Frankfurter Algemeine, 3 July 2010


[top photo] Growing up with two names, Aonpekinund and Xavior Michael-Young: boy from the Delaware and Seminole tribe.



Grandma was a Turtle


The Dutch photographer Cuny Janssen questions the future with her portraits of children. Her new, supremely beautiful book was created in Oklahoma.


By Freddie Langer


For a brief moment, one believes the small chamois-coloured snapshot in the afterword of this photo book to be an image of the photographer herself: a child wearing an American Indian costume somewhere in a broad, almost unreally deserted residential street. A single parked car is visible in the distance, a VW Beetle with a split rear window – that’s how old the photograph is. And yet Cuny Janssen was born in 1975. If ever she had dressed up as a child using decorative feathers, her parents would have snapped it in a colour photo. The jaunty pose, the cheeky expression, and the conventional composition could nevertheless easily be found in a family album from the Eighties. One might almost want to call this type of photo ‘universal’. However, the fact that it can be done differently is borne out by Cuny Janssen’s book.

The Dutch photographer Cuny Janssen takes photographs of children. Perhaps she is the most remarkable of our time. In her most recent book My Grandma was a Turtle, hitherto her fifth, she has taken portraits of children in a remote spot of the world. None of her books contains jaunty poses and cheeky expressions. Nor does this one contain another American Indian costume, even though the photographs were taken during her stay in Oklahoma, and all feature families from tribes such as Cherokee and Creek, Mohawk, Osage, and Delaware.

The children, to whom Cuny Janssen devotes her attention, all have stories to tell – up to now unappealing stories, as in her book Macedonia from 2003, whereby one might suppose that it is the very experience of war one sees etched in the features of those young faces. Or four years later, in the book There is something in the Air about a settlement in the desert of South Africa, which tells the story of the prevalent political conditions and economic hardship through portraits of children. In so doing, Janssen doesn’t avail herself of the means of either sentimental or accusatory photojournalism. Rather, her photographs are endowed with a bewitching simplicity. Many of them appear to have been taken almost at random. The subtlety of the light, the painstaking arrangements of the various pictorial elements, or the symbolically charged details only emerge gradually.

What distracts one here are the eyes of the children. Cuny Janssen always concentrates upon that moment when every trace of the childlike has vanished from the faces of the children, only to be replaced by a serious demeanour – not rigid, but set. They sometimes radiate a self-confidence here, too, which belies their tender years – an alarming self-confidence at that. 

Cuny Janssen always supplements the portraits with images of the vicinity – mountains, forests, and lakes, or rocks, cacti, and sand. After all, she is a landscape photographer as well. And yet she eschews any form of emotion. Applying the art historical scale of meaning ranging from “sublime” to “picturesque” won’t get you very far in this case. Her documentations of the topography are imbued with such a degree of sobriety that the depicted landscapes occasionally become enigmatic as a result — inasmuch as the observer is aware that he is dealing with locations where battles have taken place, or natural sites that have been rigorously exploited.

The way in which Cuny Janssen perpetually combines landscapes and portraits in new and unconventional ways, double-sided with foldout tables, or based on the principle of the concertina folder, transforms each one of her publications into an artist’s book in its own right. However, she has invested more effort in this, her most recent endeavour, than any of her previous books – itself her most beautiful and, indeed, conciliatory work to date.

My Grandma was a Turtle is simply a wonderful book – a photo album into which she has hand-pasted around seventy carefully arranged sheets of varying sizes. Interrupted respectively by double-page spreads of the prairie and a herd of buffalo, she has arranged portraits of children, details of untamed nature, and the unavoidable traces of civilisation, to create a reposeful, almost lyrical, pictorial narrative. Each chapter is reflected in the others. The past, the present, and the future seem to be superimposed on top of one another like foils. For landscape photographs and portraits self-evidently don’t pose any questions more clearly than the ones relating to the ‘where from’ and the ‘where to’. Cuny Janssen’s books are always about the definition of a specific location.

She may well be surprised herself about some of the answers in this instance. Of course, the photograph of the child dressed up in an American Indian costume at the end of the book evokes the clichés of what has been foisted upon the Native American tribes during the course of the past two centuries. And it is to this book’s credit that we need to be reminded about it.

For Cuny Janssen pays as little heed to the image of the noble savage as she does to run-down cars, houses, or people. Instead, she reports from an unperturbed world in which tradition and the future don’t appear to be self-contradictory, and in which children eye the camera with healthy scepticism. The fact that only a few of them look like Native Americans, and the rest have red or straw-coloured hair and the snowiest of snow-white skin, leaves the viewer with an uneasy feeling. But this is precisely the story of these children.


[bottom photo]: Childhood landscape: Hula Lake in Oklahoma


Cuny Janssen: “My Grandma was a Turtle”. With texts by

Nicky Kay Michael and Paul Andriesse. Snoeck Verlag, Cologne  

2010. 92 pp. Illustr. Hardback € 39.80