Chinese Interiors, interview with photographer Robert van der Hilst

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By Ling GU

Here I was, a Dutch photographer, wishing to get inside the homes of these Chinese families, but unable to communicate with my subjects. I asked myself ‘what am I doing here?’ But my curiosity to find out more about the people and their behaviour towards me drove me to pursue my personal mission even more relentlessly.

——Robert van der Hilst

L: Ling GU

R: Robert van der Hilst

R: So what you’d like to know? (Mr. Van der Hilst smiled at me, with his red cashmere scarf in the right hand. We sit in the chairs next to a wall fully attached his photos. M97 gallery is just preparing for the coming Saturday’s opening of solo from Robert van der Hilst:”Chinese Interiors”.)

T: You’ve been a lot places, from the hometown Hague, theNetherlands, around Europe, thenSouth Africa, Mid-East, toParis,France, afterToronto,Canada; from 1970 drove toBrazil, South America, nearly 7 years inMexico, and two years inCuba;2000 inJapan, 2006 came toChina. You are very much a “World citizen”, have you always been traveled alone?

R: Yes, I’ve been a lot places. I left Hague when I was 20; I went toParisand work as a freelance photographer. There were magazines fromFrance,Americaand evenJapan, when they looking for a photographer to travel and send back photos, they think of me and call. I remember one of the most exciting trips though was on my own instead of a client call: I was then live inToronto, and one day I decided to do a trip down, down toSouth America, so I started my car and drove. It took me one year and half, and I took a lot photos.

T: Actually you’ve never stopped traveling, a very much “World Citizen”.

R: World Citizen, I like this name. The type of photograph I do is traveling! I’m a “Photo reporter”. I get phone calls from magazines, clients who send me to all over the world. I’m not doing studio photography, or fashion photography, or commercial photography, or film photography, you see. I leftHollandwhen I was 20, to do what? To travel!

T: And this travel has been continued for over 40 years! How these rich memories come back to you, as film? Carried with the photos? Are they refreshing now?

R: It’s funny you said that. Yes, I’ve been constantly sent to different places to do photography projects, most of the photos had been published, and definitely some of these places I’d never been. I like most of the photos I took and the time I spent. And some of the places once I arrived I fell in love with them:Cuba,MexicoandShanghai. The first time I arrived inShanghaiwas 1990, was commissioned by the French magazine VOGUE to do a cover story of the city ofShanghai. During the stay, the love forShanghaigrew even more, and I told myself ‘Here, I want to come back’. This similar love-story happened before inCuba, and even earlier, about 30 years ago inMexico. It’s very strong feeling. While another time I was sent toKuwait, I stayed maybe two weeks there, that wasn’t very interesting.

T: From 2001, you started the project “Interieurs Cubains” inBaracoa,Cuba, then move toMiamifocus on theCubapeople live there. Was that a turning point for you to really start the “Interior” photography? Why interiors?

R: To answer that I need to tell you more about the earlier years of my career. You just mentioned I’ve been doing photography for over 40 years, over the years many magazines send me to anywhere, to do landscapes, portraits, events, etc., but meanwhile I’ve been always doing interiors, I always want to get inside people’s home to take photos, always, from when I was just a little boy. And in 2001, I decided ‘Ok, after working for all these magazines, doing features and variety topics, I will only do interiors, only. This is what I really want to do.” So here I am.

T: But where this curiosity comes from, to take photo in people’s home?

R: You should know about Dutch painting, and there’s this one artist who has been influencing me for quite some time, he is Jan Vermeer. Of course other masters at the same time as well, the so-called “Golden Age”(1650-1660). I always like the topic they painted, the “interiors” of ordinary people’s homes. And for me, I want to be specialized in only photo “interiors”. The first “interior” series as you mentioned was inCuba, afterwards inMiami, it was documenting mostly, and for me it was very comfortable to realize that project. And of course, my Spanish did me a big favor.

T: In this “Chinese Interiors” series, there’re half-half for men portraits and stills. What’s really interesting for the stills is that even there’s no person in some of the photos, a strong sense of presence of people still stands out in the space magically reflected in your photograph; and sometimes you use props to emphasis them, i.e. framed portrait photos. Is this “Absence-Presence” in your plan?

R: What you say is very true, “Absence-Presence”. All the stills are with obvious traces of people presence. Like in the Chinese Interiors #4: how the carpet can be there? Who put it there? By then a guy really tall and strong walked in the room with the sheep on his back, he throwed it onto the table then walked out, without even give me a glance. I love this strong presence of people in my photos, even there’re just stills in the image.

