Portraits / 17 Sep 2018
Elske Koelstra – portrait

In our daily life, we meet people whose faces are familiar and we think we know them. So as not to miss out on these fabulous people e com image created its “portraits”.


Elske Koelstra (prononce “Koolstra”)


When Elske Koelstra tells her story, she begins to talk about nature, birds and photography. Rocked by the landscapes of the Dutch Friesland (province of Friesland), she moves when she is 8 years old to the south of the region, where her eyes meet only flat country and forests. She will tell later of the ‘mountains’ of Vaucluse that she does not know what to do with this new dimension.

Rejected by her classmates because she is the daughter of the school director in this small village that has only 35 students, she takes refuge in the backery run by her uncle. She helps him and saves thus to buy her first reflex camera, which replaces the camera offered by her grandmother and of which she keeps a precious memory; “with this little ‘click-clack’ it was my career that began. I felt like a photographer “.


Unaware of the existence of a school of photography, she embarks on a training course at the “bakery school”, where she becomes the best student and the first graduate girl. She then leaves for Kenya, where she volunteers to type courses for a school teacher of a backery school near Nairobi.

Back in the Netherlands she works for 7 years as a project manager for the LU biscuit company. She is in charge of training staff abroad but in parallel with her work she travels a lot, especially in Nepal, Mali, Egypt, the Antilles and also in France. The only object essential to the contents of her suitcase is a bird book. But her ‘reflex’ does not leave her either and she exposes her photos of a stay in Mali, while participating in national competitions that will earn her to be nominated twice for the prize of best young photographer of the Netherlands.


LU assigns Elske in the Paris region where she takes responsibility for the international development of the brand, which involves transferring their know-how around the globe. ” It was the best job in the world!“. In fact, Elske can photograph China, India, Brazil, the USSR, the Czech Republic, Tunisia, Germany… and accumulates during 12 years more than 10 000 photos of her journeys. A new exhibition follows at the art gallery of Orly airport in Paris on the theme of … travel.

After LU Elske works for a biscuit company in Brittany. In Quimper she sets up 2 projects. First ‘Globetrotter’, which reveals her pictures taken all over the world from inside taxis. “Everything was going too fast, so I took one more day to take pictures before leaving “.  Then ‘The world revisited’, which synthesizes her shots over time. She incorporates for the first time the blur in her images, which according to her leaves more space for the interpretation of her works.

FROM APT TO “INAPTE” (Apt being the town of Apt but also meaning ‘fit’ and inapte meaning ‘unfit’)

A headhunter offers her a position in Apt (Vaucluse, Provence, south of France), in an Irish multinational agribusiness. Without knowing it she enters a hellish circle that will lead to burnout. After 8 years, when she takes stock of her last 4 years, she realizes that she is at 2 years salary in cumulated overtime. Then everything stops…. She who still came the week before to travel 7 countries can suddenly no longer go to her mailbox. Putting on a sock takes her almost one hour and emptying the dishwasher costs her the whole morning. It will take her almost 4 years to be able to return to the supermarket. She goes there with her wife Liedewy, but she stays in the car, unable to cope with the images and the noises. Elske has gone to hell.


Resilient, Elske repairs herself with what they could not break. She looks at her pictures and realizes that during all these years she was writing her story. Fascinated, she chooses her images according to her emotions and she baptizes them with her wounded states of mind; authority, threatening, harassing, losing dignity, feeling abandoned, losing one’s health… Her talent turned into art therapy. At the Biennale of Rustrel “Voir et écouter” (See and listen), she shows the art of her story, which she calls ‘Train de vie’ (Lifestyle). Visitors are affected, identify with one photo or another and emerge emotionally charged. One of these visitors particularly observes. After going around the exhibition he talks to her and tells her : “ we can do something together if you want “. It’s the film director Michael Snurawa.

Elske accepts: “I needed to be listened to, I just needed a microphone“. The film that will emerge from this synergy is entitled “Stop making Jam“. It will stir up local touching reactions, but will also receive the special prize for best reportage 2015 at the French Film Federation’s competition in Vichy and the grand prize at the interregional Festival of Ventabren.


One day Elske is contacted for an order of jewelry shots, which encourages her to invest in a photo studio. Not far from there lives Jean-Pierre Jeunet (“Le Fabuleux destin d’Amélie Poulain” and “Delicatessen” are some of his achievements).  He collects objects found in nature, such as pine cones, feathers, shells, pieces of wood, chestnuts etc… and he makes little characters from it. In search of an expert photographer he therefore addresses Elske to immortalise them and then he decides to make a little animated film on the theme of Jacques Prévert’s poem : “Chanson des escargots qui vont à l’enterrement (Two snails set off)”. He then has the text read by his famous friends and afterwards mixes their voices and composes the music. And here is a small masterpiece of a result !


Elske has never stopped exhibiting (32 solo and group exhibitions in France and the Netherlands, including 3 exhibitions in the Netherlands Antilles and South Africa). Polyglot, she speaks 5 languages ​​(in addition to the language of the birds …). Currently she is still fighting to have her burnout recognized as an occupational disease. She is medically diagnosed ‘stabilized with sequelae’ and is unable to return to ‘normal’ work. The word ‘multitasking’ is banned from her vocabulary.

Elske and Liedewy have invested in an old stable in Rustrel. This building, for the time being,  without a roof, water or electricity is intended as Elske’s future photo workshop. In the meantime I had the pleasure of taking part in a birdwatching walk led by Elske in the Colorado of Rustrel and I was impressed by her knowledge. We find the artist accompanied by her book of birds and her camera, these objects that have accompanied her all her life and which have greatly helped to revive in her, through all her suffering, a unique feeling of identity and an indestructible breath of Hope.


Text by Sylvie Houssais – e com image – ‘reproduction prohibited, all rights reserved ‘

Photos of portrait and interview by Jacques Huissoud – ‘ reproduction prohibited, all rights reserved ‘

Photos by Elske Koelstra – ‘ reproduction prohibited, all rights reserved ‘

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