The artificial-looking portraits in bright block colours in the series Vortex, by German photographer Jan Maschinski (b.1983), show men and women in uncomfortable moments. Their facial expressions – cold, blank and indefinable – leave us in a semi-awkward space in which it is up to us to decide which emotions to experience. Vortex was on exhibit at this year’s edition of BredaPhoto, and we had the chance to speak to Maschinski about self-reflection, his controlled approach to making his portraits, and the meaning of their emotional distance.
I try to find a ‘you’ to be the ‘me’
Your series Vortex was on exhibit at BredaPhoto, where the theme of this year’s festival was ‘YOU’. How do we see YOU in your photographs?
The series is about me, and situations that I’ve been through, but instead of photographing myself, I photograph models as a personification of myself. They’re a kind of self-portrait in which I try to find a ‘you’ to be the ‘me’. By photographing these situations, I get to know myself better and, although I prefer not to call it like that, it makes the series actually a kind of self-therapy.
Why did you do this ‘self’-portraiture?
I think it is important to relive some situations I’ve experienced in my life. When you live through those certain moments again, you get to know all the parts of yourself better and, because of that, you are able to understand what you are made of. I think many people do not want to be confronted with some situations at first, and try to avoid certain emotions, but I think it is important to open up to these feelings. It will make you stronger in the end.
When looking at your photographs, it seems that you only choose to translate the awkward and uncomfortable emotions, instead of the positive ones. Why is that?
Because I think that the odd and hard moments, which are difficult to get through, are the kinds that shape you, in a way. I surely do not want to say that only the negative moments are important, but they certainly are the ones that form your personality in large part.
Besides, I don’t even think that most of the pictures have that strong of a negative emotion – they’re not supposed to be gruesome or something like that. I really don’t see it that way. I do want the photographs to be serious, but I don’t feel like I make them awkward – those kind of feelings only happen to the viewer.
When choosing your models, you say you try to find ‘the you to be the me’. How does that work?
Most of the time, I have the idea for the photo first: I know what is the situation that I want to translate, and then I just look for the right actor to play it. Sometimes it happens that I just see somebody and he or she evokes something in me, and I immediately feel connected to him or her. Then I want that person to be the ‘me’ in a situation in my pictures.
Like the girl with the yellow sweater. When I saw her for the first time, I immediately knew that she would be the one for this picture. She had this Renaissance look in her face that really fascinated me, and I found it really exciting to present her this way.
What is your approach to photographing your subjects and deciding how to present them?
When I start to shoot, I’ve already decided which colours I’m going to use, how the models will be posing, which clothes they will be wearing and if I am going to apply make-up or not. I stage the models exactly in the way I have in head, I tell them where to look and how to move their heads and I place every item exactly where I think it belongs.
Sometimes I experiment a little bit with my idea, till all parts, like the hairstyle, the make-up and the pose make exact sense and I have this clicking feeling, but I have a very clear idea in my head. I know what I want to translate and how the image should look like in the end.
How do you decide which colours to use? And what do you think it adds to the pictures?Which colours I use depend on the model. Some models clearly show a certain mood, and so once I feel that mood, I look for colours to fit in the picture. Most of the time, I use colours that underline this emotion, for example with a very sensitive person I might use red, because it is highly emotional and it displays what I am feeling when looking at that person. But sometimes I also take a contrasting, opposing colour that just fits or strengthens the model’s appearance.
That distanced gaze in your subjects’ eyes is really typical for your photography. What does it mean to you?
I observe people a lot, and I found out that when they are all by themselves, for instance when they are sitting in the subway, staring into the distance, then they are mostly having a moment of self-reflection. Or, at least, I would like to think that is true. It’s true in my case. When I am staring at something, I am thinking about my life, or things that have happened recently. Although I am looking at something, I’m actually looking inside my head at that moment.
It’s also the case that, when someone stares, his facial expression is blank or indefinable. And that is what I want in my photographs. I want to leave it to the viewer to decide what he feels. By leaving obvious emotions like laughing or sad faces out, it is always more interesting to the viewer to make out what the people in the picture are experiencing. It is like a blank space, which the viewer has to fill in.