Light Trip in Tanzania

Viviane Sassen's Illuminating Photographs

Viviane Sassen studied fashion at the School of Arts in Arnhem, Holland, for two years before turning to photography. Today, she shoots editorials for magazines including i-D, Purple and French Vogue, as well as ad campaigns for brands such as Louis Vuitton and Miu Miu. Sassen travels extensively in Africa for her personal work and is currently working on a new series entitled Moshi, for which she photographed people from the town of the same name at the foot of Mount Kilimanjaro during a period of several months while living there. Danziger Projects in New York hosts her first US solo show from March 4 to April 10. Here, Sassen reflects on fashion, Africa and animism in conversation with Anne-Celine Jaeger. 

You studied fashion for two years before giving it up to be a photographer. How did that evolution come about?

While I was studying, I was asked to model by [the designers] Viktor & Rolf, who were two years ahead of me. Through modeling, I came into contact with photographers and learned a lot about the medium. I soon realized I was much more interested in shutter speed than hemlines. Photography enables me to do whatever I want. It‘s the ultimate excuse. It‘s such an instant and lively medium.

To what degree is a fashion aesthetic part of your personal work?

I have a love/hate relationship with fashion. I was drawn to it even as a small girl. I do, however, embrace the idea of fashion and style in my personal work. All these young kids in Africa are just as conscious of their looks as the kids in Europe or anywhere else. The only difference is they wear our old, second-hand clothes, which they buy at the local market. The brands are all there. I love this adaptation in its basic form. It‘s about expression, not money. The kids in Africa are sometimes a bit more daring—they aren‘t afraid of color or prints—and I love that, too.

Much of your personal work is shot in Africa—what attracted you to the continent?

I lived in Kenya from age two or three until I was about six, so my first memories are from there. It feels like coming home for me, but at the same time I will always be a stranger and never be a part of that culture. Even today, my senses are heightened in Africa.

There is an interesting interplay between darkness and shadows in your work—what’s the significance here?

It has multiple explanations. It’s a graphic element; I’m interested in the shapes and its formal aspect. It has to do with the high sunlight and how people hide from it. Also, I’m drawn to images that don’t reveal their exact meaning instantly.

People’s bodies have a compelling sculptural quality in your photographs.

I’m inspired by poses and the shapes of bodies. In Kenya, we lived across the street from a home for children with polio. They were my friends and we played together. I was very aware of the fact that I was different. I was fascinated by their body shapes and how the polio had altered them—I thought it was strange, but beautiful.

You have just returned from Tanzania, where you were working on your new series, Moshi. What’s the story with the cool light effects in some images?

It’s something new I’m exploring. It has to do with the magical side of Africa and the belief in animism—that everything has its own soul. It’s about ancient rituals and dreams and giving meaning to thoughts, which are ungraspable. I used a long shutter speed, which gives this magical effect. My favorite light is harsh sunlight, but when it‘s dark in Africa, it‘s really dark. Any light is artificial, even fire. I was intrigued by that during my trip in Tanzania—we had a lot of power cuts.

Anne-Celine Jaeger is the author of Image Makers, Image Takers: The Essential Guide to Photography By Those in the Know, published by Thames & Hudson

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