A debut in non-commercial work, following a successful career with his own company in reportage, commercial photography and advertising. On the back of this thorough training, Rob Sweebe is going public with both exhibitions and the design for a photography book. “I’m not afraid of slipping up, so long as the viewer gets where I’m coming from. It is something I’ve thought about.”

Born in Indonesia, Rob Sweebe came to the Netherlands with his parents in 1960. After HBS (higher-level high school) in Weert, he went on to the academy in Tilburg (high school diploma, Drawing). He then read Photography at Breda Art School, in his third year also attending the Photo Technical College — “what I missed at art school, I found there” — and obtained his professional diploma in photography.

He then immediately launched his business: portrait and wedding photography, and later advertising and foreign reportages. Alongside his professional work, there was always non-commercial photography, for which at the time he often sought and found camaraderie in the network of non-professionals. Among others, he talked with Fred Hazelhoff, in an attempt to get published in Foto (Photo), and from whom he received much solid advice. It was the 70’s: the time of coarse grain, tampering with films while in the paper developer, and so on.

“I was actually looking for someone as a mentor, or whatever you want to call it. Hazelhoff helped me tremendously, advising me to ‘shout’ less and ‘whisper’ more, and wait a while before publicizing my work. That was a long time ago, but it was very useful. However, now I feel it’s time to go public.”

Five years ago, he closed down his business in Eindhoven and focused on non-commercial photography, working on themes that fascinate him. He also still does various freelance jobs.

“I do my work, have for a while now rarely read magazines, not mixed with the art world and just done my own thing. There’s been plenty of interest from the commercial world, and I was invited to give presentations and to exhibit in more informal circles. Actually, since high school there has always been a common thread running through my work: my theme is decline. Not just dilapidation, the perishing of materials and appearance of graffiti. What I’m principally preoccupied by is the disappearance of individuality in the environment, the unrelenting advance of uniformity. The sense of powerlessness that that leaves me with.

“I was looking for symbols for this which, you come across, for example, for a split-second in a person’s expression, or in the desolation of a landscape with dead trees beneath dark clouds. I may have gone a bit far at times, as so many did in those days. But two years ago I sorted out my archive of non-commercial work and digitized the most important stuff. That led to a number of short series, on which I continued to work and based on which I now have the concept for a photography book. I gave them titles like Writings On The Wall, Helpless, River County and the like. The idea of decline as I experienced it has remained, though there are other themes that interest me. Digitally, I can combine images and that has led to a type of photography I’ve previously never used in my non-commercial work: studio and staged photography. In the Helpless series, for example, I use both new and old images: the nude model was never in that derelict building. Is that deceitful? I look for an image that can symbolise something, that depicts my theme. And then it makes sense to consider computer editing. The idea has been kicking around for a while now, but with analogue it wasn’t possible to express that emptiness and bleakness.

“Another thing is that, while I think digital print work is fine, there is something lacking compared to analogue photographic prints. I miss the darkroom. Digital print work is great, but it could do with a little blackout here and there. I call it the missing ‘brushstroke’, I miss that vital touch of imperfection. In painting, the Old Dutch masters knew how to exploit the lack of detail lying in the shadows.

“It struck me during cycling tours of the region how varied the landscapes of the large rivers are. The banks of the IJssel, Rhine, Linge, Maas and Waal each have something unique. There are still those ‘forgotten’ corners, where everything has remained unchanged. I also spot gardens and house facades that say so much about their occupants. Back at art school I’d already learnt: keep looking, there’s more than you can take in with just two eyes.”

His habitat is the surroundings of his home village of Bemmel, between Arnhem and Nijmegen.

“I try to document that individuality, I don’t work out of any kind of nostalgia, but rather from the realization that all this will soon be gone. Arnhem and Nijmegen continue to grow together into one big city. They are gradually swallowing up all the surrounding villages, and that characteristic Betuwe countryside is disappearing.

“The kind of desolate derelict buildings that I used in the 70’s aren’t there anymore, nor anywhere in the Netherlands. It doesn’t have to be spectacular, but I still want to make use of their atmosphere. So I look for run-down buildings in the former East Germany, in the French countryside and in Sicily. Especially as a backdrop and to create a mood: it’s here that my theme is. I’ve been all over the world, but it’s here. Throughout his entire life, Rembrandt never got further from his native Amsterdam than Utrecht or Leiden [each 40km away]. Yet his work was sometimes extremely exotic, the world traveller was something inside him. Nevertheless, I’d like to photograph in Spain again, but my core is here. Here is where I was formed.”

“In the early days, I was always working to a very strict brief. The art director would give you a transparency to place on your frosted glass and then photograph. Nowadays, you’re selling an idea more than simply a tangible product. For that idea, the client is looking for a specific type of photographer, whom he chooses on the basis of their vision or working style. Something I rarely experienced in my commercial work at the time, and now not at all.”

His current commercial work is largely limited to photographing office furniture for a trade journal, simply in the showroom, without extra lighting. It pays well, but the non-commercial work is more satisfying.

“Sometimes the client consciously buys in a ‘name’, but then has that photographer do something that’s not his style, and then things go wrong. It’s best if you’re able to remain true to yourself, which is why I have so much admiration for colleagues like Erwin Olaf. Wonderful how he manages to single out the essence and depict an idea. The same goes for Ed van der Elsken, for Anton Corbijn. They love their work, they are emotionally engaged. The description of the assignment has become more expansive and imaginative. There must be the same level of thinking from both client and photographer. Communication is essential, as ultimately you have to grab the viewer. You weren’t trained for that back then. Today, you see the photographer using himself as a tool, he becomes completely absorbed in the process. The photographer must be a catalyst, finding the right balance between the roles played by the client, the photographer and the public.

In my non-commercial work, I want to be able to follow my own ideas, stay true to myself, push myself to the limit and reveal who I am. It feels like being liberated, after all that commercial razzmatazz. At some point, I think I’ll also start drawing and painting again, things about which I can be just as impassioned.

”Now, following a few small-scale try-outs, I’m going to exhibit to a wider audience. Starting in January 2004 in the Park Gallery in the theatre in Hoorn.

”I see that as my debut and am going into it with all my heart (which, incidentally, is the title of the exhibition). The public see a lot of photos, but aren’t so used to looking at autonomous photography. I think my work will do well in the setting of a theatre, which doesn’t attract your average public but people with a broad cultural interest.

“I’m not afraid of slipping up, so long as the viewer gets where I’m coming from. It is something I’ve thought about.”

Wim Broekman.

The Photographer | The Netherlands, Belgium | Trade journal for professional photography | December 2004

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