Sarah Mei Herman, portraits of love
This autumn, works by Sarah Mei Herman, winner of the American Vintage Photography Prize at the 33rd Hyeres Festival, are on display in a selection of American Vintage boutiques. We met the artist to talk about her work.
Sarah Mei Herman likes to insist that she is not a “photographer”, but a “visual artist”. She finds the term “broader and more accurate”, because she produces videos as well as photos. Getting the details right what best describes her, and has been her mantra ever since she graduated from the Royal College of Art in London. “I often tell people that my job is to photograph love.” Whether in her hometown of Amsterdam, in China or Lithuania, Sarah Mei Herman has always been passionate about the imperceptible connections between people – siblings, lovers, friends. Her works follow the changes in these relationships and the emotions behind them over periods of months, even years, telling a life story.
Did you always know that you would become a visual artist?
I still remember the collection of cameras my mum had when I was a child. I was fascinated by them, I longed to get my hands on them, but I never realised that it could be a career. When I was 19, I went on a trip to South Africa with my dad, bought a camera and started shooting. I sat in the back seat of the car and snapped whatever I saw. It was very different to the way I work now. I don’t document things anymore, instead I pace myself by the emotions of my subjects.
What is it that fascinates you about photography?
The biggest thing for me is the beauty I see in the people I meet. It’s all the little unforeseen things, the surprises along the way. I have a very intuitive way of working, which brings me so much happiness. I’ve always loved meeting new people and getting close to them.
Does the fact that you work alone make it easier for you to immerse yourself in your subjects’ lives?
Definitely! I love working on my own – that’s why I don’t have an assistant. It’s really important to me to build trust with my subjects. I’m taking pictures of them, but in a sense, my presence can be felt in the shots. Some of my models have even become friends.
Which project has had the biggest impact on you?
I would probably say my series of photos called “Julian & Jonathan”. They’re of my dad and half-brother, who’s 20 years younger than me. I started taking pictures of my half-brother when he was 4, and I haven’t stopped. Brother-sister relationships have always intrigued me. I was an only child for such a long while, I wanted to understand what it was that made a family. It’s by far my most ambitious, personal and foundational project. It’s still ongoing, and I’m now working on putting together all the photos from the series as a book.
Tell us what your next project is
I’m going to be part of a Lithuanian artists’ residency project, which will take me on a journey to discover my own roots. Part of my family is Jewish and lived in Lithuania during World War II. I also want to blend photos with videos shot in Israel, and show the work in Lithuania and Amsterdam. It’s very new, and very emotional for me.
How do you stay true to your vision?
That’s definitely the hardest thing, particularly for an artist. When I meet young photographers, I always want to tell them not to listen to other people, just to focus on doing what they want to do – to follow their instinct and not the latest trends. Just because something sells well, doesn’t mean it’s good. Personal growth is all about maintaining personal integrity.
You did your first fashion shoot for American Vintage this summer. How did that go?
Winning the American Vintage Photography Prize in Hyeres was a very big thing for me. I’ve always dreamed of doing fashion shoots! I got the chance to design the whole thing, from start to finish – the models, locations, pairings. I was lucky enough to be able to “do” fashion in my own way. I’m delighted with the results. The clothes are an integral part of the photo, without overshadowing the personality of the subjects, which was exactly what I was aiming for.
What do you wear to work?
For me, good work clothes have to be comfortable above all. On a shoot, I’m on my knees, up on my feet, bent over in awkward positions… I often go for a pair of leggings, sneakers and a little lightweight top.
What is your favourite American Vintage piece?
I love all the American Vintage knitwear! A love their palette of natural colours, which go with anything. They feel so nice you don’t need to wear anything under them.