How to create and publish an inspiring photobook: an interview with Thirza Schaap
By Alex Blanco
In her second interview for 1605 Publishers, Thirza Schaap, who recently published her photobook "Plastic Ocean", talks about her experience of printing and publishing the book with 1605 Publishers and shares related to the project future goals.
Could you tell us a bit about the experience of making a book with 1605 Publishers?
When the 1605 Publishers' team - Janneke Schrey and Bastiaan Woudt - just started with the selection of my work for the book, I thought that the process will take much longer. However, I soon discovered that if you want to achieve the best result - it is important to let the editor do their job and not interfere much. As a photographer, you might be tempted to only put your favourite images in. Luckily, editors can look at your project from a different, more broad perspective and help you to puzzle pieces together.
I've sent a wide selection of my photos and I had no idea what to expect. When the first draft of "Plastic Ocean" came in, it was an extraordinary experience: suddenly, I saw the repetition in shapes, colours and textures. My project became a movie with the beginning, middle and end and was able to tell a much stronger story than standing alone images. The final draft came up to my expectations and I just added a few images but did not change much. The designer and the editor, Janneke Schrey created a beautiful sacred flow that I wouldn't dare to break.
What did change for you career-wise after your book was published by 1605 Publishers?
With a published book I realised that my project can reach a broader audience and change the mindset of many people out there. Having a physical book in your hands is a completely different experience from showing the project online. You never know how far your book can travel, on whose desk it might end up and what impact it can cause.
Another breakthrough related to book publishing was joining the Bildhalle gallery in Zurich. When Bastiaan Woudt showed "Plastic Ocean" to the gallerist Mirjam Cavegn, she immediately asked me if I would like to be represented by Bildhalle.
When you show your project in a format of a book, people have a perfect overview of your work. The book is a solid product that encompasses your artistic vision. It is an era that you have completed and now, are able to share with others. Another benefit of being represented by a gallery is the exposure you get. Since I joined Bildhalle, my project has been presented at exhibitions in Zürich and Amsterdam and gotten into big international art fairs. It's a huge motivation and a great achievement!
"Plastic Ocean" is an ongoing project. How do you plan to extend its horizons? And what would you like to achieve with it?
I do so many different things within the project, I have the feeling that I have just started and there is the whole world ahead to explore. This is why the idea of "Plastic Ocean" can certainly be expanded.
Most of the time I work outside creating not only photography but also, moving images and installations. I benefit from the flow of the wind, grains of sand, dust, petals of flowers, etc. These images look almost still, with some little moving details. I would like to make more installations like this. Once, I found an old tree trunk and around 100 soda plastic bottles that I transformed into a huge palm tree. Big installations like this are so meaningful to me, they make my heart beat faster.
And how do you determine that the project isn't ongoing anymore and it's time to move on to another one?
This project became a way of life and I cannot walk away from it easily. It made my eyes wide open. If you are lucky and you can influence spectators with your art, isn't what art there for in the first place? I feel blessed that the project gets so much attention and appeals to so many people around the world. I receive many messages from people who state that my project helped them to see a new era of radical change and the end of mass consumerism.
I could switch to another project and execute something completely different. However, I touch so many things within "Plastic Ocean" that I want to research the subject deeper. I definitely see the current work evolving into different branches rather than me starting a completely different project from scratch.
I am very passionate about showing the transformation of ecology and the consequences of mass consumption. If I move to something else it would be the same idea but a different execution like for instance: moving images, larger installations, sculptures alongside photography. Once I had an exhibition for Greenpeace Africa where my sculptures were showcased with a series of photographs. It was a great experience and I hope to do something similar in the nearest future.
Talking about the showcase of my sculptures, recently the 1605 Publishers team asked me to create 5 miniature versions of sculptures (around 10 cm) for the special edition of the book "Plastic Ocean". Bastiaan Woudt and Janneke Schrey have created beautiful glass boxes for the sculptures. Exciting!
Some images in the book have this candy-colour feel, others, on the contrary, are quite dark and mysterious. How do you determine the representation of each image?
