Viviane Sassen photographs people. But she doesn’t consider her photographs as portraits. Her models are more composition than persons. They are never photographed in close-up: it is always a total or semi total scene in which they figure. She almost uses her models as sculptures. Bodies always have a very sculptural aspect. She underlines that with very contrasted pictures. The faces of Sassen’s character’s are often no more than suggestions. They are surfaces and contours, black holes that contrast sharply with the bright, colorful surroundings. She uses a technique that could be called “the revered Clair-obscur”. While Rembrandt and Caravaggio used the light of a candle or their characters to emerge from dark decors, Sassen drapes a veil across the face. A tree, the edge of a roof, bystanders of whom only the legs are visible – they suggest eyes, mouth and nose with the echo of their presence.
Sassen makes 3 kinds of photographs: recumbent figures, lying with their head turned away from the viewer; intertwined bodies; and “Mystified portrait”: individuals who cannot be identified as such, who avert the camera’s gaze, who have a plant or a shadow of a plant where you expect a smile or a frown.
Between the age of 2 and 5 Sassen lived in a village in Kenya. It was a world of skinned goats’ head on market stalls, morning dew on the red earth, and sweet soft drinks in glass bottles and the smell of burnt charcoal. Her father worked in a hospital, and she herself played with the young patients from the polio clinic next door to their house. For a child of that age, who has not yet made the distinction between I and the other, the identification is complete.
She left Africa quite young and only came back there with a camera in 2001. During this in-between period, she flirted with the profession of fashion designer and became acquainted with photography. She sucked up the work of Araki, Nan Goldin, Thomas Ruff, Andres Serrano and Wolfgang Tillmans. Besides her autonomous work, she worked on assignment for progressive fashion labels like Miu Miu, Viktor & Rolf, Diesel, So, Adidas and Stella McCartney.
It is tempting to give an autobiographical interpretation to the images of her African’s work. But that would be too easy, opening the doors to accusations of navel-gazing and narcissism. “I’m attempting to recreate the images of my youth”, she says. But because of a lack of precisely determined locations these images have a universal charge, transcending personal ups and downs. And there’s a particular, political meaning behind them.