“Four Questions on Photography: Ilvy Njiokiktjien in Conversation With…” is a series of events where well-known photographers discuss with Ilvy their response to the four questions below.
In this episode for this event, however, Sara Terry, one of Ilvy’s guests in the series, turns the tables and puts the same questions to Ilvy:
– What is your most important photograph, how did you make it, and what impact do you think it had?
– What is your biggest photo failure; an image you wanted or needed but you messed up somehow?
– What is your dream image or story?
– What advice would you give to your younger self?
0:05 [music plays]
Sara Terry: As always a big thank you to Suzie Katz and PhotoWings. She’s been a very generous funder of so many important things in the photo world and we need people like that. Now, before y’all got on, we were having a short conversation in which Ms. Ilvy has asked if she can flip the order of the questions. We’ve all been stuck with this order that we had to do what Ilvy said, and I got a little stuck this morning going, oh, gosh, can we flip the first two questions, because one of mine leads to the other one and the other way? And David and I were like, Well, okay, you know, it’s your show. You’re the boss. So whatever.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: I’m the boss. Aw.
Sara Terry: You are the boss. All hail to Ilvy. Ilvy, we are going to start with a question for you. What’s your biggest photo failure?
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: I’ll share it now. And then I’ll talk about it. I think it’s easier to— yeah, you kind of have to see it, I guess.
Sara Terry: I’m having some morning coffee here if it’s okay, while you show it.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Definitely. There. You can see now?
Sara Terry: Yeah. So why is it a failure? Yeah, what’s up here?
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Okay. So this is a failure. I took this image in 2010, as you can see, on the ninth of April. And this was actually at the funeral of Eugene Terreblanche. So to give a bit of…
Sara Terry: Do you want to tell us who Terreblanche is as well, for some people?
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Yeah, no, definitely. So Terreblanche was a nationalist right-wing leader in South Africa, a white right extremist. And he actually founded this organization called the Afrikaner Resistance Movement, which during the apartheid was a very right-wing organization that, yeah, basically thought the country would be better off with having apartheid with black and white being separated…
Sara Terry: White rule.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Yeah, exactly. And he was the leader of that. And he actually started the organization himself. And he got killed in 2010 by two of his workers. He lives on a farm. So this was years after the end of apartheid. But he still believed that one day—he really wanted this. Yeah, he basically still believed in apartheid, even though when Nelson Mandela became president apartheid ended. Eugene Terblanche was always still a big believer of all the upsides of apartheid, him being the extreme racist he is. And then he got killed in 2010 by two of his workers that lived or worked on his farm, and I went to his funeral and I actually, at the time lived in the Netherlands. I used to live in South Africa for a year. But in 2010, I was already back in the Netherlands for two years. But just by total coincidence, I was in South Africa at this time because the World Cup was coming up and I had gotten an assignment to photograph the hotels where the Dutch team would be sleeping. But that’s…
Sara Terry: Let’s just take a moment here and give us a note for people who don’t necessarily— might be looking for tips about how you fund your own work. Finding an assignment to go to the place where you’re working on a long term project is one of the like a classic 101 way to do it. Well done, Ilvy.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Yes. I would also like to describe how little of an interest I have in soccer and in the hotels where the Dutch soccer players would be sleeping. But you are so right. I was working on a long term project about South Africa. And I started that already in 2007. So when I had a phone call in 2010, asking, Can you photograph the hotels where our players will be sleeping? I was like, great idea. I’d love to do that. I love hotels. I love architecture. Soccer players sent me over there. Yeah. So I went and I was photographing. I was actually in a hotel room photographing a room when I got a phone call from Ellis Von Helder, who is the Dutch correspondent for the television at the moment. And at that time, we were working together. And she called me and she said, Eugene Terreblanche just got stabbed to death. And his funeral is coming up. Are you still in Cape Town doing these pictures of the hotels? And like, Yes, I am. And I’ll finish very quickly. And then I’ll fly over to Johannesburg towards the funeral. And that’s what I did. I photographed all the hotels super quickly. And I extended my ticket, and I stayed. And this is actually the funeral. And yeah, why is this a failure? You might wonder. This was quite an important moment because this is the moment where the coffin is entering the church. And there were hundreds—I mean, there were 1000 plus people that were gathering there to say goodbye to him. But there were also hundreds of press colleagues, as you can see in the picture. And when I started out as a photographer in 2007 and 08, I did a lot of red carpet photography. Is that what it’s called in English as well? Yeah. Also to make money. Yeah, wasn’t too bothered by the whole scene itself, but I did that for a living. And so I kind of knew what it was to push away people because it was always a huge fight at the red carpet photography. Yep. But this funeral was worse. I was pushed. I was the, I mean, I’m quite an okay news photographer. But this was, I mean, it was just too much. So, I literally ended up in the worst place ever. Couldn’t even see the coffin. Well, that’s why it’s a photo failure. You can hardly see the coffin. The coffin is underneath one of the arms of the guy with the brown.
