German-American photographer and filmmaker Vanessa van Houten, who grew up and studied in Germany and the US, thought it would be easy to follow her Australian husband to Melbourne and start a family.
“I grew up so multi-cultural and always wanted to live outside of Germany, so I agreed,” Vanessa said. “But after we moved, I was actually shocked by how hard it is to resettle in a new country - even though it was my own choice. I realized that I am so much more German that I ever thought.”
It was during this change in her life that Vanessa first had the idea for her photo project RAW.
“How you deal with these situations, if you look at them in a positive or a negative way - it actually makes you who you are,” Vanessa explained. “I lived in a very culturally diverse area in Fitzroy in Melbourne, and I started to go out to ask other people what they have lost and to tell me about it.”
Vanessa was surprised by the emotional responses to her questions and by how well she could relate to many of the things the respondents shared with her; she then took portrait photos of them and asked them to write down their story in their own handwriting. The project then resulted in an exhibition.
“Even though some came to Melbourne or Australia for completely different reasons, it actually showed me that we are all very similar. We want to belong, we want to be loved, we want to love,” Vanessa said. “It was a very compassionate project and it helped me to settle.”
Due to her husband’s work, Vanessa and her family moved from Australia to South Africa, Ghana, Singapore and eventually to Jakarta, Indonesia four years ago. As a mother of three, she said, she saw that many children have to deal with many changes at a very young age - they have to adapt to new surroundings and situations and experience loss along the way.
“That’s when I decided to continue the project RAW and include children,” Vanessa explained.
This time, she photographed 71 people, both Indonesians and foreigners, children and adults, people from all walks of life, be it a driver, an artist or a businessman. The collected photographs have recently been published in a photo book called “RAW”.
“In March 2015, when I had a few pictures together, I attended the German book festival and was introduced to Lans Brahmantyo from [publishing house] Afterhours Books,” Vanessa recalled. “I showed him the photos, and he really loved them, so we made this book together.”
In October that year, Indonesia was Guest of Honor country at the prestigious Frankfurt Book Fair, so Vanessa and Lans finished the dummy and brought a handful of digital prints of RAW to present it. The response was very positive, assuring Vanessa that her project had hit the right nerve.
"We all go through transitions and loss. For this project, I approached people that I liked visually and thought would be great to be portrayed. Some then mentioned that they knew someone with a great story, someone who went through an incredible path,” Vanessa explained when asked about how she chose the people portrayed in her book.
The photo shoots were not always easy, she added.
“Some people came to my studio and I asked them to sit in front of me and think about their personal loss. Often, we never spoke about what is going in their minds, they actually sat in silence in front of me for thirty minutes and I photographed them and afterwards they sat down and wrote down their story,” she said.
With children, she explained, the process was shorter because it after 10 to 15 minutes they lose their concentration, whereas with adults, it is the other way around - they need quite some time to relax in front of the camera.
“A lot of them said it was therapeutic for them because they never take the time to think about their loss since it is too painful,” Vanessa said. “My favourite part of the project was when the people were in front of me and opened up. It’s very touching, it is such a beautiful moment, when you are in a room together and you see the beauty of a person, you see them being fragile. It’s a gift to witness this moment and I love these interactions with people even though it’s quite intense. And even if you don’t talk, you will feel what another person goes through. It often has an after-effect later on, it gets to you emotionally.”
The book contains their photos and stories, again in their own handwriting. They speak about the death of loved ones, leaving behind friends or the loss of time; the pictures convey a sense of intimacy and vulnerability that all of us have felt before. The handwritten stories add a personal layer to the pensive, tearful and sometimes incredibly sad faces.
“During the exhibition in Sydney some people came into the gallery, and when they were halfway through, they started crying because they were really touched by what they saw and read and said that they could relate and it reminded them of their own life, or of a friend,” Vanessa said.
Yet, for her, this project is not only about sadness and grief. Instead, it is about dealing with life’s changes and challenges.
“I believe that it is a part of our life, and I am capturing a moment in that person’s life as they are reflecting on what loss means to them or what they have lost,” she explained.
The photographs were shown at the Goethe-Institut in early December and are currently exhibited at the Bisma Eight Resort in Ubud Bali until February 24.
Looking into the future, Vanessa said that she would like to resume her work as filmmaker again, but is perfectly happy with focusing on photography at the moment.
“I feel like things are coming together, and it’s also a way of storytelling with both words and pictures.”