Interview by Elena Vaninetti
All images © Melissa Schriek
Melissa Schriek is an artist and photographer based in Amsterdam (NL). Her work explores relationships between individuals and their environment. Her images are often created with a performative approach, aesthetically and conceptually exploring the border between staged and documentary photography. In her hand the camera becomes a tool where fact and fiction can work together to explore contemporary social issues.
Her ongoing project ODE: an exploration of the dynamics of female friendship attempts to depict alliance, affection and sisterhood through a series of young women’s portraits.
Elena Vaninetti (EV): Female friendship is often misread and misrepresented as ‘toxic’, dramatic or hostile. The idea that women are competing with each other rather than united is often still too widespread. These are some of the reasons why you started to be interested in the possible representation of friendship between women. What makes these relationships so special in your opinion?
Melissa Schriek (MS): I am amazed by the strength and togetherness of women throughout my entire life. I think this started with having two older sisters to look up to and grow up with, and I have always surrounded myself with female friends. Unconsciously I have always shared my life and experiences with other women so this form of togetherness is very important to me. I feel empty without it and seek that intense connection with other women. It really struck me when I realised that there are not many representations that I felt reasoned with my experiences and ideas on female friendship.
Female friendship is extremely special to me because I have always experienced it as fierceless, with no boundaries and no shame. Complete honesty and a feeling of sharing and taking on the world together. Some images I made for ODE refer to those feelings quite literally, for instance, you can see the position of women carrying each other on their back several times in the work and it quite literally relates to the idea of women supporting and carrying each other through life. The conflict between my ideas and the way female friendship is represented in popular media is why I find it important to research this topic and make this work.
(EV): How did you start to research for your project “ODE: an exploration of the dynamics of female friendship”? What readings, movies or fellow artists would you recommend to people interested in being more aware about female perspective and sisterhood?
(MS): I started my research by thinking of my personal bond with my own (best) friends. How are we connected? What does that mean to me? How could one visually see that? The difficult thing about photographing a connection or relationship is that it is actually invisible. Symbols of a relationship are visible, two people embracing each other can tell something about their relationship but it is merely a symbol, not the connection itself. So working with this symbolism of connection, and working on a body of work where I try to show something often difficult to show started with going inwards and thinking of my own friendships. After that I quickly started to make work as I believe in actually doing and making instead of only reading or thinking about a subject. For me it works very well when these two elements (the making and the researching) go hand by hand.
– The paintings of Francine van Hove, especially the ones where she depicts multiple female characters.
– The photobook “Girl pictures” by Justine Kurland
– The book “Feminist City” by Lesie Kern. Not per sé about friendship but it has very much to do with the female perspective and female body.
(EV): In the project you decided to focus on best friends couples. Why do you choose to explore two people dynamics instead of a broader group of friends?
(MS): I am fascinated with the form, merging and coming together of two people.
In the making of another work called ‘The City is a Choreography’ I started photographing unconsciously more and more pairs of best friends, and I noticed that it really fascinated me. I was observing what friendship looks like, trying to capture the bond of sisterhood without even knowing that I would start a project entirely focused on that. I feel that the subject found me, instead of the other way around. And I also found it very interesting to be the third wheel on the wagon when I photograph a pair of best friends. I am there but I am not part of this friendship happening in front of me.
I am surely fascinated also by group dynamics. I have been doing some research on the topic, but I felt that first I needed to capture the ‘essence’ of friendship between two people. Also, I wanted specifically to photograph best friends, which naturally made me think of two people instead of a group.
(EV): Growing up did you have a female best friend? Are you still friends?
(MS): Yes! And we are still friends. She actually now lives very close to me which I am very grateful for. I had more female friends but when I think of my best friend, I automatically think of one person.
(EV): Let’s talk a bit about your photographic language. Body posture and gestures are extremely important in your pictures. How did you come up with this visual approach?
(MS): When I was younger I danced and did gymnastics. Not professionally or on a high level but it did leave a big impression on me. It made me very aware of my own body and the sculptural potential of it. But when I decided to fully focus on photography, I had to let go of that side of me. I find it very difficult to focus on multiple things at the same time. If I want to do something very well, I become obsessed with it and I give it all my energy. Years later, this fascination for the body and movement started to find its way back into my work. This all happened spontaneously, from the moment I decided to incorporate staged elements to better express a story or emotion in my work, the use of the body came naturally.
(EV): How does the collaboration with your models work? Do you prepare the shot together? Do you direct them or do you leave them free to experiment with their bodies?
(MS): I plan a photograph and direct my models, always leaving enough room for interpretation. I find this very important because I don’t like to ‘micro-manage’ a photograph but I do have a specific idea or story in mind. I feel that when I leave room for interpretation, this gives space for coincidences. And I absolutely love to be surprised by my own work.
I find my work more dynamic when there is a form of action-reaction. With this I mean the unplannable reactions happening during a shooting, the way me and my models can react to a live situation and to improvised ideas. If I prepare everything to perfection, I lose this part of the dynamic process. Sometimes it feels like the construction of an image works like a performance, where the storyline is drawn out, but the final action happens on the spot.
(EV): Last question, which relationship with another woman inspired you the most in your lifetime?
(MS): Definitely my mother and sisters. I grew up in a female household, or well, my mother, sisters and I outnumbered my father and there was a lot of female energy in our household. I feel so easily connected to other women that I can get especially inspired by them, especially by their strength and confidence in themselves