Live Interview by Marc van Kempen
Ilvy Njiokiktjien is a celebrated young talent and is worldwide respected as a photographer and multi-media journalist. She has won two World Press Photo prizes, a Silver Camera, a Canon and a National Geographic award. The New York Times, National Geographic, Der Spiegel, HP De Tijd and the NRC Handelsblad are among her clients. She is a young woman in a man’s world earning a lot of goodwill. Who is she, what has she been doing until now and what motivates her?
Ilvy Njiokiktjien by Marc van Kempen
Can you tell us something about your background; do you come from an artistic family, what is your education?
I’m originally from Maarssen. I have a difficult last name but that’s due to my Chinese-Indonesian family background on my father’s side. I have two sisters and one brother. One of my sisters is creative, the others aren’t. After I finished secondary school in the Netherlands I did an exchange year in an American High School in South Dakota. In the American system I had lots of creative subjects like singing, choir, theater, dancing and photography, none of which we had in the Dutch system. This was very attractive to me.
What were your first steps in photography? When did you get your first camera? Did you feel from the start that you wanted to make a living from photography?
In the American High School I really liked taking photography; you had to take portraits of each other, develop your negatives and print your pictures in the darkroom. Halfway through that year I had to make a decision about what I was going to do in the Netherlands once I returned. I choose journalism because I was very interested in news, discussions, asking questions, film and photography. After a very strong selection procedure I started my studies in Utrecht. Photography wasn’t taught until the fourth year and I was very excited about that. It was a big disappointment when the teacher got sick and the course was canceled. I was lucky to get an internship at ANP where I was thrown in the deep end. I only had very basic skills in photography but I was able to join experienced photographers and learn more on the job. This was news photography to illustrate newspaper articles. I learned a lot about the use of the camera and learned to anticipate to news happening.
In 2004, I went to South Africa to do an exchange study.
In 2007, I went back and did an internship of 8 months for “The Star”, a newspaper specialized in local news. It was fantastic! I started to realize that I loved this country and I envisioned this experience as the start of my career. At the end of the 8 months I bought an old Toyota Corolla Land Rover, asked my boyfriend to come over and together we drove back to the Netherlands. We spent 8 months on the road and drove 100-200 km each day. This gave me lots of time to work and to take photos on the way.
We had invented a program: “Picture Your Life”, in which we lent local people a camera and asked them to take pictures of their daily life.
And did you get all the cameras back in the end?
Yes, in the end they all came back. Once we lent two cameras to boys who, as it turned out, lived 100 km away. We didn’t know that at the time. We had agreed to meet on a certain day at 15:00 to get the cameras back. They still hadn’t arrived at 16:00 and at 17:00 they still weren’t there. We thought we had lost the cameras forever. In the end they arrived with 100.000 excuses. They had come all that way by bicycle! One of the boys was very sorry that he had broken the camera. But he had taken so many pictures that the battery went flat just when the lens was out and of course it became impossible to move the lens back. After a quick charge all was fine.
Unfortunately, in the end this project was a failure. We were only 1,100 km from home and were camping in our tent on the roof of the van when we were robbed in the middle of the night. The thieves had injected some gas into our tent knocking us out and this way they were able to steal all our valuables, including of course our cameras (and photos)…. We had back ups of half or the pictures, but the other half was gone!
We had a limited backup of our photos until Egypt. But my Syria photos, including the ones of the now destroyed souk of Aleppo were lost forever. We contacted TV stations and promised a reward of Euro 5000 to the person who could get our photos back but to no avail. This closed off the year 2008 on a sour note.
On a more positive note: on the way home I received a telephone call from my parents to tell me that I had won the “Canon Prize for Young Talent”. I had participated during our trip with a photo taken in Kenya. My first “real” camera was a Canon 20D, semi-professional.
With this photo I won a trip to Capetown. A dream came true: I could return to South Africa.
I heard about a very annoying incident with your camera? Can you tell us a bit more about that?