T: I read some critics say your photos are propositioned(preset), e.g. Kitchen interior , for me the mini-broom, the wipers, the bamboo basket attach to the wall are all acting like the arms and legs of a happily dancing man; all the covered bows and pots on the cooks are like accompanied dancers. The objects are very much anthropomorphic (humanized). Same for the “small edible oil manufacturing workshop,Jiezi Town,SichuanProvince” seems like a set of Jazz instruments. How you usually position the objects? Is it important for you to let the viewers not feel this preset positions?

R: Oh, it’s very interesting you say that, but actually I didn’t pose anything for the stills. For example, the Chinese Interiors #4 we saw before, I didn’t change anything except to ask the landlord take off the cloze which was used to pack the sheep, u can still see the blue-gray cloze underneath the sheep. That’s the only touch I gave. For all the stills I photo, I don’t preset anything, they are as they were; but for portraits yes, I usually pose them in the effect I want to achieve. Take the #10 as an example, I was then in Taiyuan, Shanxi province, and a good friend of mine was inviting me and other friends to a dinner to celebrate the two-year birthday of his daughter. The lady in the photo is his wife. When the photo was taken, we were just coming back from the restaurant; it was at his home, I asked if I could take a photo of the wife. Of course because it was the first time I met her, would be not polite to take photo from the back, but I knew I want to photo of her back, that’s it. So I took a photo of her front even I knew I would not use it, and then very carefully I asked her if she’d like to turn around. Very kindly, she turned back and I took this photo, I knew at the beginning I want this one.

a happily dancing man; all the covered bows and pots on the cooks are like accompanied dancers. The objects are very much anthropomorphic (humanized). Same for the “small edible oil manufacturing workshop,Jiezi Town,SichuanProvince” seems like a set of Jazz instruments. How you usually position the objects? Is it important for you to let the viewers not feel this preset positions?

For most of my portrait photos, I apply this method, in French we say “mise en scène”, means staging. When I’m in these families, I feel like I’m the director, and they are my actors.

at’s the only touch I gave. For all the stills I photo, I don’t preset anything, they are as they were; but for portraits yes, I usually pose them in the effect I want to achieve. Take the #10 as an example, I was then in Taiyuan, Shanxi province, and a good friend of mine was inviting me and other friends to a dinner to celebrate the two-year birthday of his daughter. The lady in the photo is his wife. When the photo was taken, we were just coming back from the restaurant; it was at his home, I asked if I could take a photo of the wife. Of course because it was the first time I met her, would be not polite to take photo from the back, but I knew I want to photo of her back, that’s it. So I took a photo of her front even I knew I would not use it, and then very carefully I asked her if she’d like to turn around. Very kindly, she turned back and I took this photo, I knew at the beginning I want this one.

a happily dancing man; all the covered bows and pots on the cooks are like accompanied dancers. The objects are very much anthropomorphic (humanized). Same for the “small edible oil manufacturing workshop,Jiezi Town,SichuanProvince” seems like a set of Jazz instruments. How you usually position the objects? Is it important for you to let the viewers not feel this preset positions?

T: So every time when you photograph, you can visualize the image you want with instinct?

R: Yes, I look at the light, the background, and the faces of the people. Usually I set up my tripod, the camera I use is with film, not digital. For the stills, I can see the beauty and amazing composition naturally, so I never even try to change anything. For example, the “framed portrait of child and blue plastic food bag”, the composition is fantastic; but they were just there on the wall, I didn’t touch anything. Another one I took in suburb Shanghai, the lady was cutting the cabbages, and I told her to take a break and go aside, then I took the photo, you feel very much the presence of people, you know somebody was standing there cutting the cabbages.

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a happily dancing man; all the covered bows and pots on the cooks are like accompanied dancers. The objects are very much anthropomorphic (humanized). Same for the “small edible oil manufacturing workshop,Jiezi Town,SichuanProvince” seems like a set of Jazz instruments. How you usually position the objects? Is it important for you to let the viewers not feel this preset positions?

R: Oh, it’s very interesting you say that, but actually I didn’t pose anything for the stills. For example, the Chinese Interiors #4 we saw before, I didn’t change anything except to ask the landlord take off the cloze which was used to pack the sheep, u can still see the blue-gray cloze underneath the sheep. That’s the only touch I gave. For all the stills I photo, I don’t preset anything, they are as they were; but for portraits yes, I usually pose them in the effect I want to achieve. Take the #10 as an example, I was then in Taiyuan, Shanxi province, and a good friend of mine was inviting me and other friends to a dinner to celebrate the two-year birthday of his daughter. The lady in the photo is his wife. When the photo was taken, we were just coming back from the restaurant; it was at his home, I asked if I could take a photo of the wife. Of course because it was the first time I met her, would be not polite to take photo from the back, but I knew I want to photo of her back, that’s it. So I took a photo of her front even I knew I would not use it, and then very carefully I asked her if she’d like to turn around. Very kindly, she turned back and I took this photo, I knew at the beginning I want this one.

