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Jan von Holleben is a photographer
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Jan von Holleben is a photographer
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Jan von Holleben is a photographer
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"It is about having a good time and having achieved something I can be proud of."
Conversations
2 April 2010

Jan von Holleben is a photographer

Interview by Kate Bezar
Marc von Holleben, Felix Oberhase and Marx DeZalia

Kate Bezar on Jan von Holleben

At first glance it would be easy to assume that Jan von Holleben’s (much copied) magical photographs are the result of some photoshop ‘jiggery-pokery’ , yet they’re very ‘old school’ (he has 15 cameras of which only two are digital). Look again closely and you’ll see evidence of how the images were actually made.

The evidence is deliberate, Jan wants you to have some insight into the process. The process is to him as important as the result and, at the heart of the process is the act of playing. Jan is a natural leader, the leader of the gang, and, like the best leaders, strongly believes in teamwork. “From the very beginning I was only ever the director of the photography and really included everybody in the process. I don’t see this is a superior position, instead I feel it is an amazing privilege that I am given by my friends.” It’s our privilege to bring you his story.

This story originally ran in issue #24 of Dumbo Feather

Discussed in this Story

KATE BEZAR: Have you had a big day?

JAN VON HOLLEBEN: Yeah, it’s been a great day. There’s a lot of interesting things to be done.

Are you busy with work or …?

Yeah, work. I’m not sure if you’re aware of what’s happening in the photography world, but it’s been very difficult for some photographers. It was quiet over the winter, but at the moment it seems that suddenly everybody wants to get work done and I’m as busy as never before. I think I’m very blessed for that. I really like the aspect that photography is getting more and more democratic and a lot of amateurs are finding their way into photography creating work that was formerly done by professionals only; but it does make the photo-politics a little more interesting and challenging. I think, for anyone who wants to live off photography, it’s gotten tougher than ever before.

How have you come through it ok? Is it just that you’ve already got a great body of published work behind you and a great reputation?

I think that’s probably a big part of it. I think I was lucky to get most of the work done that I’ve done so far before things got difficult. Also, particularly in my field, I think that I’m quite … Well, I don’t have many competitors. I’m not a wedding photographer, I’m not a portrait photographer … You know, I do my thing and people commission me to do my thing.

The pictures speak for themselves, but how do you describe what your ‘thing’ is?

My thing? [laughs] Well, what I’m usually commissioned to do is my photography and doing what I do with the subjects that I deal with which is that I play with them, pull them apart and put them back together in a different way.

I am more analytic with things rather than making it about establishing a distinctive aesthetic. I think that’s a great difference to the general professional photographer. At the moment I’m working on various editorial projects and each of them is a little problem in itself. I’m sort of the problem solver, the little wizard who’s supposed to find some visual magic for the themes or the subject matter.

Like …?

Well, there’s that one commission I’m working on with a really difficult subject matter: puberty … adolescence. Quite a reputable magazine, der Speigel, (The Mirror), asked me to illustrate an article about all the first times and changes that a young person experiences: first kiss, the first time sex, the first for all these things. They asked me because I work with kids a lot, and most of these kids are now at that very age. They asked me to involve the kids and not do it in a purely descriptive way. Usually what I do with my photography is set up a kind of workshop with whoever is involved. Yesterday I got an entire class full of kids and we had four hours and it was amazing. It was incredible. I had my assistant, Violetta, along and we started the workshop with the kids. There were no teachers around and they were all really easy. We got down with the subject matter. I told them what I wanted to work with and where I wanted to go with the photography. They understood very quickly and we literally sort of turned this project around in less than three hours.

What did you end up doing with them?

