In Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s most famous play “Faust”, the title character desperately wants to “understand whatever binds the world’s innermost core together”.
Similarly, German-American photographer and filmmaker Vanessa van Houten said that “in a time where people talk so much about differences, I was keen to see and to show what actually binds us together.”
After finishing her photo and book project RAW, which dealt with the consequences and implications of loss, she worked on a photo shoot with a girl who wanted to focus on beauty. Vanessa was intrigued, as she realized that there are many different sides to approach this topic.
“At that point, it was about inner and outer beauty, but as I went along with the project, I decided to concentrate on inner beauty,” Vanessa explains. “Projects always evolve from the initial idea, and it’s good to let it be free.”
She mentioned her latest project to Chika Subyakto of Indonesian fashion and textile house Sejuah Mata Memandang who suggested to collaborate. Vanessa then invited over 50 Indonesians into her studio and photographed them two times - once in their favourite outfit, in what they felt at their strongest and most beautiful (interestingly enough, Vanessa says, many chose traditional clothes or batik, showing a deep love for their mother country), and once in a white piece of textile, made by Chika.
“They used the textiles to cover themselves as much as they wanted to,” Vanessa says. “The idea was for them to be themselves, without me directing them what to do. There was no talking. Instead, they thought about their inner beauty. I asked them to look back at their lives and think about who had influenced them to become who they are today. Through this question, many different emotions came up.”
Over the course of one year, Vanessa photographed women, men, warias (cross-dressers, transsexuals and transgenders) aged between 20 and 80 years old from different walks of life: passionate chefs and baristas, young entrepreneurs, accomplished athletes, mothers, fathers, loved social influencers, dancers, beautiful yogis, makeup artists, sex workers, famous musicians, popular artists and talented fashion designers.
“Some of them I approached myself because I liked their personality, others were referred to me through friends,” Vanessa says.
At the end of the photo session, they all wrote about their inner beauty. here*now, which will be published in book form in February, features the photographs as well as the writings. Initially, Vanessa wanted to photograph 100 people, but when she was at 52, she knew that she could tell the story with what she already had.
Published by Afterhours Books, here*now is hand-threaded and bound and comes with folded pages, newspaper edges and a foil stamped cover. This is already the second time Vanessa has worked with Afterhour Books after RAW in 2015.
here*now will officially be launched on 22 February, which is also the opening day of Vanessa’s solo exhibition “Free Fall” at Art:1 New Museum.
“Monika Gunawan, the managing director of Art:1, loved my book ‘RAW’ and asked me if I would like to do an exhibition at her space,” Vanessa recalls - and of course, she happily obliged. “It’s such an incredible space, especially for a photographer, to be able to exhibit in bigger rooms.”
The exhibition, curated by Oscar Motuloh and Jay Subyakto, will feature some photographs from the project RAW, as well as Vanessa’s latest work. It will also feature an artist talk, workshops and an interactive component: a photo wall, where guests are invited to photograph and write about themselves.
Visitors will be greeted with the quote “Everything you want is on the other side of fear” - which is a motto Vanessa tries to live by.
“If something scares me, I feel that it’s better to approach it than to shy away from it, because if you don’t face your fears, they will hold you down,” she explains.
In a way, the quote also relates to both her projects.
“The people I photographed had the chance to have their voices heard,” she says. “For some, it was a big step to come to my studio and step in front of the camera because they were showing a vulnerable side of themselves - it also has something to do with fear. For others, it wasn’t easy to take off their clothes or show their emotions, to be in the space in front of me and share something genuine. This is also why the exhibition is called ‘Free Fall’ - they eventually had the trust to letting themselves fall.”
According to Vanessa, here*now is the next step from RAW as she was able to showcase an even wider range of emotions. After all, it is what interests her most as an artist, as a photographer, as a filmmaker - and as a human being.
“I’m intrigued by humanity and human emotions,” she acknowledges. “This project showed me that in the end, we all are similar to each other. We all want to love, be loved and live in peace.”
The photo sessions, she adds, were both beautiful and intense.
“It was an incredible project to work on,” Vanessa reflects. “Having people opening up and being absolutely genuine - these moments are so rare in our lives. In these moments, you see some kind of truth.”
A solo exhibition by Vanessa van Houten
Curated by Oscar Motuloh and Jay Subyakto
22 February - 18 March