Two months after I got my first professional camera Theo Maassen ( a comedian) broke my camera on stage. I was working for “De Spits” (a Dutch newspaper) and had agreed with his management to take photos during his performance. His management had failed to tell Theo about the fact that I was going to take photos. While I was busy shooting he asked who was taking photographs. He asked me to give him my camera and then asked the public to applaud if they agreed that he should destroy the camera on stage. Everybody started applauding and he threw my camera on the ground and broke it. Some people mailed me afterwards to say that they thought it all was part of the show… I contacted the police and Theo Maassen was arrested and was unable to do his next show. His management asked me not to make a case of it but I did anyway. Our two lawyers fought it out and I was awarded a fair settlement for loss of income, damage of material and fear.
Something good came out of this: Newspapers and radio stations started calling me. Lots of people instantly knew who I was and doors opened wide. A few months later, around Christmas time, I made a candle holder out of the camera and put it in a garden center. I took a picture of it and made it into a Christmas card, which I sent to the editorial staff of many newspapers. Shortly after I started working for “HP De Tijd” and I’m still working there today.
If it hadn’t happened it would have been a lot harder to have made so many contacts. Actually, I should send him a thank you note. From the settlement payment I was able to make a trip to Congo.
You decided to become a photojournalist after your Journalism studies?
My Journalism studies have been very important to me, not so much for my photography but more for the research aspect. Research is the essence of everything in my opinion. After a few internships I started getting assignments right away. Most assignments came from newspapers and magazines.
When working on large assignments I have learned that the addition of audio/video is very important. The public can get more involved in the story. It’s a new trend, which is already quite common in America. Internet is playing a large role in this development and if you don’t add audio/video you take the risk of running behind in our business.
In January 2014 you were the first woman in 65 years to win the Silver Camera for a photo you took in 2013 at the funeral of Nelson Mandela.
All photojournalists, mostly men in The Netherlands, can submit photos for the Silver Camera. The submitted photos have to have been taken in the previous year. Hard news, like the death of Nelson Mandela, automatically makes more chance than smaller news items. You can submit single pictures or a series of maximum 8.
In Africa I work closely with a colleague, Elles van Gelder, who works with audio and video. She is very driven and creative and we make a great team.
Two women working alone – aren’t you extra vulnerable?
For one of our own projects, we arrived in a type of boot-camp for white South African youth who were being trained to become racists. We stayed there for 9 days. The leader, Colonel Jooste, is a right extremist and a colonel from the old “Apartheids” army.
I was not really scared but I was careful. It was a strange feeling to be amongst people with such extreme thoughts on race and color.
In this camp we used audio for the very first time; if we hadn’t done that people would not have believed our story. It became a film of 7 minutes. We sold it as a combination of text, photos and film. We submitted it to the World Press Photo and Silver Camera. At the World Press Photo we won two prizes: First prize in Multimedia and second prize for photography.
The multimedia prize was unique because it was our first time of using video/audio. After these awards my career evolved rapidly to become more international. The New York Times became an important client.
How were you able to get permission for this “boot-camp” project?
Eugene Terre Blanche, leader of the right extremist group AWB (Afrikaner Weerstand Beweging) was murdered. During that time I was in South Africa to report on the World Championship Soccer. Elles phoned me to say that we should go to the funeral of Eugene Terre Blanche. At this funeral I noticed Colonel Jooste in the uniform of the old South African Apartheid army. I approached him and asked him why he was still wearing that uniform. He then told me about the camps that he organized. “We absolutely have to go there” I said to myself. I talked to him extensively and did a lot of research. He agreed to let us come to the camp.
Have you had any contact with Colonel Jooste after the documentary? How did he react to the publication of it?
After we had won various prizes the publicity around this documentary became widespread. We didn’t hear anything from him. Until the moment when we published it in South Africa. We made the front page of the Mail and Guardian newspaper, later followed by other South African papers. Because of this publicity colonel Jooste had to go underground; he painted his beard red and was arrested. The case was even discussed in the South African parliament. I didn’t dare enter South Africa anymore. I was sure that he would be very upset about our reporting. In the end I contacted him via Skype and totally expected him to be furious. But to my surprise he was happy about it. He was so convinced that what he was doing was right and was pleased that we had made it public. His opinion is that everyone who doesn’t think like him is crazy. He thinks that the 4 positive reactions he got were much more important than the thousands of negative ones.
