Thirza Schaap is a photographer and artist who grew up in Holland but dreamt of living closer to nature. Her art practice explores our connection to nature and our relationship with its wellbeing. She also wants you to use less plastic and her art aims to start important conversations around pollution and consumption.
After years of busy city living with a demanding job in advertising, Thirza Schaap moved to Cape Town in South Africa to fulfil a long-time desire to be near the ocean and mountains. A move away from the city to spend more time in nature provided the context for her most widely regarded project – Plastic Ocean.
“I feel like I am doing my best work because when I am creating, I feel like I am playing.”
“I started photographing when I was about 13. I ended up working in advertising, which feels like the opposite to what I do now. I was lucky and broke away from that. I never quit advertising – I just moved away from it. My attention and concentration weren’t there anymore. I was just annoyed by it. We moved to Cape Town almost eight years ago. We had a very busy social life in Amsterdam. We don’t have that here. It was a total shift in lifestyle. I work a lot. I feel so freed from everything now. I go with my own flow and make what I want to make. If I get an urge, I follow it. I feel like I am doing my best work because when I am creating, I feel like I am playing.”
Thirza had disparate ideas around photography and plastic pollution knocking around different parts of her brain, but she couldn’t quite connect them into a cohesive concept. Family holidays to Bali and Mexico helped bring the concept together and then it clicked. She would take plastic trash from the beach, make it deceptively pretty, photograph it, get the images in people’s feeds and homes and offices and stoke the conservation around environmental conservation.
“When our son was 12 years old, we thought we would treat ourselves to a holiday to Bali. But it was so horrible to see the plastic waste everywhere. You would see it shining in the rice fields. Then the same thing happened when we visited Mexico. We saw tragic piles of waste on a little island near Isla Holbox. It is a really flat island and I could see the waste blowing straight into the ocean. It broke my heart. I think that created the frustration and realisation of what we as humans have done with plastics. I realised years later when I moved from Holland to South Africa that those experiences created the spark for this project.”
As Thirza began to explore executions for the project, she had a few false starts. The challenge was to find a solution that held up an uncomfortable truth that inspired people to make positive change rather than feel repulsed and guilty.
“Initially this project was called ‘Catch of the day, pick it up and throw it away’ – the theme was before and after. I would photograph what I found on the beach. But I was unsatisfied with how it looked. I didn’t think it would speak to people because it was just disgusting. I didn’t think people would identify with it. I didn’t want to make people feel personally responsible. I was trying to find a way to effectively communicate these competing ideals to an audience. I was really starting to doubt the whole thing. Then for one reason or another, I started taking plastics to my home and isolating them from the beach using a simple background. When I changed the focus of the project it grew quickly.”
“When you disguise ugliness with beauty it enters the mind through another door”
Art with an urgent message has the ability to punch you in the gut. It can leave you winded and gasping on the floor asking important questions. Thirza wanted to do this with more subtlety. She set out to find a way to deliver an arresting message with a slow release impact.
“When you disguise ugliness with beauty it enters the mind through another door. For example, seeing those images of the sea bird cut open with all the pieces of plastic in it. When I look at that, I feel really bad for a long time – I am disgusted. I’m not trying to disgust people but I still want to deal directly with plastic waste. The message is that you can personally do something about it and you can start today. I want people to have the pictures in their homes and on their computers and phones to keep that message in mind next time they’re in the shop so they won’t get plastic packaging.”
Thirza started the project on her Leica then introduced medium and large format analogue photography too. After a while, the project led her to begin a slow and sceptical experimentation with digital photography.
“I found it really difficult to make the step from analogue to digital and at the beginning of the transition I would shoot both.”
“In the early days I would shoot on a Mamiya 7 and on a Linhof 4×5 field camera. All my commercial jobs I would shoot on a Canon but for this project, I shot on a Leica M240. I found it really difficult to make the step from analogue to digital and at the beginning of the transition I would shoot both. Finally, I started to trust digital and now I really see the benefits in shooting that way. But I am led by projects. I can imagine I will again pick up the Linhof film camera with this project and shoot film again.”
The project has taken on a life of its own and consumed Thirza’s – and she’s thrilled about it. While she started out making the sculptures then dismantling them after she’d photographed them, she is now exploring more permanent forms. Her transition into digital photography has also opened up new opportunities and ideas with different mediums like video.
“It doesn’t matter how much you’re going to change your life, small changes help make you part of a new era that doesn’t involve plastic.”
“I have been doing this project in this form for 2 and a half years. I photograph the plastic and then sometimes I keep part of the composition or I keep them in my storage room where I keep plastic organised into size and shape. During November last year I had the idea to make more permanent sculptures, so that is what I have been focusing on for the last five months rather than photographs. I still photograph the sculptures, but I find this very different to making a composition with the primary intention of photographing it. It may be easy for the viewer to see those two things as equal but as a photographer I find it very different. The sculpture doesn’t live by the light. You can’t play with shadow and angle of the camera because the sculpture is 3D, which is a totally different thing. I am also exploring moving stills. I am constantly inspired by this project. It has become my whole life.”
Dealing with the overwhelming scope of changing the world’s attitude towards plastic should be overwhelming, but Thirza is optimistic. If people begin implementing small changes – saying no to single use plastic, and being mindful of other plastics usage – and sharing their awareness, then we can future generations can enjoy the world’s natural beauty too.
“I am optimistic about our future because that is the only way we can work on it. If we let ourselves feel overwhelmed, it won’t work. I’m looking at the ocean now and it gives me so much joy. And I still go for walks and I don’t find plastic and that makes me hopeful.”
Despite her work’s powerful and important message, Thirza is a realist when it comes to making positive change for the environment. She doesn’t expect or ask anyone to radically change their lifestyle and become an environmental saint overnight, but she does encourage people to start today and simply do the best they can.
“It doesn’t matter how much you’re going to change your life, small changes help make you part of a new era that doesn’t involve plastic. Not everyone has to change their life drastically. I still fly back and forth from Holland and drive a car, but I do the best I can. It’s different for everybody and can be important in different ways. I share my awareness but it is interpreted differently by everyone.”