Sara Terry: The guy as we look on our right hand side. It’s under that.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Yeah, so that’s a big photo failure. I didn’t have any good images of the coffin going into the church. And mainly, because I was in the worst position ever. I was in the entrance of the church. I was literally pushed towards this entrance. No one wanted to stand there, including me. But I just ended up there and that guy with his finger like this with the green beret, he got really angry at me, he was yelling, and you get out of the way, and you are, what did he say? Like, you don’t have any respect for the death. And I mean, even though this was the funeral of someone with very opposing ideas than the ideas I have about the world, I still am a respectful person, I feel, and I wanted to be respectful. But he was right. The coffin couldn’t even pass because I was…
Sara Terry: Because you were in the doorway?
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: I was working. And he got so angry about it. And I…
Sara Terry: Was he angry at you in this picture, Ilvy? Was he is yelling at you?
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: He’s yelling at me and two people on this side of me and two on the other side. We were five stuck in this doorway. And the coffin couldn’t pass and we couldn’t really go forward or backward or anywhere. And he got really angry. He was yelling, he was like, fuming, he was so angry. And that’s another reason I didn’t get an image of, I mean, I didn’t get an image of the coffin because there were too many colleagues. But also, because I was so shocked by the yelling, and I was in the wrong position. I do have a few later on of the coffin and the grave. But this to me was more the moment that, yeah, there was a big line of people and yeah, I don’t have any of it.
Sara Terry: That’s such an illuminating backstory, you know, because, okay, knowing that it’s a funeral, and hello, that the news shot, the money shot for a funeral, of course, is going to be something with the coffin, or that shows death. So okay, that’s a failure. But then all the things you’re dealing with, on top of it, you know, as to why you weren’t in the position, and then what happened in that moment, and that he’s actually yelling at you, which is kind of a meltdown space for a photographer, right? You don’t want to be singled out or yelled at or, you know, things made hard for you. So that’s, I think, a really, I don’t think that part is a failure. I think that we’re seeing that you still managed to make a photograph whether or not it was a good one in that moment. So, I think I say kudos to you on that. And two little notes for me also are I’m interested that you spoke about having done red carpet work. Because I don’t know, like many news photographers might look down their noses at that. But, um, hello, look at what you learned, you know, in that space. It was about jockeying for position. I was just having a conversation with a photographer yesterday about doing what we call unit photography, set photography in film, which I used to think, how hard could that be? You’re photographing a scene that somebody else already lit and it’s being rehearsed a million times. It’s really hard, you know, and you learn all kinds of things about the personal dynamics, you know, behind the camera. So I think another success in this picture to me is what you brought to it from learning from other types of photography work that somebody else might look down at. So I’m just giving you, I’m throwing you some, like, kudos for that. And by the way, I also just wanted to say, because, I’m sure that people outside the US will be going, They said soccer, they should be saying football. I just need to go on record as an American who does know that the non-US term for soccer is football, so completely off off the path. Did you do anything with this photo Ilvy to get it published?
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Yeah, I was quite lucky, actually, that I didn’t have an assignment at the time. I mean, of course, it didn’t feel lucky, because I wanted to sell these pictures to whoever wanted to buy them. But as you can see, there were a few colleagues who were also trying to sell the images. And I really, back then, didn’t have a really big network. So, at the time, I sold them to the Dutch Press Agency, which was great. And I was lucky enough that I managed to somehow get into a helicopter that day. There was a helicopter, and Ellis and a friend, and we kind of arranged for me to be in that helicopter. And it just kind of happened. And it was amazing, because I had the only aerial images from this huge crowd of people and the car with coffin. And so I did have images. But weirdly enough, I mean, I was so happy to be in that helicopter, but at the same time, it wasn’t where the tears and the money shot were. It was amazing. But it wasn’t— but I felt quite lucky that no one was really waiting for these images at the end of the day, that there wasn’t an editor that said, So what about that really special moment when the coffin went into the church? So I was, I mean, I sold them to the press agency, but it wasn’t an assignment. I just kind of put it in their database. And I was lucky that I had other shots. I had a lot of which I thought were much better shots of people grieving. And a lot of very stark—Is that a word?—like, stark faces. Like very, a lot of grim kind of—I don’t know, people that looked worried, not necessarily because they were at a funeral. But just because I could almost feel the history on their faces of the country, kind of what they are experiencing or feeling that they are experiencing. And I think the transition from going from apartheid to a democracy, made them feel they were left out or somehow I don’t know.
