The photography of Otto Snoek
Otto Snoek works in the long tradition of documentary photography in the same distinguished vein as Joel Meyerowitz, Joel Sternfeld, Martin Parr and Alec Soth. At the same time it is clearly possible to distinguish his work from his colleagues by his more radical aesthetic and thematic focus on contemporary relationships between democracy and the sensationalistic society. Especially that last facet is important. Snoek is interested in “the street” only to the extent that these events reflect the more abstract processes that are taking place in society as a whole. After his project on the metropolitan culture of Rotterdam, he focused on the social process of European integration, focusing on all 27 countries. He has been working on this project for a number of years, so it can be categorized under the heading of “slow journalism”. However, the results are not pressing news but have been represented in the form of a book and an exhibition.
Snoek moves preferably in places where many people gather: in the centers of large cities or at mass gatherings. He is in the midst of the crowd and makes his pictures quickly and often frontal. The people in his photographs have no opportunity to prepare for the shot. This is clearly seen: no picture is contrived, and poses and postures are defined in an image without any restraint from the photographer. This immediacy is reflected in the result, which is experienced by many observers as uncompromising and confrontational. But Snoek is “only” shooting what he sees. Capturing scenes that are astonishing even to him.
In his photographs several things are taking place at the same time, and everything is in focus and finely detailed, without an explicit hierarchy. He portrays no tidy compositions, sometimes not even a main subject. On the contrary, the viewer is drawn to the edges and overall in the composition. The smooth flashlight and often harsh colors help create a sense of unrest. In many cases, the eye hardly knows where it must gaze.
This unrest is not only a reflection of modern urbanization. It has also been deliberately created by the photographer to mirror contemporary social life in general, which is full of paradoxes, where different classes and cultures, seemingly without any problems, rub against one another. Where the individual in the group rises and the man is transformed into the mass. The decor is thereby formed by what the “public space” within the city is called, which today is dominated by the culture of the shopping mall, newfangled architecture derived from the sleeves of in city branding specialized marketing agencies, and the surveillance and security industry. At times these functional spaces within the inner cities are used as venues for events staged with highly – recreational, or political populist character. Thus increasingly in Europe what is seen is massive orchestrated expressions of renewed nationalism.
Snoek stands there right in the center, surprised at what he sees but he does not judge. In his pictures he captures how our modern, globalized, while inward-looking society looks like on the outside. That image is not always elegant or hopeful, but it agrees to consider the sensationalistic society where we, for the most part of the time, uncritically live.
Frits Gierstberg, curator Dutch Photo Museum (Nederlands Fotomuseum)
5 November 2013