Natascha Libbert on Water

by Unseen December 01 2016

Travelling has always been a part of photographer Natascha Libbert's (b. 1973, The Netherlands) life. She recently spent a few days in Mweteni, Tanzania to document two water projects supported by the Marie-Stella-Maris Foundation. We caught up with her to talk about her new body of work and her interest in the relationship between man and his surroundings.

Can you tell us about your background?
I spent my childhood living in various countries around the world, including the Netherlands, England, Saudi Arabia, Ghana, Spain, and the United States. I grew up attending international schools, and initially, I worked at an ad agency as an account manager. At 29, I became a part-time flight attendant in order to attend the KABK (Royal Academy of Arts) in The Hague. This roaming around has had an effect on me and has certainly played a role in my work.

Why a flight attendant?
Being a flight attendant provided me with the opportunity to work part time and study. Also to travel felt normal as my parents had also done so before me. None of us have a fixed place. I only visited places for a brief amount of time but somehow, that worked for me. To travel so much is to be in a continuous stage of transition which allows you to be in a constant mental space with an unusual focus. It confirms the idea that reality or perception of the world around you, is innately subjective and ambivalent. I explored this topic in several projects such as my graduation publication ‘Take me to the Hilton’, a short residency in Casablanca, and various commissions. Much of this work was interwoven while I was flying.

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When did you decide to pursue photography full time?
In 2013 I received a Mondriaan Fonds stipend, was nominated for the ING Unseen Talent Award, and received a commission by the ING Art Collection. I decided to dive in. I often get the impression that people still think I travel a lot but that’s either their own projection or the fact that I do tend to communicate with images or text which don’t appear to have a link with here.

Let’s talk more about your recent work. How did the Marie-Stella-Maris commission come about?
I had spent seven months photographing the sluizen (or sea locks) in IJmuiden, a project commissioned by the Province of North Holland. It was a wonderful extension (or diversion) of the assignment work I do at airports and I immersed myself in the subject of the shipping industry and its landscape. Water and land coexist with a constant destruction and possible mutual benefit. I was on the Noordzeekanaal (or 'North Sea Canal') and got a call from Peter Bas Mensink from GUP Magazine, who asked if I was interested in working on this water-themed project with Marie-Stella-Maris. I was enthusiastic to participate in a project, which in a very different way, would also concern water and land. The fact that it would be in Tanzania made it a bonus because I was quite eager to revisit Africa.  

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You had already travelled around Africa quite extensively, is that right?
When I was 14 years old, I lived with my family in Ghana. It was yet another country (a little like Saudi Arabia) where you can never completely blend in as a young blond girl when going into the city. As a result, I was quite self-aware and observant, watching and listening. I remember gestures, how people moved, communicated, the codes. I think I’m good at reading my environment but also suffer from a sense of displacement; I combine the two in my work. I went back to Ghana on many occasions and was also able to spend time in Nigeria, Morocco, Tanzania, Kenya, and South Africa. There’s a form of language which translates well visually and which intrigues me. Aside from that, you cannot travel in Africa in ignorance - there are too many questions. That goes for more continents but each person has their own source of interest.

Tell us about the work you created in Tanzania.
I had my thoughts set on photographing water, as it was a water project and I was asked to focus on that, but there was barely any water to be seen. This also makes sense because if there had been a lot of water, they wouldn’t have the problems they have today. I decided instead to focus on the significance and relationship to water: How is water used here? One of the answers was the construction of houses since water was mixed with the soil and stone. Using only raw materials meant that when houses are no longer used, they deconstruct slowly to become part of the land again. It’s very circular in that way. There were aspects of community life that also interested me but because we were there for only a short amount of time, I decided to focus on the materiality and structure of the soil.

What are you working on right now?
I’m finalizing my project about the shipping industry and hope to present this in a book publication next year. The shipping industry is an invisible one with ‘invisible people’ crossing the oceans to provide us with 90% of all of our goods and raw materials. I travelled along the Noordzeekanaal on sea freighters and spent a lot of time with sailors, pilots, deep-sea divers, construction companies, and ecologists to explore the landscape. While the briefing focused on the sea locks in IJmuiden, I realised a few months into the project that I needed to find my way on a ship and became fascinated with the way of life on these floating islands. I travelled on the Yeoman Bontrup to Norway with 31 Polish sailors; I wanted to experience the repetitiveness and confinement of being at sea and what this does to your state of mind. Nothing ever stops at sea.

Read more about Natascha Libbert's work for the Marie-Stella-Maris Foundation here.

Image credits:
Images 1-3 from series Looking for a ship, 2016 © Natascha Libbert
Images 4 & 5 from the series My Dear. Leave Some for the Next Guy, 2016 © Natascha Libbert