Amami, De Pont Museum of Contemporary Art, Tilburg, 2010

Click here to watch a video made by de AVRO about Cuny Janssen and this exhibition

Amami-Oshima is an island at the southernmost tip of Japan. At the invitation of a Japanese organization, photographer Cuny Janssen (Nijmegen, 1975) went there in 2007 in order to portray the children, the landscape and wilderness of this subtropical island. During a second stay in 2008, she completed this project. The result is now being presented in De Pont’s project space and in a book of photographs to be published concurrently with the exhibition.


Cuny Janssen’s approach to photography can be characterized as documentary. Her photographs show absolutely no form of visual manipulation or emphatic staging. She makes use of natural light in order to arrive at a central and frontal depiction of her subjects. The fact that her photographs transcend the purely registrational relates to the enormous precision with which she works. The meticulousness of the composition, her framing of the image and determining of the incidence of light causes reality to lose its ‘coincidental’ character in the image. That concentrated quality gives her photographic works an intense and, at the same time, tranquil beauty.


In the exhibition, portraits of children are alternated with images of the island Amami. Some of them have the appearance of nature studies. Ferns and stalks of grass, the soft moss on a tree trunk or a fern leaf unrolling stand out sharply against the dark green of dense growth. No detail escapes our notice.  Because of the closeness of these images, the structure of the plants becomes almost palpable. In other landscapes the sea and the mangrove are elements that give shape to the image. The water reflects the surroundings and the sky, thereby creating light and space.

In the portraits, there is a similar contrast between the more formal group portraits and the intimate portraits of individual children. These latter portraits have another quality that goes beyond the documentary character. Although Janssen photographs the children in their own surroundings - while seating , in their bedrooms, on the veranda, in the classroom or out in the schoolyard - there is no action in these images. The children gaze uninhibitedly, sometimes even inquisitively, into the lens. This is no fleeting, stolen moment but one of mutual contact, in which time seems to come briefly to a standstill.

For almost ten years, children have been the most significant theme in Cuny Janssen’s work. After having graduated from Utrecht’s Hogeschool voor de Kunsten in 2000, she travelled to India (2000/2001) in order to make portraits of children from various levels of society. This trip was followed by stays in Macedonia (2003), Iran (2004), South Africa (2005), Japan (2007 and 2008), and Oklahoma (2008). These separate series of photographs are part of a larger investigative project in which Janssen wishes to compare portraits of children from all over the world. Since 2003 she has frequently been combining these portraits with landscapes. On Amami these consist of the island’s rocky coasts and rich vegetation, but also spiritual places near Shinto shrines and locations that show traces of a human presence. These images provide depth to the portraits and evoke the almost inexpressible bond that exists between people and the surroundings in which they are rooted.

In her endeavor to find a distinctly individual quality, Janssen often ends up seeking the things that children have in common. ‘I’m always looking for what lies beneath that facade, that knowledge we have about a country or a culture,’ she says about her travels. ‘Being there and having a real person in front of you: one who cries and laughs, and who actually has the same feelings, yet looks different and lives in an entirely different situation. That I find fascinating.’

In her portraits, the uninhibited nature of a gaze and the naturalness of a stance or gesture show us what makes a child a child, regardless of his or her specific origins. Also in her portrayals of landscape, Janssen is not concerned with the topographical highlights but with universal forces in nature. With her photographs she attempts to arrive at that vital essence. Her work is an ode to life itself.


From 26 March to 2 May, Foam Fotografiemuseum Amsterdam will be exhibiting the most recent project of Cuny Janssen, titled My Grandma was a Turtle. The title refers to the Turtle clan of the matriarchal Delaware Indian tribe from Oklahoma

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