Dutch photographer HELLEN VAN MEENE’s portraits of adolescent girls have been criticised for promoting sexuality in children. Not so says Van Meene.

Words: Helen Monaghan

ellen van Meene is a portrait photographer but

not in the conventional sense. Taking pictures

of adolescent girls. Van Meene creates carefully posed and staged images. Blemishes. puppy fat and braces on teeth are not concealed. The girls. often dressed in over-sized clothes. expose naked flesh. It feels as though we’ve caught them in private. pretending to be grown up in their mother's clothes. Van .‘vieene reveals their vulnerability. capturing the mood of that transition from childhood to adulthood.

Van Meene's approach to finding her models is equally unconventional. In her home town ofAlkmaar in the Netherlands. she asks complete strangers on the street if they would like to be photographed. This way of working. however. began in January 1995 during a three-month exchange visit to Edinburgh College of Art. Six years on. after inclusion at this year‘s Venice Biennale. shows in Tokyo. New York and London. Van Meene is back in Edinburgh with an exhibition of portraits of young girls taken in Japan.

The exhibition at lnverleith House features photographs produced for the Venice Biennale. The Japan Series. 3| studies of youthful Japanese girls. continues Van Meene‘s exploration of the ambiguity of adolescence and the physical metamorphosis of the female. Van .‘Vleene. however. was daunted by the prospect of working in an unfamiliar country.

'The surprising thing was when I was invited to make photographs of girls in Japan. I was apprehensive of whether I would be able to make the same kind of images.' she says. ‘I can’t speak Japanese and the Japanese can't speak English. but I found that working with these girls wasn't as difficult.

70 THE LIST i’1—' 7' .121" 2312

‘If you show a bit of your neck it can be erotic, but you don’t mean to turn someone on’

Untitled from the Japan Series

We didn’t need a language and that surprised me. I could really get through to these girls.’

This comes down to her technique of getting her models to respond to the camera. As well as intervening into the composition reversing a blouse or intertwining long hair within the branches of a tree Van Meene's interaction with her subject produces painterly. atmospheric pictures. She creates emotive

snapshots of loneliness. capturing moments of

boredom or daydream-like states.

‘You have to give the girls a lot of your energy and they take a lot of yours.‘ she says. ‘The way I worked in Japan was the same as I do in the Netherlands. the only difference is that these girls have an Asian face.‘

Many of Van Meene’s images show girls revealing naked skin. whether it be a knee. a shoulder. or a breast. It is here that Van Meene has been criticised that her style of photography promotes the sexuality of children. But are they erotic images? ‘I think there is a major difference in a real erotic photograph as it carries the meaning of being erotic and having that possibility to turn someone one.’ she says. ‘My photos don't have that meaning of being erotic. They have an erotic atmosphere because I show some vulnerability or I show a lot of naked skin. If you have a very beautiful dress on and you show a little bit of your neck it can be very erotic. but you don‘t mean to turn someone on. it just looks nice on you.‘

In today's climate. it’s understandable that people feel uneasy towards these photographs. Van Meene's photographs show us something that is universally experienced. but the images are not the way we are led to believe adolescents should look.

‘lt's always very easy to say if you see a small child who shows her knee. “oh. it's erotic. it’s strange. it's not right". but if you look at a young child. they always love to walk around naked. We have such a strange attitude towards it and that's a pity.‘

That sadly. is a sign of our times.

Hellen Van Meene - Japan Series opens on Sat 12 Jan at lnverleith House, Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh. She will also be talking about her work on Wed 9 Jan, 2pm at Edinburgh College of Art.


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THE ROYAL SCOTTISH SOCIETY of Painters in WatercoIOur (RSW) are inviting yOung artists to apply for its 2002 ReSidency for Visual Arts. The three-month residency Offers the Winning artist a studio space and accommodation based at HOSpitaIfieid House in Abroath and is open to any yOung, professional artist who is Scottish or who has studied. is permanently based or working in Scotland. FOr further information and application form contact the seCretary. RSW. 5 Oswald Street. Glasgow G1 AOR. Tel: 0141 248 7411 or email: enquiries@robbferguson.co.ul<. Deadline for applications is Monday 7 January.

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