The idea is all about growing, and how your body grows in the funniest ways when you are young, when you are in puberty. I wanted to locate all the areas on the body where things grow really weirdly and take pictures of them. The kids told me their stories of what was growing there, how it feels and what they actually think of all this. We had a big debate about all these different aspects of puberty. The challenge then was to try to get this onto an artistic level and saying, “Let’s document that. Let’s split this into two steps. Firstly, let’s find these places on your body, let’s take pictures of them and then later on, in a second step, we’ll add something – like some flowers or something that’s growing – to the picture to represent the thoughts we have about those places and what’s happening to them in puberty.” We literally put things onto the photographic paper and then reproduced that again to get a final piece of photography that communicated our thoughts. We made big sketches and they immediately understood what I wanted to do and came up with lots of ideas for what we could put on them like mushrooms growing out of their faces ‘cause that looks and feels like pimples, and algae or itchy things growing out of their armpits because funny hair grows out of there. Someone rather wanted to have smelling flowers growing there. For the girls, for their breasts, they wanted to have some apples … Just all sorts of things, really creative.

It seems like the process of involving other people in your work is almost as important, or even more so, than the end result to you?

I think it’s 50:50. Both are important. It’s very important that I have control over the end result as I’m directing the entire project and I’m the only one aware of all the factors that go into such a project – what needs to be considered and communicated – but I only want to have an end result if the process works. It would not work for me to just take pictures of young people and then do my own thing. That’s not the deal and that’s not what I’m interested in. That probably comes from my teacher training … I was supposed to become a teacher in the first place. I really want to work with people, to do workshops and I want to collaborate and then come up with ideas.

This story originally ran in issue #24 of Dumbo Feather

This story originally ran in issue #24 of Dumbo Feather

I don’t believe in the single artist sitting in his own little chamber having world-changing ideas.

I’m generalising, but photographers do tend to be people who prefer to be behind the camera rather than in front of it interacting with people, so your approach is quite unusual.

It is unusual, but there is history of quite a few artists who do that, but I don’t think there are many. The classic photographer is always the eye, and the eye is behind the camera and not so involved with things in front of it.

A good ‘people’ photographer does have to be good with people because you’ve got to have the subject relaxed and comfortable in your presence, but not to the extent that you get the subjects involved in the outcome.

Yeah, it’s something I think I learnt at university. In some of my first projects I played with the authority of photography and the photographer. Like, I managed to trick people into allowing me to take pictures of their bellybuttons. Something that I thought was quite personal. I managed to catch over a thousand strangers’ bellybuttons.

The trick was always just to say that I was taking them for a serious photography project. Then I went into London on a sunny day, walked the streets with some big impressive camera gear and managed to catch 250 images of people’s necks … wonderful, clear images of only necks, which took some effort by the people as they had to look into the sky for me to take a good shot of their necks. I did that in less than four hours on a journey of about three miles. I always thought it was a really funny power game between photographer and sitter, or the authority of the photographer. I always felt really uncomfortable with that. I’m not someone who appreciates authority … Actually, I can’t deal with authority, so it is something I don’t want anyone in front of my camera to feel like. Most of my projects involve ideas that people in front of the camera at first don’t understand because I’m doing things with photography and pictures that later on look different to what it seems. So it’s always very important to communicate and make people understand what it is that I’m actually doing or what I want to achieve.

Where does the sense of fun and that really strong theme of play, through your work, come from? Are you just a really fun person?

[Laughs] Actually I really don’t think I’m that funny. For me it’s a philosophy, an understanding, that through playing I can manage to do most of the things that I want to do and I can actually come up with results. I work by not only improvising, but by turning things upside down and looking at them from a different angle … Just changing things round and trying to see if they work as well; they might even work better. That is definitely something my mum kept on telling me and my brother, that there’s always a possibility to do things differently. Nothing is ‘right’, there’s not only one way or one opinion. That is one thing that probably really influenced me, but also I’ve always had all sorts of games around. We grew up in the countryside; I was never a TV boy.

You didn’t have TV, or you just weren’t interested in it?

