Ask any child what they want to be when they grow up and you’ll rarely get a cautious answer. A firefighter, an astronaut, president of the universe – a young mind isn’t afraid to let their ambition show. What about photographer Jan Hoek? “I wanted to be a homeless man.”
Jan’s fascination with outsiders began at an early age. “I remember sitting on the back of my mother’s bike when I was young and passing a homeless man. He was sitting in a cardboard box decorated with pornography and Christmas lights, and had cigarettes in his nose. I thought this man was the coolest man in the world and that’s still the basis of my work today,” he says.
“I wish the world was populated with the people you see in my photos. Yes, it wouldn’t be a functional world, but it would be full of people I admire.”
In Jan’s utopia live people with cigarette butts sticking out of their heads, there’s a holy man from Ethiopia posing with a stuffed animal and a woman dressed up in a crab suit. It’s a place where fake Somalian pirates guard the high seas, and Boda Boda drivers rule the roads.
Exploring “lines and boundaries” — whether in photography or in life itself — Jan’s fascinating choice of subjects often see him mislabelled as a “provocative artist.”
But one look at his bold, outrageous style, his extravagant use of props, and the way he lets his models fulfill their wildest fantasies on set, and you’ll see Jan’s projects come from a place of respect. “I try to never go over the line,” he explains. “In the end, it’s more important for me to have integrity with the people I work with than to push boundaries.”
For Jan photography is not just about an image, it’s about the relationship between the artist and the model and the narrative they make together. “I actually like telling stories more than I like taking pictures,” he says.
Jan is keen to approach all his projects with an element of playfulness. “I think you can tell a serious story with a sense of humor and actually do the topic more justice than if you present it as serious and inaccessible.”
The humor often comes straight from the subject he is photographing, perhaps through a discussion about their hopes and dreams or the way they see the world. “I just listen to them and I like what they have to say,” he says. “With humor you can create a sense of equality and, in the end, it’s about breaking stereotypes.”
I think you can tell a serious story with a sense of humor.
For the past two months, he’s been working with patients (referred to as clients) in a psychiatric hospital in New York on a partly-photographic comic about mental superpowers. It’s an artist-in-residence called Beautiful Distress, a program that uses art to validate the experiences of the mentally ill. “It was important to do something with the clients of the hospital, not only about them.”
What helps is that Jan doesn’t feel that different from his collaborators. “There’s a sense of freedom to the clients, a freedom I associate with true creativity,” he says. “I want to erase this superficial difference between an artist and a psychiatric patient — we’re very close to each other!”
Throughout his work, it’s clear Jan looks to his subjects with great admiration. He envies those that society is quick to cast aside, fascinated by their ability to make their own rules without any compromise. “I’m actually a bit jealous,” he admits.
“I know it doesn’t always come from a place of joy and happiness, but a lot of the time these outsiders are really creative and have the most original thoughts. They really dare to live their own lives and that’s the aspect that I want to show.”
Words by Robyn Collinge