Sara Terry: I think that’s, I think, also just one other—we’re gonna move on to your success picture, but I think one other reflection on this, and I’ve noticed it, in the interviews you’ve done so far, with each of us talking about our failures. It’s pretty interesting that the failure pictures, in many ways, led to successes. I think, as I’ve heard all of us talk about it, and I you know, I remember mine, it’s like we pivoted in that space of failure, you know, made us sort of go okay, then what’s next, which I think is a really important lesson for photographers, you don’t just give up, you know, which, I mean, if you’re a photographer, you probably don’t have that temperament to think that you’d give up anyways. But it’s a—I learned this in the past year or so that somebody said that failure is simply a step towards getting it right. And I think you made so many things right out of this, right? You know, you got in a helicopter, you were able to sell the pictures, even though they weren’t the page one ones, but you did it. And you kept it, you stayed with it, and in the face of a big man yelling at you, you stayed there. So it’s an interesting, I’m going to listen to all of your ongoing interviews to this failure question in particular, because just as you were talking I was like, but these are ways that we find our way to the success.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: To a new place. It’s true. And I also feel I learned a lot from— I mean, I’ve had more failures than this one, of course.
Sara Terry: Haven’t we all.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: And I’ve learned from all of them. I mean, I know it’s a very kind of easy thing to say, but for instance when he was yelling at me, I took this picture because I was also kind of afraid of him. So, I was hiding behind my camera, which I do a lot if it’s too sad or too cruel, or too– it happens a lot that I’m like, okay, I’ll just stay here behind my camera. And that’s exactly what happened here. But what I did learn throughout the years is to also click at the same time, even though I was like, filming myself, I’ll still take a picture. And that’s—you know, it comes from failure as well that I learned to just keep shooting basically.
Sara Terry: Yeah, yeah. That’s so good. Do you want to take us to your biggest success?
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Yes, because that’s why I wanted to switch the image. Yeah, I’m so sorry. Because I didn’t know how to flip it. But what happened, I’ll stay with this picture for a little bit. I felt really bad that this guy was angry at me, because I felt he had a point that the press that were there were relentless and disrespectful and pushing. And the coffin couldn’t even make it into the church, because there were people standing there, including myself. So, I did feel he had a good point, maybe not for yelling, but definitely for being angry. So, at the end of the service, which was I think about two hours later, I walked over to him, and I said, Hi, I was standing in the church door opening, I’m really sorry. I didn’t want to be disrespectful. And my name is Ilvy. Who are you? And then, it’s the guy with this finger that I’m talking about. So, I spoke to him. And then he started chatting, and he said that it was an emotional day for everyone. And he was quite human in a way, even though he was also saying some quite racist things already at that moment. And then I started asking him about who he was and why he was wearing this uniform. Because I knew, as you can see, on the left of this image that the police force in South Africa is wearing blue. And I didn’t know— lack of my own history knowledge— that the brown suits were worn during apartheid. It was the apartheid army uniform. Yeah. So, he told me that and he said he still wears it every day to the supermarket, because he used to be a colonel in the army. And he was so proud of that, that he was still wearing it every day. And then he went on to say, and by the way, I have a camp that I organize for children every school holiday where I teach them to be proud of their Afrikaner white heritage. And I was like, what’s the children’s camp for?
Sara Terry: Cuz those are the pictures of yours we know about. I didn’t know the connection, Ilvy. Wow. Okay.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: He said, I’m the leader of this camp. I’m like, what camp. I want to go there. You know, I knew immediately he was talking about it’s a camp where we teach white children that they are smarter than black children, and that black children should be the underdog in this society. He was saying things like this. And then I knew immediately I need to go to this camp. But he didn’t let me. He said, No, he’s like, I’m not going to let any media into this camp. What are you thinking? I went back to the Netherlands. I called him every, I would say week for about six to seven weeks. And then on the last call, he said, Okay, you can come to the camp.
Sara Terry: Why did he change his mind?
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: He’s the leader of this camp. He’s not in this image. But he was there for nine days and I spent together with Ellis my colleague, we spent nine days in this camp, and it all happened because I met him and because he yelled at me.
Sara Terry: No, more importantly, because you were human enough and gracious enough, even though you disagreed with the man’s politics, but as a human being you wanted to apologize for what looked like disrespect at a funeral. That’s a really important note there, Ilvy. It’s not just those other things. And Stefan, I was just saying right, Sara, well said. Thank you, Stefan. But no, truly. Think about somebody else who might have just been like, oh piss off or bollocks and just walked away, or like been, you know, kind of yep. So, so true. Just been like, you know—or so unable to examine themselves that they would have had that guard up or just just walked off. So first and foremost, I think, what an incredible lesson of what being, you know, respectful and humane, you know, leads to. I also think, Ilvy, I know a lot of people on the call know you, but could you step back just a bit and just give us a like, you know, your elevator pitch on what this long term project in South Africa was so we can understand how much this mattered to you? Oh, sorry. That’s really not one of the four questions. But hey, you can break the rules. So can I.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Oh, we’re gonna hear this for another half an hour.
