Cultural Crossroads

During his lifetime Idries Shah promoted contacts and connections between different traditions around the world, believing this to be an important element in the advancement of human culture.

In this spirit, The Idries Shah Foundation has created ‘Cultural Crossroads’, a website forum where people from many walks of life are invited to talk about their own experiences crossing cultural boundaries, and the lessons that they have learned as a result.

You can find the full series here:

Saskia de Brauw & Vincent Van de Wijngaard

Questions & Introduction by Tahir Shah

Early in 2012, I received a handwritten letter at my home in Casablanca from Essaouira. Magical, insightful, and quite unlike anything I usually receive, it was from a Dutch couple who were travelling around Morocco.

When I replied, inviting them to come and stay, I didn’t realise the couple would ever be so deeply fascinating – or that they would regard the world in the same inside-out kind of a way as I had been raised to do.

Saskia de Brauw is many things: a free-thinker, artist, and supermodel. Her partner,

Vincent Van de Wijngaard, is an award-winning photographer and film-maker – a man who regards the world through a lens touched with magic.

Hitting it off at once, we became firm friends, and have since met up whenever possible to wonder aloud about cultural intersections, travel, and the way stories reflect who and why we are.

Photograph copyright Marte Visser

Saskia de Brauw

Q. I am intrigued you have both now moved to New York with your little daughter – the city that inspired your exhibition ‘Ghosts Don’t Walk in Straight Lines’. Few cities are composed of such an extravagant miscellany of people and potential experience. Do you find New York constantly amazes and inspires, or that the senses become dull to it, as a way of coping with cultural overload?

A. Working on our project ‘Ghosts Don’t Walk in Straight Lines’ was probably the reason we now live in New York… especially me – Vincent less so. At first he had a difficult relationship with New York. Its speed is overwhelming, its portions of food and drink enormous, its people loud, the weather extreme.

When we started to explore Manhattan – especially the upper part of the island – traversing its entire length over and over, I started to realise that New York is not made up of one sort of people. Rather, it’s comprised of strangers, like myself.

So I felt welcome here. But when one lives here, you choose your neighbourhood very carefully. We decided to live in a very quiet district… we have a small garden, and if I close my eyes I can almost imagine myself being in the countryside. I love it!

And because of the quiet place where we live I still like taking the subway into town and I enjoy to imagine the stories that belong to the people who ride it. I enjoy seeing all these – sometimes crazy – people who walk the streets of Manhattan. If you take the time you can find something fascinating every day. You just need to be aware – to open your eyes, and your mind.

However, living somewhere also means you deal with your daily dose of ‘quotidian matters’. As they take space in your head you are not always in this place where inspiration can come in. I don’t think it is related to New York, but more with planting your feet somewhere. Once you settle somewhere, to remain fresh and amazed you have to keep on moving.

Q. What always strikes me about you, is that you experience life differently than most other people – and surely everyone else in the fashion industry. How would you say you perceive the world, and is it something you have done naturally, or rather have trained yourself to do?

A. I am not too sure if I would describe myself as experiencing the world differently than other people in fashion. Fashion actually is a realm where different people can find their place. It’s something I like about the fashion business.

I try to perceive the world through gentle eyes. I want to see kindness wherever I can. And, I want to keep believing in the kindness of human beings. I witness them in other people in small gestures – smiles, eyes, touch and more of course. I am someone who is intrigued by these small things, as they show how fragile we are and how much alike we actually are. I do believe we all have fears and desires that are roughly alike.

In the same way, I find that, as I grow older, the rougher, more pure sense of intuition starts to be polished and becomes less pure. Now that I have a small child I am amazed by the way she questions all the things we take for granted.

You almost have to ‘untrain’ the things you learn about how to behave and what people think is the right direction for you to take. I think the rules society places on us actually hold us back. To find your true self you have to become empty again. I am answering the question at a moment in my life where I am actually trying to learn better how to perceive the world. A need to find the road again can be a good and vulnerable experience.

Vincent Van de Wijngaard

Q. As a photographer and film-maker your craft is tied to visual media. Despite this, I always feel that your work channels something much deeper — provoking a response from all the senses. While working, do you consciously strive to challenge yourself in reflecting what you see?

A. Yes, I do… I always try to come up with slightly different ways of telling a story, or adding something that I have not done before. I reflect on my pictures when I’m at home, looking at them or thinking about them in a quiet moment. I never put up any of my photos on our walls, for the same reason. It’s very important for me to disconnect from them. This keeps me fresh. But in the case of directly reflecting on what I see when I am shooting in the streets, there is a continuous dialogue. It has a lot to do with things I have seen in the past and also, but far less, images of other image-makers (not just photographers), but mostly things that I myself have seen or experienced in the past. If there is an image that presents itself which is really close to an image that I have already taken, I am certainly aware of it, and I probably would not record that image. Over time my images have become less attached to form and more focused on narrative. The visual appeal – the aesthetic side – of an image is just the outer-layer.

The ability to tell stories, no matter how big or small (e.g. a gesture can be a story in itself) – that’s what eventually makes the difference. When you start out as a photographer you have to learn the ‘grammar’ of Photography. Later on you will try to add new or fresh elements – in such a way your visual language becomes more personal and refined. The camera is a great tool to combine elements that seemingly have nothing to do with one another, but with the camera you can create these connections.

Q. We have often chatted about stories and imagination together, and the way that children have an astonishing pre-programmed sense of imagination. Can you comment on the importance of imagination on the way you perceive the world around you, and explain how imagination and storytelling are at the heart of human culture?

A. When you mention the word ‘storytelling’ I immediately think about the storytellers in Marrakech’s square, Jemma El Fna. On my last journey to Morocco I saw another storyteller as well. He was standing just outside the city-walls in Essaouira. All spectators were huddled together, holding a blanket above their heads. I assumed it was to keep the heat out, but the storyteller told me it was a much better way to keep the listeners focused and involved.

The ability to create fantastical stories from scratch is an elemental form of pure expression. There are ways to ‘feed’ the imagination of course. I often sit at the table and think of images that I would love to take. I fantasise about them. In the case of walking in the streets you won’t encounter these images literally, but I do come across images that are very close to my imagination – although I probably would not recognise them if I had not thought about them before.

I remember vividly how I looked at the world when I was young and remember seeing it passing by from the backseat of my parents’ car. I sometimes try to go back to those feelings, but it’s very hard to do. The ability to tell a story to friends, sitting around a table, is something that is very important to me, simply as a way to connect and interact but also to discuss different views and to share emotions.

At its best, photography can do the very same thing.

Ghosts Don’t Walk In Straight Lines will exhibit at Foam, Amsterdam, from 1st February 10th 2019.