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Gilleam Trapenberg Rebuilding Eden

Born on the Dutch Caribbean island, Curaçao, Gilleam Trapenberg has always considered the island of St. Maarten as a second home. Fascinated with themes ranging from representation of wealth to status in society, Gilleam documented the people of St. Maarten, and how they fought to turn their island into the paradise that it used to be, following the aftermath of Hurricane Irma.
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© Gilleam Trapenberg for Ace & Tate

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Through the Eyes ⏤ Gilleam Trapenberg

“I was 15 when my mother bought a digital camera for a holiday to St. Maarten. Photography was a way to change my surroundings into something interesting. I used my camera to look around me, and that still applies to my working process”

AN ESSAY ABOUT THE SERIES

Rebuilding homes, repairing souls. Restoring hope, rekindling dreams. In ‘95 Louis came and left us in pieces. Just as we had stitched ourselves together, Lenny came in ‘99 and told us to stay humble. So we put our heads down, and worked. Drove our buses up and down between Marigot and Philipsburg. Brought our kids to undocumented schools. Held our nerve when we were stopped and asked for papers. Bit back tears when we took money from under our mattress to pay bribes and avoid deportation. We’re able to live, work and prosper, but never able to call this nation our own.

When Irma hit, our homes were wiped clean off the map. They say our death toll was in single digits, but who can know for sure when we are invisible. Nonetheless, we rose up again. We stood up from under the rubble and made our way down to the main road.

Standing, waiting for a pickup truck for us to jump in and be taken to a construction site. We clambered onto rooftops and endured countless hours of blazing sunlight reflected on zinc. We took our small cuts of cash as they trickled down from contractors to subcontractors and finally to us.

And now we have hope again, because the tourists are back. So we fold their towels, cook their meals and bring them their cocktails. As we do so, we smile radiantly. Our faces are an indelible part of the experience, after all. When their jets take off from the eastern seaboard, they want to leave their worries behind, and that’s what we help them do, by reflecting back the carefree vibe they project on us.

And while we are not carefree, we are hopeful. Hope is what sustains us. In the absence of economic and legal security, it is what keeps us going. Hope, if not for our own futures, then for those of our children. That their generation and those that follow will find an upward trajectory, a break from the cycle of poverty. Call it intergenerational optimism, if you like.

Essay written by Naeem Juliana


A Q&A WITH GILLEAM
Gilleam Trapenberg
Can you introduce yourself and tell us a little bit about how you got into photography?

If I recall correctly, I was 15 when my mother bought a new digital camera for a holiday to St. Maarten. On that vacation, I often borrowed her camera, but not because I wanted to make beautiful pictures. At the time, I was fascinated by computers, the internet, and gadgets, and her camera to me was a new gadget with a dozen features I had never seen before. The pictures I made were of ordinary things, but using features like macro mode and this selective colour mode the camera had. Photography was a way to change my surroundings into something interesting. I used my camera to look around me, and that still applies to my working process.

Are you an optimistic person?

This is a hard one. I don’t think I’m an optimistic person, but I don’t think that automatically makes me a pessimistic person. I can be quite neurotic in the way that I overthink situations and need things to go a certain way. However, if things don’t go according to plan, I can quite quickly adapt to the situation, which makes me more of a pragmatist. I believe that things happen the way they need to happen.

On the other hand, I think my work is very optimistic. My work is light, warm, and romantic.

Can you talk about some recurring themes in your work?

From early on, I have been intrigued by representations of wealth and status in society. My childhood in Curaçao has definitely played a role in this. In my work, I often highlight themes of representation, status, and the current image culture.

We were really taken aback by your work Big Papi. Can you tell us about your exploration of masculinity within this?

After my internship in NYC in 2015, I noticed that during my time there, I only photographed men I saw on the street. I never thought about approaching a woman to take her portrait. I was interested in the reason behind me photographing men and looked towards my childhood growing up in Curaçao. Growing up in Curaçao, I was brought up with certain ideas as to how a man should act. I quickly realized that within all of my previous projects, I was researching masculinity and status to some extent.

Between 2015 and 2017, I spent some time in the Caribbean and visited various islands to investigate the image culture and photograph men and couples. It later became clear to me that through the process of photographing men, I was researching my own position.

You always seem to be able to pick a fascinating bunch of people as subjects for your work. Is there some kind of method you use to select suitable candidates?

The most significant benefit of not living in the Caribbean 365 days a year is that I can distance myself from my subjects and my work there. The subjects in my work are often archetypes of the Caribbean men and women I knew growing up.

A lot of portraits resemble street photography in the way that I approach my subject and the fleetingness of the moment.

Can we hear about some upcoming projects?

I am currently working on a few long term projects that touch upon themes that are visible in Big Papi. One of these projects is a research project on the Westernisation and commercialisation of the Caribbean.

Supported & Commissioned by Ace & Tate

Pictures by Gilleam Trapenberg