©Yara Jimmink, Untitled, from the series When Summer Became Winter, 2019-ongoing.
Yara Jimmink is a social documentary photographer based in Amsterdam, The Netherlands, where she recently graduated from the Royal Academy of Art, at The Hague. Her practice is strongly influenced by her Indo-European roots and is used to address humanitarian issues. Using photography as a tool to investigate these issues, she addresses themes such as migration, family and collective memory which are repeatedly approached in her works, specifically “When Summer Became Winter”, presented at the exhibition “Pass it on. Private Stories, Public Histories”, held at FOTODOK, in Utrecht.
As Jimmink investigates her family heritage through photographs left by her grandparents, who fled Indonesia to build a life in The Netherlands, she began questioning her own identity and sense of belonging. She conducted interviews amongst her family and photographed their daily lives, what started as a personal investigation fuelled by curiosity, resulted in a portrait of a collective past that unveils histories silenced by colonial discourse.
This interview is part of a series of conversations with the artists involved in the 'Pass it on. Private Stories, Public Histories' exhibition held at FOTODOK in 2020, curated by Daria Turminas, which can be viewed virtually here. This exhibition explores the constructed nature of memory, the complexity of its production and transmission processes. By presenting ongoing projects, it urges the viewers to question their relationship with archives, their content and possible meanings.
Archivo Platform (AP) | Your photographic work has a documentary approach that explores everyday situations, normally associated with private stories and personal experiences. Examples are works such as “Madelief” or “Joran”, named after the specific subjects you observe and document. Can you tell us more about what moves you towards photography and documentary practice?
Yara Jimmink (YJ) | Documentary photography is a medium, which enables me to tell larger stories through intimate situations. By aiming to capture personal moments in people’s lives, I need to make a mutual connection and win the trust of my subjects. By doing so, the portrayed individuals become insightful bridges between their cultural background and context, my audience and the story I want to tell.
©Yara Jimmink, Joran, 2019.
AP | How would you describe your artistic process?
YJ | Through the personal lens I portray people and seek the value and meaning of the ordinary things in life. My projects are often time documents where I search for the interaction between the past and present. My most recent project, "When Summer Became Winter" investigates the meaning of my cultural heritage in its present moment.
AP | In the project “When Summer Became Winter” we’re dealing with different kinds of images. You recover photographs from your family album, more specifically from a period of your family past that you didn’t experience. Can you identify the turning point when these images stopped becoming photographs in a photo album and became research materials for your work?
YJ | After a conversation about my grandparents my mother put a big box of photos in front of my nose. It was a jumble of childhood photos of my brother and me, photos of my newborn nephew, children’s parties and Queen’s Day celebrations. In that same box was the photo archive of my grandpa and grandma. The black and white photos in particular caught my interest. I wanted to know where and when all these photos were taken. So I started to ask my mom questions: “Was it on Ambon? Was it in Sorong? Was this during the boat journey to the Netherlands? Who are the other people? Was this your first house in The Netherlands?"
My grandparents did something big, they travelled to the other side of the world to build a new life. What did that mean to them? What must it have been like to swop a warm tropical environment for this small cold-hearted country?
Along the way, I realised that these questions also come from my longing to understand my family history better. The few fragments and anecdotes that were handed down to me weren’t enough to put together the whole story – a story interwoven into my own life. This realization was the turning point where the meaning of the photos changed from family album photographs towards the base for my research.
[left] Untitled / [center] Mia & Mama / [right] Boat
from the series When Summer Became Winter, 2019-ongoing.
AP | This century has been strongly focused and productive in de-colonial thinking, unveiling, among other things, unknown stories, experiences and images from past silenced voices. In this context, your work explores the collective memory of the Dutch colonial era and the following migration to The Netherlands. Has working on this project changed your understanding and perception of this colonial past, its traces and present consequences?
YJ | From the surface this project can be seen as a personal story, a reconstructed family story. However, it contains different layers, the project deals with the past and the present and how these two are related and intertwined. While the deeper layers below are the collective memory, our colonial past and the migration flow to the Netherlands from 1945 – 1962. When I was executing this project, I mainly focussed on my family’s backstory and the context around it, or let’s say that was the focus for my project to keep it small and personal and not to make a political statement. After graduating I had the space and time to reflect, which made me delve more into the historical context of our colonial past. By working on this I started to realize several aspects.
There are two different kinds of stories, broadly speaking. There are the Indo-Dutch; the group that had a Dutch passport, and weren’t safe in Indonesia anymore, so they were brought to their ‘fatherland’. Technically it was their fatherland, because they had Dutch nationality, but The Netherlands was not even close to what you can describe as their home, it was an environment the opposite of where they grew up in ‘the East’. Then you have the story regarding the Mollucans, from the Moluccan islands that fought on the side of the Dutch against the Indonesian nationalists. Also, they weren’t safe anymore in Indonesia, so the Dutch government brought them to The Netherlands ‘temporarily’. They were put in former concentration camps and separated from the Dutch people. The plan was that they would only stay for a couple of months and return to Indonesia. But that never happened, because it was too dangerous to return, since they fought for the Dutch, the oppressor. And the political structure had changed. As soon as they arrived in The Netherlands they were fired from their function as a soldier. So they lost their job and their homeland. They were treated like garbage. This resulted in a lot of protests and hijacks.
