Vanessa van Houten : Photographer Jakarta, Indonesia

Vanessa van Houten in her studio in Jakarta ( Image by Erica Knecht)

Today we chat with Vanessa van Houten, Jakarta based professional portrait, documentary and luxury travel photographer in Coffee Smith Jakarta, ahead of her solo exhibition FREE FALL at Art : 1 New Museum opening February 23, 2018 and the launch of her photobook here*now. 

Vanessa is one super talented woman! Her work first came to our attention in 2016 when she was working on her photo project RAW. A collection of portraits photographed by Vanessa as people revisit a moment of loss from their past. A project we found thought-provoking and moved us. Since that time we have followed Vanessa on her Instagram and enjoyed her view on life, work and family in Jakarta.

Vanessa’s unique ability to capture her subjects at their ‘most human’ must be seen to be fully appreciated. Do check out her exhibition in February and March. There is something quite magical about seeing super high res photographs in person. But for now … read on as Vanessa shares her wisdom and her story.

*Kenalkan : Vanessa van  Houten

About You:

Your full name please:
Vanessa van Houten

What do you like to be called?

Please tell us a little about your background – Where did you grow up?
I was born in San Francisco to a German beautician and American PANAM pilot and spent my early childhood in the Bahamas and Berlin. At 6, my parents got divorced, I gained a Japanese step-mom Suki and we divided our childhood between Augsburg, Germany and San Francisco. I have two older brothers and I was a total tom boy – loved wearing pants and short hair.

As kids we spent a lot of time outdoors preferred in any kind of water; oceans or pools and I love the seasons, especially winter. Due to the fact I was able to fly for almost free, as my Dad was a pilot for PANAM, paired with my taste for freedom and curiosity, as a teenager I started traveling in Europe. My friends didn’t have this possibility and my brothers prefered to stay at home, so I travelled on my own roaming the flea markets in Europe and spending a lot of time in any Art Museums – I just love these huge spaces filled with beautiful light and Art. Each holiday we would travel with my Dad to different places around the world, which made me want to travel even more.

Vanessa’s family with one of her brothers, American grandparents and aunt, Vanessa’s first steps, Vanessa’s American grandparents at the beach and Vanessa in school uniform holding a bag of crayons and her Snoopy lunchbox, all pictures in the Bahamas (Image supplied by Vanessa)

What did you want to be when you were a child?
I wanted to be a sewist and fashion designer. My grandmother was a sewist for men’s clothes and I spent most of my childhood surrounded by colourful threads, needles, fabric rolls with the sound of the sewing machine sewing. My grandmother taught me how to sew and bake cakes and strudel. I love working with my hands.

Vanessa’s grandmother’s pin cushion (Image supplied by Vanessa)

I got into photography … when I was around 14, spending nights in a derelict Art Nouveau theatre, taking photos and experimenting with light with my best friend Stephan. He was a few years older than me and his love for photography and passion for light inspired me to continue. After graduating from high school I went to Dortmund, where I studied subjective Photography; but also fell in love with conceptual photography like by photographer Cindy Sherman, and I started photographing myself in a range of costumes in different settings and made a work called TABU. At the same time I liked film and eventually graduated with a b/w documentary “growing silently” about the photographer Monica von Boch. This led me to continue to study directing at the Film Academy HFF in Munich, which was an amazing space to get to know like minded people, make the best connections, and make movies. I made short films like Karma Cowboy, a fiction documentary about the other USA and a guy named Jerry who vanished and my first feature film Paper Bird, shot in Thailand about lost childhood, prostitution and a love affair.

Vanessa and a Bolex film camera filming Stan Brakhage drawing on film in a Harvard cafe (Image supplied by Vanessa)
Paper Bird feature film poster (Image supplied by Vanessa)


Vanessa on the set of Paper Bird in a hill tribe village north of Chiang Mai, Thailand (Image supplied by Vanessa)
Paper Bird at the 38th International Film Festival of India  (Image supplied by Vanessa)

‘After finishing my feature film I moved to Australia, started my own family, moved on living in Africa, Singapore and now it has been 5 years since we moved to  Jakarta’


‘To best accompany this nomadic lifestyle and family life, I have come back to working in Photography. I strongly believe life is a journey’



In Lesotho, Africa, travelling with daughter Peppa

What are you working on right now?
For over a year I have been working on a new body of work here*now, a photography portrait series about the Inner Beauty of Indonesians. In a time where many talk about diversity and difference, I was keen to examine what binds us together. Inside my simple studio in Jakarta, I photographed over 50 Indonesians; women, men, warias (cross-dressers, transsexuals and transgenders) aged between 20 and 80 years old, who are passionate chefs and baristas, young entrepreneurs, accomplished athletes, mothers, fathers, loved social influencers, dancers, beautiful yogis, makeup artists, sex workers, famous musicians, popular artists and talented fashion designers.

