This article was originally written by Tyronne Rontganger in German
and has been translated to English.
Arjan Spannenburg from the Netherlands was the 2020 winner of the MOREPIXX? Photo Competition in Antwerp. Here he talks to Tyrone Rontganger about school trips with the camera, the vulnerability of young men and life after his military mission in Afghanistan.
Occupation: Liaison officer at the Defence Healthcare Organisation in the Netherlands
Star sign: Taurus
BOX: Hi, Arjan! Are you a professional photographer?
ARJAN: Actually, yes! At least I consider myself as such. But since I work full-time as an officer in the "Royal Dutch Army", I'm sure others would say I'm more of a semi-professional. However, my position in the army provides me with a stable income, so that I can work on photography absolutely freely and independently. Many people who want to book me as a photographer have demands and interests that do not always match mine, so I can only occasionally accept photo assignments from third parties. Furthermore, I have limited time for my own projects, and to be honest, I enjoy working on my own projects most. I also have so many ideas floating around in my head, but unfortunately I don't have time to realize them yet. This makes it difficult for me to motivate myself for external assignments.
BOX: So what kind of clients do you want?
ARJAN: Best of all, they should suggest projects that fascinate me. I like clients who think like me or offer me unique opportunities that I can and want to realize with my photography. For example, I love working with Classic Meets Fetish, which takes place every year at Folsom in Berlin. It is a unique event in itself and offers me the unique opportunity to take pictures in a church with great musicians in fetish clothing. You can imagine how much time it takes me to melt these different elements together in one photo. To do so takes a lot of time, which I unfortunately barely have for my own projects, but I like to do something like this.
BOX: When did you start taking photos?
ARJAN: I was interested in photography as a child. There were no digital cameras back then, but I took my little analog camera with me everywhere I went. Even at school I took photos on school trips and sold them to my classmates. This financed my hobby at that time, but I never thought I would be able to earn money as a photographer one day. My parents only cared that I would get a degree from a university.
BOX: And yet you became an army officer...
ARJAN: Yes, I was even stationed in Afghanistan for seven months. I returned to the Netherlands in 2012. But at that time a lot of things were cut down in the military and my unit - among many others - was disbanded and suddenly I was unemployed! Although I then found a job at the Ministry of Defence, it was really very difficult for me to be back home. Since high school, I had only done military training and therefore only attended courses and training programs that were not recognized by civilian companies. Although I was looking for a job in civil society, I was often rejected because I didn't have any civil diplomas.
However, after my mission abroad I had bought a new camera and, because I still had so much free time, I decided to take some photography courses. Finally I took a portrait photography course at the Fotoacademie in Amsterdam, which I really enjoyed. This made me realize that I really only wanted to do what I had loved for so many years! Although I wasn't sure what it would all lead to, I then took a part-time course in photography for over 5 years. Today I can say with certainty that this was one of the best decisions I have made in my life so far.
BOX: Great! What was your favorite camera when you were a student?
ARJAN: (*laughs*) Oh, I can't remember! I've had so many other cameras since then. I bought a Nikon after my time in Afghanistan, not because it was the best, but because my little brother already had one and I thought I could borrow his expensive lenses. Nowadays it is all the other way around! Now he comes to me to borrow my expensive lenses!
BOX: Why did you want to join MOREPIXX?
ARJAN: When I took the course at the Photo Academy in 2018, I asked the photographer Taco Smit, the organizer of the MOREPIXX? competition, to guide me a little with my projects. At that time my sexual orientation was still a little unclear to me, which was already very much reflected in my photos. I had my coming out very late and it was very difficult for me to talk about my homosexuality. Therefore I called my final project "Boys Like Me". It was a photo series about boys who discover they like other boys.
BOX: That means you had at least some contact with other professional gay photographers?
ARJAN: Yeah, I met Taco at a magazine where we both took pictures. His positive manner and his cheerful smile made it easy for me to approach him. By chance I also met him at the Milkshake-Festival in Amsterdam, where we chatted further. He then invited me to accompany him to the Darklands in Antwerp to the Leatherpride to take pictures. That was my first step into the fascinating world of fetish! Finally I used my newly discovered experience and freedom and integrated fetish into my art.
BOX: But you did not win anything for several years at MOREPIXX? Why didn't you give up then?
