By focusing the lens on people he meets on the street, Jeremy Fokkens makes personal connections in order to get authentic snapshots that tell a story
Jeremy Fokkens met Rubina on one of his evening treks through Dhaka, Bangladesh. She approached him and asked him for money three nights in a row. When he refused on the third night, Fokkens said the 11-year-old girl quit asking for money, but returned his greeting whenever he walked by.
Fokkens referred to meeting Rubina as one of his most profound encounters. She was going to school during the day and, because her father was sick and unable to work, had to beg to help support her family at night. Fokkens said they hung out on the street while he asked questions, through a translator, and took photos of her.
What surprised him the most, he said, was that she never asked for anything in return.
As a Calgary-based photographer, Fokkens travels all over the world and approaches strangers, talks with them, builds a connection with them, and once they agree and are comfortable, takes their photos. He said talking with people from different walks of life helps him better understand why people have the lives they have, why people are the way they are and why people are stuck in certain situations.
“I am just curious about what these people go through and what their lives are like,” he said. “What makes them tick, what makes them happy and what makes them sad?”
Fokkens said he takes photos to try and answer questions he has about humanity, disparity and survival. He said he believes the best way to discover the answers he’s looking for is to hear other people’s stories — to be surprised over and over again that the people he talks to turn out nothing like he expected.
“People get a high from sky diving or thrill-seeking sports, which are always fun,” he said. “But for me, it’s asking to photograph strangers on the street.”
Now 30 years old, Fokkens knew he was going to be a photographer when he was 18. He was working as a dancer on a cruise ship at the time and the ship was docked at Saint Martin. He was in a cab with some fellow dancers returning to the ship and was looking out the window at the gate, which had vines enveloping it in front of a perfect sunset. He was so inspired by what he saw that after that moment, photography became his number one priority.
He read books about film, lighting, and technique and harassed the photographers that were onboard the cruise ship. Fokkens experimented with his simple film camera, and then in 2004, when he was 21, he bought his first professional camera.
The ship was docked in Vancouver, BC at the time, just before a tour up to Alaska. Fokkens got off and found a camera store. He didn’t really know what he was looking for and ended up buying the first camera he looked at and 10 rolls of film.
Fokkens said he dove into photography headfirst. He said it became an obsession. Any spare time he had, he was off exploring with his camera. After rehearsals, when his fellow dancers went to the beach, Fokkens would cruise the streets of Los Angeles and photograph anything he could. When people asked what he was going to do when he stopped dancing, he replied that he would be a photographer.
Photo courtesy of Jeremy FokkenAt 23, Fokkens decided he was finished with dancing and returned to Calgary intending to get a bachelor of fine arts from the Alberta College of Art and Design.
He dropped out after a year and started his own business.
“It didn’t feel right to be locked in a classroom when I could be using my camera and actually going out and photographing,” Fokkens said.
Pam Fokkens, Jeremy’s mother, said she was disappointed when her son told her he was dropping out of school, but that all she could do was be supportive.
“My philosophy with all of my children is, if you enjoy doing it, then you do it well,” she said.
Even when Fokkens was younger, he said he wasn’t interested in school. Fokkens said this was very frustrating for his parents, who expected him to follow in their footsteps. They are both professionals with a higher education. His mom is a physiotherapist and his dad is an engineer. However, none of their children were interested in a higher education.
“Where we all failed at school, we excelled in anything to do with our hands or using our bodies as tools,” Fokkens said.
Seeing this early on, Fokkens’ parents made sure he was involved in sports and extracurricular activities every day of the week. He was taught at an early age that he could be successful at anything if he worked hard enough.
“He is one of the hardest workers I have ever met and he is crazy focused,” said Nathan Elson, a photography mentor of Fokkens,’ adding that, “The sky’s the limit with that kid.”
Natasha McLellan, Fokkens’ sister, described Jeremy as caring, vibrant and curious, almost to a fault.
“He was always very open minded, he can just adapt to his surroundings,” she said. “He always wants to learn more, he wants to grow more — that is natural for him.”
In 2008, Fokkens went to Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, intending to dive in and create a body of work that he could be proud of. He described his trip as both wonderful and difficult. His cab driver hit him across the face when he landed in Vietnam, and it took him some time to find his groove after that. That was when he discovered that he liked exploring places off the beaten path.
“I stayed in villages, I stayed in bamboo huts and I stayed in ditches a couple of times,” he said. “It was phenomenal.”
In 2011, Fokkens went across the world for 10 months. It was on his trip abroad when he finally realized what kind of photographer he wanted to be, and what he wanted his photos to say.
If his photography had to be labelled, Fokkens would call it “storytelling.”
“It’s nice to hear that it does raise awareness on specific issues,” he said. “But that’s not what I am trying to do.”
Photo by Jeremy FokkensFokkens said he’s trying to share people’s stories that might not otherwise be heard, and shed some light on places that might not otherwise be visited. He said he hopes people walk away from his photographs with a better outlook on being a decent human being.
“This isn’t about giving back or getting money for charity or even giving a homeless man five dollars,” he said. “It’s about connecting with the people around you.”
At the moment, Fokkens is working on renovating a house and making a living working with clients to create corporate portraits. He also does presentations about his travels and about photography for the Calgary Public Library.
Fokkens is also leading a photography tour in Morocco next spring and has a book coming out in the fall of 2014. For his next big project, he hopes to explore small towns across Canada.
“I figure if I’ve been to three quarters of the countries in the world,” he said. “It’s about time I explore my own.”