Gabby wears a full-body fishnet stocking with pre-Raphaelite sleeves. Flavirina lives out her Naomi Campbell fantasy in a shimmering floor-length frock. And Sulaiga models flares covered in coca leaves and carries an AK47. The 31-year-old Dutch photographer-provocateur Jan Hoek is using his camera to make their dreams come true.
“I found a photo on the internet of a trans sex worker in South Africa,” says Hoek. “She looked so cool. Her clothes were really improvised and raw, but so stunning and creative.” So he decided to travel to Cape Town and track down trans sex workers to photograph. Via Sweat, a sex worker advocacy organisation, he met Sulaiga, Gabby, Flavirina, Coco and Cleopatra. He asked each of them to brainstorm their dream outfits, which his friend, Dutch fashion designer Duran Lantink, created. Then Hoek took portraits of the five posing on a giant hamburger – because “the girls always say trans girls can eat like boys”.
‘My intention was to give these people during the photo shoot that royal feeling’ … Jan Hoek on his series Sweet Crazies
Hoek insists this is not “helicopter photography”, where a foreigner drops in to shoot exotic subjects and then promptly vanishes. “It’s still a work-in-progress, and so are their outfits,” he says. “We’re going back in November to do a new shoot.” Hoek has also photographed his five models in their own clothes, on which Lantink is basing his new collection.
Hoek gets to know his sitters well. “Cleopatra wants to be an African queen. She loves water and waterfalls. She also likes crystal meth,” he says. “Sulaiga is one of the few girls who was really close to her mother. But even when she was living with her happy family, she went out on the streets to rob people.” After her mother died on Sulaiga’s 21st birthday, crime soon became a full-time occupation. Now she dreams of being a big-time drug dealer and mixing with the mafia. “As for Gabby,” he continues, “she started working in a brothel, but it burned down, and she had to make her own money. And Flavi is a refugee from Burundi. She is the only one of the girls that wants the operation.”
Trans people have long been muses for photographers, fromChrister Strömholm in 1960s Paris to Tiane Doan na Champassak in Thailand. But Hoek is less concerned with transgenderism than he is with photographic tension – that ever-present awkwardness between sitter and photographer, and viewer and photograph. “I have a love-hate relationship with awkward moments,” he says. “I am extremely sensitive to them and I do feel uncomfortable, but those are the moments that give the best stories.”
All of Hoek’s projects are heavy with this uneasy humour. In Sweet Crazies, he photographed a group of homeless Ethiopian men with mental-health issues. “They all looked like kings or emperors, like they’d just stepped off the catwalk,” he has written. “My intention was to give them that royal feeling … to make them the stars.” But one of the men got angry during a studio shoot because “fancy rich people started to make stupid jokes about him”, and stick-wielding security guards threw everyone out.
Kim, a 32-year-old former heroin addict that Hoek does regular supermodel photoshoots with
If Hoek’s portraits are toe-curling, it’s because they confront the fact that photographs of other people are intrinsically exploitative and intrusive. He has also done a bizarre hypercolour series on Pattaya, in Thailand – “the sex tourist Valhalla of the world” – and a 100-metre-long photograph called Panorama Carland, both of which are about to go on show at the Unseen photography festival in Amsterdam. “Old cars from all over west Africa end up in Kumasi, in Ghana,” he explains. “It’s a fantastic, weird world full of rusty metal. I photoshopped a panorama of old cars and the wonderful people living between them, from Nigerian sex workers that look like Lil’ Kim to sexy bodybuilders using car parts to train their muscles. It’s a side of Africa you normally never see – it looks like a Tarantino movie.”
Does he worry about taking it too far, or taking advantage of his subjects? “Some people in the west think people in Africa cannot think for themselves because they are poor and vulnerable,” he says, “but in my experience they are perfectly capable of choosing if and how they want to be photographed.” He once took shot after shot of a little girl with no limbs that he met at a hotel. At first, he says, he was nervous about photographing such a vulnerable person, but she eventually persuaded him – “and she was addicted to the camera”.
Hoek’s longest-running photography relationship is with Kim, a 32-year-old former heroin addict. He has already photographed her in personalised supermodel shoots, and now he’s taking her on holiday. “By the age of 15, Kim was living on the streets,” he explains. “She and her boyfriend have never been on holiday. I’ve organised a bus with huge photos of her face on it, and I’ll pick her up in the ‘Kim-mobile’. We’re going to a five-star hotel in Belgium. I’ve made sheets for their bed with a photoshopped print of Kim hugging a dolphin. I’m trying to organise their dream holiday – and my dream photoshoot at the same time.
“A camera always gives you a reason to infiltrate people’s lives,” he says. “If you don’t have a camera and you ask people on the street if you can join them in their house, they will think you’re a freak. But with a camera, people suddenly allow you to do things they would never usually tolerate.”
Text by: Simon Bowcock