Interview with Koen Suidgeest

I am a humanist. Above all, I believe in people. I am convinced that in the end, we all want the same things: a meaningful, happy and healthy life, to connect with the people around us, and to be recognised as a valuable human being. My film and photography work revolves around those that are cut off from one or all of these. Ultimately, it is my conviction that every person has an interesting story. Just like that each human being can teach us something. As long as we are willing to listen.

What did you enjoy the most about making this book?

Why I Cry On Airplanes is the product of a series of workshops that I followed at the Fotoacademie in Amsterdam. We were five professional photographers who were each bringing a first book project to the table. What I most enjoyed about the process of making mine, were those workshop sessions. The feedback and support of my fellow classmates and our tutors have put an important stamp on the final outcome of the book. There was respect, camaraderie, and lots of good criticism.

What was the motivation behind this project?

y main motivation was to give shape to an emotion that I experience regularly. I travel a lot and nearly always work with people who live in extreme poverty, or who are otherwise marginalised and vulnerable. It’s in those bear conditions that I often see proof of how authentic, strong or generous people are who have very little to lose. I find that touching, but despite getting very close to the subjects of my projects, I postpone my strongest emotions until I am strapped back into my seat on the plane home. That’s when it hits me and there’s always that moment when my mind wanders back to the lives I have captured and at the same time left behind. Hence the tears. Not of sadness, but rather of feeling grateful and touched.

The book celebrates these people. It is a dedication to them. But also feels like an autobiography that brings together 15 years of photography. It feeling so incredibly personal is of course understandable. Because of the way I work, their lives and mine are forever connected.

What do you expect the viewer experience when they look at your book?

I want the viewer to feel like they are on a roller coaster ride around areas of the world they would never visit. Some parts of the book bounce from one location to the next. Other parts are more focussed on specific projects. A lot of it is very documentary-like real, but there is also space for a dream.

I expect the viewer to feel their very own emotions as they are embarking on that trip. There is so much to see and to feel. Especially when the warmth and depth of the images and the people they depict, make way for the cold, metallic and crowded flight home. What am I leaving behind? And what am I taking along?


As this is our first interview, can you introduce your work in general?

I work as a filmmaker and photographer, mainly in the developing world. My work focusses on two broad areas. My free work (which goes to international broadcasters and festivals) is often about stories related to children’s rights and motherhood. My commissioned work tends to be about LGBTI rights, generally for foundations that work in human rights. The balance between documentary film and photography changes year by year, but I am equally passionate about both disciplines.

Besides that, I enjoy teaching. I work part-time at Leiden University as a master supervisor and lecturer in visual ethnography, which is a discipline within anthropology. I also do an annual module at Breda University at the Media & Entertainment department. And I get asked for a variety of workshops around the globe and regularly serve on festival juries.

How do you see this book in the bigger frame of your work?

I turned fifty a few years back. And most of my professional life has been one long search for meaning, depth and justice. I am now at a stage in my life where I feel like I am closing one chapter, only to start a new one that heralds new challenges and personal development. Why I Cry On Airplanes is part of that process. It has allowed me to work extensively with my photo archive, pull out the very best stuff, publish it and then start again on a new level.

Do you want to share with us a story about the making off of your book?

I nearly gave up halfway the process. Once I got going, the project was going really well – I found a top designer and lithographer, people in my network were excited, and I even obtained 150 presales. But the project was getting bigger and I was getting worried about the risk I was taking. Making books was new to me and I had no idea whether I was ever going to sell the 500 copies I had planned to print.

But then, through my network of NGOs, there was sudden interest from Oxfam-Novib for their book club. They asked for a proposal, we had a meeting, and in a matter of weeks, they placed an order of nearly 6.000 copies!! I was flabbergasted, scared to death and incredibly grateful. It saved the project in away.


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