Well we had TV and I remember two or three years when I was really excited about TV, but other than that we didn’t watch much television at all. My mum, she’s a therapist, a child therapist, and she always encouraged us to do all kinds of things. There were times when I had a lot of friends around and we played nearly every week. We met in the evenings and did group games, or role play, or all sorts of playful things. I had a huge collection of board games at home. I’d invite my friends over and we’d spend evenings cooking and playing. I was always a very social person. On a side note, my mum, as a child therapist, would play all day … Well she would do therapy through play with kids.

She was probably doing that with you while you were growing up without you even really realising it.

Possibly, possibly. So I think there are a lot of different ideas that infuse that idea of playing. I realised that with photography I was able to play a lot. With photography there are no set rules; you have to find your own rules. I was never interested in the documentary aspect of photography. Today, in the digital age, I think documentary photography has completely lost its power anyway. I loved the idea of using photography to tell stories. My mum always read us books and I loved literature, however I wasn’t able to use words to tell stories. Very early on I started with my friends to play photography. The first photography that I did seriously was in the photography course at school, which was setting up fashion shoots with my best friends playing ‘fashion photography’. They were always very excited and I managed to produce a huge portfolio, the portfolio that I came to university with. It all changed from there because I was very much black and white, very Helmut Newton, Peter Lindbergh, Annie Leiboviz … but when I came to university it was all Terry Richardson and the contemporary English photographers like Wolfgang Tillmans and Juergen Teller. Suddenly I didn’t want to know anything about black and white anymore.

Did you develop your style from there?

I remember that my tutors took me apart and questioned everything I did. The course was History and Theory of Photography, so it was very analytical and very theoretical. All the projects that we did had to be backed up with research and placed somewhere in relation to photographic history. I tried loads of different things and it was probably the most experimental period of my life. We had all sorts of things at hand: different cameras, studios and a lot of input by our tutors. I realised that I wanted to do something grounded in reality and that there was no reason for me to use aesthetics to make beautiful pictures. For me it was more of a political issue – I wanted to create something visual that was unique, was me, was not a copy of anything and was something that felt strongly to come from myself; something that I could bring, not only as a photographer, but also as someone who is critical about what he does and his relationships and his ideas about life and issues. Something that is valid. I felt that if I was to be a photographer, I needed to do something that needed me and my skills. If one day I don’t take relevant images anymore then I shall stop immediately as that would be a waste of time. My expectation towards life is to use my time on this planet at its best. It is not just to have a good time. It is about having a good time and having achieved something I can be proud of when I am dying.

It’s hard to come up with a unique idea these days. Sometimes it does feel like everything has been done before. I know that there have been people who have done work similar to yours since you’ve started doing it. Does that bother you?

It did in the beginning and it still bothers me sometimes, For example, when I know that clients of mine just get someone else because they’re cheaper … There have been situations when people have had my portfolio on their desks and then gone to commission someone else. That’s really annoying. Also when there’s a clear rip-off. Recently I had the case where a very popular music video by a big band even got a super prestigious award for a video. A friend of mine got hold of the full client treatment of that video, funnily enough, and as inspiration there are my images in the treatment. The video even uses one of my images as the leading structure for the entire video. I didn’t really bother about it in the beginning, but when that video became quite a success and I thought, hang on. I got very annoyed. Also, recently an advertisement for a brand new product in America was very similar to my work. I confronted the photographer and she told me that she had ‘only’ seen my images on a web-blog and liked the idea. From the company I know that she sold them the idea as unique and they even highlighted her extravagant creativity. That is just very difficult to take. Also because she made loads of money with that idea.

I bet.

Nowadays it happens nearly every month that I get an email from a stranger somewhere in the world, either congratulating me for some work I haven’t actually done or informing me that someone has copied one of my ideas or images. Sometimes these are blatant rip-offs, other times they’ve simply developed the idea, just got inspired or even had their own idea of playing with things on the floor.

I don’t want to claim the idea that whatever you put on the floor looks like a Jan von Holleben, that is ridiculous; but certain aspects of it, certain images, yeah, I would claim.

Somehow, at the end of the day, it flatters me as well.

They do say that copying is the highest form of flattery, but that doesn’t make it any easier sometimes.

