Lotte van Eijk: A Fat Woman on the Power of the Image
Lotte van Eijk: A Fat Woman on the Power of the Image
Lotte van Eijk: A Fat Woman on the Power of the Image
This week’s PhotoGenie theme is titled Bare Self.
Through visual stories our curators research the question “How can self-acceptance replace the standards of beauty?”
Lotte van Eijk is a Dutch photographer from Rotterdam. She describes herself as ‘a fat woman who is fascinated [with] the power of [the] image, what it can intrude and what it can rectify’. Through her photography, she spreads a message of body positivity, self-love, and acceptance. She does so with a good amount of humour and ‘Rotterdamse cheekiness’. Photogenie’s Rebecca and Myrthe met Lotte at her home in Hoogvliet for an honest conversation about being fat, the art academy and the attention spans of goldfish.
Thanks for having us, Lotte. Can you tell us when your journey as a photographer started?
Well, I always wanted to be a fashion designer, because I wanted to make clothes for bigger bodies. As a kid, I thought it was really unfair that I couldn’t have the clothes that I wanted to have because of my body. My mom and grandmother used to remake all my clothes because of my size. So when I grew up, I figured that I would design clothing for all body sizes, because every body deserves nice clothes. My grandmother offered to teach me how to make clothes, but unfortunately, I have the attention span of a goldfish laughs. I like the process of drawing and design, but sewing is not my cup of tea. I gave up my dream of being a fashion designer, but then I asked myself: How do I spread this message that I have about big bodies, their beauty, and their deserved respect?
I started with photography when I was about 14 or 16 years old. We were on a family vacation and I started using a very old mobile phone to photograph the mountains around us. My mom saw the pictures I took and said ‘Damn, you’ve got an eye for this!’. At that point in time, I was searching for something I wanted to do after high school and photography came to my mind. I thought ‘Yes, why the hell not? This is a way in which I can spread my visuals of bigger bodies and their beauty in this very visual culture that we have!’
Did you have other experiences of being of a bigger size as a child that motivated you to spread your message?
I used to dance a lot and dreamt of being a professional dancer when I was younger. I auditioned for a dance academy when I was in my second year of high school. They didn’t want me because I was too fat. They argued that my body physically wouldn’t be able to keep up with all the lessons and that I would get injuries. They made judgements about my body before they even knew me. That was a dream that was crushed for me. There are many more examples of these kinds of situations where I was judged by my body. This is what inspired me to do something to change the way people think about bigger bodies.
I don’t want to tell people ‘you shouldn’t look like Kim Kardashian!’. My message is ‘you should look like yourself’.
How did you proceed in photography?
I used to do these cheesy shoots with my friends laughs. When I was in my fourth year of high school, I took my portfolio to the Willem de Koning (WDK) academy of art in Rotterdam. They didn’t like it, which discouraged me a bit. But when I look at those photos now, I totally understand. They were so bad! If a young girl came up to me right now with those photos, I would say: ‘Honey, you need practice and advice, because this is horrible!’ laughs.
Either way, I wanted to try to get into WDK and applied anyways. Thankfully, I got accepted. I think my acceptance was largely based on my written assignment and interview. In that interview, I could really explain what message I had and what I wanted to bring to the art world.
My first year was a mess. I was 17 years old when I entered the academy, which is pretty young. Coming straight from high school to the academy was too intense. I was caught in a whirlwind of emotions and new experiences, and it felt like my brain needed space to expand and understand. At art academies they’ll tell you that ‘There is no right or wrong here’ and then, during my exams, they told me ‘this is wrong’. What the fuck? I just didn’t understand it. My body positivity, which started all of this, faded away. And it wasn’t until the Kim K series in the last semester that I found my way again.
Why did you make Kim K?
