Isabella Rozendaal (Amsterdam, 1983) is a documentary photographer. Since graduating from the KABK in The Hague in 2007 she has published several photobooks. Her work is characterized by an undying love for animals and the way people relate to them, whether they see them as pets or as prey. This fall will mark her debut as a writer with her non-fiction novel ‘Op Jacht’ (on the hunt).
In her last year of art school Isabella Rozendaal first visited a dog show. Fascinated by the interaction between pet and owner, Isabella started making house calls to capture them out of the public eye. The exploration of the curious man-made relationship between owner and pet would become a recurring theme in her work. What makes an animal suitable for being a human companion? Why do we love some animals and exploit others? And when does this love turn into (unintentional) abuse?
Dualities like these are another common thread running through Isabella’s work. “My work is often defined by contradictions: I want to show ugly vs beautiful, humorous vs tragic, hard vs soft. I also like situations that are alienating, that will make you question: ‘Is this normal? Or what does normal mean for me?’ Sometimes I like to take something people think is strange, but I don’t see as abnormal; so I photograph it in a way that encourages people to look at it differently. There’s this photo of a boy holding a gun. I wanted to show that he’s a sort of tender young boy, as he is 11 years old, yet he is about to shoot something. At the same time I wanted to capture the spooky landscape, which seems to be completely lost in time and space. (…) But there are still people who think ‘oh how weird’ or ‘how sad’. For example, there are many people who are shocked by the girl with the squirrel, and for me eating squirrels has become so normal, for me it’s like she’s holding a chicken.”
Isabella first got into contact with hunting through her love for pets. “I just wanted to show as many aspects of the human relationship with animals as possible. I was exploring the relationship between people and their pets and with a hunting dog that’s a different kind of relationship.” After accompanying a deer hunter in a tree stand for one night she got hooked. “I had never looked at nature like that before. When you go for a walk, you have no interaction with the landscape, which you do when you garden, but that is cultivating. Here I had that feeling of wow! for the first time, it was another dimension, very addictive.”
This addiction has turned into a decade long all-encompassing research project exploring questions such as: how does modern man relate to the concept of wilderness? What does it mean to be part of the food chain in an industrialized society? From small game hunts with aristocrats in The Netherlands and Germany to commercial gator hunting in the US and living with a tribe in the Amazon in Brazil, where all food is taken directly from nature. It made her change her view on food. “The cultivated nature in The Netherlands we look down upon, and the plants in your house; they are also nature. I’m also making a connection with nature when I’m eating vegetables. It is very much the awareness that we are part of the food chain, even when you live in a city, the vegetables have been grown in the ground. Food is a very important aspect, it is the most intimate connection you have with the natural world.”
While on hunting trips Isabella did not just document the hunters and their prey; she also took the hunters’ educational course, learned to butcher and cook the animals gifted to her on hunts and studied the socio-cultural history of hunting in the United States for her bachelor English Language and Culture at the University of Amsterdam. With the same ambition Isabella worked on every aspect of her museum show: writing the wall texts, proofing and reproofing prints, working on the layout and design with Michiel Schuurman, creating a short film while publishing a photo book under the same title supported by a crowdfunding campaign as well as editing her first written non-fiction novel on her decade-long romance with the world of hunting. “It feels a bit like graduating art school,” Isabella says, reflecting back on the process. In fact, when we pass curator Wim van Sinderen in the hall he congratulates Isabella on a succesful show. “You passed with flying colours”, he says.
But there was no other way to do it, she remarks: “I just knew: a chance of a location like this, with the number of visitors and allocated budget, I don’t know if I can expect this again in the next 10 years, it is now or never.” At the same time, it feels strange the exhibition is now over. “We’ve received a lot of press, I did interviews for various papers, radio interviews, but when you are back home in a few months it will be like: what was it all for? You only feel as good as your last project. There is no connection with the audience. When you are a musician you can see the reaction of the crowd. This is why I love doing tours, I love nothing more than seeing the audience take in the images, asking questions. This exhibition is not just about the visuals. I’m trying to tell a story, a complicated story which is multifaceted.”
In fact, Isabella is full of stories; she can easily talk about each photo for an hour and hearing about her travels one cannot help to want to know more. For example: what the strangest thing is she has ever eaten on a trip (turtle eggs, by the way). “I noticed that the journalists who interviewed me about the exhibition were all about the stories – not the images. As a photographer that does sting a bit. They are also meant to be individual images. But people are very hungry for the story. Which does give me hope for my new book! It’s about my adventures, about what it means to be part of the food chain; that’s what I wanted to find out for myself. The hunt is simply the lens though which I did this, and it allowed me to learn about different cultures. I was having all these adventures and had these crazy stories, it would be a shame to let them go to waste.”
With the success of her exhibition, her new photo book and her non-fiction book release coming up in October, one wonders what is next for Isabella. “I don't really know, people also keep asking that, but I haven’t had time to think about it. I often thought: if this all works out.. I also got married last year, I wrote a book and had a photo exhibition .. I can die now, haha! But I’m also looking forward to thinking about what could be next.”
One may wonder how Isabella manages to do it all. As an avid ‘bullet journaler’ she manages to stay productive and keep stress at bay by setting her tasks for the day instead of looking at that big to do list everyday. “It mostly helps me to be less stressed. I often work with bigger projects with many different aspects so I can always push something aside when it does not work or when I don’t feel like doing it and focus on another part. It’s very easy, I only need a good idea once every few years!”, she laughs.
If you are curious about what is next you can follow Isabella on Instagram. Her new book ‘Op jacht’ can be preordered via Atlas/Contact and is expected to be published in November. Her photobooks ‘Animalia Amsterdam’ & ‘Isabella Hunts’ can be ordered here and here.