Especially in the tough times like we have at the moment.

When was the first time that you put things on the floor like that and photographed them? Do you remember?

Yeah, it was in 2002 in May. I was working on a project for a gallery who commissioned me to do a book. The book was a marathon – over 24 hours I would shoot 24 images which I would have to improvise every hour from scratch. I would have 60 minutes to come up with the subject matter, research the piece, get the shoot together and shoot it. Then the next hour would be the next picture. I did it together with a friend of mine, an artist, and she wrote all of the text to it. After we’d made it through the night, I think it must have been 12 midday, I ended up being near my mother’s house. I had this idea to get one of the neighbours’ kids to ride my friend’s dog, but I couldn’t really come up with an idea of how to execute it. Then suddenly it came to me: “Let’s see if we can put the dog on the ground.” I just caught one of the kids from next door and dressed him up quickly. I’d worked with him a lot and he was used to ‘play’ photography. With a few moves I’d put him on that dog and jumped up on the back of my campervan. In five seconds the dog was gone, but I had the picture and it worked. It wasn’t until some months later that I really continued that idea and thought, hey, let’s do something else with that technique. The kids were up for it and I think it took a year until I had another five or six pictures. I’d always do them with the neighbours’ kids on weekends or in the holidays when I was at home. It just evolved very naturally and sweetly with all the kids. I guess it took five years to be finished with the entire Dreams of Flying project.

Oh really?

I think the last pictures that we took were in 2007 and then the kids complained, “It’s enough, we don’t want to lie on the ground any more,” and then we did something else.

So the same kids are generally in most of your personal work? And they just live next door to you do they? I always assumed they were your own kids.

Oh no, they’re all neighbouring kids. I don’t have kids yet. I still feel a little bit young for that but soon there will be.

They must think of you as the nutty photographer who lives next door.

Exactly [laughs]. The great thing is that my mum lived in this lovely tiny village in the south of Germany and these kids, they’re not spoilt yet with television and media, and it’s very much like I’m part of the gang. I’m sort of the leader of the gang with my camera. Whenever I get there, they’re already sitting on the doorstep waiting for me asking, “Jan are we taking pictures again?” and “What are we going to do?” I did a big exhibition in the village at one point showing everyone the work that we’ve done over the years and that was when the parents came to me and really opened up and said, “We never really talked about this, but we were quite, not concerned, but we really questioned your intentions and that whole photography thing, but now after all these years we just trust you with anything you do. We’re so happy that you’re taking care of our kids and doing all these projects. The kids are always so excited after having spent time with you and we feel they learn a lot.” That really touched me quite deeply.

Do you always work with children or have you done stuff with adults as well?

Nowadays I work maybe 20 to 30 per cent of the time with kids. Kids are very easy to play with and that’s probably the main reason that I work with them. When I work with models or objects or fashion or whatever, it’s always the playful character that is important to me. It’s the approach and the homo ludens that’s very important to me. Basically, whatever project comes we’ll tackle it and do something fun with it.

So you obviously never regretted changing course and taking up photography. Because you were originally a teacher, was that right?

Yeah. No, it’s interesting. I remember that after college we all went to a professional advice centre where they test you and tell you what you should be doing. After I told the advisor what I wanted to do he said, “Look you need to be a phototherapist,” and I said, “Yeah, well, you’re funny; that doesn’t exist. I’m just going to become a teacher because photography is far too complicated and I have to make a career and have a safe future.” He said, “Then be a teacher and do continue your photography,” and so that’s what I did. I started my teacher training and I knew I wanted to specialise very quickly and I wanted to challenge myself quickly. I had done already so many internships, and I had learnt so much with my mum, that the first two years were really boring. When I heard about a university degree to study the Theory and History of Photography I immediately decided to go to England, did my interviews and found some colleges that accepted me right away. I enrolled in the next four weeks and came straight away, in the middle of the year, and was bang in there, in photography. I didn’t even realise properly that I had left my teacher training – it all happened so quickly. Only then, during my time at university, did I realise that I could bring back all the teaching, and all the kids, and the workshop environment.