It's all purely intuitive. I am in a certain mood when I create my work and rarely know what the outcome will be. So I follow my emotions and search for something not only beautiful but also, sad. Beauty and sadness are always mixed in my work.
I either work with the "catch of the day", the plastic pieces that I find on the beach that day, or from my storage room with the materials that I already have there. Intuitively I decide if I should create a sculpture outside in the bright sun or indoors, in a place where there is hardly any light. Some of my photographs have an exposure time of 1 minute because I click them after it is getting dark in my studio. The photos come out looking like Polaroids. But again, I don't predecide if this should be shot in black-and-white and that in colour, this should be outside and that indoors. Spontaneity and gut feeling drive my inspiration and let the magic happen.
Your work will be presented at UNSEEN Amsterdam in September 2021. How do you feel about this? How do you think it will change your career?
It would be different for me if this event would take place in Basel or London because Amsterdam is the place where I grew up and where my heart is. Showing my work at UNSEEN in these circumstances (with an 8-meter wall for "Plastic Ocean"'s showcase with Bildhalle) is the best experience I could ever wish for.
My roots are here and I am happy I can show the project to people that know me since the very beginning of my artistic practice. Of course, every artist would like to show their work in the biggest museums in the world and I am not an exception. But I am also grateful for the present moment and for everything that has been achieved so far. What comes next, let it be, because I am ready!
What is your next big goal?
Is the same big goal that I aim for always: to awake an activist in everyone one of us. If you do this then you are able to change your life habits. I believe that governments from a higher level should do the right regulations but unfortunately, we are running out of time. Therefore, you and I can start already today. For example, stop using vegetables covered in plastic, reuse and repair items, swap stuff we don't need, exchange clothes... among other meaningful actions. We need to let go of the addiction to consumerism. Sadly, in a Western world, it's a vicious circle: you work hard and after, you want to spoil yourself. My project creates awareness and as small as it may seem, it is the first big step towards change.
How do you keep yourself inspired?
I use different methods to execute my ideas. The first one is to work with the "catch of the day". When I am in South Africa, I go to the beach daily and make artworks of things I find. Interestingly enough, what really triggers my creativity are the limitations. When I have to use only the material I have in my hands at that moment to create an artwork, it motivates me to be more original than usual.
The second method is a pre-planned one. In all these years of the project, I have collected a lot of waste in my storage. And sometimes, I have a set idea in my mind - for instance, once I wanted to create a ceramic look-alike vase out of plastic bottles. So I used the broader selection of the waste I already have in order to execute this idea.
And there is another thing that boosts my inspiration… I love road trips! We have a 25-year-old jeep with which we travel to desolated beaches carrying our big blue Ikea bags to collect the trash. Just for you to have an idea we fill 8-10 of them full with the ocean's garbage. I then bring the pieces back to the storage, wash them and place them all on the ground to have an overview of my tools. Like a painter has its paint, I have my materials to work with and to create sculptures.
What are your major artistic influences?
At KABK Academy, where I studied, I found out about a Czech photographer Josef Sudek who made those almost random black and white images of still lifes in front of old dirty windows. I find it fascinating!
I think the same enchantment I also have with the work of Sarah Moon. The randomness, the stolen moments, coincidence, moody colours, long exposure of these 2 artists inspire me and this is what I look for in my work too. By randomness and coincidence, I mean the unpredictable moments when nature influences my work. When the wind blows and messes up a composition when a bug accidentally lands on one of the sculptures... This is why I also do not retouch my work and leave it as spontaneous as possible.
During much childhood, I loved to make handmade crafts which also influenced the way I work now. Art for me is not just a visual experience, but most importantly, a haptic one. Another layer of inspiration is the Art History classes at KABK, where I learned about the Dutch light from the paintings of Rembrandt and Johannes Vermeer and Vincent Van Gogh's and Claude Monet's colours (one of the artist's paintings inspired Thirza Schaap's work "Water Lilies"). Also, different shapes and pieces inspire me a lot. In the painting, you have a mixture of colours, but in my work, I have an extra dimension: the touch and the forms of the materials I work with.