In Conversation With: Melissa Schriek

“When I was a child, I wanted to be a detective so I could satisfy the enormous curiosity I carried for the world and people around me. Instead of becoming a detective, I began making use of the camera to investigate. I still carry this curiosity with me when I make work and this often results in noticing simple, small details, that may seem unimportant. This sensitivity to small, intimate details are vital for my practice, and by emphasizing them, I hope the viewer will notice and become aware of them too.

I explore relationships between individuals and their environment through both observation and staging. My work is often created with a performative approach, aesthetically and conceptually exploring the border between staged and documentary photography. I perceive the camera as a powerful tool where fact and fiction can work together to explore modern, social issues.

Ultimately I would like my work to raise questions and about how we relate to one another and our personal environment.”

ODE: an exploration of the dynamics of female friendship

Sydney Gillum: What is the meaning behind the title, your use of “ODE,” specifically?

Melissa Schriek: I wanted to create an ode for female friendship—an ode to sisterhood. It is a work with no start or end but feels like a visual poem where the dynamic of forms is leading. I started working on the project with the working title “ODE.” And after a while, it got stuck with me, and I noticed it did with others, too. I wanted to change the name as it was a working title, but no other name felt right anymore. To me, “ODE” became an entity of itself, as if it’s a universal name of a woman or women in general. When people ask me how the project is going, people often ask me, ‘How is it going with “ODE”?’ as if they are asking about a friend. I like that about this specific word as a title. 

SG: How important is your choice of medium to what you’re creating, specifically this body? What film are you using? 

MS: It is important to me, but I also question the medium I am using every step of the way. I think in images as I work with photography as my primary medium. And I chose my cameras wisely, as I often need to be quite fast. I sometimes capture moments that are only a second in time, or people are in a body position that is difficult to hold, so it’s important to be quick, which seems like a strange contradiction with analog photography.

I like to work analog with Portra 400 film as the colors are pretty warm. Analog photography makes me concentrate, and I like that I can’t look back at the photographs immediately. I noticed that it makes me so much more present in the moment. I also scan the images myself with a color profile I made, especially for my work. But I have to say that next to photography, I am also considering embellishing “ODE” with texts and drawings. I am still figuring out what I want and how to do it. 

SG: You mentioned wanting to work with models and relationships outside of the Netherlands; how do you see that going? (Let’s forget COVID for the time being)

MS: All friends are now captured in The Netherlands. A year ago, I should have been in New York to work on “ODE.” I was curious to see what I could capture. Is friendship universal? Does it look the same everywhere? What happens to the dynamic of friends when the environment is totally different? The environment, although often the streets of the city, is essential to my work. They have a relationship with the models, too. It’s the space they learn things about the other or spend time. And therefore changing that environment can change a dynamic. What happens when I photograph friends in a small apartment in New York? Or on a farm in Scotland? It makes me curious, so therefore it seems like something I need to try.

SG: Does this project evolve as you work with it? How much of is improvisation, and how much are you directing your models? 

MS: I start all my projects by doing. I need to visualize before I can conceptualize, so making images is so important to me. Only then can I understand what I am trying to tell or explore. So it naturally evolves with every photo I take. With “ODE,” I started with the idea: I want to capture 100 best (female) friends. So my initial idea doesn’t give any idea about capturing them; where, when, and which friends? Those choices are made intuitively by doing, trying, and finding a way that seems to fit the most with how I want to bring this ode to female friendship.

I direct people in the photograph, but some images are totally improvised. But mostly, I try to lead people so that they have room for interpretation, so my idea merges with their idea, and the image does not become static or forced. I write or draw certain body positions I want to try, ideas I have, and when I photograph someone where those ideas feel fitting, I try them out!

SG: Your use of color seems so purposeful. Do you style your models, or do they come as they please? How important is color to you?

MS: Colors became important in my work quite intuitively; I like soft and pastel colors. I often want to work in the sun, and usually, that makes colors and intense contrasts. I try to create softer images, even when the sun is very harsh. I am involved in the styling, but I try to do it so that a viewer can question if it is on purpose or not as it looks natural. Also, I like to make sure the clothes are representative of the friends. I often search for a color pallet that I find fitting for their friendship. I often ‘style’ the friends with clothes from their closet, as I do think that the clothes should represent them in this project. And sometimes I use my clothes for the friends to wear when it fits their style or friendship. 