Sara Terry: Years. Years.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Longer. Yeah, exactly, Sara. Yeah. So I did an internship in 2007, in South Africa, and I was working in a newspaper. And they were sending me on all kinds of assignments in South Africa. And I didn’t know the country very well. So it was very exciting. But what I noticed in almost every assignment that I that I did for the newspaper was that the young people were very, very active. So if there was a demonstration, the youth was in the front, walking in front with signs. If there was literally, if there was anything going on the youth were always there. So I realized in 2007, I wanted to do a project about youth, of the youth of South Africa born around the time that apartheid ended, so around 1994 when Nelson Mandela became president, and I worked on that project for 12 years.
Sara Terry: Wow.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Yeah. So for 12 years in a row, I photographed young people that were basically— I think the only thing that yeah, the only thing was that they were born free. Yeah, they’re called the born free generation. But they were from different backgrounds, from black white, from urban, from city, rich, poor, everything in between. Middle class, upper class, everything. And so when I found a youth camp, like this, I was like, wow, that is a group of youth that was not part of my project yet basically.
Sara Terry: Yeah. Hello, born free generation.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Yeah. Born free. Exactly.
Sara Terry: But I just think that’s so—I’m just looking at the clock too, Ilvy. But I think it’s, I just like, I’m so glad this is being recorded because I just think this is such a foundation. I think this should be taught in photo schools, you know, how you responded in that first picture, and what happened because of it. It’s just such a lesson in how to be, you know, both a human being and a photographer and what comes from that. And you know, not every bad situation where we try to act with grace or to apologize for something is going to lead to this kind of a goldmine. But it’s still the point, we have to be that way for a reason. You know, it’s part of, for me, it seems like in knowing you, it’s part of what your photographic practice involves, that kind of accountability and grace. And you know, sometimes there’s a immediate payoff like this. And sometimes it’s just like, that’s how you lived in the world that day. And that matters too.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Yeah, yeah, that’s so beautifully said, Sara. I think as a photographer, I mean, it doesn’t really matter. As a photographer, as a human being, I think it’s quite the same thing if you kind of try to do this job well. I always tried to have the human part first. And that’s why…
Sara Terry: Let’s flip the questions one more time because I just realized we’re going into what advice would you have for your younger self? Ah, I’m totally messing with her today. But we’re in that place. So why don’t you— what would you say to your younger self? Look at the things you’ve learned.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: I think I learned a few things. One of them is that I shouldn’t be shy. I was shy for a long time. Also, as a photographer, for instance, if I wanted to take a picture from high above, shooting down from a table, I was too shy to climb on the table, because I realized people would be looking at me, so I wouldn’t take the shots because I was like, Oh, my God, they’re gonna be looking at me, you know. I was that shy and I was too shy to pick up a phone and call people to organize things. So it was pretty bad.
Sara Terry: That surprises me, because you are so not—I don’t experience you that way.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: It changed a lot. But it was a long, long road to be honest with you.
Sara Terry: What would you tell that shy self then, because you’ve learned so much. What would you tell her maybe to make it a shorter trip?
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: I think what I did in the end, I didn’t really actively—I learned by doing which was great. So just by, okay, I’ll step on the table. I’ll try it, you know, and then I’ll do it and then the next time is easier. But I think in the end, it would have been much quicker if I would have learned, I don’t know, through a psychologist or some therapy. In the end, for instance, in the 2000s, well, 12, 11, I started winning awards with this work. I want two awards at the World Press together with Ellis with a multimedia and with this picture, and then I was too afraid to give a speech. And then I took speech lessons like to give speeches. I was too afraid to pick up the— to go on stage to receive the award even. And then I took this course. And it changed everything. It taught me how to speak in front of people.
Sara Terry: Which you do so well.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Thank you. And but it was really much easier to learn it from someone else than to keep trying and doing it by myself, which I did. With all the other things that I was trying to teach myself to not be shy. I think it was a long road to kind of do it step by step instead of finding help somehow.
Sara Terry: That’s interesting though. Get help. I’m curious what you would tell your younger self about I got on the damn table, it wasn’t a big deal. Like, what would you tell your younger self about just get on the table?
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Yeah, that’s what I told myself at the time. Like, just do it. It’s not that big of a deal. Just do it. No one’s gonna look at you. Why do you care? You know? And that’s kind of the way I did it. And I think it also worked. I mean, here I am. I don’t care how high the table is. I’ll climb on it. It doesn’t matter which continent, which country, who is there. If it’s kings and queens and politicians or famous people I really like, I’m fine in either situation now. But actually I think back then—and that’s another lesson—I was maybe a bit too strict on me. So if I would tell my younger self any advice, I would basically say don’t be too strict on, yeah, on pushing yourself so hard. Because in the end, I think that took up quite a bit of energy that I could have spent. And that’s kind of my other thing that I would tell my younger self, I could have spent that on long term stories, which I didn’t do. I feel. I mean, I did a lot. But looking back, I would have wished I did less assignments, more long term projects. So that’s also…
Sara Terry: Interesting.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: More confidence, more long term projects. That’s the two things I would tell myself.
