Melissa Schriek is a Dutch photography who is also currently residing in The Netherlands. Growing up Schriek contained a deep-seated curiosity for the environment around her. She used a camera her father gave her to document and capture scenarios that she could, later on, investigate for many hours. This combined with her adoration for dancing and gymnastics transformed the way she saw the world around her forever.
Her photography visualises the city as a rhythm that we come to be part of, once our feet step onto the concrete streets. The humming buzz of the traffic mingled with the bustling murmuring of people conversing on their way to work. Our metropolitan is composed of strangers and familiar objects: the ubiquitous pavement, a slightly bent street pole, a bright orange construction cone, or a abandoned rusty bike. They all seem trivial and significant at the same time.

Schriek just released her debut book titled The City is a Choreography. The book was photographed between 2017 and 2020 in cities around the world. An expedition that started with the urge to step out of her quotidian routine. She uses various forms, contours and arrangements of the body situated in unique positions around the city to deconstruct the relationship between individuals, their emotions and the environment. We talk to Schriek about interacting with the ordinary, her childhood and her theatrical approach to her imagery. 
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When you were younger your curiosity led you to investigate your surroundings. In this essence, you photograph the details like detective work. How has your inquisitiveness as a child influenced you today?
I feel that without that inquisitiveness I would not have started working with photography. In the beginning, many years ago, I used photography mostly as a tool to get into situations where I did not belong. The camera gave me a reason and the courage to approach anyone or be part of any situation. It was mostly my curiosity leading me and my camera helps me to find an open door.
The city of Amsterdam was and is an intrinsic part of your photography. You mentioned that your models become part of the city’s landscape when capturing them, but also how the Dutch streets were never a source of inspiration for you. How did you start looking at your surroundings differently when you started taking pictures?
In my opinion, the Netherlands has a landscape that is quite dull in comparison to many other countries. It is flat, there is not a lot of nature, it is extremely organised and therefore many streets that look alike. And I get bored very fast so that combination lead me to look at my surroundings differently. I try to consciously break my own daily routines all the time. The Dutch streets as they are, are not an inspiration to me, but they became an inspiration when I started to look at them in a different way. I felt the need to experience the city in a way that will always resource an endless amount of possibilities instead of the dreaded daily routine. And this actually goes for other cities too, as my work is produced in all kinds of cities. But I started with exploring the Dutch landscape, and I feel that because of its dullness, I had to create my own world to make it interesting.
Before choosing photography, you were a dancer, performing in various different genres of the practice. Could you explain to us what kind of dancing you did and how this art brought you to photography?
I am always a bit hesitant to say that I was a dancer, as I have never been a professional dancer nor danced on a high level. But I did dance, and I did gymnastics for a long time. That is not exactly dancing but it was a sport that made me extremely aware of my own body and the sculptural possibilities of it. I really liked to perform and to work with my body in a way that it could tell stories, but at some point, photography took over. I find it very difficult to do several things at the same time and I like to focus on one thing completely. For me, this meant that working with photography and giving that my all, meant that I also lost something. And many years later, without realising it, my interest and fascination for the body and performance came back into my photography work.
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How did dancing foster social awareness for you?
Dancing and gymnastics made me very aware of my body, and that of other women. And it made me very aware that there are expectations, judgements and norms attached to the female body. So I have been aware of that from a young age. Now, working as a female in the city, mostly working together with other females makes that awareness all the more real. I am reading a great book right now, it is called feminist city by Leslie Kern. A small passage that I find important from this book goes (and I quote):
“As a woman, my everyday urban experiences are deeply gendered. My gender identity shapes how I move through the city, how I live my life day-to-day, and the choices available to me. My gender is more than my body, but my body is the site of my lived experience, where my identity, history, and the spaces I’ve lived in meet and write themselves on my flesh’’.
Of course, being a dancer one is very aware of the body and what stories you can tell with it. Your work definitely has a performative approach to it. It’s almost like the city is your stage, the residents are the dancers and you are the narrator of said performance. What does a normal day look like for you when capturing the essence of the city and models?
You say it very beautifully and I feel like that is a good way to look at my process. I always try to keep a balance between documenting and staging. I don’t want my work to feel over-staged, where everything is perfectly thought out, but I also don’t want to merely document daily life. I want to actively show my personal view on it, but with a touch of reality. One way to try to capture this is by not controlling the environment around the model so whoever walks by on their daily stroll becomes part of the work. So the work becomes partly staged, and partly a coincidence.