I went looking for popular celebrities, why everybody loved them and why they wanted to look like them. So when I found out about parodies and hoaxes in photography, I wanted to try myself. I used the photos of Kim Kardashian. The one(s) where she’s undressed and popping champagne. To recreate this photo I had to photograph myself in a studio, fully naked and covered in oil. That was an intense experience. I had to get over the boundaries of shooting naked in a studio filled with people and showing my naked body to so many people afterwards at the exhibition.
During that exhibition, my dad saw me naked in my photography for the first time. I was nervous and scared that he wouldn’t understand it, but he was so proud of me and the message I was spreading. People really liked it and finally understood my work. I realised that I was really good at recreating settings of existing photographs and making my own versions in Photoshop. And I really like it. I finally understood how to work in photography, that I had to work from my heart and from what I feel. After that, it just got better, and I kept on going with Kim Kardashian and body image.
Besides the challenge of showing your naked body to the world, did you encounter other challenges?
For Kim K, I needed a friend to take the photographs: to click on the shutter and direct me in how to hold the piece of fabric. It’s hard to photograph yourself. You are your own hairstylist, makeup artist, model, and photographer, so you can’t see everything. I like doing it, but only in settings that I can control. I’ve tried to take photos at the beach, but it’s just too difficult. People are walking around in the background, you have all your stuff laying around and when you finally get back to your camera you see that the lighting was off or your hair did a funny thing. It’s really hard to control. But in my work and my message, my body is crucial. I really use it as a tool to tell a story. It would be strange if I would photograph other fat women because it would lose the message I try to convey. Why would I photograph that specific woman and not the blonde one or the redhead or the one with the big booty or the one with the big belly? If I use myself, then it is really from my own perspective and from within me. It is a reflection of my own body and the body of Kim Kardashian, and a personal story reflecting on all the bodies of every woman in the world.
Why did you make Kim K 2?
After Kim K 1, she did not leave my mind. I felt like I needed to make one more book to cope with this celebrity and the hype around her. At that time, I really hated Kim Kardashian. I couldn’t understand why everybody liked her, wanted to be her and look like her. In my opinion, she didn’t do anything interesting and she wasn’t good at anything. She was only famous because the woman was in a porn video! But that was back then, now I have more respect for her. She has to endure a lot of hate and everyone has their own value. Besides, now I know that she isn’t the problem. She was not the essence of what I wanted to convey. I don’t want to tell people ‘you shouldn’t look like Kim Kardashian!’. My message is ‘You should look like yourself’. I just used her as a visualisation of the negativity on bigger bodies in society. It wasn’t about her, or about blaming someone for the hate in society.
It was about me, my body, and a message of love and positivity. I want to reach people in their hearts with my work, that’s why I moved away from blaming Kim K and started to make more vulnerable photographs of myself. It was a different direction: from hating the problem to loving myself.
What is the series about?
Kim K2 was a manual on how to be a ‘good’ Kardashian. It was a way of ridiculing what everyone is willing to do to look more like Kim. It was also a sort of closure project for me. In that manual, I collected all my hate for the subject of being fat in this world. Of course, I still have hate for how people treat me and how people treat each other, but I left most of it in that book. In the book, I say ‘this is how you can look like her, but please don’t’. It was a really fun project and I really like to use humour in my work.
Tell us a little bit more about the new direction of your work
After both of the Kim K’s, I made a project called ‘She’, that was really about myself. That was the first time I noticed that photographing myself was aligning me with self-love and an appreciation of my own beauty. The teachers finally saw me and my work the way I wanted them to, which encouraged me to keep going. With that project, I really had to knock down the wall I had built around me, which was hard. There was something therapeutic about making this series. I know for sure that if I wouldn’t have gone to WDK, I wouldn’t be the person I am today. There is a quote on the school that says ‘You have to change to stay the same’. In the beginning, I was like ‘what the fuck, this is so much bullshit’ and now it’s the truest thing I’ve ever read.
How did you end your time at the Willem de Koning academy?
