#1 In conversation with Rob Hornstra

by Unseen August 28 2017

Unseen Amsterdam 2017 will not only be a feast for the eyes, but the ears and mind too. At this year’s edition, we are delighted to invite The Royal Academy of Art in The Hague (KABK), who will present ‘Let me tell you about…’, a collaborative project developed by 12 of their third year photography students. While each photographic story is distinct, they all focus on a collective yearning to break down themes that are difficult to digest as young makers. Supervised by teachers Raimond Wouda, Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin, the participating young artists are Nael Quraishi, Elodie Vreeburg, Viktor Naumovski, Katarina Juričić Sophie Schwartz, Caspar van Eugen, Filippo Ciriani, Daniela Roşca, Tibor Dieters, Avgud, Stella Loning and Linnea Frandsen.

In this feature, we talk to Rob Hornstra, a Dutch photographer of predominantly long-term projects, both at home and around the world, and co-head of the photography department at the Royal Academy of Arts in The Hague. He has produced documentary series for a variety of international magazines, taken part in numerous solo and group exhibitions in the Netherlands and abroad and published several books of solo work. His next book Man Next Door appears at the end of this year. He also is the founder and former artistic director of FOTODOK – Space for Documentary Photography. Today we find out more about his view on photography nowadays and how the project ‘Let me tell you about…’ came together.

What is the importance of photography nowadays?
I don’t believe photography is important, but I do believe there is a need for independent thinkers and makers, no matter in what medium they express themselves. Of course, I do believe that photography – in the widest sense of the word – is a very powerful and appealing medium to tell stories or express your thoughts.

How has this changed over the past years?
Photography is less limited than it used to be. New techniques and new presentation platforms have added more richness to the possibilities for a photographer. This is a great development, but ultimately, it's not about mastering the possibilities, but what you want to do with them.

You have been co-head of the department for several years, have you seen a change in the type of students that study photography and the type of work that they create?
Students change with the industry, and they change the industry. Currently fewer students are interested in presenting a handmade, framed c-print on the wall, like you often see at more traditional art or photography fairs. They embrace new possibilities and techniques and are barely influenced by traditional photographic conventions. They nurture photographic thought, although it may not necessarily lead to a photograph. What they all have in common is their deep-rooted ambition to communicate and to share.

How did the idea for the assignment ‘Let me tell you about…’ come to life and based on which criteria did you select the students?
The (then) second year students worked for half a year on a long-term assignment within two courses: Documentary Photography and Fiction & Society. In consultation with their teachers Raimond Wouda, Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin, they worked on personal projects related to bigger social themes, without being aware of the forthcoming opportunity to present work at Unseen Amsterdam. After their collective assessments in June, we organised a selection day with a jury consisting of Emilia van Lynden (artistic director Unseen Amsterdam), Adam Broomberg, Raimond Wouda (teachers), Jeroen Kummer, Inês da Costa (Kummer & Herrman) and me. We were all impressed by the original and varied concepts and professional quality of the projects and could have easily chosen double the number of projects to present at Unseen Amsterdam. In line with the previously mentioned ambition of students to communicate and share and the diversity in topics, Kummer & Herrman came up with the slogan ‘Let me tell you about…’.

Can you tell us a bit more about the process of creating this installation with the students
When we first communicated the Unseen Amsterdam project to students, we emphasised how important it is that they see it as a group experience, no matter if their work was selected for the installation or not. As well as the twelve selected students, others are involved in production, promotion, audio tours, events and so on. It’s a group effort. The chosen projects show great diversity in content as well as in presentation and demonstrate a variety of different personalities and preferences.

Where does the line between fiction and documentary lie? Have you seen this change in recent years?
Our teacher Donald Weber recently stated in an interview with the British Journal of Photography: "What has photography taught me about reality? Actually, it’s the other way around – reality has taught me that there is nothing real in photography. It’s all just a completely subjective experience, which is quite liberating when you realise it." All photography is fiction; all that matters is the integrity and honesty of the creator. Students at KABK choose their specialisation after the first year, which can be either Documentary or Fiction. This won’t affect the topics they work on, but says more about the way they approach these topics. The roles they take as makers determines their choice for Documentary or Fiction. Documentary students tend to take a role of observer and work ‘with’ and ‘in’ the real world, whereas Fiction students often take a role of creator, of someone who intervenes and directs. A lot of fascinating work is made in the grey area between Documentary and Fiction. There is room at the KABK to actively work in this grey area and we encourage students from both directions to collaborate and inspire each other.

What do you hope the students will obtain from working on this project for Unseen Amsterdam 2017?
An Art Academy is a fantastic safe haven to develop yourself as a maker, yet at the KABK we also care a lot about increasing professional skills to prepare for the reality after graduation. In each year of our four year BA course, students follow the course Professional Practice Skills. Ultimately there is no better place to work on your professional skills than the world outside the academy walls. We are convinced that real assignments, internships and work experiences with festivals such as Les Rencontres d'Arles, Breda Photo and Unseen Amsterdam prepare students for the professional field.

What do you want the visitors of Unseen Amsterdam to gain or learn from this exhibition
Photography at art fairs is mainly judged on its aesthetic. Whereas we, at KABK, believe in the power of aesthetic photography, but are trying to counteract it with a focus on content. If after looking at beautiful pictures at the fair, you are ready for some more substantive stories, come to the KABK installation and immerse yourself in inspirational perceptions of a new generation of talented photographers.

Was there something in the work of your students that surprised you? Was there something remarkable that you didn’t expect?
Honestly, students surprise me every day. Besides the fact that it feels unfair, I cannot mention one example. There is so much energy amongst our students. Working with them is a great privilege and truly inspirational for me as a photographer as well.

If you are curious to see what the students from KABK have created, then you are more than welcome to check it out at Unseen Amsterdam, no ticket needed for this exhibition. But if you want to immerse yourself in all Unseen Amsterdam has to offer you can get your tickets here.