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Viviane Sassen’s gorgeous, inscrutable fine art images from Africa have earned her acclaim and a place in the Museum of Modern Art. But recently, her surreal and equally beautiful fashion photography has been garnering attention, too: in 2011, Sassen won the prestigious International Center of Photography’s Infinity Award for Applied/Fashion/Advertising Photography, and more than 300 of her fashion images are on view at Amsterdam’s Huis Marseille Museum for Photography through mid-March 2013 in a show titled, Viviane Sassen / In and Out of Fashion.

Born in Amsterdam, Sassen lived in Kenya — where her father worked in a polio clinic — between the ages of 2 and 5. Because the continent looms so large in her work, I asked her to describe her earliest memories from Africa.

“I remember,” she told me, “how Rispa, our nanny, woke me up one early morning and took me to a deserted football field to pick small white mushrooms. I remember the taste of sugarcane and ugali [a dish similar to polenta], orange Fanta and the bloody goat heads in the market in Kisumu.”

Returning to the Netherlands was difficult for her: “I didn’t feel I belonged in Europe, yet I knew I was a foreigner in Africa.”

As a young woman, Sassen enrolled in a university fashion design program and also modeled. Recalling her modeling work, she says that she “can relate to how a girl might feel in front of a camera: sometimes bored, tired or simply stressed or insecure. And then the shoes … three sizes too small but with killer heels. It’s not always fun to be a model.”

Nevertheless, she says she “got to know a lot of photographers; they made me aware that they controlled the image. That’s what I wanted, too; I wanted to be in control of the image … to create it.”

Viviane Sassen

Viviane Sassen

Sassen made the leap into photography. She recalls that “in the beginning, [photographers] like Nan Goldin and Nobuyoshi Araki [were] very important for my work because of their formal language, but also because they depicted their own lives in a way that appealed to me.”

A turning point in her own photography came in 2002 when she returned to Africa with her husband. The fine art photography she has made there in the past decade shines as some of the most original, unexpected work to emerge from the continent by a Western photographer. But one finds no victims of war or famine here; instead, the viewer confronts contemporary Africans engaged in sophisticated, if mysterious, dream performances.

“Working in Africa opens doors of my subconscious,” Sassen explains. “Sometimes, when I wake up in the morning after very vivid dreams or if I just suddenly have an idea, I sketch. My photographs are sometimes almost literal pictures of these sketches.” At other times, she says, “I might just find something on the street that excites me.”

Her images are somehow primal and hallucinatory at once: two youths embrace in the dark, a giant banana leaf sprouting between them; a figure lies nestled in the diaphanous green cloud of a fishing net; a boy lounges on the ground, his limbs painted bright turquoise. Critic Vince Aletti says that Sassen “tends to treat the body as a sculptural element—a malleable shape that combines with blocks of shadow and bright color in arrangements that sometimes read like cut-paper collages, bold and abstract but full of vibrant life.”

One key part of the body that is often missing or obscured is the human face, as models turn away from the camera or appear with their faces cloaked in shadow. As Aaron Schuman noted in Aperture, the images might thus “appear to ignore the individuals they portray and instead inherently possess—maybe even propagate—the problematic histories, legacies, and relationships between Africa and the West. But perhaps in Sassen’s case this is the point, at least in part, and where the power of her photographs lies.”

Viviane Sassen

Viviane Sassen

Within these mirror-like voids, Sassen allows the viewer to reflect on the clichés and prejudices Westerners so often fall back on when engaging the vast continent and its inhabitants.

“I want to seduce the viewer with a beautiful formal approach,” says Sassen, “and at the same time, leave something disturbing.”

Sassen’s fashion work borrows much from her fine art—obscured faces, extraordinary color. The acute graphic sensibility of Sassen’s fine art, meanwhile, works wonders in magazine spreads. In an elemental way, though, the museum show and Sassen’s images (made for magazines like Wallpaper, Purple and Dazed & Confused, and for brands like Levi’s and Stella McCartney) don’t make sense at all.

As Sassen told the British Journal of Photography in its December 2012 issue, “I find exhibitions of fashion photography within the context of a museum rather problematic. Most fashion images aren’t art, they’re fashion photographs—which is fine, but if you put them in a museum, enlarged and in a frame, they become something else…. Art photography doesn’t have to serve any purpose, fashion photography does, and that makes a difference…. [Then] there are images which are really between art and fashion, which I hope I do myself.”