SG: How is it to work with best friends? I can hear the inside jokes and laughing from here – how important is that dynamic to your work?

MS: It is a very interesting experience. I learned a lot about friendship by observing and capturing it. The women I photograph are not my friends (some became friends after photographing, though). Often they are strangers to me, so it creates a strange and interesting dynamic as I feel like a third wheel. I think the images would look different if my own friends were the models, for instance. With “ODE,” I can observe and explore friendship from the perspective of a bystander. I am an outsider of this specific bond which helps me to capture it differently.

SG: I notice a lot of lines in your compositions, whether it’s the lines of the basketball court, poles nearby, or curbs/edges of buildings and objects. Is that something you incorporate in your shooting or is that an element that makes you select these images over others?

MS: I honestly can’t help it, haha. I feel very attracted to specific spaces where I can see a composition happening. Sometimes an environment can lead me; a shadow on the pavement can inspire a body position. It’s just how I see the world, even when I walk around the city without my camera, and I think it comes back in all my images. 

SG: What does this body of work mean to you? Why do you think it’s important to share the work in progress? 

MS: I hope that with “ODE,” I can offer a new, in-depth perspective on female friendship and its importance. I think there is often too much negativity when female friendship is represented and therefore making this work even more important to me. I’ve been amazed by women’s power and togetherness my whole life and continue to be so. Especially the bond and connection that I often feel and see between women is so significant. It struck me that this bond is often represented in (popular) media as ‘toxic,’ dramatic, or hostile. Or there is no attention for female friendship at all. I wanted to create a document of photographs that would show a different side of friendship without losing honesty. I have also been very curious to explore female friendship dynamics and capture what that may look like.

I think it’s crucial to share works that are not completed yet. For me, it can take years to finish a project, but I make sure to show every step of the way. I think it keeps me ‘on top’ of the work, but I also feel that it shows mistakes and failures too. And I also like to get people’s reactions while the work is still in process; it is so valuable to discuss it and converse about it while the process is still going.

SG: What have you learned as a photographer since we last spoke? And how has your work on “The City is a Choreography” impacted this body of work so far?

MS: ‘The City is a Choreography’ is my only completely finished work which I made into a book. It is of such great importance to me as it has been the first time I made something that felt like me. The process of making that work was so difficult. When I started working, I had no idea how to tell the story. By doing and making it, it grew into a body of work that got recognized. It was the first time I made work that I really wanted to make, instead of the work expected of me. That body of work has liberated me of my own boundaries and made me find a way to show ‘my world.’

With “ODE,” I try to step over the boundaries that one can set for themselves. I’ve focused much more on the connection between two people than the connection of a person with their environment. I had to find a way to capture that differently, where the dynamic and connection between two people are visible. The work is strongly built upon “The City is a Choreography” and explores an entirely new way I visualize human connection.

SG: I personally purchased a “The City is a Choreography” photobook. Can we be expecting one for “ODE: an exploration of the dynamics of female friendship”?

MS: Thank you so much for purchasing The City is a Choreography. That means so much to me! And yes, definitely! I think all my projects will eventually come together as a book of some sort. I love sharing my work with others, and I find a book the perfect way to do so in an accessible way. It can create an intimate experience between the work and the reader that they can enjoy in their own time and space. I want to take my time and only publish a book of ODE when I feel that the work is finished. I am not at that point yet, but I can’t wait to start working on a book again!

SG: Is there anything else you would like to share with the readers about yourself or your work?

 MS: In the midst of this pandemic, I can imagine some people have a difficult time finding inspiration or creating work. I have those days, or weeks even, when it’s just a bit too much, and it’s not working out the way I want to. I want to say that it’s okay and that everything you do is already so much! When I’m not feeling my best, I try to take long walks in the city, where I often see scenes that inspire me a lot. The busyness of the city clears my head. Of course, a lot of people experience that same feeling when walking in nature. So take a long walk and take care of yourself.

To view more of Melissa Schriek’s work please visit her website.