»I am interested in how people shape their worlds, how they build, occupy and inhabit places. «

Interview with Iwan Baan

Iwan Baan is considered one of the most important contemporary photographers of architecture and the built world today. The Dutch photographer is known primarily for images that narrate the life and interactions that occur within architecture. 

Mea Hoffmann: Who is the main protagonist in your photos – the buildings or the people? 

Iwan Baan: What’s important with my images is the story. I am not trying to create timeless architectural images or to capture a stylized composition or detail. I am interested in exploring the specificity of a place. Buildings and architecture are always literally very grounded to a specific place. But what makes the story or the people there unique? The circumstances, that particular moment in time. I try to draw the viewer in, into something that caught my eye. There’s always a lot to discover and rediscover in my images, whether it’s the people, the surroundings, the landscape, the cityscape, the oddities, the unplanned things. My work often zooms in to very personal moments where the architecture almost disappears, but at the same time shows that architecture is everywhere. It’s the background of everyday life. 

Do you wait for the perfect moment to shoot when you visit a place? 

No, I always approach projects very intuitively. I try to enter a place quite blankly, without too much prior information. It’s just about seeing the possibilities, being present in the moment and ready for that unexpected thing when it comes up. For me, a good building works in any kind of weather or circumstance, and it’s really not about the conditions, but about being receptive. It’s always all these puzzle pieces which fall into place. There are images that I’ve taken under the most difficult conditions: With pouring rain or without electricity in the case of New York after hurricane Sandy. And these are the moments where suddenly everything makes sense. 

You are particularly well-known for your photographs of contemporary architecture. 
How do these commissions come about? 

Commissioned projects often start almost like collaborations. There’s usually little conversation between us beforehand, I don’t go to a site with a shot list or a clear request from an architect. There’s a mutual trust between the architects and me. And it’s also really about the discovery that unfolds for me in a given place. Architects have often been with a project for years and they have very particular views and ideas about it. But for me it’s also about a fresh approach to a place; to observe what happens there, and to look at it with new eyes and see things happening which an architect couldn’t have imagined before. Even though people might argue that photography is an objective view, in my commissioned work, I would say that it is still a very personal view of what I encounter. As with all of my work, it’s always about showing the stories within the architecture and the context of where it’s been built. 

In your personal projects, you also explore indigenous and informal building forms around the world. Do you approach these projects differently from the commissioned work? 

There’s not much difference to me between commissions and my own projects. I am interested in how people shape their worlds, how they build, occupy and inhabit places with and without architects, out of pure necessity or out of complete abundance, and anything in between, and in any kinds of conditions. Besides the commissioned work for architects that embody in technological terms the most forward looking and new ways of living, I’m also in places where people at the same time, and sometimes under very dire circumstances, make something incredible out of their environment. A lot of my work exploring communities and ways of living in specific places documents the use of local materials and building practices that have been refined through generations: How to use and adapt them in order to create a place of comfort and utility. Seeing these places with that same intensity and intention and bringing out these aspects of how people try to enhance their lives and make something incredible out of very few resources, the ingenuity is humbling to see. It’s so hopeful in many circumstances. 


You can find all information on the exhibition »Iwan Baan: Moments in Architecture« here.