Sara Terry: Those are interesting notes. I love that. [Inaudible] has a question here as well. If you think back on the conversations you’ve had with us, do you remember anything that any of us said about what we would tell our younger selves that stands out to you? What would you—what do you remember?
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: I think Anush told me about confidence. I think a lot of us said confidence and not being— I don’t remember exactly what. I’m thinking of Maggie, because she also referred to confidence in some way. Yeah, like maybe not being pushed away, or? Anush said it. What did you say for failure.
Sara Terry: Mine was about responding with grace. Mine was that horrible situation when I was on that photography job. And kind of what you did with that guy. That’s funny. I hadn’t even thought of that.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: There is a parallel.
Sara Terry: I remember going up to that guy and I went to the people who’d been so brutal with me on the set and made sure that everybody got their picture with Rob Reiner. But in that same space of kind of going, huh, I hadn’t even thought about that. Of just kind of sucking up the feeling of being humiliated or yelled at or, you know, and just like going, okay, I’m going to try to make this right even though it wasn’t my fault, or I didn’t really do anything wrong, but this happened. So yeah.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: I realized that there is a parallel, actually. And it’s like you said, I think if you’re a photographer, you don’t give up. I think that’s a general thing in a lot of us. But I actually meant what did you say for a lesson to yourself again. I forgot that.
Sara Terry: Oh, gosh, it was probably that… What did I say?
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: I think it was related to— it was weird. I think all four, or five now, said something about confidence.
Sara Terry: Yeah. It’s gonna be okay. Be, you know, don’t be afraid. Don’t, you know. Yeah, something like that. Sorry. Yeah. I’m thinking of the other one. You know, Ilvy, we have another question to go. But I just, I just know, I’m really mixing it up. today. We’re going crazy here. We’re gonna make headlines, but four questions goes all over the map. But Ari Haziza asked a question that I think just relates to where we are in the conversation. And they say, hi, around 1.4 trillion digital images are made on Earth any given year. Ari, thanks for that latest statistic. Like, I track this, and it’s why I love single imagery. That’s why I keep emerging going no, a single image? But Ari’s question is do you feel sometimes overwhelmed by this? How do you find a unique and original voice, which is kind of what we’re talking about. So what how would you answer that, Ilvy?
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: That’s really, really interesting. I think there’s two ways in my mind that this kind of goes. The one way is like the fight. It’s kind of literally like fight or flight. There’s one voice that says, you can tell a different story, you can find a different narrative, you can do it better or different or new or, and then there’s the other way that’s like, oh, maybe I should start a bakery. You know, maybe I should go totally in a different direction, because everyone is a photographer. And, but to be very honest, from that bakery side, I always literally, I always, it’ll never happen. It’s just so much in me to be a photographer. And I also believe, and I don’t want to sound arrogant, but I really do believe that if I think long enough and hard enough, and maybe sit down and relax enough that I will find stories that maybe have not been told as much, or maybe in a different way. I’m quite confident that that I can find ways with storytelling to kind of make it new or different.
Sara Terry: Is the bakery your fallback position, because mine’s a bookstore?
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Actually, I’m not a good baker. But definitely there is like, a job that’s like a daily, the same, like a bookshop or a bakery, or…
Sara Terry: I can stay in one place and I can just do one thing. And I yeah, I totally— But I’m interested also in Ari’s question though, just the sheer number of images. You know, that’s why I started that little book press. I had 10 editions, which is 10 images from a photographer on with just like one little poetic thread, I haven’t done them in a while, I should probably start them up again. But Ari, that’s how I actually see some of those books. If you go to 10, the number 10, then the letter X editions.com. I can put it in the chat. Really love it. That was part of how I dealt with like, oh, my gosh, there’s so many, you know, images in the world. How do I say I love this one? Let’s have a conversation with this one image. So that was like mine. Sorry, I’m jumping on this question to you. How do you deal with that, Ilvy, like going, wow, there’s a trillion images this year. And don’t get slammed by the sheer number. How do you cope?