Each person I photographed twice; once in their favorite clothes and once almost bare in a white cloth which was made especially for this project, by Chitra Subyakto, the creative soul of Indonesian fashion and textile house Sejauh Mata Memandang. These sessions, and the photographs that resulted provide a glimpse into the lives of the people we are surrounded by.

Within my small studio, I was humbled. I was shown such openness, startling honesty, vulnerability, quirkinness, sadness, tears, raw beauty, strength and intimacy.

Series here*now
Jay Subyakto
Series here*now – Poppy Sovia


Todjon page in the book here*now


Kaka “I move without being told” Page in the book here*now

The book here*now, published by Afterhours Books, is in print as we speak and I am so excited to be able to hold it in my hands soon…

Here*now will be available by February 23, 2018

And right now, I am working on my solo exhibition FREE FALL curated by Oscar Motuloh and Jay Subyakto at Art : 1 New Museum which opens February 23 … the space is pretty amazing and I am so excited to be showing my work there.

What gives you energy?
Listening to music gives me energy. I tend to hear really loud music in my studio when sorting through the images after a portrait session. The music transports me to another space, it lets me shut out the noises around me and lets me focus and see what there is.

Drinking genmaicha matcha tea, making delicious slow food, travelling to known or new places, having a one on one with my best friend, laughing with my kids, trying out new things, yoga, Love and Nature, especially being in nature far away from civilization, like when I travelled to Patagonia in Argentina to stay at the Estancia Ranquilco  – it is so far away from anything, it’s quiet! When I spend time for hours in nature hearing only the sounds of the environment and my own breath that is when I get inspired.

Vanessa during a 5 hour horse ride on the Estancia Ranquilco, Patagonia Argentina

Who do you find inspiring and why?
Chitra Subyakto, Chitra has an amazingly beautiful soul, walks her way while creating beautiful textiles and celebrating the beauty of Indonesia. Nomadic artist Stanislava Pinchuk who is working to topographically map conflict zones around the world, resulting in large, delicate maps pinpricked into paper. I love her dedication and talent and have been collection her work since over 10 years.

Vanessa in a Wadi in the Arava, Israel wearing Sejauh Mata Memandang by Chitra Subyakto

Photographer Richard Mosse  with his latest work INCOMING dealing with the major humanitarian and political plight of our time, the displacement of millions due to war, persecution and climate change. His work is hauntingly beautiful and highlights what can’t be forgotten.

Lou Doillon who has this incredible voice – I am in love with her music and ways…

What’s one thing about you that would surprise people?
I grew up with a Japanese stepmom Suki and through her I have had a Japanese influence from an early age. Suki used to tell me beautiful Japanese fairy tales, I played with Japanese toys, folded origami extensively, and I love Japanese food and Japan.

What annoys you?

What delights you?
Humour and love

What’s your most treasured possession?
My memories and a tattoo by my friend Stanslava Pinchuk…



About Jakarta & Indonesia:

Give 3 words to describe your Jakarta?
Inspiring, chaotic and filled with opportunities

Who is your favourite Indonesian Photographer?
The creative Photographer group Mes Ruang 56, based in Yogyakarta

Who are your favourite Indonesian artists and creatives?
Eko Nugroho
As well as Papermoon Puppet Theatre

Where’s your favourite place to eat in Jakarta?
I love Japanese food, Akira Back is great in the evening and Hiro cool during the day. Or delicious Indonesian food and sambals at Kaum.

Tea, Coffee or Juice? And where?
Coffee at But First, Kopikalyan, Giyanti Coffee Roastery, Ruang Seduh

Where do you go to relax in this busy city?
To relax I go to Asmaradana Sanctuary to do yoga in their beautiful garden shala as often as I can. I love going to dia.lo.gue artspace for a coffee or lunch or to my other fave coffee place in the city. I go running through the Dalams at 5.30am in the morning or for a walk in the afternoon during sunset. Go to Sofia’s at the Gunawarnman, sit in their leather sofas and sip a cocktail with friends…

Otherwise due to the traffic in the city I love staying at home – we are lucky to have found a beautiful space to live in, with big windows looking into a super lush green garden, our living room is filled with cushions, tepees, books and magazines and I have my Studio there too to always retreat back into.

Finish these sentences:

Every visitor to Jakarta should eat…. gohu ikan tuna (raw tuna with calamansi juice and fresh belimbi, Batagor (prawn and fish dumplings with spicy cashew sauce), Mangut Ikan Asap (smoked trevally fish fillet in a mild curry), gado gado (blanched garden vegetables tossed in peanut sauce),

Every visitor to Jakarta should visit….. the small neighbourhoods and alleyways by walking through them…the book “Jakarta, 25 excursions in and around the Indonesian Capital by Andrew Whitmarsh, has been a great inspiration to go venturing out into Jakarta and discover, although be open to constant changes.

Every visitor to Jakarta should experience….. car free day on Jl. Sudirman from 6 -11am, sudden crazy downpour of rain, a dangdut concert, the traffic, a sunset over the city in one of the roof top restaurants or bars.