It all came full circle for me. I was like, wow, I’ve actually found my profession.

I’m not a photographer, I’m dealing with photography and I’m dealing with people, and I’m in the middle of it. I’ve never regretted that. I’ve done exactly what I was supposed to do.

It’s not quite ‘phototherapy’, but you’ve definitely carved out your own niche, a true blend of both your parents.

I’m like my parents’ perfect child. My dad was trained as a photographic engineer and then became a cameraman and now he’s director of photography at a television station. Photography was always very exciting to me. I had lots to talk about with my dad and we had a lot in common, but my parents divorced very early so I lived with my mum. She would do all this amazing therapy with kids which was really appealing to me too, and so I was always a little bit torn between the two of them.

Do you remember when your dad first put a camera between your hands?

Actually my mum put a camera in my hands funnily enough. I was 13. I always asked my dad when I could take some pictures or when I would be old enough. I can’t remember what he said, but I can remember that at my thirteenth birthday my mum gave me a bright red instamatic camera. I always regretted that my parents split up because our family albums were not continued after the divorce so I started to document my brother and my mum and my life, and my friends and all that. After three or four years my dad then gave me my first SLR camera. That was when I joined the photo club at school and he thought there would be a teacher who would take care of his valuable camera and teach me how to use it.

So does it still challenge you? Is it still exciting for you?

It is still very exciting to me. I do a lot of collaborations with other artists, either established artists or just friends of mine who do different things like painting, or collage … There’s an architect I’m working with, and my best friend who’s a mathematician … I’m convinced that I’ll always find something challenging. I’m really interested in finding solutions for things that don’t seem to make sense.

So the challenge is more coming up with those questions, those problems?

Exactly, and also to communicate or create something that tells the story of our thought process. I’m always trying to involve the viewer in my photography. I don’t want to have it be just a one-way ticket. I want the viewer to come back to me and say, “Why did you do this?” and, “Why did you do that?” that?” and really get into a conversation or debate. Even when I am not around, I want them to investigate and understand the picture they’re looking at and its story. To achieve that, I need to work with a certain grammar in my images. I need to make the viewer aware that there is more than he can simply see.

Is that why making books with the photographs appeals to you, so you can bring more of that story to the viewer?

Yeah, definitely. The book format is so much more debatable and approachable than a gallery space or advertising campaign. The magazine or the book is a brilliant format for photography. People can take it home and probably the most important part is that they can take it to whichever place they want to take it and just enjoy it in their own time. I know that I’m quite lucky in producing books and having people buy them, but I never really believed in the gallery space. The gallery space for me is really useful only to make money and sell prints or to make an installation in, but the idea of an anonymous, artificial, white space has hardly anything to do with my work.

How many books have you done now?

I set up my own publishing house and the books that I’ve done there … there’re seven of them.

Of your own ones? Do you publish anyone else’s work?

No, I’ve only published my own work and there’s a book coming out about the photo collective that I set up seven years ago. In the future I would really like to include other people as well, but I don’t really have a budget for that. It’s all self-funded. Whenever I have some extra money I put it aside and create a new book. Books don’t make money.

No kidding [laughs].

They can’t. Maybe in 10 or 15 years when I’ve sold out of everything and I can pull out my last 20 copies, but it’s not really a money-making business. I publish with other publishers, like Steidl, and that’s when I make some money on books because they pay me for that, but then again it’s nothing one can live off; it’s more a compensation. It would never pay the time, stress and energy that went into it. Making books is something you do because you believe in it. My own books are the ones that are not very commercial. I don’t think that any of my books would sell commercially very well except maybe Dreams of Flying, and maybe one or two others. I see my books as alternatives to the gallery space.

You mentioned that you set up a photographic collective about seven years ago. Tell me about that.

