Hoorn –In recent years, the position of the photographer as artist has been greatly strengthened and non-commercial photography come to be regarded as a fully-fledged art form. In the Netherlands, this can be seen with the advent of photography museums, photography galleries and photography festivals, such as the festival running from 14 May to 12 June in Naarden Vesting.

At the same time, documentary photography is under pressure due to the sheer abundance of images. It feels like there is always someone somewhere on the spot with a camera. As a photographer, it’s difficult to capture that one, exceptional image that stands out. Which is one of the reasons quite a few photographers have, alongside their documentary work, also opted to do staged photography.


At the beginning of last year, photographer Rob Sweebe from Bemmel had his debut exhibition in the Park Gallery in Hoorn. The exhibition consisted almost exclusively of documentary photography. The focus was on river landscapes, but there were also a number of poetic photographs around the theme of decay. Only one — very recent — work was a staged photo loaded with symbolism. This intriguing composition, with stone statues of saints contrasting with living women, turned out to be the precursor to the current exhibition, entitled Helpless. The exhibition consists of a completed series of ten photos, of which five are colour and five black & white.
The photos consist of combinations of old and new images, and were produced using digital techniques.
Rob Sweebe was born in 1948, in Bali, Indonesia. In 1960, he came to the Netherlands. He followed the HBS (higher-level high school) in Weert and obtained his high-school diploma in Drawing. He then studied photography at the art school in Breda.


He found the course disappointing, due to the limited attention paid to the technical aspects of photography. He filled this gap by after all getting his professional diploma in photography at the Photo Technical College. After finishing his studies, Sweebe started his own company in Eindhoven. He worked as a photographer in advertising, and took portraits and wedding photos.
From 1997 onwards, he gradually reduced his commercial activities and began sorting his image archive in preparation for exhibitions and festivals. Today, he almost exclusively does non-commercial photography.
Throughout the time that he worked on assignments for clients, however, he was also on a modest scale doing non-commercial work.
The themes he considered important at the beginning of his career — some 30 years ago — were poetry, decline and rejuvenation. They remain the central themes in his current exhibition. Sweebe sees with concern certain changes in our living environment, about which one can do little as an individual. As an example, he cites the construction of the Betuwelijn international rail track in his home region, which will swallow up precious land.
”What concerns me more than anything is the disappearance of individuality in an environment,” he says, “the irresistible advance of uniformity.” The Helpless series arose from the question, “How do I express the powerlessness that I constantly experience when seeing a certain poetry disappear from the world around me?”
Sweebe chose to display that powerlessness symbolically by the careful staging of visual elements. He got the idea for the Helpless series back in 2003 when, during a trip through the former GDR, he came across architecture that had the appropriate atmosphere. A shroud of desolation hangs over the images. Though the effect is not only one of sadness, as the images also suggest hope and renewal. Sweebe achieves this by placing naked women with artistic integrity in the dilapidated buildings.
The staged character comes very much to the fore, as no woman in their right mind would dream of walking about these ominous locations.
The Helpless series also exemplifies the critical way in which the photographer scrutinises his own work. He often considers a work not to have been entirely successful, for example, because it tends too much towards the gloomy and pessimistic. Though, in fact, one has the feeling that with this most recent work, in which decline vs. rejuvenation is the theme, Rob Sweebe has found his personal voice.

Lida Bonnema.

Noordhollands Dagblad (North Holland Daily Press) | Friday 20 May 2005

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