A normal day where I make work would look like a walk around the city. I work with a lot of different people; dancers, ‘regular’ people, actors, anyone who is interested in working with me and fits my imagination at that moment. With the individuals I photograph I walk around the city during the shoot, looking for spots that catch my eye. For my personal work, I often don’t plan the locations beforehand because I want to be there in the moment. If I scout a location beforehand often on the day itself, it doesn’t look exactly like the day I scouted the location. The light is different, the shadows fall in a different way or the environment changed, for instance, a big truck is parked is blocking the view. City life is unexpected and rough at times, and I want that element in my work process too.
Your work is where fact and fiction collide, how every element works together to explore modern and social issues. Could you choose one of your works and deconstruct where this comes into play?
‘The Supermarket’ is a work that is part of The City is a Choreography. The image is made in Rotterdam, The Netherlands. In the image, you see two women in front of a late-night corner shop. The display is colourful, with advertisements and colourful packages of food. It is a store many of us know, and there are probably a couple of these shops in the city where you live. The place, therefore, looks familiar, it could be a place you walk past on your daily stroll. The two women in front of the shop are standing in a row, both wearing athletic clothes that are as colourful as the display of the shop. Both of the women are leaning backwards but also seem to walk forwards. They are not touching, or in any other way physically connected, but because of the matching outfits and the same position, it becomes clear that they are connected to each other. A man walks out of the shop on the left side, he looks at the women while he walks away with cans of soda in his hands. His face is barely visible due to the shadow of his cap but it is apparent that he looks at the women with a hint of disbelief. What I like about this image is that it is partly staged, and partly documented. The man on the left side was not planned, he just walked out of the store and into my photograph. I like to be surprised in this way.
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Your imagery is theatrical, but it also has a sense of romanticism and dreaminess to it. It emphasises emotion over reality and feelings over science. How do you think you manage to do that?
I think there are a couple of things that help with reaching this. Most of all, I work with the body as a tool to convey an emotion or feeling. The language of the body is something we all unconsciously read and it goes beyond rationality. I also think there is a stillness, the strong feeling that something happened before and after, that makes the work theatrical, as well as the use of light. For instance, I love working in very hard sunlight as it feels like it lights the city as if it is a stage that gets lit before a performance.
The boundaries between staged and documentary style imagery are often overlapped. What style do you naturally gravitate towards and why?
I studied documentary photography which focused on the traditional side of it. I actually always thought I would be a photojournalist and worked in that way for a long time. I really liked the fast way of working and learned a lot of skills that I still use. For instance, how to make compositions without interfering, how to make people feel at ease even though you are only part of a situation for a short while. And very importantly, how to let go of being in control and being in the moment. I feel that I make staged photography in a documentary way which makes it difficult for me to chose.
What is an experience you often reflect back to when thinking about your photography career thus far?
Graduation. I graduated in 2018 and I was tired, overworked and stressed. I took half a year off photography after graduation because I needed some time to rest and rethink my process. When I studied photography, I was always trying to justify my work to other people’s taste and expectation which meant that I was never happy with my work. It was very stressful as my well-being relied on the approval of others and I felt like I was not able to express myself fully. I reflected a lot on myself and my work in that half-year that I took off. I am so happy that I took that time even though, it felt strange to stand still career-wise while everyone seemed to be running past me.
I decided that I would, from then on, make the work that I wanted to make. As crazy or boring as I want to. If nobody liked it, at least I would like it myself. It was a very conscious decision to protect myself from the opinions and approval of others. Only after I made that decision I started creating work that made me happy. I learned that my mental health and happiness is so much more important than people liking my work or any kind of approval. And I also learned that when I started following my own path, more people gained interest in my work than when I tried really hard to conform to the expectations of others.
Using the cities in The Netherlands as a sort of base to your work, comes with a sort of comfort. What are the differences you notice when capturing the dynamic beauty of another city or country?
It is completely different and I find it so interesting to discover. Do you know the feeling when you are on holiday and everything seems to be interesting and beautiful? Even the smallest things that at home would not catch your eye, become very apparent. When I work in a city abroad I am even more ‘open’ to see the beauty of that city and honestly, it makes discovering the city a lot of fun. I have a list of cities where I want to make work, so even though my base is in The Netherlands, I am also fascinated by other cities.
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