There’s something huge we can connect with through Dutch photographer Melissa Schriek’s portraits. Every detail is all about relationships. Her models use their bodies to perform for the camera on familiar public places and spaces to create physical and emotional connections. There’s much to unravel on how the human body interacts with places, as depicted by Melissa herself. Get to know her visual language and her artistry through this interview.
How's life lately as a photographer, Melissa?
I'm doing fine, especially given the circumstances. In the last months, I've been very busy with different projects and assignments. I had a trip planned to New York in April to make more work there but of course, this trip is now canceled because of the current situation with corona-virus. I think my life as a photographer now is very different than normal as I can't physically photograph outside the way I normally do. I'm taking the time now to reflect on everything I have made the last year. I do feel a bit nervous when I'm not photographing as I like to make a lot, it keeps me in a constant flow.
When and how did you start with film photography?
I started seriously working with film when I started 'The City is a Choreography' late 2017. I had the feeling that it was necessary for me to slow down my working process. I tend to work very quickly and energetic and at times find it difficult to concentrate. Working analogue really helped me with those issues, because the limited amount of images make them feel more precious and I took more time to construct the image. Also, I really love the process of shooting analogue: being scarce with your images, waiting to develop it, scan it, and only then seeing the image. It's a way to slow down in a fast-paced world and I enjoy the physicality.
We are so intrigued by the concept of your portraiture! May you expand to us what's the storytelling behind your portraiture? The bodies' poses and expressions tell so much. What feelings are you trying to evoke from the audience when they see your images?
I have to be honest to say I try not to think too much while making the work. I have a (sometimes vague) idea or plan when I'm shooting/working on a project but I think it's important to be open-minded and not too fixed on a certain goal. I'm happy when something turns out different than I expected or when I surprised myself.
The body is very important in my work. I feel like the body is such a communicative and sculptural tool to express a story or emotion. I always think about what to do with the body, even if it's a very small position. A flexed hand can let an image feel completely different. I took a while to be aware of that. I try to approach my work a choreography, while still staying in the 'real' world. I like to create a possible reality. A world between fiction and fact.
Sometimes my images feel like they are contradicting themselves. There can be an element of surprise while being in reality, hopefulness and sadness, loneliness and togetherness… Maybe this is because the body itself is a contradiction. It's personal and political at the same time. Also, people tend to see something in my images even though I haven't meant it that way. They can relate to it in a way that fits their background and experiences. I really like that there are different interpretations possible. For instance, I've heard quite some time that some images are humorous, which I didn't even see myself before someone else told me so!
You've mentioned about relationships in your bio. May you tell us how you communicate with the models in portraying the 'relationship' aspect of the image?
I'm interested in exploring connections between humans and between people and their daily environment. Working with people I'm portraying is a collaboration, which often leads to unexpected images and scenes. Most of the time I don't know my models very well, most of the time the images I make are while I meet them the first time. This creates quite an interesting dynamic.
I search for connections in different ways. How can we physically and emotionally connect with others or our daily environment? How can the body be used as a tool to explore this. Because I really try to explore it, it comes with trial & error. Often an image or position doesn't work, but because I photograph a lot I become more sensitive to what does works. It gives focus...
As far as direct communication goes it depends on what I want from an image. Sometimes I give quite a straight direction. 'Stand this way' and I act out the idea I have. From there one I give a model place to explore this position and I just give minimal directions as if we are playing twister. 'Can you place your hand here?' 'Can you try to bend your back more'. It does something feel a bit as if I'm choreographing a photograph. Other times, I'm not sure what I want. I only have a mood in my mind or a certain vague idea. It took me a long time to not be scared of failing. Not every picture has to work, the process is as important as the result.
For you, what's the most important thing you look for when taking your portraiture?
Dynamic energy, subtle strangeness, a connection with the person I'm portraying. An intuitive feeling that I need to take a certain image.
Where do you get inspiration from?
The streets and the city are a big part of my inspiration. I like to wander the streets of cities and see how everyone relates to one another. How do people walk, which gestures do I see, how do people move around each other? Also, I get inspiration from dance and performance art.
What does life outside of photography look like for Melissa Schriek?
I like to photograph as much as possible and travel whenever I can. I like to work on different projects (personal and commissioned) at the same time. I feel happy when I feel like I'm in a flow of working, producing, reflecting, working more. At this moment in life, I don't have many other hobbies, I'm satisfied with working a lot and exploring. I'm never bored...
What are you up to these days?
While I'm writing this I have to stay home because of the coronavirus, probably almost everybody reading this right now is affected by this pandemic. A crazy, surreal and absurd situation, which seems untrue at times and then hits me with its truth again. So, I spend my days at home in The Netherlands. I feel quite lost because I can't photography as I would normally right now. (I know that that is not a big issue in this big scheme of things everyone has to deal with now (I'm reading Desmond Morris – Body Language in art, Susan Sontag- Against Interpretation).
I'm painting over my old photographs to feel a physical connection to making work again. With photography, if you don't watch out you only have images on a screen. I think it's very important to print them, make them physical and work with them.