This weekend marked the end of the New York photography festival Photoville 2015. Ellen Kok was one of the Dutch participants. We sat down with her to talk about her exhibition “Cadets” and her experience in the US.
Ellen Kok, a photographer and journalist, has been fascinated with American culture since she was only a teenage girl. Growing up, traveling was not as common as it is now, “so the American culture was something you could only see on TV, it was something mysterious but at the same time familiar. So when I got the chance to go to the US, I immediately took it.”
Ellen expected the US to have the same Western culture she was used to in the Netherlands. And when she first got to the US she found a lot of things she recognized. “But the longer I was there, the more I realized that it was actually quite different, and I found this incredibly interesting. I would say that was the moment that my real fascination with the US and American culture began.”
When asked if there was one thing that really sparked the realization that American culture was different Ellen needed only a short moment to think about the answer. “Yes. It was my introduction to the concept of a ‘teen mom,’ something which I hadn’t encountered before. I went to Baltimore and followed a 14-year-old teen mom for a few days. Through her I was first introduced to the inequality that exists in America; the differences in culture, race, and wealth. It was at this point that I really wanted to understand these differences. I wanted to dig deeper and deeper into the culture. This is where the idea for my long-running project “American Moments” was born.”
In “American Moments” Ellen photographs things which outsiders see as American “clichés”. In our interview Ellen explained that she wanted to go beyond the superficial layers of these clichés to find out what’s behind them. Next to that, the project is also about finding out what it’s like to grow up in the US. One of the subjects Ellen photographed has developed into the book and exhibition, “Cadets”, which was on view at this year’s edition of Photoville. “Cadets” is about the American JROTC (Junior Reserves Officers’ Training Corps) program at Fall Mountain Regional High School in Langdon, New Hampshire.
Those outside of the US often misunderstand the role the military plays in American society. A lot of Dutch people, for instance, would frown upon the idea of a JROTC class, where children wear military uniforms and are taught to march in formation. Ellen found, however, that JROTC is not at all about turning children into soldiers. Instead it provides kids with a sense of belonging, but also with a sense of responsibility to themselves and others. As Ellen puts it: “the program teaches discipline, yes, but it also teaches the kids to be mindful of others. And it really gives them more self-esteem.”
This sense of pride and self-esteem is important because Ellen noticed that a lot of the kids in the JROTC program came from broken homes. The JROTC program teaches the kids to be proud of themselves, but it also gives them a sense of safety. “Really the whole program gives the kids a place where they feel safe, where they feel at home; it’s basically like a family.” Here Major John Cenney, one of the teachers in the JROTC program at Fall Mountain, chimed in: “JROTC gives these kids a place to fit in!” Major Cenney joined Ellen at her Photoville exhibition because he thought it important to “convey the truth,” as he put it. He wanted to be there to help Ellen explain what the photos she made are really about. “Though these photographs tell an amazing story, I want to make sure that people understand what they are really about. That’s it’s not about recruitment or promoting the army, but that it’s about family, respect, and learning to love yourself.”
About Ellen Kok
Ellen is a Dutch photographer and writer who combines photos essays with written stories. She studied at the School of Journalism in Utrecht, the Netherlands, and has worked for several Dutch newspapers and magazine. Ellen firmly believes that storytelling is an important art that can open eyes and connect people. In recent years She has been working on long-term documentary projects, such as “Cadets,” which revolve around the lives of American youngsters. Ellen’s photography in these projects is based on trust and intimacy. She often “embeds” herself with a subject, following the person or people closely in their daily lives. “With witnessing comes responsibility,” she stresses: though Ellen always aims to tell a truthful story, she is careful never to break her subjects’ trust, which is very important to her, and which allows her to delve deep into people’s lives to get to the heart of it all. Currently Ellen is working on a story about a teen-mom she met when the girl was only 14 years old. Now, 20 years later, she is back in touch with this girl, now a successful woman, with a grown-up daughter in college, to work on a follow-up about her life.