Elza Jo van Reenen / Photographer
“Finding your creative signature
is the most important thing.”
Born with an infinite imagination and the desire to change perception, Elza Jo van Reenen went looking for her identity at a young age which lead to rebellious teens that involved alcohol and drugs. Change of perception remains a key element in her work today. As a photographer with an interest in the complex story behind people she aims for imperfection. Continuously stretching her boundaries, Elza Jo made her first documentary film, Jolene, about a mother of two who bartends in a strip club. Elza Jo’s second documentary, a series of blogger Famke Louise, just launched.
Interview Inge Oosterhoff
Photography Jerome de Lint
You’re a photographer. What images best represent your youth? I had an infinite fantasy as a child and my father would always play around with that, playing tricks on me, testing how far he could suspend my disbelief. If he dressed up as Sinterklaas, he’d just tie a plastic bag full of cotton balls underneath his chin, and I wouldn’t even notice. He’d often walk out the door and two seconds later he’d ring the doorbell and say: “hey, I’m your father’s brother, is he in?” And I’d answer, completely believing him, “no, he just went out for groceries.” He’d say, “that’s alright, I’ll come by later!” and leave. And for years I thought, how sad that they keep missing each other!
I was also really into the He-Man cartoon when I was younger, and my father had this gangly friend who was 2.2 meters and had long hair. I vividly remember walking into the living room one day and seeing that friend dressed up in panther leggings and a big purple belt. It was He-man, in my living room! Obviously, he looked nothing like it, but to me he was real. If I have to pick an image, that pretty much captures the kind of youth I had.
That kind of sounds like a perfect childhood. Would you say that it was? My parents divorced when I was three, while my mother was still pregnant with my sister. It was not a friendly divorce, so obviously there was a lot going on around me and definitely not all of it was good.
My sister and my mom moved to The Hague when I was 11. I’d spend the weekends at my dad’s in Amsterdam, which was very different. My mother worked in different kinds of management-type positions. Since she worked fulltime, we had a lot of babysitters and we’d usually see her at night. But it was great growing up with a working mother, I thought she was bad-ass. My dad was an economics teacher for a long time, until he began making documentaries. He was a bit of a hippy. According to my mom, I’d usually come home smelling weird, with tangled hair, wearing a Hawaii shirt.
What were the main challenges you faced, growing up? I lived in my own imaginative world. It was very soft and pretty, full of glitter and My Little Pony and entire countries that didn’t exist. I imagined scary things too, such as ghosts and witches, but mostly, I enjoyed living in this almost parallel universe. Adults were usually quite accepting of that, but other children didn’t vibe with it.
As you grow up and go to school with other children, you realise that this fantasy world you live in isn’t really conducive to friendships and such, so later on in my childhood I went the other way completely, looking for the hard side of reality instead of the soft and gentle. I was a very difficult teenager and would often get into trouble with alcohol, and boys. I still like to look for the edge of things and I love troublemakers, but I’ve mellowed down quite a bit.
Did you let go of that fantasy world entirely or is some of that still present in you? It still is, although that manifests itself more in my work now than in my day-to-day life. Part of me still has the desire to change perception and to look at things from a different, gentler, angle. But it comes from a more grounded place.
Was there any room for expressing your creativity when you were younger? Oh yes, loads! There had to be, for a child like me. If you didn’t direct my creativity, it would end up on the walls and curtains. I was most creative with my father’s father, Claudie, who was a model builder. He’d babysit a lot and I remember calling him beforehand to decide on what we were going to make. He’d buy the supplies and then we’d spend the entire day building a castle or something. He was very strict, but I absolutely loved him. I also named my son after him. My mom taught us how to sew and she’d make things like bathing suits for our barbie-dolls. It was also a matter of economics, we didn’t have much money. But it taught me that if you’re creative, you don’t need a lot. I’m actually making my own wedding dress at the moment!
