I was honored to be asked for an interview by the German HIM Magazine. This is a magazine about and for gay men, written in German. Since I really liked the interview I asked permission to translate it and publish it on my website as well.
The cover photo is also mine and the interview starts from page 20. Check out the original pages in the magazine to see the images that are being talked about.
Click below to view the magazine (in German)
The fetish and the absolute devotion
The masterful imagery of Arjan Spannenburg
If you don't know the name Arjan Spannenburg at first glance, you are either not a fetish lover or you have a massive gap in your education, which you can now close. But even if the name of the Dutchman (born 1978) from Texel is not immediately familiar, you have certainly encountered his masterful imagery. Spannenburg knows how to play with light and shadow like no other, capturing intimate moments of passion, lust and the search for one's own identity. He is particularly fond of boys on the threshold of adulthood. Spannenburg is a welcome guest in numerous galleries and has won various awards for his masterpieces. And as we gaze at his images, we realize that he always includes a little bit of himself in his photographs, wrapped up in this fragile construct of time, fetish and transience.
Arjan, you have made a name for yourself in the fetish community in recent years with your very impressive photographs. You yourself say that your images are also always about the search for identity. Would you like to tell us more about that?
When it comes to identity, we are talking about an extremely complex subject. Discovering who you are has often been a long search for many people, followed by trying to then accept yourself. All too often I see people struggling with this. Sometimes they run away from parts of their identity, while others try to hide it altogether. It was no different for me, because do you want to be who you are? And when you finally accept yourself, half the world immediately has an opinion about you or what you identify with. With my photographs I give the viewer a glimpse into my world, show my opinions and how I see and experience the world. In my creative work I try to reflect elements such as vulnerability, but also the beauty and power it contains. For me it is also a search for balance in life, with the addition of fetish bringing an extra duality to the work. The fetish heightens the contrasts between the emotions and elements that are seen. Different viewers see my work in very different ways, depending on their own background. The work LOVED is a good example of this. Some just see a boy being roughly hung and abused. Another sees an erotic image where the BDSM game comes alive, with the mutual trust that is so extremely important. My inspiration for the image came from the many nasty words towards the LGBTQ community that I heard on the street.
You wanted to encourage young gay men. But you're right, quite a few people from the street would probably call the picture simply perverse. The word love seems to have no place there in the first place.
I think not only heterosexuals have a negative opinion about fetish, also within our community I still see a remarkable amount of mutual hatred and division. My picture LOVED in particular is about being loved. No more and no less. I just want to be allowed to be whomever I am. When I posted this image, I was overwhelmed by the sheer amount of hateful comments from all groups of people. People didn't even take the time to look at the picture and think about it - they just saw two rough hands holding a chained boy. From this, they directly drew the conclusion on social media that it was a perverted image of an abused and raped boy. What people don't understand about LOVED is that it is also a kind of love. Maybe not the way people see it themselves, let's call it unorthodox. But that's what love can look like in the fetish world. When there is absolute devotion, dedication and trust, these are elements that add much more depth to a relationship. This may be superficial to outsiders or perhaps a nightmare to many, but to others it can actually be an extreme form of mutual trust and romance. I think many people have the idea that fetish is only about sex and that it belongs mainly behind closed doors. Then when it suddenly becomes visible in public, the reaction is often negative.
Can it be that just the fetish is a possibility to dive deeper into the essence of another person, maybe to learn to love him even more through this?
Absolutely. Playing with the fetish goes far beyond the often superficial sex dates. When I had just come out of the closet, I quickly found access to fetish and photographed many fetish enthusiasts at a festival. Pretty soon I discovered that the views that had been instilled in me in my upbringing and by society were not true. I quickly learned that fetishists, as well as BDSMers, are much gentler and friendlier than I had expected. I slowly became more immersed in this world and discovered how fetish can help deepen mutual relationships. For me, it is extremely important to have a foundation of mutual trust. Play requires attention and time to observe, admire and feel each other. In addition, it requires devotion to the other person. After all, whether one has a submissive or dominant role, without devotion to the other, the game becomes unbalanced.
Devotion really seems to be one of the keys in fetish. From your point of view, what makes this devotion, this absolute trust towards another person so special in fetish?
You can't just surrender to everyone, and you can't dominate everyone either. It takes much more to find that magic, something that is different for everyone. Where one person finds it much easier to surrender completely, another takes much more effort. But it's no different with dominating, because how much responsibility are you willing to take and how much can you actually handle? Surrendering to someone as a subordinate takes a lot of courage and trust. You're very vulnerable in that moment, and at the same time you're setting the boundaries of what's acceptable. You could even argue that the submissive person has more control than the dominant person. It is the dominant player's job to maintain the boundaries and not damage the trust. For me, play in fetish is about finding what gives both pleasure and intimacy, based on trust and maintaining those boundaries.
In your award winning painting RECIPROCATION you capture the essence of fetish very well: Surrender, respect, a dance for power and control. How did you get into this dance yourself?
When you talk to dancers, you notice their dedication and strength. At the same time, they are terribly vulnerable, because one injury at the wrong time can mean the end of their dream. I wanted to sum up that vulnerability and that devotion in one image. You see the sub who has to carry the Dom, he represents the foundation on which the Dom stands. If the sub doesn't sustain, the Dom falls to the ground. I think the fetish has stuck with me because it holds a deep complexity that I don't find easily anywhere else.
