Corine Vermeulen came to Detroit from the Netherlands to get her MFA from Cranbrook Institute of Art. After graduating, she was home only a few months before she decided to come back to Detroit for a visit. That was nearly seven years ago. Since then, Corine has been documenting everything from the post-industrial landscape of the city she now calls home to various inspired portrait series (like the photo essay she recently did for Time of teen moms fighting to save their school). An ongoing project, currently traveling in Colombia–the Detroit Mini Assembly Line–is based on Henry Ford’s industrial process and uses local labor and manufacturing tools to produce limited-edition books and catalogs. Below, a thoughtful Q&A with Corine about the importance of travel and how it has influenced her photography, as well as a selection of images of her travels and work, which she admits is most often a blurry distinction. “I travel to photograph,” she says.
Most meaningful/inspiring travel experience?
I was wandering around in a local market in Laos when my eyes settled on a old woman selling textiles. I strongly felt I had seen her before, but thought it absurd to recognize a native of a place I had never visited. I studied her from a distance, and then it hit me: I had seen her picture dozens of times flipping through my Lonely Planet Guidebook–the same Lonely Planet Guidebook I was at that moment carrying around with me. Awestruck by this small miracle of chance, I approached her gleefully to present her my find. As she stoically studied the photo, my instincts took charge. I retrieved my camera and had just enough time to click the shutter. My subject’s revenge was swift and decisive. Though she spoke no English, she fluently communicated her displeasure with my invasion of her privacy. She yelled at me loudly and hit me on the head with a most convenient weapon: the Lonely Planet guidebook.
How does travel influence your creativity/work?
It keeps my eyes fresh and my mind open. At least that’s what I hope it does.
What do you look for when you photograph?
I seem to be most attracted to things contradictory and the sense of confusion they create. For instance, as I’m writing this I’m in Colombia, and I just saw a guy driving a horse-drawn carriage. On the front of the carriage there was a rather large Nike swoosh, handmade out of wood. Something like that will instantly hit me with a feeling of both comedy and tragedy, and then my mind tends to linger somewhere in between. Once, while traveling in Asia, I saw a bicycle with a Mercedes-Benz logo soldered to the side of the frame. It was really well done and looked very much like an original part of the bicycle. So, if I get these strong mixed feelings about something I see, I know there’s something there. And the farther apart the emotions are, the more interesting it becomes. If I get to capture a sense of dichotomy within a single frame, I’m usually pretty excited.
Work that has been inspired by a travel experience?
Pretty much everything really… it’s all about taking myself outside of my own cultural context and being able to immerse in something else, immerse in a sense of otherness.
Most interesting place you’ve ever stayed?
My most interesting stay was on a ferry going from Tokyo to the island of Hokkaido. The ship was equipped with a traditional Sento–a communal bath house, located at the bottom level of the ship. With the daytime crowd asleep in their cabins, the bath was the ideal place to while away my own sleepless night. It had a large window overlooking the ocean, which ran flush with the water level of the bath tubs, blurring the line between the warm tub and the freezing ocean. As I floated between both worlds, the stunning simplicity and harmony of the Japanese design aesthetic accentuated the already surreal experience.
Most treasured belonging from a trip?
I’m quite a minimalist so I hardly ever buy or take anything back with me, other than photographs of course. But the one thing I did bring home with me (and it’s still with me now in my apartment in Detroit) is a Tibetan singing bowl. It’s made of copper and it has a wooden mallet. When you run the mallet over the rim of the bowl it starts singing. And when you strike the bowl on its side, it responds with a reverberating “TCHIINGGGGgggggggg…”
I got the singing bowl upon arrival in Mumbai, India. I traded it with a street vendor for my coat. The vendor seemed very pleased with the deal since the monetary value of the coat equaled at least 25 singing bowls. Likewise, I recognized the business sense of shedding the heavy down feather winter coat in 95 degree heat.