 

For most of my portrait photos, I apply this method, in French we say “mise en scène”, means staging. When I’m in these families, I feel like I’m the director, and they are my actors.

 

T: So every time when you photograph, you can visualize the image you want with instinct?

 

R: Yes, I look at the light, the background, and the faces of the people. Usually I set up my tripod, the camera I use is with film, not digital. For the stills, I can see the beauty and amazing composition naturally, so I never even try to change anything. For example, the “framed portrait of child and blue plastic food bag”, the composition is fantastic; but they were just there on the wall, I didn’t touch anything. Another one I took in suburb Shanghai, the lady was cutting the cabbages, and I told her to take a break and go aside, then I took the photo, you feel very much the presence of people, you know somebody was standing there cutting the cabbages.

 

T: It’s interesting to hear you telling me all these little stories behind each photo.

 

R: Yes, each photo has its own story. For example, this lady in the photo is Yi minority from Sichuan; I went there at the end of 2007, accompanied with a very good friend of mine, Huang Gang. After I came back, I printed out the “Chinese Interiors” album, and Huang came to Shanghai and saw this photo in it, he told me they were dead by aids. You can’t imagine how surprise I was, I just came back from there. Huang told me the Yi minority often share the same needle, and there were quite a lot people infected HIV.

 

T: You do mention there’re quite a lot local photographers help you to arrange your schedule. And you has been participated the Ping Yao International Photography Fair, must met a lot local photographers.

 

R: Yes, in December 2004, my series “Interieurs Cubains” participated the Ping Yao fair, and I met lot Chinese photographer friends there, they offered me a tremendous help during my voyages in China. I mentioned their names in the epilogue with the album, without their help, I could never make all these photos. They guide me, I don’t speak English, it’s impossible to knock people’s door like that. They pick me up and contact the families for me. I remember once in Ping Yang, they drove to the airport pick me up, sent me to the hotel, drove me to the families every day then brought me back to hotel. One day I thought there would be only one friend came to pick me, but when I got on the car, I realized there’re 6 photographers coming with me, each one brings with them very professional camera and tripod. We were crowd in the target families’ home, they all wanted to do same photos like I do.

 

T: Lol, you were holding a Master Class there.

 

R: Exactly, they don’t know how I make the photos. They can’t figure out how I manage to get this special perspective. I told them nothing magic, I bring the camera and tripod, and I understand and know how to control the light. The light I talk about is not artificial like, not from the lamp, it’s always the natural light; the light comes from the window.

 

T: And you don’t only play with light, you play with colors as well.

 

R: Let me tell you something. Photograph, photo and graph, photo in Latin means light, graph means draw, so draw with light. It’s same for painting, how the light comes into the image, how the light reflects on each object. I understand light, and I understand very well colors too. I believe 90% of the world sees themselves in colors, so why not I reveal this original colorful world with my photos. And I always use subdued colors, I never use bright colors, means bright yellow, or red, or blue, you can only find subdued colors in my paintings. I never use filter or photoshop, why I need to use these? My photos are how it was exactly, truly.

 

T: The photo “Drying curtain and sofa”, is the one carries most sense of film scene, a very much story telling, create out a very appealing space. In Chinese poetries, we used to say 借物抒情、寓情于景, means express emotions and tell stories only through the description of some details of the objects.

 

R: This is what exactly photography do, without language. I still remember very clearly when I took this photo, there was a man sitting on the sofa, I asked him to walk out of the scene for a moment, and when I press the button, I could still see him sitting there, even now when I look at the photo, I can still see him sitting there. It’s unbelievable!

 

 

T: Would you like to tell us more about have this exhibition open in Shanghai?

 

R: The first time I came to Shanghai was in 1990. And the changes here are marvelous, it’s a very energetic city, I like it very much. “Chinese Interiors” toured all over the world, and receive very good feedback from all views and professionals. There’re photographers take similar topics as I do, but no body can do the same like mine, no one in the west ever seen any photos were taken inside the homes of Chinese families all over China. This time we print the book in Shanghai, it’s exactly the same book we published in France, except the texts are in Chinese.

 

T: What will be your next project then? It’ll still in China?

 

R: Yes, I’m always fascinated by the beauty of female. I’d like to do a series of Chinese women’s face portraits, I’m still looking for the concept, how I can make it really unique, I’m still in search of.

 

 

For more information:

Official website of Robert van der Hilst

“Chinese Interiors” in M97 Gallery, SH

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About Ling

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