Featured Artist

Henri Verhoef

Interview by Floor Kortman, photographs by Henri Verhoef

Henri Verhoef (1990) is graduating from the photography programme of the Royal Academy of Art in The Hague this summer. Although he is a fashion photographer, his graduation work,  Man-up, forms a highly stylised and autonomous series. He spends his time geeking out in the studio, sculpting people in different lights, only to then retreat to Photoshop, working on a photo for hours on end, crafting it to perfection. With these tough-looking, teary-eyed men, Verhoef comments on stereotypical social constructions of gender, but also allows for a humorous undertone –it’s not merely summertime sadness.

henri verhoef

Who are you?

I’m Henri, a 24 year old photographer based in Amsterdam. I’ve been living here for a couple of years now. I moved out of the countryside to Amsterdam when I was 18 to study European Studies. Luckily, I was smart enough to follow my gut and do the things I really wanted to do: travel and study at art academy.

How are you?

I’m pretty good. Currently I am graduating so that’s kind of stressful but also a lot of fun and very satisfying. I find the idea that I will no longer be a student in a couple of weeks extremely exciting: to finally get out there, in the real world, to find my way around in the thing I love doing most. I already have some ideas for new projects and I can’t wait to start working on them. I’m looking forward have the time again to teach myself new things, to read and to the cinema, to start getting into 3D modelling, etc.  Although I really need to get some goddamn sleep as well.

henri verhoef

I read you have a strong desire to pet every dog you meet; I think a lot of people have this feeling. Were there dogs around when you were growing up? And what’s your favourite kind of dog?

As long as I can remember I wanted to have a dog. My third birthday was the first time I asked my parents for a dog. That didn’t happen. I kept asking for one every year so my parents decided to give me a rabbit for my sixth or seventh birthday. When I found out I couldn’t teach the rabbit to sit, fetch a ball and not even take it for a walk I lost my interest immediately. Luckily my aunt and uncle who lived just around the corner had a dog which I took for a walk every other week or so. My grandmother always had a dog as well and we used to go for walks in the forest with her dog.

I don’t really have a specific favourite kind of dog but I do like dogs with ‘big dog character’ the most. A dog that follows you only when he really wants to. Last summer I went to Italy with some friends and there was this dog over that was like this as well; one with a really strong mind of it’s own. I think I am a little bit like that as well, perhaps that’s why we basically became best friends, haha.

What do you like about photography?

Photography gives me the power to take control, I can create situations and make them 100% my own. It gives me the ability to transform abstract, dark thoughts into tangible, beautiful images. I am a very chaotic person but within photography I’m able to find my focus. It is also a means of not taking myself and the world too seriously.

henri verhoef

Your work is very stylized, in terms of clothing, but also in terms of setting and background. How do you usually go about creating these settings?

It’s all real in the sense that the starting point for my work always revolves around people and society. It all starts with the world and my relation to it and to me that makes it very real. I like the people I have around me, but when I look at the bigger picture (of the world) I don’t think humanity is very nice. I think that’s why everything in my work is constructed and stylized, I like to get away from the things I already know and see in life. There’s enough ugly stuff going on. So my starting point is about my frustrations with reality, my work gives me the ability to get away from that reality, put it into perspective and add a sense of humour to it.

I strongly believe in the power of collaboration so I really enjoy working with other people. I always work with a stylist. Fashion is an extremely important part of my work, it can really add another layer to the thing you want to say. I’d love to start working with set designers as well but I haven’t found anyone yet, unfortunately (if you’re reading this and you’re a set designer, call me!).

I’ve been working in the studio a lot lately, because as I’ve said before, I like to have control and the studio gives me the opportunity to take it. I love to be able to ‘sculpt’ people by using light in a specific way. I guess I’m a little bit of a geek about that. Since a year or so I  started experimenting with Photoshop a lot more; working on a photo for hours and hours is something I really enjoy.

henri verhoef

Can you tell me something about the series ‘Man-up’?

I think somewhere in the end of last year I had made some important men in my life cry  and something struck me: I’d never seen that many men cry in such a short time. We live in a society that tells boys to ‘man up’ when they’re crying. I cry a lot but never in public. All these social constructions about gender are extremely annoying – especially when it’s so clear it’s influencing your own behaviour as well. That’s why I started out making this series. Later on it evolved to what’s in front of you now: the dogs, the uniforms, etc. I like working with iconic imagery and subcultures or social groups. The groups and the uniforms represent masculinity and the dogs add to their iconic status. The tear is the one thing that breaks through and transforms their masculinity into something else. I tried to create an alternative to the social norm about masculinity. I don’t believe I can change the world but I do believe I can say something about it in my own way: take a serious and heavy subject and transform it into a striking image with a humorous undertone. That airiness in my work is really important to me.

You are graduating now; do you have any plans for the future, anything exciting coming up?

I guess it depends on how much momentum my graduation exhibition will give me. I might stay in Amsterdam, or maybe move to Berlin for a while. I don’t know yet, but I’m sure I’ll find something to keep me off the streets.

henri verhoef