For Elles and me this documentary meant a breakthrough in our careers.
A few lucky moments have brought you far!
At the start it felt like 90% luck but you must have a high dose of curiosity and a nose for news. Hard work, however, and not giving up are just as important. Lots of journalists must have seen this man in his funny uniform but no one had the idea of speaking to him and investigating him further. You also have to be genuinely interested and able to ask critical questions. The colonel had very extreme opinions, which scared us off in the beginning. But we remained neutral and didn’t show how we felt. It also really helped that Elles and I both speak fluent “Afrikaans”.
If you, for instance, get an assignment from the NY Times do you already have a clear plan on what it entails?
I will have an approximate idea of what the assignment is about but I will need to do a lot of reading and researching before setting off. But there will always be surprises once I begin and that is part of the work and keeps you alert.
Networking is a must. In my case I seem to encounter a lot of goodwill. I have no problem selling my work, which is reassuring.
Do you do any marketing?
No, not like they do in the USA. I do work with an agent though. I also work on my own projects. I just do them because I like them. An example is the shoot I did for the restaurant where I worked 15 years ago. They had heard that I became a photographer. I even did it for free.
Do you still take jobs like that in quieter times?
I cannot combine it anymore with my other work. I now refer them to other photographers.
You don't have a studio. Where do you take your photos?
Up until now I have only taken photos in natural light. I have recently bought a studio light to use in the winter months so I can also plan shoots after about 16:00.
Can you tell us a bit about the book you made?
It all started when I was elected as the first “Photographer of the Nation” (Fotograaf des Vaderlands) in April 2013. The assignment was: ”Look, my family”. I decided to photograph 10 different birthday parties (always a cause for family and friends getting together in the Netherlands) – eventually I continued to photograph 100 of them. The advantage of such a large project is that one can get an excellent idea about the average Dutch family.
In all of the photos I have tried to include as many details as possible, like Ikea furniture, the fence in the backyard, the specific plants on the windowsill etc. I have categorized them into various population segments like Turkish, Moroccan, Chinese, Dutch Antilles, Jewish etc. I also made sure to show typical Dutch customs and locations, like paper hats, standing next to a windmill, Mardi Gras, standing on top of a table. I included different districts within a city, trans-gender communities and different religions like Christians, Muslims, Jewish. All ages (between 1 and 100) and all income levels are represented as well as typical provincial customs like the Frisians continue to have. I realized that you learn a lot about a country by the way people “celebrate”.
I bundled it into a book called: “Slagroomtaart en Slingers, Nederland in 100 verjaardagen” (Cream cakes and paper chains, The Netherlands in 100 birthdays). When people will look at the book in 20, 30 years time the images will show a portrait of past times because lots of things will have disappeared or changed drastically, like clothing, furniture etc.
Can you tell me a bit more about the title “Photographer of the Nation” (Fotograaf des Vaderlands)?
Since 2013 The Netherlands have a “Photoweek”. All over the country special events and exhibitions are organized and in 2013 they first selected a Photographer of the Nation. I was very honored to be chosen and to carry that honorary title. I was commissioned to make a series about the Netherlands and choose to do it on birthday celebrations.
My name and work became even more known after this nomination and it helped to expand my network to include museums and even more clients.
It’s a man’s world. How do you feel about that?
It’s true but I like working with my male colleagues and friends. Women are a bit more difficult but I have learned to adapt and function well within this environment. I had to overcome my initial fear of not being good enough but I’ve come to have confidence in myself. When I believe in something I go for it!
Whom in the Netherlands do you consider your most important female competitor?
There is Marieke van der Velden, but I don’t consider her a competitor, more a colleague. I really admire her; she takes gorgeous portraits.
Do you have any tips for the readers who have the ambition to become a professional photographer?
Believe in your ability to produce good pictures. Don’t submit any photos you don’t believe in.
Be truly and genuinely curious. People will notice when you’re sincere.
Collect as many email addresses and telephone numbers of editors and ask if you can come by. Take 10-15 images, not more.
Use audio with your images, just try it, it might change your career. If not you are running behind in this profession.