What’s your favourite place to visit in Indonesia? Or place you would like to visit?
Due to having little children, for the last 5 years we stayed around Jawa, Lombok and Kalimantan. We used to rent a beautiful villa called Villa Gamrang with stunning views overlooking the bay in Palabuhan Ratu, which is only a 4 hour drive from Jakarta. And also loved our stay at Jeeva Beloam in Lombok

This year we will discover Sumba and Mentawai and my dream is to travel to the Banda Islands and Raja Ampat by sailboat…

Vanessa’s husband Daniel and kids at the beach in East Lombok


Peppa with the local kids at a beach in East Lombok


Peppa in East Lombok

What’s Jakarta’s best kept secret?
That it’s an awesome place to live – Jakarta is filled with many amazingly creative and passionate people, there are so many nooks and corners to discover …


“it’s not so much about re-creating the life you had in your last town or home town, but letting yourself fall into this greatly chaotic and crazy city and be surprised where it leads you”


We would also love to know ….

What’s the first thing you do when you get out of bed?
I put on some tunes, drink one glass of warm water with lemon juice, make a coffee and often grab one of my family members for a little dance in the kitchen.

You unexpectedly find 15 minutes in your day, what do you do with it?

  • If I am on the go then I put on earphones and listen to music or read the times magazine or one of my books that I carry around with me. At the moment I am intrigued by the South Korean/German philosopher Byung-Chul Han.
  • I have a list in my notes of places to go and people to read about or book to read, so when I have extra time I tend to research those.
  • When at home I love reading through my cookbooks looking for inspiration for what to cook next. I love any cook books by Yotam Ottolenghi and find Andrew Mcconnell’s SUPERNORMAL take on Korean, Japanese and Chinese dishes super fun and delicious.

Share a quote that you love and that gives you strength or peace.


“Everything you want is on the other side of fear”


Name a book or movie that changed your life.
Wong kar wai’s movies Happy together, Chungking Express and In the Mood for Love inspired me by his poetic way of telling stories on film.

Haruki Murakami’s books like 1Q84, Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, A Wild Sheep Chase, The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche – I love his detailed novels inhabiting the liminal zone between realism and fable.

While studying photography I went to see as many movies as I could – I was intrigued by Michelangelo Antonioni (Zabriskie Point and Blow-Up), Pier Paolo Pasolini and Jean-Luc Godard (Contempt) and I used to go to see any piece of dance theatre choreographed by Pina Bausch. The intensity of her choreography and content have made me see beyond stereotypes.

Now I follow dance theatre companies like Akram Khan Company   Batsheva Dance Company   Hofesh Shechter Company and watch their shows anytime I can. I also love modern Theatre – with both I love the intensity and energy in watching live performances.

When I was 20 years old I made a documentary about a German subjective photographer Monica von Boch, who always said everything you are looking for is in front of your doorstep. This made me stop wanting to always be somewhere else and start exploring and getting to know my surroundings.

At 25, I was living in Manhattan, NYC, for a year working at the Anthology Film Archives, which is run by the Lithuanian Poet and filmmaker Jonas Mekas. In the building were also three movie theatres where the whole staff and friends would watch American Independent and avant-garde cinema, movies by film makers Stan Brakhage, Maya Deren and Shirley Clarke…Once I was sitting next to Jonas Mekas, while watching a four hour silent Avant garde movie by Stan Brakhage and I wanted to leave the cinema. Jonas said if you leave now you won’t be able to have an opinion, calm down and watch. I stayed. And what Jonas said stayed with me too, to not judge a book by its cover, that the journey is the actual experience.

What are your favourite Apps?
Photo app CrossProcess

If you could have dinner with 2 famous people who would you invite?
Patti Smith and Lou Doillon – think this combination could end up into a pretty fun night.

What do you do for fun when you’re not working?
Yoga, cooking for and with friends, going to Art exhibitions, listening to music, reading and playing with my kids

Jo, Vanessa and Liz at Coffee Smith cafe South Jakarta

Anything else you would like to share with us? 


“Living is being happy, seeing, hearing, touching, drinking, eating…diving into the water and gazing at the sky, laughing and crying”

Milan Kundera



Here are the details of Free Fall, Vanessa’s Solo Exhibition and here*now Book Launch. 


Opening Night : 23 February  2018
Duration : February 24 -18 March
Location : Art1 New Museum
Jl. Rajawali Selatan Raya No. 3, Jl. South Eagles, RT.4 / RW.6,
Mt. North Sahari, Sawah Besar,
Central Jakarta City,


Book Details : Hand threaded and bound, folded pages, newspaper edges, foil stamped cover, serial numbered and signed, edition of 500

Available after 23 February 2018 directly through Vanessa’s website  or Insta or Afterhoursbooks  or at most Periplus stores in Indonesia.


*kenalkan – let me introduce

Words : Vanessa van Houten and Liz McClean Photography : Vanessa van Houten, Erica Knecht and a journey bespoke

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