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Well, to be very honest, I feel like a very late adapter. But please bear in mind, I started photography in the digital age. So for instance, I have only been in a darkroom once. And that was when I was in high school, when I actually found photography, I was 17, 16. That was like, once, and then after that, I started journalism school. And it was, everything was already digital. So I hardly ever print images. But then, and that’s where I’m going. I have found like a new, very slow adapter love for prints. So when I either love my own image or someone else’s image, I started buying more images, I start printing now, only like in the last year, my own images. And it’s like, that’s how I kind of feel a different love and respect for images that sometimes only live in your computer, on a hard disk, or in a magazine or newspaper. But I know many of you are already doing that, but for me that was like, Oh, wait, this feels different. You can hold it. It’s with you. It’s yeah, so I’m kind of slowly—what’s the word?—finding that. I’m happy about it.
Sara Terry: That’s interesting, because I started, I mean, I became a photographer later in my career, but it was still, I was shooting color slides so it was always very tactile and physical. And it cost a lot to make a print then. It’s less expensive now, but I love— I mean, in different ways we’re both talking about you find a way to honor the single image. And I think, I would just encourage folks to know that you can make handmade artist books. You can make small editions. And I think it’s important to remove metric standards of success, because even in the heyday if you sold, you know, 3,000 photo books, that was a runaway bestseller, and that’s when like, in the big heyday of photo books. So don’t don’t put that on yourself in terms of like to be successful, the trillion people who made images have to see mine. That’s not the point. You know, your voice—you can find ways for that to happen. I’m sorry, I’m supposed to be the interviewer here.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: It’s so true.
Sara Terry: Um, shall we? Let’s see. Let’s go to the last one, Ilvy, today in the order we’ve created. What’s your dream gig? Like, what do you want to do that you haven’t done?
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Mmhmm. That was really, of course, I knew the question was coming. Lucky me. But I still couldn’t really figure out the answer because I wanted to find something like super bold, you know, something outrageous. Like doing a photoshoot on Mars. But then I realized, actually the one thing that I would most love to do that I am currently slowly starting, but still in research phase is a project about the climate in a way that we haven’t seen it before, which is super difficult because if you think about climate and climate change, so much has been done. But I think I found an angle that hasn’t been told or shown yet. Can’t really talk about it.
Sara Terry: No, you can’t. Not in our competitive world.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: But in this space. What I think I literally…
Sara Terry: Stefano says, No. Because there are many of us who think how can I do a climate change story that hasn’t been told before.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Yeah. But there are a lot of problems actually to making something that you feel might not have been told yet. And maybe it has been, which is also fine. I’m still going to do it. But I’m in the research phase now. But it’s quite difficult, because the reason it has probably not really been told in this way that much, or maybe not really at all, is because it’s more difficult to tell it this way. Yeah, it’s gonna be very vague this story, but that’s what I’m kind of now bumping against in the research phase. I’m thinking, Oh, I’m not sure if it’s really doable.
Sara Terry: Yeah, so talk about that. I think this is an opportunity to learn a little bit more too about, okay, there’s a dream— Ilvy, you know, it’s so funny, I asked you that question. I said, Oh, she’s probably gonna say, photograph on Mars. And then you said it in your answer. I love that.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: I can still do it. I’ll try.
Sara Terry: Find something and I guess you’re saying your dream gig in some ways is to be able to do a story that’s really important that hasn’t been done in a certain way. So that makes it a dream gig. But so there’s steps to actually then get there. Because you’re having to review all the work that’s been done on climate change, right? You have to know what’s— tell me what’s your process, then, to make your dream gig become real?
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Well, I must say…
Sara Terry: A lot of questions.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: I must say, for the first time, I’m kind of going towards this project in a different way than I’ve done before. For instance, Born Free, the project which this picture is part of, I photographed young people for 12 years. I funded this by doing assignments all year round every day. And then the money that I got from photographing hotel rooms, or red carpet, or news or documentary, or portraits, I would then put into the project. This time around, I don’t want to do it that way because it steals a lot of your time. So the phase that I’m in now, the first part is, okay, I want to do a project that sounds like it’s impossible. Let’s find funding. That’s where I am now. So I’m in for— I never did any, like hardly anything with funding. And it’s quite interesting to ask for funding for a project that you’re not sure if it’s even doable. So the phase that I’m now in is the funding and reading, reading, reading. I’m reading so much about climate now, things that are kind of, like, almost above my head. It’s so technical sometimes as well. So my next step, because it’s becoming too technical, is speaking to climate change researchers, meteorologists. How do you say it?
Sara Terry: Yeah. Meterologists. Weather.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: So that’s my second step. And I actually want to take the upcoming weeks to kind of set up meetings, virtual meetings, to talk to people and also ask them as a climate researcher, how possible or impossible do you think this project is? And does it really— the thing that I think might exist and might be a story does it really, do you think it’s a story? I mean, you guys know more about the climate than me, more than I do. So that’s what I’m now trying to set up, to talk to people who know more than me, because I literally don’t know enough I guess. Yeah. Right now.
