The village of Pikin Slee in the South American nation of Suriname is incredibly remote. The quickest route is a three-hour canoe ride up the river. But the details of the place caught photographer Viviane Sassen‘s eye, and she decided it was worth the journey to document.
In the new monograph Viviane Sassen: Pikin Slee, published this May by Prestel, you won’t find any of the sprawling lush beauty of the jungle, the scope of the village of 4,000, or even the residents in their everyday routines. Instead there are the artifacts of the existence in a tight frame — the remains of cooking fires, drums filled with water, cassava bread drying on the roof, the silhouette of a tropical tree against the sky. Where people appear they are usually in a careful portraiture with disjointed touches not unlike Sassen’s widely published fashion photography, with blue pigment brushed over skin or a rectangle of bright fuchsia accenting the profile of a face.
Above all, Sassen was fascinated with the existence of this place. Pikin Slee is mostly made up of the Saramacca tribe, which descends from the Maroons — Africans who fled slavery in the 18th century from Dutch plantations. Sassen, being from Amsterdam, was able to speak her language with people relocated from a different continent in the most remote parts of Suriname, a country itself mostly off the international radar. Yet what brought them together was a brutal history of colonialism and subjugation.
She first visited the village in 2012, centering on the objects of its life. “The project is an exploration of the beauty of the everyday, an investigation of the sculptural qualities of the ordinary,” she writes in her conclusion to the book. “As I longed for a simpler kind of photography, I decided not to stage as many images as I have in the past, and to work mainly in black and white.”
There is an element of the outsider in her perspective, and the mixture of black and white alongside less refined color images in the book can be jarring. The strongest work is the portraiture, as that’s obviously where her eye for shape and for striking color harmonizes, such as in one photograph capturing the alienness of a yellow glove against skin. Overall it’s a thoughtful view into an isolated place of complicated history through the small artifacts of its everyday life.
Viviane Sassen: Pikin Slee is available from Prestel.