ARJAN: When I first submitted my photos to MOREPIXX? they were unfortunately not nominated. A year later I took all my courage and tried again with a photo called "PERSISTANCE". It was nominated, but unfortunately it could not prevail against the artwork of the other photographers. One year later I sent in "LOVED", which was also nominated and again won nothing. In the meantime not only my photography had developed, but also my personal view of fetish. So I wanted to submit a picture for 2020 in which several elements come together. First and foremost, I wanted a photograph that depicts interpersonal interaction, because for me fetish is something that you don't enjoy alone, but share with others. I also wanted to add something like ballet, because fetish for me is much more than just sexual arousal.
BOX: Yes, that your photo won this year hardly surprised anyone! Where did you find the models?
ARJAN: Luckily, I have met a lot of fetish types over the last years. I asked some of them, with whom I had already worked on other projects, if they would like to model for me. But the guys I wanted to take the picture of, for the photo did not live in the Netherlands. One had to fly here from England, the other from Canada, but they were both in the Netherlands at the same time around Christmas. This gave me the opportunity to finally take the picture that had been on my mind for quite a while. I never expected that "RECIPROCATION" would eventually win two prizes in Antwerp. Another photo of mine was nominated but did not win any prize. Nevertheless, I am so happy to have been part of it again that I could really talk about it for hours!
BOX: What is the most important thing in a photo for you?
ARJAN: A photo must somehow excite me. I want to experience something new, be made curious, have questions about it or remember something. When I look at a picture, I want to feel an emotion. If a photo is only "beautiful", then I get bored very quickly. For example, on Instagram you can find a lot of beautiful people posing beautifully in beautiful clothes, but the photos don't say anything. Most of the time they represent their looks or their clothes. For me, a photo must represent the search for one's own identity or expression. I try to capture powerful compositions, mostly in black and white, of boys just before adulthood - young men lost in their own thoughts. This final phase of adolescence is a very uncertain time for many, and this is exactly what I want to visualize - how they are still searching for their own individuality. This usually leads to portraits that are vulnerable, but also loving. But you can still see that these boys have a strong need to communicate with the outside world. They need support, understanding and love.
BOX: This is a very deep topic ...
ARJAN: Yes, and sometimes I get very amazing photos. But these shouldn't shock or provoke anyone. Rather, these photos invite the viewer to reflect on their own relationship to vulnerability and self-expression. Although I take my own adolescence as an autobiographical starting point, my work goes beyond my own personal history as well as that of the boys I portray. I try to portray a universal feeling of loneliness, vulnerability and insecurity in my photographs, while at the same time capturing the poetic beauty of adolescence.
BOX: Is it easy to find fetish models? After all, their faces and bodies are then shown publicly ...
ARJAN: I find my models everywhere I go. Sometimes I even talk to young men on the street, but mostly I find them on social media. When I'm looking for someone specific for a certain project, I first look in my database of guys who have already registered on my website. Only then, if I don't find anyone suitable, I usually search on Instagram. But meanwhile there are a lot of people who follow my work and then write me messages. If there is a connection between us and they fit to the project, I usually like to work with them.
BOX: Why are such contests like MOREPIXX? for example, important for our fetish community?
ARJAN: It makes me very proud to participate in this contest. Together with my work at the Ministry of Defense - especially in an international position - my photography sometimes raises some questions. Since photography is my passion, I like to talk about it, no matter where I go. I often show others my website, where you can see some fetish photos. Of course, many people ask me about it, but in general I get positive reactions from abroad as well. Therefore I think that a competition like MOREPIXX? is an important means to increase the social support for fetish. Many people are not yet so familiar with fetish and think it is definitely something scary. Although - or maybe because - I came out of it rather late, I am very open-minded about fetish these days. I'm talking about it in a way I usually talk about other topics as well, which makes it easier for others to ask me and also themselves questions about it.
BOX: Will you be participating in the contest in 2021?
ARJAN: No, not this year. Since I won in 2020, I will be part of the jury next time and decide on the next nominations!
BOX: Thanks for the interview, Arjan. One last question for you: what did you do with your prize money from MOREPIXX?
ARJAN: I spent the money on new equipment that I still needed and wanted. I also had some posters printed for a small photo exhibition at MrB in Amsterdam. With so many events being cancelled this year, it was a really great thing!
MOREPIXX?, the international fetish photo contest will take place in March 2021 despite Covid19. If you want to participate, you can submit your best fetish photos until January 31, 2021. Participation in the contest is free of charge. You can find more details at www.morepixx.com.