I see the complexity of a romantic stereotypical image that people have of the Indo-Dutch; the food, conviviality, something ‘exotic’, the Tong Tong Fair (an annual event in the Netherlands with typical Indo-Dutch concepts). They are generally seen as good people, as people who could adapt well. On the one hand, it is a good thing that people have that image of the Indo-Dutch. On the other hand, I recently did a project about the integration process in the fifties in which I saw the perspective of the Indo-Dutch people and how they experienced the integration process. They were patronized and they had no other choice than to adapt, since they otherwise would not be accepted. And where does this come from? They have always had to adapt, for generations they have lived under Dutch rules back in the Dutch-Indies. They had no choice but to be quiet and do as they were told. That attitude has simmered into something that can still be felt today. The third generation, to which I belong, is speaking up, insisting that stories of grandparents and families should be told.
AP | “When Summer Became Winter” is characterized by a poetical visual narrative that combines old family images with recent photographs made by you. In this work, there’s a constant presence of a man who seems rather important to the story. Could you tell us more about him and his contribution to this project?
YJ | My grandparents are no longer alive so I couldn’t ask them all these questions I had. My mother was six years old when she left the former Netherlands New Guinea so she couldn’t answer my questions about life there either. Neither could I find a logical timeline in the random collection of photos and that bothered me. So how could I understand my family history? It didn’t feel right to leave such a big part of me so vague and I found it annoying that no one could answer my questions. I also realized that trauma obstructed an emotional relationship between my mother and her parents. My mother didn’t even know what her parents had experienced during the Second World War. This is a common notion, that those migrated families didn’t talk about their past.
I could think of only one person who could help me further in my search: great-uncle Ka (93 yrs.), although he is not a blood relative, he has always felt like family. He is the only one from the generation of my grandparents – he is a good friend of theirs – still alive and was one of the first in our family circle who, with his family, left Sorong for the Netherlands in 1960.
I thought about how together we could experience what he was telling me, so I invited him to join me in the botanical garden. As a photographer, I was actively involved in how I could bring his story to life. Spending time together and visiting the botanical garden brought his memories alive; memories of how his father taught him how to cultivate vanilla and coffee plants, of which they could make a living. He was glad that he could tell me what he has experienced in life, and that I could be a listening ear.
©Yara Jimmink, Family Album, from the series When Summer Became Winter, 2019-ongoing.
AP | Throughout the visual narrative, besides archival material, we see portraits as well as photographs of plants and flowers. Could you elaborate on their meaning?
YJ | Plants and flowers are connected to a certain place and time, therefore a metaphor for memories and nostalgia. They symbolize growth, strength but also decay. It is the transience of life represented by our flora. This refers to how we as humans interact with our environment. In these flowers and plants memories were triggered, and I wanted to bring those memories alive. I photographed an orchid, a typical Indonesian flower. Afterwards, my great-uncle told me that this was his wife’s favourite flower. I didn’t know this beforehand. She passed away, so it felt like the orchid symbolized her.
©Yara Jimmink, Oom Ka (left) Amorphophallus Konjac (right),
from the series When Summer Became Winter, 2019-ongoing.
AP | Your work includes audio recordings of your uncle Ka who, just like your family, experienced a migration journey to The Netherlands. Could you tell us about the collaborative work developed for these recordings?
YJ | Initially I wanted to photograph my great-uncle, the interview recordings were only part of the research. During the making process I realised that his typical Dutch Indonesian voice has a specific intonation, to which others can relate. To grasp the audience, I decided to use the audio fragments and to give the work more depth. For the editing and soundscapes, I collaborated with my brother, which was special, because of the family connection within this historic project. We could understand each other and the workflow went organically without too many explanations.
AP | How did the audience respond to this work?
YJ | With my work I aim to reach an audience that gets encouraged to relive some of their own life experiences. Quite some people could relate to the work, for some uncle Ka represented a grandfather or uncle. A lot of people were touched by his voice and the stories he told. Besides that, it didn’t only attract people with a Dutch Indonesian migration background, but also other population groups that migrated to the Netherlands, (such as Turkish, Surinam, etc)
The work was displayed with two layers; the archival footage was printed on transparent fabric, which I hung in front of my coloured photographs. By looking through the past you were able to see the present, but as you moved around the work it was also possible to see the image without overlapping.
Yara Jimmink, "When Summer Became Winter", 2019-ongoing.
Outdoor installation views at Het Utrechts Archief, 2021. Courtesy of the artist.
AP | In “Pass it on, Private Stories, Public Histories”, you presented your work in an independent exterior display, differently from the other artists. As we look at the visual presentation, there seems to be a strong connection between this display and the book format of the work. Is there any relation between the two?
YJ | Yes, there is. In both forms the ‘looping’ is very important, the story continues. In the publication, every page shows a tiny part of the image on the next page, which makes you want to flip further. As well as in the installation, where the viewer can walk in it and around it.
The combination of archival footage and the photographs made by me are treated in the same way; so the black and white photos were presented without white borders, in contrast to the typical archival photos we already know. The most important message I want to tell my audience is that by looking through our past we can see the present.