Photographer Tom van Schelven did not come from an artistic background. In fact, he never studied art in any way, but found himself interning at a graphic design studio on a whim, where me met a photographer that completely changed his perspective. “I remember thinking, fuck, that’s actually a way someone can make their living?” he says. “It’s kind of like how kids think of footballers, it can’t be a real job.”
Following his revelation Tom asked the photographer if he could assist him, and was subsequently taken on for six months, learning the trade in the daytime and working in a bar at night to pay his way. He went on to assist for other photographers, and from there began to develop his own approach. “I started rebelling against the people I was assisting, not in an argumentative way, but just in terms of style,” he says. While their work was softer and more mellow, Tom wanted to capture movement, energy and color.
Growing up in Manchester in the UK he was naturally surrounded by youth culture, and started out trying to document this lifestyle, feeling that others attempting the same weren’t capturing the emotion as candidly as they could. As a photographer Tom has always liked to separate his subjects from their natural setting and shoot them in a sparsity of environment, creating a point of difference and allowing the juxtaposition to inform his narrative. The environment, though, is all that he engineers. Once he has them there, he simply captures every moment. “The key thing is an authentic expression,” he says. “I hate telling people how to ‘be’ in a photograph, but I try to engineer situations that are naturally what I want to capture.”
These off-guard moments are something Tom always manages to catch. “A lot of the time I shoot people while I’m talking to them or while I’m explaining the shoot, because I like that awkward, confused look,” he says. “I want people to look at my work and think it’s an off the cuff snapshot, even though it’s slightly more engineered than it might seem.”
In Flight is an example of Tom’s love for those candid moments between subject and lens. The project shows a group of acrobats in the desert, backflipping over sand dunes and tumbling through the air against a backdrop of brilliant blue skies. “When I’m shooting movement, there’s a lot of interesting bits I can photograph without directing,” he says. A lot of the frames weren’t shot at the moment you might expect. “I wasn’t trying to shoot them at the apex of the backflip, it was more the moment slightly before and slightly afterward, when not everything is perfect in terms of expression or movement.”
Whenever he travels anywhere for a commission, Tom has an arsenal of his own projects and ideas to try and pull off at the same time, but as things have become busier, he’s had less time for these projects, and the ideas seem to only become more grand as time passes. The note for this project, though, was a very simple tagline. “It was originally just called ‘acrobats’,” he says. He had been researching body shapes for another project, and he knew he wanted to do something with acrobats or gymnasts. “I thought, how could I do that and it not just be someone jumping in the air in a studio?”
The note sat there for years, until the right moment came when he received a commission that would take him to South Africa. He had shot there before, in a place called the Atlantis Dunes, a cluster of naturally formed sand dunes. Simple yet surreal, Tom knew this was the place to bring the project to life. The next step? Finding some acrobats.
After some deep diving on the internet, he came across the South African Circus School on Facebook. At first, he wasn’t sure about them and continued his search elsewhere. From then on Tom found dozens of acrobats with perfectly toned physiques and sparkling résumés, but the connection wasn’t there. “There was a lot of ethereal imagery, and it often felt like they were selling a yoga retreat in Bali or something.” Tom kept coming back to the original group. “They just weren’t perfect. That was the main thing,” he says. “I wanted you to look at it and not actually know whether they really are acrobats. A lot of the photos just look like these guys falling!”
The initial aim for the project was to explore movement, but Tom admitted that this evolved into something more after meeting and listening to the stories of the acrobats in the photos. Dmitri , who founded and runs the troupe, has an especially unique one. Growing up in townships in Capetown, there was an all-white circus group that he and his friends would watch through the fence. Fascinated by the discipline and skill of the acrobats, at lunchtime they would break in and practise what they had just seen. They eventually got caught, but the circus were so enamoured by the young friends that they ended up allowing them to join. Dmitri now says he believes the circus encouraged this so that they could perform in townships that might not be accepting of an all-white crew. Regardless, Dmitri learned the ropes fast, and went on to travel the world and win awards for his skill, before returning home to launch the South African Circus School as an opportunity for disadvantaged people to learn the craft, and it has only grown since.
Following these conversations with Dmitri, Tom saw In Flight as a chance to celebrate all that the troupe have achieved, agreeing that it’s a story that adds a deeper meaning to a series that is already so arresting to look at.
Once Tom had selected his acrobats, two huge army-style trucks took them all out to the dunes, and shooting got underway. Instead of being overly prescriptive, Tom simply told them to show him what they could do, and within a few hours the troupe were in full swing. “Looking at the pyramid photo - they were just so excited to show me that,” he says. As they broke off from the pyramid, they all fell and rolled down the dune in perfect unison, allowing Tom a few seconds to snap the perfect scene of imperfection. And that’s the magic in Tom’s work, those in-between moments that provide the most intriguing frames.
Words by Alex Kahl.