Photographer Willem Jaspert is well known for his stunning, cutting edge fashion images. Having worked for i-D, Bullet or Sleek Magazine, and brands of the likes of Burberry or Zara, there’s a safe spot for him in the Mount Olympus of fashion photographers. But his images go beyond closets and models: one of his most personal projects, a physical and spiritual travel to the Czech city of Hlinsko, has been chosen to be part of Photofusion, along with other emergent talents of the photography world. We talk with him about the exploration of this emotional landscape.
Hi Willem! Your latest series is stunning. How did you end up in the Czech Republic? Did you arrive with the intention of starting this project or did it happen along the way?
The Czech Republic has always been a part of my life in some form or other. My dad was born in Germany but went to school in Prague and we often went there as children on holiday. I remember finding it fascinating even then, as it was still a communist country at that time. We once hired a car and drove from Berlin to Prague and it felt like a different world… The same one, but somehow totally different!
I met my wife in London, but she is originally from this small town in Bohemia called Hlinsko, and as soon as we visited it together, I knew it would make for some interesting images.
What awoke your interest for the place?
Every time I am there, I discover something new that I’ve never seen before, and I find a lot of beauty in the simple, everyday things.
The images depict a strange atmosphere, somehow lost in time. Is this a truthful portrait of what you found and felt there or your projects end up being a personal, distorted vision of reality?
Yes, in some ways the area is somehow lost in time, I guess somewhere between the 1970s and 80s. There are shops that look like they have had the same goods for 30 years, and many people haven’t really changed their interiors that much. These were obviously scenes that I found appealing and began to document, and the ‘stillness’ of the town was a beautiful break from the chaos of London. So the images are all very real and honest… But, on the other hand, I’m aware that as a photographer I have selected exactly what I wanted to capture. It was always my intention to look for positivity in the place, rather than the possibly more depressing reality of a town where all the factories have closed, and where many people have left.
You followed closely the Hlinsko celebrations. What are the main lessons you’ve learnt from the experience?
Traditional customs are an important way for people to keep in touch with the past, and to celebrate their history, even when times are tough. Perhaps it’s even more important to celebrate when times are tough! Similar events happen across other parts of Central and Eastern Europe, but in Hlinsko they have been best preserved, which led to the event here being recognized by Unesco as an important cultural tradition. I also learnt that when there’s a celebration, there is a lot of alcohol… Everyone was pretty ‘happy’ by the end of the day! (Laughs).
We’re used to see you working in fashion. Was this project intended to explore a new field?
As well as fashion I am constantly working on various personal projects. It’s a great way to keep myself inspired and interested, and I enjoy bringing in aspects of fashion into these everyday realities.
And how did you get involved with Select/15?
Photofusion is an amazing space dedicated to photography, not just in the gallery but also by providing talks, classes and of course the darkroom, which I use regularly. Last year I submitted a small selection of images and was selected for the Select/15 exhibition along with three other fantastic photographers by the curators at Photofusion Gallery. We have all been awarded a bursary to continue and expand our projects, or to embark on a new one!
So do you have any ideas in mind on how to do so?
I am currently in talks with a publisher about making the project into a book and am looking at possible ways to bring in different aspects to the series. There are many ways it could develop, and at the moment I am looking into finding people who have left the town in search of work elsewhere (perhaps in the UK) and seeing if anything of their old life has remained with them in their new place. And I am also working on a project here in London to do with men and immigration… I will let you know when it’s all done!