What values did your parents pass onto you? They taught us a lot of social values, such as respect for other people and cultures, working hard, being appreciative of what you have. We grew up in a very diverse and not-so-affluent neighborhood, and they made sure we respected everyone and learned about everything. There was no room for prejudice.
My parents were both very leftist, hippy-ish almost. They had a lot of female friends with armpit hair and guy friends with long hair, who were all very passionate about things like Demeter and Rudolph Steiner. I think my parents were a bit more grounded though, less normative. They did have strong political opinions. They’d also take me and my sister to rallies and public protests. Against neutron bombs and things like that.
Are you very political yourself? No, not really, to be honest. I mean, I’d say I’m an idealistic person, but I’m of a generation that doesn’t take to the streets as much as my parents did. That makes me a bit sad, actually. We’re less engaged. On the other hand, I use my work to express certain ideals and views on the world. Maybe that’s another way of standing for your ideals, rather than protesting in the streets.
You went to the Royal Acadamy of Art in The Hague. Yet you ended up being a photographer. How did this come about? I started there when I was 17, which is very young. I initially started studying graphic design, but I quickly realised that you spend most of your day behind a desk as a graphic designer and that didn’t appeal to me at all. We also got photography classes that first year, and my photography teacher, Frederick Linck, told the many stories about all the adventures he got into as a photographer. That sounded amazing to me, so I switched to photography. I was drawn to the adventure of it most of all.
Was it easy to build a career as a professional photographer? No. You don’t get taken seriously in the beginning, especially when you’re so young, so you have to work that much harder. And I went in hard. I did a lot of small assignments, in fashion and music mostly. I also worked jobs on the side. It wasn’t easy. It took at least a year until I could financially make ends meet doing just photography and another year or more until I felt somewhat financially secure.
I also met my fiancé Freddy in those early days. He was just starting to make waves with his band ‘De Jeugd van Tegenwoordig’ back then and I photographed them for a magazine. We became friends and have been together for 13 years now.
Is it difficult to stand out between all the photographers trying to make a name for themselves? I don’t really think about it that way. I’ve never been that aware of what others are doing, at least not as a form of competition. I do get inspired by others’ work. Especially the young kids, who are just starting out. I love that kind of creative energy. I also teach photography at the FotoFactory, and I enjoy watching others thrive. There’s the odd moment when I’m like, “man, what this person is doing is so cool, why am I not doing that?” But that just drives me to work harder rather than hold me back.
You create autonomous work, but also work on assignment with HALAL for big names such as Levis, MTV, Nike and Converse. Do you have the same creative freedom in both? In autonomous work, everything comes from you, which can be great. But it’s also nice to step out of your own mind sometimes and submerge yourself in someone else’s vision or world. And that’s what I do when working on assignment, completely. Also, I like the fast pass of it. How a team comes together and just bangs something out, that’s so awesome!
In creative careers it’s important to have a personal signature or style. Do you agree with that? A creative signature is the most important thing, for sure! It’s absolutely beautiful when an artist’s personality is reflected in what they make, when you can tell what kind of movies or books they’d like for example, just by looking at their work. It’s also the most wonderful thing to develop. It’s not always a clear and easy path though. It’s a process. And when I graduated, I knew I needed time to explore and develop, rather than define a specific signature right away. I went through working with glitter and paint to get to the kind of work I create now. I purposely “floated” for a while before I really committed to a signature, but my work has always been guided by my personal view on things.
How would you describe your own signature? I tend to look for the hardness of reality, but there’s always a moment where I intervene, make it softer. I like to examine the tension between the hard and the soft, which is probably why I like photography, even though it doesn’t necessarily fit me as a medium.
What do you mean by that? A good friend of mine, Lorenzo de Rita of The Soon Institute, once said that “everyone has their own medium”, which I think is true. But I’m very interested in working outside of my medium. I don’t think photography is my medium per se, which means I’m always trying to figure out how I can work around the things about it that I don’t like, to get to something that I do like.