Sara Terry: So in that space, would you ever think about —you’re obviously approaching this as a personal project. I mean, a one photographer project. You exist in an ecosystem, like VII where we’ve done group projects before. Would you think of this ever being—and there’s no—I’m just curious, you know, like, as a group, would you want to draw on the resources of VII itself to be able to bring it together as group work? But no is a perfectly fine answer, like I said.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: No, actually, I talked about that yesterday with my studio manager, because I kind of feel it’s maybe too big. So I said to her, Okay, what would be the best way to kind of tackle this? I mean, besides talking to the researchers, and then I figured it would be great to work together with a writer, a journalist. And then I thought, maybe also someone that does film. And then I thought, okay, it’s in so many different parts in the world, maybe it should be a collaboration between. And then of course, I thought, Oh, maybe I should talk to Gary at VII you know, see what he thinks about this and if it could maybe be a group project. So, yeah, but this only started yesterday. It’s really weird how this has been—what do you call it?— the way this project came to me, because I first thought, Oh, this is a great idea. Then I started Googling and it didn’t really exist. And then I realized, maybe it isn’t a great idea. Because otherwise someone else would have made it already, you know. So it’s a bit of a, it’s more thinking than doing anything yet. But I do feel this could actually be a good, a great group project, also, because it’s so big. Otherwise, yeah.
Sara Terry: I imagine you could even start with the group of VII photographers you’ve already interviewed and ask them, make a fifth question to them, like, how would you do this? Or in an offline chat, you know,
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: You guys— Stefano, I mean, you guys have done a lot of climate stuff as well. Yes, definitely.
Sara Terry: Stefano is the first person who comes to mind. It’s interesting that we were talking about your work individually as a photographer, and in the course of the conversation, we’re winding up in a space that also addresses the power of a collective. And you know, folks, you don’t have to be in VII to have a collective you know, you can— I’ve just formed a collective of filmmakers. We’re working on a developing an episodic documentary series, although geez, I really want to get a still camera in my hand again. But collect— there’s something very interesting in creating an effective collective, you know, people who work together well. Like, what do you think about that? Ilvy is a individual— because we’re so individual, we’ve been so used to that for the most part. And when we’re in groups, you know, like, sometimes it’s been contentious agencies, there’s so many people who are doing really interesting small collectives. I’m working with 4Plus in Armenia right now. What do you think is the value of working as a collective?
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: It’s so important. It’s the main reason I wanted to join VII. I don’t know if I’m saying anything wrong here. But when I wrote my— apparently not, because I made it in the end, and I wrote a what do you call the letter?
Sara Terry: The proposal? Application?
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Yeah, application. I said, Okay, I would really like love to join VII and there were tons of reasons. But the main one, the top one was that I want to really be part of a group of people that have a similar vision, or because it felt so lonely. I joined in 2017. So by that time, I had already been working for 10 years, I think. I don’t know. I felt like I couldn’t take the, not the loneliness, but just working alone, doing everything alone. It’s a very, I was like—and it becomes better as well when you work in a group. We did the group exhibitions. It’s just so much more—your voice becomes much richer if you’re in a group.
Sara Terry: In VII, the women, we did a group thing together. That’s the thing I said in my form too, that I wanted to be part of a community. So I hear you on that. So, a couple things. We’ve got, you know, 10 more minutes or so before we hit an hour mark. I’m just going to ask you all who are still listening here. Um, yeah, we’ve got a great group. If you can put in the q&a space, did we pass over anything that you wanted Ilvy to talk more about? In the four questions and the gazillion others that happened because we were moving things along because of time, but if we cut a conversation short, you know, say so. If there’s something we haven’t talked about yet, say so. Jump on in on that.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Why is it still screen share? Because I see you very small now.
Sara Terry: Oh, you can come off screen share probably. Joya is saying being part of the VII master class was so wonderful. I miss your community and your camaraderie. Joya, I had the pleasure of getting to know you too, but I think like the important part of what Ilvy was saying about collaborative and community is we were talking about if you can make a collaborative right where you are, you know. You can have the benefits of that community and obviously VII has its own benefits. It’s been around for a while. It was started so many years ago by an amazing group of photographers. I know Ilvy and I and, you know, Maggie, we’re all very honored to be in. We joined at the same time. But what you get from that shared energy and vision can happen in many different ways. And so, like, I encourage you to create your own, you know, or find people who are like minded. I started a feed, it comes and goes sometimes, but it’s a visual way of working. And it’s a—Nichole Sobecki and Jake Naughton and I started it and it was called collective three, I forget what it is— correlated three, because we, and they, I’m all in for that. I love doing that kind of thing. But one of us would make a picture and post it on our Instagram account. And then the next person had to make an image that referenced the previous image, but moves it forward. So it’s a really wonderful game of visual literacy. We’re not doing it right now. But like, for me, that was one way to build a community because Jake’s in Mexico, Nichole’s in Africa, I was in Los Angeles, and that’s not like making a big project, but it’s a way to, to have people, you know, be part of your thought process. Like what good…
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: At a first meeting with, together with two colleagues in the Netherlands I started this little group, it’s a WhatsApp group. I mean, it’s not a group group, but it’s a WhatsApp group. And we decided to come together every six weeks to talk about our ongoing projects, to look through each other’s work, to see if we can help each other out. Also, because I was kind of constantly postponing that I had to, for instance, write to the climate people, the climate researchers, I was like, Oh, I’ll do it tomorrow. I’ll do it tomorrow. And then I don’t do it and this project, you know, it’s gonna just move away from me and and it’s procrastination because I feel it’s such a difficult project. And then this morning, we had our first meeting with the [inaudible]. Yeah, that’s a Dutch word, but it basically means like a club that kind of starts moving things. Because that’s what you need, you know, you need to kind of have a group around you that says, Okay, let’s push this. Let’s do it together. You look at my work. I look at your work. Kind of like a masterclass but ongoing, I guess. Yeah. It’s really—I was super inspired after this morning’s meeting, actually.
