Henk Wildschut (Harderwijk, NL, 1967) studied at the Royal Academy of Art in The Hague and lives and works in Amsterdam.
He began his Shelter series in 2005. In 2010, this resulted in the book Shelter and the film ‘4.57 Minutes Back Home’ In 2011 his book Shelter was awarded with the Kees Scherer prize for the best Dutch photobook of the years 2009/2010. And he won with Shelter the prestigious Dutch Doc 2011 Award for best documentary project. Wildschut was commissioned by the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam to work on the topic of Food. After two year this resulted in the book Food and in a exhibition in the Rijksmuseum. Due to the emerging refugee crisis in Europe, Wildschut re started to visit Calais in the January 2015. He documented the rise and fall of the informal refugee camp, also known as ‘The Jungle”. This work resulted in April 2016 in his self published book Ville de Calais. Ville de Calais is mentioned in many list of best book of the year 2017. Its award with the Arles Prix du Livre 2017 and short listed for the Aperture award Best book of the year.
The delicate balance between functional aesthetics and human drama
Text: Frank van der Stok
Much as Henk Wildschut’s photographic oeuvre seems bent on avoiding an obvious homogeneity of style, subject matter or approach, there is naturally a common denominator that we may consider a hallmark of his work. This characteristic is first evident in his semi-activist book project Sandrien of 2002 and continues through to a future project concerning environmental refugees planned for 2018-2020. Wildschut’s projects are broadly about uprooting and alienation; about people who though misfortune or other inescapable circumstances find themselves forced to improvise in order to survive.
Sandrien was a project about a ship arrested in the harbour of Amsterdam due to a hazardous waste scandal, leaving the crew in limbo and unable to either leave the ship or to continue their voyage. While Sandrien was largely motivated by activist intentions, other projects bear witness to a slow process of perseverance, patience and staying power. His modus operandi is in this respect wholly consistent with the slow journalism approach, although in his case it reaches its effect though the indirect persuasiveness of the underlying story in relation to the wider context. Wildschut demonstrates a capacity that goes far beyond the vogue of the day by giving a pertinent account of a socio-political phenomenon in the form of an all-embracing survey. As a socially engaged photographer, he works by foregrounding a remarkable amount of the background. Unlike the typical documentary photographer who persuades the protagonists of a community to tell their stories in order to illustrate a social or political abuse, Wildschut prefers to portray the abuse itself and how it is dealt with. He does so in the conviction that a single collective story is on balance more meaningful and relevant than a collection of individual accounts accompanied by a gallery of faces. The makeshift migrant transit camps documented in Shelter and its sequel Ville de Calais (“The Jungle”) are, for example, characterized by a hugely pluriform demography, from which we learn relatively little about the fates of the individuals concerned. Only a minor proportion of the picture story is devoted to portraits of immigrants from far-flung corners of the world; and the purpose of these individual images and text miniatures is to depict the often vital role of participants in the economic structure of the camp, rather than to proffer a colourful gamut of individual stories. What stands out most of all is the collective way the uprooted migrants, driven from their former homes and uncertain about the future, succeed in forming a dynamic community despite the constant risks to which they are exposed.
Wildschut’s highly personal leitmotif is here his fascination with the way these individuals preserve a universal human dignity in the face of repression. The tenacity of the migrants generally emerges in these projects through the almost poignant way they endeavour to create an atmosphere of domesticity, normality and cultural identity amid the makeshift surroundings of the camps. Nowhere, however, does Wildschut’s photography fall prey to a sentimental, clichéd or sensationalized treatment of the subject; and this may be attributed to the strongly-developed moral awareness that he somehow manages to weave into all his photographic series.
Wildschut is always keenly aware of the ethical questions involved, and consequently makes no secret of his moral scepticism which forms a tangible subtext of his photography. It is precisely due to the delicate balance between functional aesthetics and the human drama that Wildschut’s unique style of documentation, never straining after effect, succeeds in evoking in the attentive reader a special kind of empathy which which is more authentic than what we might feel from a rushed, sentimentality-tinged piece of journalism. This vulnerable but honest and forthright form of reporting is the true source of Wildschut’s believable impact.
A similar kind of moral dilemma emerges in a project such as Food, in which Wildschut sheds on objective light on aspects of the food industry. Here, too, Wildschut shows us the hidden side (both literally and figuratively) of the food industry ‒ not by interviewing consumers or by adopting a specific standpoint on the subject, but purely by immersing himself empirically in the spectacularly large scale of the food sector ‒ an aspect which we know only through statistics and which is hard for us to picture concretely. Wildschut does not demonstrate an abuse here, but his gaze is unromantic. His imagery is informative and dispassionate. Wildschut trains his lens onto things that clash with what the general public would like to think. Animal welfare, for example, is typically a prominent concern for the commercial consumer market; but Wildschut holds up a mirror to the consumer/viewer so that the latter can bring his (generally second-hand, idealized) picture of the food industry into perspective. As in other projects, there is not a hint of a wagging finger or a moralizing undertone. Wildschut offers visual fuel for both sides of the argument, allowing the critical spectator to determine a viewpoint using his own powers of empathy, judgement and responsibility.
It is the cumulative insights gained from the high level of instability and fluidity of his subject matter that have in the end induced Wildschut to adopt more stable anchorages for his photographic expeditions. While working on Ville de Calais, for example, he gradually came to the conclusion that an apt response to the mutability of his subject matter would be to embrace serialization, sequence and the moving image (from a static perspective). This led among other things to the photographic trope known as revisiting (the photographic counterpart of the sequel). Considering the rapid destruction and reconstruction of a makeshift settlement like the “Jungle”, this opens the prospect of comparing developments in progress through time. It involves portraying both “before” and “after”, revealingly photographing the subject from a fixed camera standpoint to which the photographer returns at intervals. We may expect the same principles to apply to his new project about environmental refugees.