Sassen hit upon a solution to this conundrum: projecting fashion images on museum walls, so the work retains a “kind of disposable feel.” Furthermore, Sassen has said she doesn’t care much about clothes. “My interest is not the interest of the fashion industry. My interest is to make fascinating pictures…. It’s always about desire and fear, about making images that are both appealing and unsettling.”

Viviane Sassen

Viviane Sassen

Nevertheless, Sassen says she loves the “swiftness of fashion” as opposed to the “contemplated process of making art.” I asked her about the difference between shooting for magazines and shooting for advertisements.

“What I like about fashion magazines is that they create a platform to experiment and to work closely with people who can be super inspiring. I call it my laboratory. [It] should be like an adventure; not knowing where your play will lead you. When you’re working on fashion campaigns for a commercial brand it’s often much less experimental, but still creative in the sense that you have to match the pieces of a puzzle.”

Sassen has used a computer to retouch some of her images, but mostly avoids it. “I think that something beautiful is even more charming when it’s not too perfect. You don’t want to feel the artificiality of the image, you want to believe in it. I feel related to reality, while slick images feel exchangeable.”

Sassen’s lifelong interest in Africa — and her ongoing explorations of her own subconscious — have contributed to some of the most riveting fashion photography being made today. For a photographer rooted in (or, as she puts it, “related to”) reality, her magazine work is a revelation.

See more of Sassen’s work at VivianeSassen.com.

Myles Little is an associate photo editor at TIME.

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Rémi Ochlik, an award-winning French photojournalist, was just 29 when he died on Feb. 22, when government forces shelled a building where a growing number of foreign journalists were covering the battle in Homs, Syria. Ochlik died alongside Marie Colvin, an American who was one of Britain’s most honored combat reporters. Two other journalists were reportedly wounded in the barrage.

For Ochlik the horror in Syria came as he was just beginning his career. He was with his friend Lucas Dolego, a French photographer, on the streets of Tunis during the revolution there in January 2011 when Dolego was hit and killed by a police teargas canister. “We had come to work, so I kept on working,” he said in a recent interview, after being honored for his Arab Spring photos. “As a little boy I always wanted to become an archeologist, for the travels, the adventures,” he continued. That changed when his grandfather gave him his first camera.

Lucas Dolega—Polaris

Oct. 23, 2011. French photojournalist Remi Ochlik in Misrata, Libya. Ochlik was killed Feb. 22, 2012, by Syrian shelling of the opposition stronghold Homs.

In 2004, Ochlik traveled to Haiti and photographed the fall of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, winning the Francois Chalais Award for Young Reporters. He started his own agency, IP3 press, which specialized in combat photography, he covered the conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2008 and he returned to Haiti for a cholera epidemic in 2010. In 2011, Ochlik covered the Arab Spring in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya; his work in Libya won him first prize in the General News category of the World Press Photo contest. One of the World Press judges said that his submission told a complete story.

“The idea was not to focus on just one part of the story,” Ochlik told the British Journal of Photography. “Because when you look at what happened, this war was divided in several parts—in Benghazi, in Misrata—and in what I’ve covered, I’ve tried to tell a story.”

Ochlik’s own story took him to Syria merely a week before he was killed. His and Colvin’s deaths came the same week that Anthony Shadid, a renowned foreign correspondent, died of an apparent asthma attack while sneaking out of the country where he had been reporting. Despite his young age, Ochlik understood the risks in his chosen profession. In describing his work in Haiti when he was only 20 years old, he said, “I could sense the danger, but it was where I always dreamt to be, in the action.” His being there allowed the world to witness horrifying atrocities, but it ended the life of a gifted storyteller when his own adventure had barely begun.

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The Caspian Sea is bordered by five countries, Iran, Russia, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, and Kazakhstan. The Caspian Sea is what remains of the ancient ocean. Around 60 million years ago the this ancient ocean connected the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Due to shifting of continents it lost its connection with the Pacific Ocean and then with the Atlantic Ocean. Chloe Dewe Mathews’ work on the Caspian Sea recently won the British Journal of Photography’s International Photography Award and will be exhibited in London at the Foto8 Gallery from Nov 22nd until Dec 5th. David Land of f2 Magazine caught up with Mathews as she hitchhiked her way back to Britain from China.

