For Dutch-born artist and fashion photographer Viviane Sassen, it is not Arnhem or Amsterdam but a village in the remote west of rural Kenya that holds the biggest sway over her creative voice. Sassen, the subject of the latest episode of our flagship series Photographers in Focus, spent her early years in the East African country, learning much from its “bright sunlight and dark shadows.” It is a subject to which she has returned again and again.
Since returning to northern Europe to live and study, Sassen has established herself across the fields of fashion photography and art, and is much lauded for her stylistic calling-card of geometric shapes and abstracted bodies. These images, observed the veteran shooter in an interview earlier this year, are like “puzzles,” where she “brings a few elements together and experiments” while always looking “for that little bit of magic.”
Contributing regularly to titles including Dazed and Confused, Pop, and AnOther, Sassen has collaborated on a wide range of global campaigns including those for Stella McCartney, Hermès, Miu Miu, and Missoni. And yet, despite the diversity of her photographic portfolio, her images always return to her earliest memories of light, shape, and shadow, and to the people and places of Kenya. Her 2014 photobook Pikin Slee is illustrative of this—a collection that directly referenced the village of her upbringing, which is inhabited by the ancestors of former slaves who escaped Dutch rule. It represents a studied exploration of the beauty of everyday, seemingly normal objects and arrangements—a bowl of grain; a spool of wire in stark monochrome—which are imbued with intense mystery and symbolic significance.
The same can be said of her commercial photography, where sharp contrasts, bold forms, and a close attention to the play of shadow and light, have cemented her reputation as one of the leading figures in contemporary fashion imagery. At the same time, her images—which are subtly informed by Surrealism—often have an unsettling and experimental edge, leading to the suggestion of darker themes underlying her often vibrant compositional worlds.
Sassen’s work was recognized in 2015 with the award of a Deutsche Börse Photography Prize, in response to Umbra, her exhibition at Nederlands Fotomuseum. She has also been the recipient of The Prix de Rome in 2007 and, in 2013, showed work at the Venice Biennale.