Sara Terry: And it takes a different kind of work because right when you’re, like, the masterclass, somebody else organized it and, you know, brings in teachers and things and you come into a community, or space that’s already been created. And then there are the communities you create and you’re accountable to and you participate in, which requires a different level of engagement and thoughtfulness which are also, you know, pretty wonderful. Ilvy, is there anything that you wanted to say or that I cut you off on or that that you’re, you know—We’re about to enter a holiday space or in it already.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Yeah. And like, you can’t see my tree. I’m next to my tree, but yours is much bigger. I must say. It’s beautiful.
Sara Terry: I am an American. You know what can I say? It’s six feet tall. I had room for it. It’ll, you know, I’ll take it out the day after Christmas, because it takes up a little too much room in the living room.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: It’s amazing. No mine is, you can’t see it, but it’s uh, yeah, a different size. But also nice. Now I’m thinking if anything was kind of—yeah, maybe one thing I would want to say, which is not necessarily an advice to my younger self, but maybe to someone listening. When when I called the leader of that camp, I got a no from him. I got a no already. When I asked him, Can I please come to the youth camp? He said no. Then I called him on Skype. Back in the days we had Skype, so I Skyped him and he said no, again. And I called him six times. And then on the last Friday, I remember it was a Friday night, I called him and he said yes. After saying no for all these weeks. And every week I just called back saying like, Hi, I know, I’m gonna make you very tired. Here I am again, how’s your week been? You know, I also wanted to have a normal conversation to kind of get to know him. And I was also sharing a little bit about my life so he could kind of get to know me because why would he invite a total stranger to this camp? He wouldn’t you know, so I really made sure we kind of knew each other and then in the last week, he said yes, come over. So I would say yeah, like keep pushing when you get a no, don’t literally, don’t take no for an answer. It can always twist.
Sara Terry: Again, for your humanity in that space though, Ilvy, it actually made me think of like when you do a Kickstarter campaign, they say that it takes seven times seven contacts before somebody actually donates. And I’ve had to do that, you know, for the Aftermath Project. So I would find just different ways of sending these emails like you know, starting with like, me again, or have you heard the story about this and such you know, and just to find a way to be human so that you approach this guy, asking him more about his life. It wasn’t just like, Hi, can I come to your camp? You know, you’re just like, Hi, it’s me, again, you’re probably tired of me. But I just want to check in. What’s going on in your life? I mean, it’s, again, just that being present and being human and not being extractive, a word that’s very much in conversations around storytelling today, which is where you just go get a story and take it. It’s like extracting minerals from someplace, right? Because stories, human narratives have as much value as the most expensive minerals that can be extracted. And I think we need to work more in that space. And what I love, Ilvy, which I’ve known about you and learn more about today is how you are the opposite of being an extractive storyteller, and you’re enriching, you know, the places that you’re in. That’s a big lesson to all of us.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: I try to be really. Yeah, I aim for that. Definitely.
Sara Terry: Yeah. So we’re getting thanks. And you know, yeah, thank you all to everybody. We’re just coming up near eight o’clock, almost. So, Ilvy my VII sister, I send you love and greetings and to all of the rest of you, too. And there are events coming up in January and February. They’re already on the VII Insider site. Again, Photo Wings lets us do it for free. And it’s one way we can build community. And I hope you all have—I hope you all feel you’re part of community during this holiday season, and it’s a community that’s worth fighting for. Because I think we need it these days. So I’m, we’re here fighting with you.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: And thank you so much, Sara. Thanks so much for for being the host today. It was lovely chatting with you.
Sara Terry: Thank you for letting me do it.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Of course. I loved it. Thank you.
Sara Terry: Bye.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Bye, guys.