That was right after university. At university I’d also set up a little group of people that would meet on a regular basis to discuss photography and their own work. After graduating we were thrown into the photographic industry without much support so I found a friend and she joined in and we set up a sort of collective in London and invited all our friends and they invited their friends. We did a massive exhibition soon after graduating and involved 45 photographers who we knew from somewhere. We had about 250 people come that night and we had so much fun. That was when we decided to set up as a collective and do all sorts of projects together. We had people who didn’t even want to take photographs, but wanted to write about photography, a photographic agent, some curators, all sorts. We were all young and really wanted to do things in London which was already then a city saturated by photography and photographers. We did projects together on a whim: exhibitions, talks, tours, we held debates, we questioned the industry and we invited them as well and had really good discourses. Most of the group have really taken their own careers seriously, and have achieved success so we don’t really need to continue it. Everybody is busy and time and energy is limited!

Sure, time for a retrospective.

Time for a retrospective. Time for a case study, the book project we’ve just finished. Our final big photography project: Photodebut – a case study.

Have you moved back to Germany?

Yeah.

Why did you move back? Did you see more work in Germany?

There were different aspects to it. I lived in England for seven years and I loved it. With London it was always very much a love and hate relationship. It is extremely expensive; I didn’t make much money at all. It was always a very student life to me, but I knew the reason I was there. I could really experiment, I could really test myself. I didn’t really intend to become a photographer. I was a picture editor, I worked as a photographic director, I worked as an art director, I worked in very different jobs and it was only when ‘Dreams of Flying’ took off that I decided, okay, let’s go with the flow and be a photographer. I’m a country boy and it wasn’t really my thing to be in such a fast city as London. I always waited for when it was right for me to jump off and go somewhere else. In 2006 I won quite a prestigious award here in Germany. I’d never really cared what happened over here in Germany. It was only when I won that award, and was suddenly in the limelight of the media in photography, that I met all these people and realised that there was actually quite an amazing and interesting photographic scene in Germany. Also I was in a relationship in London and after four years that didn’t work anymore, it was quite tragic and I took the chance to escape it. So I gathered everything and ran away and set up in another country.

A clean slate.

Yeah.

And you’ve been there ever since?

I’ve been in Berlin ever since and I love every single day. Have you been to Berlin?

Yes, I was only there for three or four days so didn’t really get below the surface, but it had a great energy about it.

It is quite amazing. I think it’s one of the few Western capitals that is just so poor, but has so many people who really don’t care about that and use it to their advantage to be creative about anything.

You can set up whatever idea you have in mind. Just do it, and if it doesn’t work then who cares, do something else.

You could never ever do anything like that in London. You could not set up a shop selling t-shirts if you felt like selling t-shirts, but here you could do it for a month, and if you then realised it was maybe not the greatest idea, then you’d stop and be an artist, or work in a shop, or … It seems like life quality here is so high and people don’t have high expectations at all. I realised that for my kind of photography and work it is brilliant. I can find enough people to do whatever stupidity I am proposing. I can find enough locations that I don’t have to pay a horrible amount of money for. In London, you could not go anywhere with your camera because you’d be charged straight away. Here in Berlin, I can get to the loveliest places. I jump on roofs and go into parks and other places and nobody ever cares. I don’t think I’ve ever asked for permission to shoot anywhere. It is all still quite basic and easy here. I don’t have too much equipment and I don’t look too professional. I think I always look like a student doing some stupid project. That’s where Berlin is just really easy. If I need a prop then I just borrow it and bring it back the next day and nobody cares. It’s lovely, I’m so much enjoying it here. My friends are very much involved with all of this. They’re always the people I test my ideas with and most of the time they’re the people that I do my commissions with as well. It’s a bit like me just being with my friends and creating work together. That’s something which is very special to me.

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.

I can say yes, as long as there is human culture I will have plenty to play with.

Kate Bezar

Kate Bezar started Dumbo Feather—and is a living legend, simple as that. Read all about her and the kernel of an idea that became a magazine.

Marc von Holleben, Felix Oberhase and Marx DeZalia

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