Thirza Schaap - Plastic Ocean
Can you tell us about the "Plastic Ocean" project? How did it all start?
“For eight years now, I have been dividing my time between Amsterdam and Cape Town. From that moment on, I started taking pictures of objects I found during my walks on the beach. Just as I found them, with my phone, simple. I published those pictures on Facebook every day, with the caption ‘Catch of the Day – pick it up and throw it away’. This was the foundation of the Plastic Ocean project.”
How did the "Plastic Ocean" project become what it is now?
“I love aesthetics, that’s just a part of me. It bothered me that simply documenting the washed up, eroded plastic findings wasn’t doing justice to the beauty of their colours and textures. So, I decided to take the objects home, to isolate them in front of a colourful background. This way, I separated them from any reference to their original environment, so that they became stand-alone objects; the basis of my compositions.”
Where did this passion to collect come from?
“I believe that the need to collect is part of human nature. Take small children for example, they pick up all kinds of things. Their pockets are usually overflowing with ‘small treasures’. Collecting is instinctive. I see it in myself, in my love for vintage fairs and second-hand items. I love it when you can clearly see that things have already been used, that they’ve already had a ‘life’. There’s a certain beauty in it, that I also see in the washed-up plastics.”
Interesting. When I see plastic waste on the beach, I don’t associate it with beauty at all, on the contrary; I think it’s ugly, and it angers me. Do you never feel like that?
“What you feel then is probably the same emotion you experience when you see a picture of a dead seabird with its stomach contents spilling out. You probably look away and you have the outraged thought: ‘Who would do that?! Who would leave plastic lying around, that will eventually end up in the stomach of this bird?!’ But maybe you’re forgetting that you also have a part in it. Look, we were all raised to believe that recycling is the solution, but a lot of plastics that we used can’t be recycled. In the end, we’re all responsible for the plastic problem. Only when you realised that you are also responsible for this problem, you will be able to change and, for example, decide to stop buying vegetables in plastic wrappings or containers. That will be a start. But, and this is important, I wonder if the message will come across when people see a dead seagull. If you turn your head away in horror and go in denial, how big will the impact be?”
Is that why you are presenting something that is essentially ugly - plastic waste – in an attractive way? So that people won’t turn away?
“Exactly! My work has to be tempting, attractive; it has to invite people to come closer and keep looking. A bit like what an advertising photographer does. First you think, ‘oh, how beautiful!’. And then you wonder ‘but, what am I actually looking at’. And only when you look more closely, you’ll see that it’s plastic waste. I believe that this game of attraction and repulsion will make sure that the message – use less single use plastics – enters the brain in a different way. I want to attract anyone who looks with seemingly beautiful, ‘clean’ and sweet images. I can make them come closer and capture their attention. And then, once I have the attention, there will be confrontation: you are looking at washed up waste.”
Does that also explain why the colour pallet is predominantly pastels?
“Yes, those sweet hues express loveliness, that is the honey to tempt the viewers. And I like ton-sur-ton; I like to follow the faded colours of the eroded plastic.”
As an artist, you are wearing two hats: you make sculptures, and then you take pictures of them…
“…That’s right! Aside from my passion for taking pictures, I always felt like I wanted to do something with my hands as well. To make something. And photography adds extra dimensions to the plastic sculptures.”
What are these extra dimensions?
“Usually I take my pictures outside, in harsh lights, which creates harsh shadows. When I capture that moment, the shadow becomes a part of the sculpture. But there are also other ways: sometimes I take my pictures inside, when it’s almost dark, on the kitchen table. In those situations, I work with a very long exposure time, which creates a kind of ‘dirty’ light, just like old-fashioned polaroids have. This way, the sculpture will get a completely different character. In the end, the sculpture only starts to exist when I have taken the perfect picture and given it a name.”
In your work, you are playing with "beautiful" and "ugly", and "temptation" and "repulsion"…
“… and sometimes even I start to doubt if something is beautiful or ugly. The small versions of my pictures can look really adorable and neat. But since I don’t retouch the imperfections, the large versions will show you that everything is a lot less polished than you think at first sight: sometimes you can still see the threads I use to hang the bottles, but also stray grains of sand and remnants of pulverised plastic. This can make the images pretty heavy and confrontational. It’s truly a game of attraction and repulsion.”
With your book, you are letting people look through ‘your’ lens, but you determine what the viewers see. What do you want viewers to see?
“First and foremost, I want my work to move people. After that, I hope the realisation will hit: ‘hey, we are all responsible for the plastic problem!’. And finally, it would be great if this realisation will lead to action.”
"Plastic Ocean" is not only your first book, but also the first book published by 1605 Publishers from another photographer and the founder himself – art photographer Bastiaan Woudt. Did you feel like you were taking a risk, working with a start-up publishing house?
“No, not really. I didn’t know Bastiaan personally, but I was already following him on Instagram. I read somewhere that Sally Mann and Sarah Moon are his favourite female photographers – they’re also my favourites! To me, this meant that we have the same taste. When we started talking last year, he asked me why I had never published a book before, and if I would like him to publish my book. We clicked right away, so I told him I’d never released a book before because I’d been waiting for him the whole time!”
How was your collaboration with 1605 Publishers?
“It was important to me to release the book with someone who has the same taste and is just as passionate as me – and that’s Bastiaan. The foundation of our collaboration is a sincere mutual appreciation for each other’s work, and that creates trust. On top of that, he likes making books, and you can see that when you look at the result; the selection of images and the way that he and editor Janneke Schrey work with repetitions and colour chases, really doing justice to my pictures. The book reflects our collaboration perfectly.”
And Lidewij Edelkoort wrote the foreword…
“Yes, that is remarkable; I first met Lidewij in 2013, during a shoot in South Africa. It was a very special trip, and we formed a lasting bond. So when I just started "Plastic Ocean", I sent her the first images and she really loved them. She put them up on her platform Trendtablet right away, so she was, along with i-D, one of the first people that published about Plastic Ocean.”
Photographs above all Thirza Schaap
Interview by Paulijn van der Pot