I decided I wanted to reach a bigger audience with my photography and started an Instagram page. I was very nervous when I had to show it to the WDK teachers since they often think media such as Instagram are shallow and commercial. My supervisor for my graduation was a very smart, feminist teacher whom I found very intimidating. It’s like she has this database of knowledge in her head and she knows everything about issues such as feminism. The first day we discussed my work, I entered the room and she turned around and said ‘I LOVED it! This is fan-tas-tic!’. I was flabbergasted, that someone like her, someone who is so invested in the subject, liked my work, that meant a lot. It was the boost I needed. After that day, she was my biggest fan. Sometimes it’s the people you least expect that support you the most. At one point I wanted to make a huge print of a photo of myself and hang it over the school like I owned the building with my body. When we were discussing it in class, one guy said ‘Why would you want to do that? That’s just idolizing yourself, nobody wants to sponsor you for that’. Before I could respond to him, my supervisor slayed him! She said ‘If you don’t understand this subject, you shouldn’t even bother getting involved. This is about self-love, for every body and every person everywhere’ and so on. I was in the background nodding along like ‘yeaaah bitch!’. That guy crumbled behind his laptop, it was amazing.
What was your life like after graduation?
After graduation, I was asked to be in the TV series Vet Gelukkig (“Fat Happy”). Then NOSop3 and Nieuwe Maan (both TV programmes) asked me to have an interview. I did a lot on television and I had a lot of interviews in the time after my graduation. My Instagram blew up, I did a campaign for Polette (Glasses company), and Melkweg (music venue/cultural center in Amsterdam) wanted me at their graduation exposition. At the end of this year, I will have another exhibition with them for Curated by GIRLS, which is a feminist platform. I could have worried a lot about what I was going to do after graduation, but I just let it happen and put myself out there. I was lucky that I had already built this Instagram, so I had a platform where people could reach me and find me. I’ve done a lot of work as a model and not as a photographer. I still don’t really do jobs as a photographer, because I don’t want to just be a photographer. What I want, is my message to be clear and it’s working for me.
So you are not really a photographer anymore?
Yes, I am. I still photograph myself a lot for Instagram. That is a lot of work, but now I am sponsored by brands, I’m being paid for things and that is really cool. At first, I wanted to start a Youtube channel as well. A lot of people are waiting for that, but Instagram is already so much work. It’s a full-time job. A lot of people think I’m doing this for the likes and for the follows, you know? But bitch, if I wanted to do it for likes and follows, I wouldn’t be doing all this fucking work. I am really doing it for other people, not for myself. That is the whole point.
What are your future plans?
The last few years I’ve been asking a lot of myself. I was working full-time in survival mode. I have to start taking things more slowly, so I want to wait with the Youtube channel for a bit. Because, if I’m going to do it, I’m going to do it well. That’s the kind of person I am. Go big or go home, that is really my thing. I’m sure it will work, but I have to be ready for it. Via Youtube, you can really make money. I love what I’m doing, but I also have to be able to pay my life with it. So those are the plans. Right now, I have two very exciting projects coming up. Nothing is confirmed yet, so I can’t tell you much about it, but stay tuned!
Do you think photographers have a kind of responsibility in changing society?
I think they do, they have a lot of responsibility. Because, as I said, we live in a very visual culture. Images are so powerful and can be so manipulative. I think a lot of people don’t even know how much impact they have on their lives. Of all the social media, we spend most of our time on Instagram and it’s all images and videos. It’s not that I want every photographer to contribute something to societal change, but I do think photographers of the art spectrum can have a lot of impact on changing something that they are passionate about. To tell a story and to go against society, you really have to have a heart for it. You have to want to tell that story because if you don’t, you will be knocked down within seconds. People will have comments on what you do, that’s why you really have to do research and have knowledge about your subject. This way, we can make a change. That would be such a beautiful thing, that we can make this new flow of visuals, this new path so that people can see things in a different way.
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Interview by Myrthe Peek and Rebecca Slee