Let's stay with this devotion for a moment. In your painting ESCAPADE, two boys explore their burgeoning sexuality - it feels to me like a very personal work of yours.
ESCAPADE is about the excitement of two men finding each other and sharing a moment of connection, love and the experience of sex. I think a lot of guys and men who are searching for their sexuality start experimenting. I remember very well what that was like for me in the beginning. The moment you meet with an unknown person brings all kinds of tensions. And when everything is right as discussed earlier, the moment comes when you take off your clothes. A beautiful body is revealed, combined with the mutual consent to touch each other as well. Such moments are unique, exciting, intense and a great subject to photograph.
Since you just talked about your beginnings: Was it always clear to you that you wanted to become a photographer? Please tell us a little bit about your path to becoming a famous fetish artist.
I grew up in a religious family and my life outside of it was also mostly influenced by religion. Until the onset of puberty, I generally subscribed to these thought patterns. However, during that time I also already experienced many contradictions between what people claimed and what actually happened. When I went to high school, I came into contact with people who really thought quite differently about the world. Slowly, my worldview changed as a result, and I was able to leave religion behind. When I was 19 years old, I started working as a soldier for the Ministry of Defense, not exactly a very inclusive organization. As a result, I stayed in hiding for a long time. Then in high school, I already had an analog camera and was documenting all sorts of activities - looking back, I think I was mostly hiding behind the camera and using it to observe the world. In 2013, I decided to deepen my knowledge and study at the Photography Academy in Amsterdam. At the academy, I initially had the idea of becoming a war or fashion photographer, until I photographed a gay boy in my second year of school. That's when the ball started rolling for me. His freedom to be who he was inspired me, and soon I was using my camera to explore that world further. Two years later, I finally came out myself. I think every artist has to have a certain passion, love, or maybe even obsession for the subject their work is about. A lot of people recognize that in my work, too. Sometimes it's about things I missed as a kid, other times it's about fears and disappointments. Secretly, these are all forms of self-portraiture, except that I use models who, by the way, often share the same emotions.
In the digital world, there are many who now present photos of themselves with a touch of fetish. You manage to go much deeper with each of your works. How do you manage to do that?
Most of my works are not created in one day. I often spend weeks or even months researching an idea, deepening and exploring it. It's not just about what I want to say, but how a viewer can discern the message. In the meantime, a lot of it is about finding the right location and the right models. Only when all the elements come together can I start working. Then it's about letting go and relying on my intuition.
In addition to the fetish itself, you also like to play with taboos in your pictures, for example with the topic of church and lust. What appeals to you about that?
Religion is something you can choose, unlike sexuality. Yet all too often we see religious organizations trying to claim religion for themselves, and it seems to me that they are mainly concerned with income and power. Religion is not copyrighted, it is a public good that anyone can claim as their own and do with as they please. That's how I came up with the motif of the naked boy embracing a wooden crucifix. The play with religious symbols in my photography is also a play with duality. I see how much damage religious organizations do in the LGBTQ community. Many people still live in hiding because of what they say. Even national laws often protect them more than my basic right to exist. Somehow, I want to use this to fight this injustice while claiming my freedom. By using this symbolism in my art, I reclaim a piece of its power.
You tell very touchingly in your painting PERSISTANCE about a boy who was abandoned by his family just because he likes other boys. And you call out to him not to let himself be tied to the chair by the opinions of this world, but to show the world his true self. An image that seems more important than ever in the current times.
Besides my photographic work, I regularly deal with the topic of diversity and inclusion. Although the Netherlands is generally known for being accepting of the LGBTQ community, the reality is a bit more disappointing. Last year, there were again many hate crimes towards LGBTQ people. The number of incidents and also the level of violence seem to have increased in recent years. Little will change unless we show up and vigorously claim our place in the world. Society is hardening, polarizing more and more and slowly becoming more intolerant. We as a fetish community will probably be confronted with this negative trend as well. Only time will tell how this will develop in the near future. My experience is that people consider diversity and inclusivity important until they have to take a step back themselves. So I think it's important to contribute to our community.
Do you also experience this ambivalence when it comes to your own paintings? A lot of artists, especially gay artists, are struggling with a lot of prudishness in the art market these days.
As far as prudishness is concerned, I know by now that completely naked boys are hardly sold in the art world, simply because people don't dare to hang the pictures at home. This is mainly because people are afraid of a judgmental look from their guests. Nude women are more socially accepted in this respect. This is in contrast to the history of art, in which boys and men were depicted naked in paintings and sculptures in a variety of ways. Today, you're not even allowed to see a female nipple on the Internet, let alone a dick, even if it's a work of art. This in no way stops me from making my art, but I am well aware that because of this, some of my works may never be sold. Other artworks have to pay the cost.
In conclusion, what do you think is the magic, the specialness, the uniqueness in the world of fetish?
Fetish stimulates the imagination, and one should remember, nothing is as it seems. It helps immensely when you talk to people directly. After all, there is so much more to discover than what you see at first glance.
Arjan, thank you very much for the interview! (ms)