I’m interested in the complex story behind people, the freedom of interpretation and empathy, things that go beyond the initial registering of an image. In my photography and documentaries, I try to offset what you initially see on the outside with what you may feel on the inside. Not feeling too at home in a medium also stops you from wasting time trying to do things perfectly. I hate perfection!
Nowadays everyone can take professional looking pictures with their phones. What do you think that means for the future of professional photography? I actually think it’s an amazing development, because it means that the maker’s signature becomes more important. People often see photography as something in which mastering the technology matters most. And obviously that’s important, but the technology is, in the end, a tool, not what gives photography its value. As the technology becomes more accessible, it loses some of its reverence. And I believe that in turn, the maker’s signature will gain in value.
You recently finished your first documentary film, Jolene, about a mother of two who bartends in a strip club, hangs with the roughest Amsterdam soccer crowd and is in the process of getting her psychology degree. You’d never made a documentary before. What made you do it now? It was entirely because of Jolene and who she is. As a maker, I’m interested in walking in circles around people and finding different ways of looking at them, stumble upon new perspectives. Jolene has so many sides to her, she was the perfect subject. It took me a while to realise that though. And I initially didn’t plan to make a film about her.
I met Jolene when I just started out as a photographer, when she represented the strippers for a photoshoot I did for an X-rated party. I ran into her a few times after that, but I was always extremely intimidated by her. I never dared to come close.
I saw her again a few years ago – she was bartending at strip club ‘La Vie en Proost’, which is owned by the father of one of my friends. She was, by now, completely covered in tattoos of the Amsterdam soccer club Ajax, which I found fascinating. I initially wanted to photograph her, and we met up in this sketchy Turkish tea place in Amsterdam to discuss the shoot. That’s when she started talking about her life and I was just awestruck by all of it. Her story is so fascinating, I needed to make a film about her. Three years later, it’s out, and I couldn’t be happier with how it turned out!
You went into it without any filmmaking experience. Did that work against you, or was it a blessing in disguise? I had made some music videos in the past, but I basically knew squat about filmmaking. Luckily, I had a whole team of producers and friends to help me out at HALAL, my production company. And my dad, who is a documentary maker himself. I went into it without any preparation though, or reservation for that matter. I was on a complete collision course.
Obviously, I made mistakes because of that. But it was a great way of finding my way and figuring out how I work best. I quickly decided not to use a large team and to do all the camerawork myself. It might have been more professional-looking with a film crew, but the fact that it was just me and a small camera, combined with my obvious inexperience, had a disarming effect. It made a lot of people open up to me that normally would want nothing to do with a camera. I gained a lot of access that way. And it was easier to become personal. It won’t work the same way for a next project: I’ve learned a lot by now and you can’t feign inexperience. But that intimate style is something I think I’ll stick with. It suits me.
You worked very closely with Jolene for three years, during which many extreme things happened. Did you become close friends during that time and did that affect the relationship as documentary maker and subject at all? We went through a lot together, but we never became friends. And perhaps that is a good thing, because it would have complicated things. For example, if she had confided things in me that I couldn’t have used as a filmmaker.
There’s often a social message in documentary film. What message did you try to get across through this documentary? I guess how important it is to look beyond the initial impression of people. Jolene is a teen mom, for example. There’s so much stigma around that, the idea that people like her can’t get ahead in life. But she’s also a certified psychologist. She’s a daughter. She’s a mom. Yes, she works at a strip club and hangs with hooligans. She has a bad track record with guys. It’s easy to put all these labels on her and dismiss who she really is. But those things don’t define her or her future. She does.