Mathews:

“.. I was mostly shooting in Central Asia (Xinjiang China, Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan) but now I´m only weeks away from home. My boyfriend (who is also an artist) and I, wanted to do a substantial journey from Asia to Europe without flying, to get a sense of the gradual changes that occur as you move from East to West. We’ve been primarily hitchhiking, and crossing the seas by boat, to get a more immediate sense of the places we are traveling through. Although I did preliminary research, I didn’t want preconceived projects to dictate the way I worked. Rather I wanted to respond to whatever situations we found ourselves in, and once an idea had struck, I could go deeper from there. It´s been a real reconnaissance trip for a lifetime’s work ahead and an education, of course.

One of the biggest challenges has been knowing when to take photographs and when not to. There were periods when I didn’t take out my camera at all, which made me worry that I was wasting opportunities. I had to remind myself that sitting, listening, talking, watching, gathering is as important a part of being a photographer as shooting. Besides, sometimes if you are too busy taking pictures within the boundaries of a certain project, you are blind to what is happening right in front of you. I didn’t want that to happen during this trip.”

All images courtesy Chloe Dewe Mathews/Panos


A woman bathes in a bath of oil at the Naftalan sanatorium. Each session, patients bathe for ten minutes in a tub of crude oil. The oil is heated to 37 degrees for optimum effectiveness, Azerbaijan.


The SOCAR (State Oil Company of Azerbaijan Republic) oil fields in Ramana on the Absheron Peninsula. Wells in the Caspian were being hand-dug in the region as early as the 10th century and the world’s first offshore and machine drilled wells were built on the Absheron Peninsula during the 1870′s, Azerbaijan.


Boys splash in the Caspian Sea, in the shadow of oil rigs at Sixov beach in Baku, Azerbaijan.


A mother and daughter sit on the artificial sea wall in Astara, near the border with Iran. The Caspian Sea borders are still unresolved between these two countries, almost twenty years after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Both countries claim ownership of lucrative oil fields in the southern waters, which has led to a series of confrontations, as each side has forged exploratory missions to profit from the region, Azerbaijan.


Two sisters run down to the underground mosque in Beket-Ata near the Caspian Sea. They have come on a pilgrimage with their family from Aktau, to pray for the recovery of their uncle, Kazakhstan.


In a coastal cemetery, Uzbek migrant workers wear makeshift masks and sunglasses to protect themselves from the sun’s glare, reflecting off the mussel-chalk they work with. They are building elaborate mausoleums for the newly rich middle class. These grave builders work from dawn til dusk, sleeping on site for months at a time, Kazakhstan.


An Uzbek migrant worker pastes plaster into the cracks of a mausoleum. When the Koshkar-Ata cemetery was first established mausoleums were reserved for local saints, a status that was obtained through wisdom and benevolence, through contributions to the well being of the community. Today the splendid tombs belong to the local oil barons. These grave builders work from dawn til dusk, sleeping on site for months at a time, Kazakstan.

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Lynsey Addario on the front page of NYT.com as I’m writing this…

Features and Essays – Lynsey Addario: The Female Marines (NYT: October 2010) Afghanistan

She’s also on Twitter now @lynseyaddario

And my friend Anastasia Taylor-Lind seems to be giving Twitter another go @anastasiatl

Anastasia’s work will be shown here…

Exhibitions – National Portrait Gallery : London : Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize : 11 November 2010- 20 February 2011

Her partner Ivor Prickett’s new work from Abkhazia can be seen in a slideshow on Vimeo…

Features and Essays – Ivor Prickett: Gali (Vimeo: October 2010)

Peter diCampo has won the British Journal of Photography award…Congratulations Peter!

Awards - Peter DiCampo wins IPA 2010 body of work prize (BJP: October 2010)

Great work by Ashley Gilbertson on NYT Lens..

Features and Essays – Ashley Gilbertson: Survival in an Emergency Room (NYT Lens: October 2010)

Interviews - Steve McCurry (Youtube: 2010)

Twitter - Micha Bruinvels

Do you ever shoot with  Holgas, Lomos, Dianas? What about take those Hipstamatic photos with your iPhone? Chip Litherland has words for you …

Blogs - Chip Litherland: step away from the holga and no one gets hurt (Photographer’s blog: September  2010)

I don’t have an iPhone myself but wouldn’t mind having one, really, and having seen Ben Lowy‘s, Abbie Trayler-Smith‘s and David Guttendelder‘s iPhone work, I have to admit, I might even take some photos with it…

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