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Jan Hoek and Galerie Ron Mandos, Unseen Photo Fair 2015
From “Kim”Courtesy Jan Hoek and Galerie Ron Mandos

Refocusing the photographic gaze

From Ethiopian tribes to Dutch ex-drug addicts, this photographer uses his lens to create a conversation with the overlooked and wrongfully defined

The camera can be a transformative thing, on either side of the lens. On one hand, the photographer can be a fly-on-the-wall, making a mysterious world accessible, or the lens’ gaze can be as much a part of the image as the subject. For Amsterdam-based photographer Jan Hoek, the tension between what he wants and what his subjects want is present in his work.

In his first series here, “The Sweet Crazies”, Hoek explores the lives of the homeless, mentally ill men living in Addis Ababa, and their struggle between their dreams and reality. “All looking like kings or emperors,” he explains. “Or almost like they just came from a catwalk. I photographed them in local studios to give them that royal feeling.”

His next photo series, “New Ways of Photographing the New Masai”, sees Hoek reinvent the stereotypical images of the Kenyan and Tanzanian Masai tribesmen. Instead of draped in the traditional garments that the groups had become synonymous with, Hoek captured seven different urban Masai living in the cities. They wore their business suits, but still with the Masai facial prints, or Nikes with their robes. “I liked in Dar Es Salam and there I saw a lot of Masai as well, but they never looked like the image you get from touristic postcards. In the end, I held elections in town where all city Masai could vote on what they thought was the best way to photograph them,” Hoek says.

“The Pattaya Sex Bubble” is a collection of ten different zines he made in Pattaya, Thailand, known as the sex tourism capital of the world. Each zine illustrates a different aspect of a city characterised by lust, hedonism and heartbreak. “It's more like a neon-coloured free zone where people go for second chances, explains Hoek. “Where military men walk hand-in-hand with lady boys, where you can go to market in your latex go-go bar outfit, where you can go to the disco with no shirt even when you are 70.”

Featuring an ex-drug addict with dreams of being a supermodel, the final series featured is “Kim”. He first encountered her in the grips of her heroin addiction, but built a friendship and a colourful portfolio of portraits that illustrate Kim’s hopes and dreams of the good life.

To illustrate the true nature of his photographers, Hoek infuses his images with text that gives context to his work: in “The Sweet Crazies”, images of destitute men are alongside text that lets us glimpse at their personalities. Photographing a variety of what could be perceived as vulnerable characters, Hoek admits he has been labelled all too quickly as a controversial photographer. “I think all photography is exposing, and I know I am looking for the limits, but I never want to cross the limits and I believe I don't do that. In the end I am quite a moralistic photographer.”

Hoek’s work will be on display at Amsterdam’s Unseen Photo Fair, taking place between 18-20 September, 2015