People can’t easily be defined. I felt that during the filming too. I went to film at the entrada before an Ajax game, which is a really intense event with bombs and fireworks. I had just had my son and was still living in this kind of pink cloud. I’d prepared myself for all these angry, violent men. But as I was filming, I met all these guys who just told me about their own kids. Film-wise, it would’ve been great to film some men smashing in car windows, but that didn’t happen. It reminded me that people often aren’t what you expect them to be. In a time when people like Geert Wilders and Thierry Baudet are encouraging prejudice and polarisation, it’s important to be reminded of that.
Did you also learn something new about yourself? That I’m actually very patient! I’m used to working at a very fast pace, wanting fast results. When filming Jolene, I had to pace myself and give others space to get to certain points themselves. And also learn to be okay if they didn’t get to the point I wanted to.
Like with Jolene’s father, Keith, for example. I knew he was important to the documentary, but I also knew I couldn’t push him to be a part of it. I had to give it time, let things progress naturally. And I had to be okay with it and trust that the film would work if he wasn’t in it. I learned to be much easier about my expectations. I’m still very hard on myself, but I learned that I’m very patient when it comes to others. And that this kind of slow input, or easy approach, can actually lead to some very cool outcomes.
Is that something you can apply to your personal life as well? Hmm, not really. There’s always a lot of unrest inside me. I mean, right now, I have a very stable life. A nice house with three floors and a backyard. A good job. A fiancé, a child. We have two cars now. I could easily settle into a sense of safety, but I don’t. I’m always thinking: but what if we lose this, or that, am I ready to take things on alone? Or I’m trying to find the edge, see how far I can go within that safety before it breaks. Luckily, Freddy has the same thing, so we can talk about it. We’re both like, “maybe it’s a bit too perfect.” It’s not this big thing that I have to keep inside.
Are you planning to make more documentaries, now that your first one has become such a success? For a while, after finishing Jolene, I thought I’d never make a documentary again. It was such a pure and fulfilling experience, I wasn’t sure I would find that again in a new project. But I’ve just finished my second documentary and I love it.
The funny thing is that it’s also about a woman. I might be more feminist than I thought, which is a term I wouldn’t have been quick to use to describe myself before! But I’ve noticed that the female story is something I’m really drawn to, especially unexpected or marginalised stories.
Do you think you’ll say goodbye to photography and switch to filmmaking completely? Actually, I love the combination of the two. The fast action of photography, of creating something on the spot, which can have a lot of mystery in it. With moving image you give away a lot more, and lose some of that mystery of the moment, but you also have the opportunity to add new layers to a story, to challenge the viewer on their initial judgement. I really like that too.
Your fiancé is also a creative: a musician and fashion designer. Do you influence each other’s work? Haha, no, not all! I mean, we’re always discussing things we like and don’t like, in art, in music, in everything. I love the inside of his head. But we can’t talk about our own work. We know each other too well to offer constructive criticism or comment on each other’s projects, so we just don’t discuss it. He usually has no idea what I’m doing and I don’t know what he’s up to. At some point someone congratulated him for winning and Edison Award and I was like, “uh, what?”
You became a mom a year and a half ago. Did that change the way you look at life and work? Of course! In a way, becoming a mother has actually been very positive for my career, because I’m so much more deliberate about the assignments I take on and when I do, I really immerse myself in them. I no longer distract myself with other things that might be cool.
You proved that you can successfully take on projects in unfamiliar fields. Knowing that, what new project would you take on that you wouldn’t have in the past? Oh man, another medium? Maybe ceramics? Haha, no. I think I’m okay for now. Maybe I’ll try my hand at filming fiction at some point, that might be cool. On the other hand, reality is often so surprising. You can get really unexpected gifts when working with reality. I like that element of surprise, so maybe fiction isn’t for me.
Finally: what advice would you give someone who is looking to create something that’s out of their comfort zone? Find your signature and stay interested in yourself. Don’t do what you think other people want or expect, but follow your own curiosity. Otherwise it’s difficult to keep with it. Also, don’t think about it too much. Just do it. There’s always a solution for everything, or a YouTube tutorial.