP’ team’s help (especially Sam Oerlemans who finetuned the design), transformed a messy concept into a real magazine in no time. And then we discovered it was actually something people wanted to buy, which definitely helped.
"I frequently watch movies just to take screenshots, my way of lazy night time street photography"
5. What are your future goals and aspirations in terms of your career?
I really want to publish a book. It is very important for me that my work remains somewhat democratic and accessible, and I want people to also be able to appreciate and look at my work in print at an affordable price, but in a way that allows more curation than a webpage. I’m also quite a manic producer, taking thousands of images a week and keeping at least several in the same timespan, so exhibitions force me to kill a lot of darlings that I’d love to show somewhere and surprise people with. I would also love to have an exhibition. I enjoyed Haute Photographie 2020, where I showed my work together with other 6 talents. People’s receptiveness not just to my images but to my stories touched me profoundly. Because it is so personal and emotional, I felt very vulnerable and was worried about scaring people off by oversharing, but many came to me and knew the story before I even told it. That meant a lot to me, and has given me a huge drive and confidence to keep working. I also want to expand ‘Beyond Digital' even more. I think the contemporary street photography scene that was born on Instagram has a lot to offer, and it should break free from that bubble. Digital photography has allowed for some very innovative stuff, especially in terms of night photography and the degree of control over results, which means that there’s street photography coming out that is unlike anything before, and I’d love the world to know about that.
6. Do you work in separate projects or are you mostly focused on creating a single image?
Neither really. Like I elaborated in my response to the Leiter and Eggleston question, I make my best work when I just follow instinct and take pictures of whatever feels good. And if I’m in this flow I do not even have a single image in mind, I just get pulled from detail to detail and walk around, play with focus and perspective, different subjects, almost seamlessly. It’s only later when I look at the image that I make a selection or discover what I was looking for, I hardly know at the moment of shooting. However, I am not always in this flow, and other times I do go looking for one specific thing. It’s never a specific subject, more a specific feeling or form of composition, usually because I’ve seen something like it and want to make it my own. It can be a scene in a movie (I frequently watch movies just to take screenshots, my way of lazy night time street photography), an image I saw, a dream or vision, anything.
"I think the contemporary street photography scene that was born on Instagram has a lot to offer, and it should break free from that bubble."
7. How do you find street photography during the pandemic? Did you experience some shifts in topics that interest you?
There’s been both a mental and physical shift during the pandemic. Normally, loneliness and distance is a huge part of my work, but they are relative concepts. Now that everyone is kind of cut off and distant from each other, I feel less lonely and more on equal terms with people I see in the street. This makes it impossible to shoot the way I did before because feeling is what drives me, not necessarily what is really happening. The streets are also just empty late at night, which combined with people's awareness and paranoia which makes it even more difficult to shoot comfortably. About 80% of my keepers are shot from the outside into restaurants and bars, and since they are closed, a huge part of my favourite environment is gone. I have gotten even more interested in how much the city is an emotional, busy network even without people. This isn’t new, I’ve always taken lots of still lives that kind of read like confusing collages, but the first 1,5 month of the pandemic I’ve been focused almost solely on it. I identified two separate worlds, the inner city and the suburbs, who have kind of switched roles. The city is usually busy but calming to me, but now it is empty yet a somewhat anxious place to be. The suburbs however, are usually very calm but feel desolate and awkward for me to be in. Now they are busy, bristling with people working from home and embracing the neighbourhood as their social area, and I feel comfortable and welcome there. This reversal, of busy places, becoming empty but feeling full and empty places becoming full but feeling blissful, has been the focus of my first real project 'STILL', which can be found on my website and Instagram. It is now at an end, as people are already shifting back to life as it was before and I have become too used by the new normal to still see it, but I think there are going to be some lasting effects on my future photography. I think I’ve become more sensitive to what in semiotics would be called ‘the index’, the denotation of an object by its absence. It was central in this project and now that I’ve picked up my ‘regular’ street photography, I can already see I’m telling more stories by omission and hinting at what is not there.
8. How do you see post-pandemic street photography?
As I’ve mentioned already, I’m slowly getting back to my ‘regular’ street photography, but it’s not the same and I’m not sure if it will ever be. Empty places don’t fit my style, and busy places still make me a bit too uncomfortable to shoot. I think everyone has also become more aware and more paranoid, and I’ve already had more comments and questions from bystanders in a few weeks than in the years before. It’s too soon to tell what will happen in the future and how this might still change. I do think that people will slowly just go back to their general ways before, but we will all have to change in some ways, and that includes me. To be completely static and just reproduce the same stuff I’ve always done has never appealed to me anyway, so I’ll just have to see if things can change for the better.
9. I remember in one of your talks, you've mentioned that you were planning a photographic road trip across the USA. And what are your plans now, considering the current circumstances?
My plans had already shifted from the USA to Japan. No matter how emotional my connection is to the states, I ultimately figured that I produce better work when I feel a bit estranged and that the US was just a bit of a logistical nightmare for my style of working and shooting. Japan is probably ideal for what I want to do: early nights, lights, plenty of rain, modern cities and busy, somewhat introverted life. I still want to go as soon as possible, and I’ll probably catch a flight there as soon as I can. If anything, the pandemic has increased my appetite for travel. Freedom as a concept has become more meaningful and fragile to me. I was supposed to fly to New York, with everything booked, on the same day the travel ban went into effect. I woke up from celebrating the launch of Beyond Digital with a hangover, and suddenly the world was different, and I was hit by the sudden realization of how much freedom I had left unused before. The fact that 'STILLá was meant to be a project lasting for the entirety of the crisis but that I moved past it in 1,5 month has also shown me that while the street can give us infinite material, a change of environment is something I am definitely looking forward to.
"I’m slowly getting back to my ‘regular’ street photography, but it’s not the same and I’m not sure if it will ever be."
10. How do you find photographing streets in the Netherlands? Is it exciting? And what would be your dream location to photograph?
I touched on it slightly above already, but it is a very interesting question. I find the Netherlands unbearably dull but in kind of a good way. The old Dutch saying that roughly translates to ‘just be yourself, that’s crazy enough’, really sums it up for me. We are a culture that celebrates moderation and in a way even mediocracy, which feels claustrophobic at times but has also forced me to embrace my fantasy and change the things I see into something more interesting. If it wasn’t for nothing ever really happening in Utrecht, I wouldn’t have been so driven to create images that obscure reality and make it more interesting and dramatic. In many ways I’m even anxious to go to Japan or the US because they are so much more interesting and exotic to me, I worry that they might be so interesting by themselves that I no longer craft my own stories but just capture the ones in front of me. But that is something I have to discover and see for myself.