Ten questions for photographer Hans Eijkelboom

Our People of the Twenty-First Century photographer on The Sartorialist, Martin Parr and the consumer society
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Hans Eijkelboom, New York - photographed by Sheila Matthes
Hans Eijkelboom, New York - photographed by Sheila Matthes

If you're anything like us you will, at some point, have gone into a clothes shop, picked out a garment which you thought expressed an element of your personality, and at the till been hit with the realisation that thousands of people across the planet will also buy and wear exactly the same piece of clothing.

It’s this fallacy of modern individualism that the 65-year-old Dutch photographer, Hans Eijkelboom examines in his new book, People of the Twenty-First Century. His photo series, shot during two-hour sessions on the street in Western cities over the past twenty two years, captures people as they truly dress: not with the individual panache so often dreamed of in clothes shop dressing rooms, nor with the rigid uniformity common in stricter society, but instead with a kind of uncanny groupthink. View these shots laid out in a grid formation by Eijkelboom and the viewer becomes aware not only of unconscious conformity at work in this supposed age of the individual, but also how herd-like our habits are. Read on to discover how Eijkelboom thinks this book serves as a kind of mirror; why no one has ever complained about his pictures, and who he thinks he owes his greatest photographic debt to.

 

You’ve been shooting photographs since the 1960s. How would you characterise your work prior to shooting the pictures in this book? Basically, throughout my whole career I have examined the same things. It’s always about identity. In the beginning it was about my identity, and now it’s more about identity generally in society. I studied architecture and I used my camera to photograph landscapes and maquettes and so on. Then I was interested in trying to capture how weather affected buildings, for example how houses change colour when it’s raining. This led me to photograph myself when I was wet, and that was the start of all my work. 

When did you start making the pictures in this series? In 1992. Before I had made similar shots, but not on a daily basis. Again, the inspiration was identity and society. When I started the project, I wondered whether I was a product of the consumer society, rather than my own man. I wanted to make the series almost as a mirror, in which to see myself. If I can see the surrounding society, then I can see what makes me who I am. I think ‘how can you be so naïve to go to a shop, to buy clothes that sum up your personality, and not realise that, at the same time, 10,000 men and women around the world do and think the same things?’ But I do it too, of course. We’re told we’re individuals, and we buy these things, and we are a product of the culture that we live in. 

 

How and where do you shoot them? Whenever I go to a new city I look around for a good place. It’s something to do with a crowd and the light. Shopping centres, of course, are where lots of people come together. At the moment I am working by the Bullring in Birmingham, England. It’s great there; I can really move around. In Broadway and Prince in New York, and in de Dam in Amsterdam, too.

How long does it take to get a series together? I look around for ten or fifteen minutes. Then I pick my spot and start photographing for between twenty minutes and two hours - never longer than two hours. If I go on for any longer it is not interesting for me. You can find everything if you look for it for a year, but it is very important that it is a part of what my eyes are seeing for one or two hours. The series, which I always lay out in these grids, must really be what everybody else can see in the city. And they often do end up seeing it too. I often hear from people who’ve seen an exhibition of mine and say ‘oh, I hate it, because whenever I go to the city now, that’s all I see.’

 

In terms of set-up, we understand you wear a camera around your neck and carry a remote trigger concealed in your jacket pocket? That’s correct. That way, people almost always don’t know I’m taking their shot. OK, sometimes I look towards them too intently and they might be aware, or they can hear the shutter sound. When I work with a Canon D5, it’s better to find a place that is noisy, to mask that sound. That’s a problem.

Since you started other photographers, such as Scott ‘The Sartorialist’ Schuman, Bill Cunningham, or Brandon Stanton (Humans of New York) have sprung to fame. Do you feel any affinity with their work? I’ve certainly seen their websites. I think they’re good, but the big difference between my pictures and theirs is that they are interested in the things that are exceptional, whereas I’m looking for things that you see all the time on the street. 

 

It's often said, quite wrongly, that Martin Parr's photos are misanthropic. How do you feel about yours? Both Martin and I love people. It’s impossible to be on the street for days and days and not to love people. But it’s critical, too, because of the struggle of life. You have to show people how complicated life is. Take Martin’s shots at the beach, which people always say are unkind. Well, when I go with my wife to the beach here in the Netherlands, it’s also complicated to find a really nice place. Or when you go on holiday, you hope to sit on the most beautiful beaches in the world, but the practice of life is different. You cannot speak about that in terms of uncritical or critical, you can only say I love life, but it is difficult. I feel a great affinity with Martin Parr. I’m very interested in August Sander, the Bechers, and the father for me for everything is Walker Evans. Gary Winogrand was a big influence too. He showed me how to become more or less an investigator with a camera.

Have people ever complained about you photographing them? No. Some people are happy with the photograph, but most people never see them. My work is on show in a big theatre in Amsterdam. About four or five times in a year, I get a message from someone asking for a copy of their picture. They only ever ask for their own picture, but I also send them the other pictures in the grid too. Still, the question is always ‘can I have my photo?’

 

Do you think people will ever  realise that buying fashionable clothes doesn't actually make them look different or special? I’m not sure. I think there’s an interesting development happening. I think people are regarding it increasingly important how they look on the street, and more important how they look online. Young people will communicate with young people in China, say. It doesn’t matter what they’re wearing at the moment.  

That’s interesting. So is there more scope for this kind of anthropological street photography? Yes, I think there’s more scope. I’m happy I started with this project before the internet became big, because I’ve captured the analogue generation and the digital generation. I think we’re at the cusp of a new era. A lot is changing very quickly, in social terms, in relation to identity, fashion, internet and so on. Only, I’m not sure how it is changing. It’s too complicated for a 65-year-old man, but I look at it and it’s very interesting for me. Take a look at People of the Twenty-Firist Century in the bookstore.

 


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