Do you see yourself growing old doing this or do you not really look too far ahead?
When I understood that playing is my thing and that I can play with anything that comes, that I’m not that children’s photographer, that I can spread my wings and do various things – workshops, exhibitions, commercials, editorial – that’s when I suddenly got a very promising perspective about my work as a photographer. There’s such a variety and potential in my approach that I don’t think I can get bored very quickly. I have started one major project: It includes all these collaborations I do with friends, other artists and people I meet and get attracted to. That’s when I realised that this project is going to be a never-ending, exciting story.
Is that something you’re working on at the moment?
Yes and I can see it as a project that will go until the end of my life. It really is about working with whoever is in my field of interest and making photography with them. If it’s a butcher, then it’s the butcher. If it’s a mathematician, then it’s the mathematician. If it’s a song writer, then it’s the song writer and if it’s a gardener, then it’s the gardener. I just want to find the things between me and them, be the one documenting it with my photography, and making the process visible. That’s something that I’ve really been working on for the last two years and I find it the most exciting part of my work.
Is there anything that ties those images together other than that you’re the one taking them?
It is very much the approach. The projects are not about photography and they are not about the other subject matter; it is always about the thing in between. When I work with dancers for example, it is not me photographing them dancing and it is not them dancing for my camera. It is both of us wanting to create something with what lies between us. They’re dancing as much for my camera as I am photographing whatever they dance. We both know our limits and we put together our knowledge. We create something that is beyond photography and that is beyond dance, but which is actually between. Or when I work with a mathematician it is very much the same. The mathematician comes out of the project with as much of a result as I come out of it with a result. Do you know the homo ludens, the theory of the homo ludens?
I know that it’s ‘the man who learns through play’, but I don’t know where it comes from or any more than that.
There is a wonderful book, it’s called The Glass Bead Game by Herman Hesse. It won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1943. He didn’t invent homo ludens, but he places the theory and its structure in the beautiful setting of a sophisticated monastery. The goal for each student is to become the master of the game, the magister ludi. They learn to play with the most varied fields of science and to play between them. Essentially their game can be interpreted as life and how to play with it and master it to perfection.
In Hesse’s well-known book, Steppenwolf, a wise girl says to the protagonist, “Now we want to learn from each other and play with one another.” I think that’s the quintessential the core of the homo ludens. Anyway: the homo ludens is quite an old theory; it’s as old as the understanding of the homo sapiens and the homo faber and all the other philosophical categories of human beings. It’s as old as the ancient Greeks. Some people even interpret the Bible in a way that God was the first homo ludens. Aristotle came up with the theory that any kind of play is essential for a human being, for human growth, and that human culture can only really grow by the things that are between us, all the understandings that happen when two people meet that were strangers before but then come and meet each other and become friends and understand each other. That usually goes through a place called ‘getting to know each other’. The Greeks did this through dance, through sports, through any kind of game. Dance or sport was also considered a game … a playful thing. Like the Olympics, they were games and sports. It’s only nowadays that it’s much more competitive. Sport used to be a social happening and not competition. It used to be a very cultural happening where people would do things together and were culturally involved. So that’s very much the thinking that I want to introduce in all my work.
When did you discover that theory and realise, hang on, that’s what I do?
It was only recently really, maybe two years ago, that I realised that I was not just a children’s photographer; I’m not just a grown up little boy. Obviously people look at my work and think, oh you’re so lovely, and, you’re so childish, and, you get along with kids really well don’t you? I go, yes, but I’m not just playing with kids like you would say you’re playing with kids; I’m not just a grown up little boy, I’m trying to construct games and I’m trying to come up with creative solutions to challenges, to situations. It was a friend who pointed it out to me and said, “Look Jan, what you’re doing is very much like the homo ludens stuff.” [Johan] Huizinga wrote a lovely book about the homo ludens and the culture of it. I started reading it and I thought, wow, that really applies to what I do. Once I had it in front of me and did further research into the historical aspects of it, the cultural developments and the personal developments, I saw the future in front of me and I realised, this is what I’m going to do for the rest of my life. I’m just going to play; I’m going to be a professional player with my camera.
It’s interesting isn’t it, how suddenly you can feel validated, or you feel like your work is validated.
Very much so. Very, very much so, and I was so relieved reading this. I was finally relieved to see so much research which supported all the things that I had done. It’s also what pulled me out of that weird niche of being a children’s photographer and of just being a playful, ‘not taking life too seriously’ kind of guy.
But instead actually positioned you alongside the ancient Greeks!
Exactly [both laugh], exactly. It always took me so much energy and so much thinking to come up with all these projects, it was not at all playful. I was spending 70 per cent of my time on my desk or sketching ideas. It is really only 20 or 30 per cent when I’m executing what I’ve put down on paper and when I am actually playing my games. So yeah, as you say, I suddenly felt validated and knew what I was doing.
And that probably opened up a whole lot of new possibilities for you?
It did. I don’t think there are any limits anymore. The answer to your earlier question, if I was to do this in the future.