Sipke Visser’s Return to Sender

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Sipke Visser grew up in the northern Netherlands, but currently resides in Wapping, London. All of his works involve strangers, and this time connecting strangers – people who otherwise would have no knowledge of the other’s existence. Sipke “aims to photograph those intimate moments when people are immersed in themselves or with each other,” and for this project Return to Sender, Sipke sent those photographs to hundreds of random addresses across the UK. Included with these photographs was a stamped and addressed return envelope along with a handwritten letter asking for a very open-ended response – either to the photograph, about your day, a random thought, anything really.

Return to Sender was recently published as a 480 page book, a careful recording of the correspondences that came from each of the 500 letters that Sipke sent over the course of two and a half years. He found the addresses at random on GoogleMaps, sending a few of the letters to the US as well. A random human response survey that allows for any sort of reply, using what’s almost now an archaic form of communication – although it is the only one that still remains somewhat physical.

This post contains images of the photographs sent and letters received, courtesy of the artist.

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Did you ever have a pen pal when you were little? Do you often used the postal system to communicate with people, even if it’s just for the novelty of it?

I must have at some point but to be  honest I don’t remember at all. If my penpal from back then remembers, please let me know!

 

When did the idea for Return to Sender strike you? Was it always intended to turn into a book?

It was in the autumn of 2008 and I was having take away dinner with three friends in yet another friends home in Amsterdam. One of them had been a postman for a while which we were talking about and then suddenly it struck me that it would be fun sending images to random strangers. The foreword in the book is written by one of these friends, the one who used to be a postman.

 

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Which responses did you like the most? How often did the responses mention or relate to the photograph you’d sent them?

The one that stands out most is Norma since we kept on writing. There are many letters written by both of us to each other on the book. She writes about everything that happens to her. About her children, her grandchildren, her mum (who passed away at some point). I

write about what I do, my love life, London, etc. There is a guy called Donald who sent me pictures of himself and his sun. There is a beautiful one of a lady whose mother in law is not doing very well but who is very religious. The image she received happens to be religious and she writes how special that was for her. There is an A4 full of doodles by someone anonymous. And also some very rude or aggressive ones that are quite funny once you get past the rudeness – although I was a bit offended when receiving them.

Some people do talk about the image they received, but many others don’t.

 

What do you hope the readers of Return to Sender take away from both the book and the project as a whole?

For me it was about many things but I think the main thing is the idea that  complete strangers receives a letter and a photo in the post without expecting it at all. And I’m so curious to where they ended up and I love receiving post and finding out. I think I just hope people will enjoy reading the responses and perhaps like the pictures. It’s a book you can open up on any page and since it’s a lot of pages you might find something new many times.

 

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What other sorts of projects have you done previously and what do you think you’ll do next?

A few years ago I was very busy with work (I make most of my living as a retoucher) and barely had time to shoot so I thought it would be a good idea to invite people to my place to photograph them for an hour or so. I put an ad out on a website called Gumtree which I think is similar to Craigs List. Over 30 people visited me in about a years time and I took their portraits. The images and some text are on my website. I also once rented an empty room for a month and invited strangers over for an hour. All that was in the room was coffee, tea, an old 35mm camera with one lens and me. The light in the room was terrible and the pictures not great but it was a great way of spending time with a subject and a camera and nothing else. And I’ve got a great number of projects in my head that I want to do now, but I’m not saying what yet. The best way to stay up to date is to visit www.asortofdiary.com

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{About A Sort of Diary: the website Sipke started when he moved to London from Amsterdam in 2005 to start a life in photography. A Sort of Diary is a visual outlet for what has kept him busy over the years. Not quite a blog, not quite a website, more a …. sort of diary. His eye for a great off-beat moment, combined with humorous comments and observations on the friends, family and strangers (not to mention animals) in the photos leave you feeling as though you’ve come to know him personally.}


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For more of Sipke’s work, see his website.