Yuri van Geenen observes, shoots and manages to capture a specific situation that seems as if he had scheduled it. However, there’s no script whatsoever behind his work, it all has to do with pushing the button at the right moment. He lives in the Netherlands, but has a deep love for The States – where people are more open and seem to love the attention the camera gives them. We talked with the photographer about his inspiration and how he has an eye for shooting situations that most people would walk by without noticing.
You’re partly Dutch and partly American. Currently you’re based in the Netherlands, how would you compare this country to the United States in terms of how you work?
The people and the scenery in the States are a huge source of inspiration for me. Most of the Americans I met and portrayed over the past years were very open. Within minutes after having met, they shared their inner thoughts, problems, happiness and daily routine. It’s like they put in an effort to make you feel comfortable. My life in the States and here in Amsterdam are in balance. I try to visit the States and my relatives over there at least two or three times a year, so it feels like the best of both worlds. When it comes to living, I’d probably say the Netherlands, but in terms of work I definitely prefer the States. People seem so much more open; I hardly met anyone that did not want to be portrayed. It’s almost like they love the attention they are getting.
The US series you shot often shows the less wealthy, and maybe more representative side, of America – do you aim to show the differences in wealth of this country through your work?
No, not at all. In fact, I don’t engage myself in any comparisons between the social classes, nor do I have any political engagement or do I want to make some social statement. I do feel drawn towards the hardworking individual trying to make ends meet, usually working two or three different jobs a day in order to survive or to pay their medical bills. I have a lot of respect for that. It’s like giving up is not an option. That is quite the opposite I usually see in the Netherlands, where there is a good social security network.
How did you get into the photography world?
I always wanted to study film when I was younger. I was and still am a huge fan of cinema, but I never really put any effort into it. Years later, when I was going through some difficult times, I decided to pick up photography. I used it as a form of therapy. I bought a camera and after reading some books I enrolled in the Photo Academy in Rotterdam.
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In what way has your style developed over the years?
At the Photo Academy I studied the work of several photographers, such as Ezra Stoller and later on Stephen Shore. Especially my street photography and portraits from the States look staged in a way, but aren’t. It’s not only the person in the picture I’m interested in, but the complete surrounding as well. They need to be in balance, or completely contradictive. Over the years I’ve become more critical of my own work, which can also be frustrating now and then.
How do you manage to time your shots in the street photography so well?
I think it’s all about anticipating and having a good eye for certain situations. It’s like I see the shots where most people would just walk on by without noticing it’s there. In a specific situation, it takes a split second, so there never is much time for a lot of shots. I spend more time on the streets searching than shooting. It’s true what Elliot Erwitt once wrote – “photography is an art of observation” – taking the picture itself is just a technicality. Pushing the button at the right moment, that’s what it’s all about.
How do people respond when they realise you took a photo of them?
Most of them don’t even realise, as everything happens so fast. Especially in crowded situations you lose your subject quite fast. Or they just stand there, baffled.
You don’t use typical models, but more real and often raw faces. Who are the people you shoot and how do you find them?
Mostly through friends, relatives or via Facebook. And people I meet during my work or find in the city.
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Creativity and photography are also a way to communicate a personal view on life. Is there a message you like to get across with your work?
Personally, I think art is not always about getting across a message, but about creating something beautiful, which is a form of communication in itself. I’d like to argue for artists who just want to create what inspires them, instead of getting caught up in concepts.
Is there one work or series that is your favourite?
In general, the work I made in the States and the series on the Food Kitchen in Florida. It’s nice to see that an organization that feeds hundreds of people several times a day can fully rely on the gifts of (wealthy) people and contributors instead of the government. I met so many kind people during that project.
Where do you get your inspiration?
Mostly from just driving around the countryside or desolated areas. But also from people I meet, and watching movies, mostly cinema from the 60’s and 70’s. Especially the 70’s, it seems like everything was moving in a slower pace in those days. For instance the car models had so much variation in them, compared to now. The music, the design, it’s probably my favourite decade.
Are there any projects or exhibitions you’re working on right now?
My work on the States is an ongoing project, probably until the day I die. This year I was nominated for the New Dutch Photography Talent and I’m featured in New Dutch. This is a book series which annually celebrates the 100 best emerging Dutch photographers of the year. And in 2017 I’m showcasing work at the Rotterdam Photo Festival.
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