Scarlett Hooft Graafland is a photographer, but what she does is better described as an explorer. Since her first project in 2004, Hooft Graafland has been on expeditions to some of the world’s most desolate and barren landscapes, living among some of the most isolated communities, from Inuits in the Arctic to the salt deserts in Bolivia. Her pictures are intense, euphoric expanses, at first, unidentifiable, non-places. Rather than use the camera to document and dominate the landscape, part of Hooft Graafland’s practice involves spending long periods in these places, getting to know the communities she photographs and their surroundings, slowly revealing the way human cultures are in imperfect symbiosis with nature, in a world where difference is being steadily bulldozed by a global culture of sameness.
On Starting Out
I was trained as a sculptor, so I only started using the camera later on. In 2004, I did this project in Iceland of myself lying nude on the tops of houses, and I asked someone else to take the pictures. Then I thought this was a fantastic medium; so I bought a camera.
I think one of the things I’m interested in is using the landscape as a centre stage for a performance or an installation — but this actually tells you more about me and my culture than the place itself, because it’s what I put into it. There’s often a friction between the cultural issues, between habits and customs that contrast with the beautiful environment.
I try to make these really large frames with a lot of sky, and a lot of horizon, so you have the feeling of freedom; but then the things I put in the centre do not always have that freedom, sometimes these people are captured in their culture or traditions. I like to play with that friction between culture and nature.
On the Surreal
I like to find surreal places, that almost don’t look as if they can exist. Having that feeling of liberation and escape – in a lot of my images things are going into the sky – representing the search for freedom, the desire to escape. I went to the salt deserts in Bolivia after Iceland. I felt it was such an extreme landscape; all that space was really inviting. I loved it. That very open feeling.
I made another version of this in Bolivia, with a man standing with a green boat. With this photo, I was searching for really extreme, surreal landscapes. This was just on the border with Vietnam, where there is a very beautiful mountainous area. There’s a man standing with a red inflatable boat. The idea was to have this angry male figure, like the Hulk, getting larger as he gets angrier. I was thinking about macho culture, and these angry men, but lost in space. In China, the colour red was perfect for China. A month ago, I made another brother of this image in Dubai, with golden boats, and in the background you see all the skyline of Dubai, with the largest skyscrapers in the world — it’s a bit absurd — you also have this very macho thing, these incredibly tall buildings, but then these men lost. It has something to do with men who want this kind of power. At this time, with this political situation, with this very macho culture — in Russia, in the US — these images relate to that. But also, really beautiful and very sculptural!
On Representing Women
I try to show the position of women in the world somehow. For example in Madagascar, all these women were wearing blue tights. During the times of slavery there, the slaves were called blue people. I took the photo on a beach that was once a known place for the slave trade. At the same time, I also want to make a fun image and celebrate women and their power. The nudes pictures I took of myself on the rooftops in Iceland also had to do with vulnerability, being left outside, and not inside the warm house. Somehow it works that it’s a woman lying naked on the roof. I like to play with that vulnerable position of the woman.
On her Ethos
I try to make universal works, something that is not only western. I think my work is approachable for people from all over the world, at least that’s what I hope. It’s important to me that it’s not only used in the west but that it has a wider, broader resonance. All these experiences with different cultures enriches you. I like to be surrounded by people who think in a totally different way.
I often find locations through stories and local knowledge. I like to travel with local artists, in groups. One of the things that was very special was living with the Inuit people in the north of Canada. I was really impressed by them. I lived with a family, in their house, for half a year, and I also travelled with them for some weeks on the sea through the ice. The culture is so, so different. There were some really tough times. I was with two young hunters on a boat, going seal hunting, but then the weather changed. One of the effects of climate change, they say, is that they can’t rely on the way the sea goes, so we got lost. We eventually found a cabin, but for days we had nothing, no food. We had to be rescued. It was very dramatic, but a very powerful experience — after that, I was much more accepted by the local community. They are very practical people, as they need to be in these circumstances. At first, they didn’t want to be involved in it at all, but in the end, we decided to build this igloo next to the school, and it was a hangout for the children to enjoy.