Who are you and what is that you do ?
My parents gave me the name Jasper, which means ‘treasurer’. I had a good and protected childhood in a strict and religious family, and studied journalism. After seven years as a reporter for a daily newspaper, I decided to become a photographer.
So, I quitted my job, bought a camera and traveled to Tokyo for a photo report on gothic lolita’s. Two weeks later it was published (over 5 pages) by a nation-wide magazine and from that moment I printed business cards stating I am a photographer.
Due to lack on income, I had to move to a small room somewhere in Amsterdam, and I remember eating cans of beans all the time, because I couldn’t afford proper food.
This was in 2004. In 2006, I was invited to exhibit at FOAM, the museum for photography in the Netherlands, a series on a Belgian Neo-Nazi. From that point on, I was able to make a living out of my photography.
I document youngsters; their life styles and most important their quest for a place in society. I am fascinated by themes like peer pressure versus personal identity and gender issues. I also admire youngsters that dare to make a statement.
Probably this is because I was kind of a quite and boring teenager myself; afraid to make a statement that my parents – or their church – didn’t like.
What do you like about your job?
For me photography is not a goal, but a tool. A tool to meet people.
Whenever I see an interesting person in the street, I use my camera as an excuse to approach it. This is how I got to know many interesting people. Unlike many other photographers, I tend to keep in touch with my ‘models’. They visit my parties and birthdays and when I am invited – which happens from time to time – I visit theirs too.
I keep photographing (some) youngsters until their adulthood. An intense contact that allows me to consider them (almost) my friends.
At the end of the day, however, the connection is always through photography. That’s what brought me together with them. Put simply: when the need of photography is fading away, sad but true, the friendship also fades away. Most of the time.
So, the tool is also important. But it is not the start of the relation. It is the outcome.
How would you describe your photography?
I hope people can see that my photography is “honest” and I hope they feel it was made with interest and respect for my models. The parents of the teenagers usually say their children look older when I portray them. This is probably because they take my request seriously, and that’s because I treat them seriously.
Because of the bond I have with some of my models, I also think I am kind of an “engaged photographer”. I try to motivate them to succeed with their goals and to use their talents. In this way I am more than an observer.
On the other hand, I think my work doesn’t “judge”. It is up to the viewer to decide if a Belgian Neo-Nazi is a good or a bad guy. I mean, racism sucks. But how does a Belgian teenager become a Neo-Nazi? Due to a lack of education and because of bad influence. Does this make the guy a bad person? It’s up to the audience to decide.
Tell us about your project “ Finding Emo“.
One reason why I started to appreciate photography is the series ‘Paradiso Stills’ by Max Natkiel that I saw in an exhibition back in 2003. The Dutch photographer portrayed young attendees of punk and skinhead concerts in the famous concert hall Paradiso in Amsterdam between 1982 and 1986.
I was in shock and visited the gallery several times to see it over and over again because the portraits showed types of adolescents that I had never seen before during my puberty – I grew up in a Christian family and punk was forbidden. We were only allowed to watch Christian television. Of course, I knew about punks and their lifestyle, but the way Natkiel portrayed them was so strong that I was overwhelmed. It made me want to become a photographer too. I actually shot two long term series about youngsters: one about Neo-Nazi Jeffrey and one about punk Sam. This can’t be a coincidence.
When emo-rock music arrived in the Netherlands from Britain and the US, I decided I wanted to make a Paradiso-Stills-like project of teenagers visiting concerts. I asked the visitors to pose in front of a wall, just like Natkiel did. I asked them not to pose or to smile. There are two important differences: the kids in Natkiel’s series are all drunk, stoned or drugged, which is nowadays hardly possible in music halls. And the walls behind his models are covered with graffiti, while my walls are plain and well painted in white.
Both differences tell something about how the society is changing. Natkiel also allowed his models to pose, smile or act. That was not possible in my situation, because kids nowadays know exactly how to pose like stars in the magazines.
Strangely enough, I consider the ‘normal’ teenagers of Finding Emo more interesting than the real dressed-up-teenagers. This taught me that I don’t have to focus on subcultures all the time. Eventually, I think this made me want to portray all kind of youngsters. It was a breakthrough in my way of thinking.
What kind of feedback did you get from this project?
Some of the models were not all that pleased with the label “emo”. There are also some parents, who called me and stated that they didn’t want their children to be associated with this lifestyle.
Particular, funny enough, the kids that dressed up the most like the emo life style rules. Parents were afraid that the kids will be bullied at school.
In general the feedback was positive, and I got a lot of press coverage. I believe the series will be of greater value in 10 – 20 years, just like Paradiso Stills. In retrospective, the series will be more popular. At that time emo will be part of history, a chapter in a music encyclopedia, just like the big punk movement of the 70’s and 80’s.
Where do you look for new inspiration?
Youngsters are everywhere. I just need to walk down to the supermarket to come across fascinating, friendly and photogenic people. I am also connected to a lot of interesting young people through social media.
Through the years I learned to forget about ‘concepts’, ‘sales’ and ‘what the people want’. I just follow my heart. And when my heart says I have to portray a person, I follow and ask for a portrait.
Sometimes it is just another photo, but sometimes it can be the beginning of a new friendship and a brand new photo series. In general I photograph because I admire a person. As stated above, my contact with a person means more to me than a good photograph, although I will not hide that I want to have success with my photos too.
What are you working on right now?
The last two years I have been working on a series of street portraits of creative teenagers. Youngsters with an ambition in arts, journalism, music, acting or dancing. Don’t ask me how, but I have the habit to recognise this ambition when they pass me on the street, even when they are dressed up in casual, plain clothes. Even when they walk in front of me, with their back towards me.
Once, I passed through a field full of boys in uniforms playing football, and I was sure that one of them was a future artist. So, I asked the parents near the pitch. And indeed: this boy, only 10 years old, wants to become a video-artist for exhibitions in museums. A selection has just been exhibited by FOAM, the museum for photography in the Netherlands. Next year I want to make this kind of street series in Berlin, Athens and Moscow.