January 9, 2013 4:00 AM EST

Viviane Sassen’s gorgeous, inscrutable fine art images from Africa have earned her acclaim and a place in the Museum of Modern Art. But recently, her surreal and equally beautiful fashion photography has been garnering attention, too: in 2011, Sassen won the prestigious International Center of Photography’s Infinity Award for Applied/Fashion/Advertising Photography, and more than 300 of her fashion images are on view at Amsterdam’s Huis Marseille Museum for Photography through mid-March 2013 in a show titled, Viviane Sassen / In and Out of Fashion.

Born in Amsterdam, Sassen lived in Kenya — where her father worked in a polio clinic — between the ages of 2 and 5. Because the continent looms so large in her work, I asked her to describe her earliest memories from Africa.

“I remember,” she told me, “how Rispa, our nanny, woke me up one early morning and took me to a deserted football field to pick small white mushrooms. I remember the taste of sugarcane and ugali [a dish similar to polenta], orange Fanta and the bloody goat heads in the market in Kisumu.”

Returning to the Netherlands was difficult for her: “I didn’t feel I belonged in Europe, yet I knew I was a foreigner in Africa.”

As a young woman, Sassen enrolled in a university fashion design program and also modeled. Recalling her modeling work, she says that she “can relate to how a girl might feel in front of a camera: sometimes bored, tired or simply stressed or insecure. And then the shoes … three sizes too small but with killer heels. It’s not always fun to be a model.”

Nevertheless, she says she “got to know a lot of photographers; they made me aware that they controlled the image. That’s what I wanted, too; I wanted to be in control of the image … to create it.”

I have devoted probably an excessive number of words--see here and here--to Microsoft's ongoing "Scroogled" campaign, in which it bashes various Google products for invading privacy, deceptively incorporating advertising and, generally, being creepy and anti-consumer. I've always found the campaign to be grating and patronizing, and looked forward to the day when Microsoft concluded that it was counter-productive, or at least that it had run its course. That moment may have come. ZDNet's Mary Jo Foley is reporting that a Microsoft executive says that the company is now "done" with Scroogled. When Mary Jo sought an official statement, she got one which didn't confirm that it's over--but which didn't deny it, either: We are always evaluating and evolving our marketing campaigns. There are times when we use our marketing to highlight differences in how we see the world compared to competitors, and the Scroogled campaign is an example of this. Moving forward, we will continue to use all the right approaches and tactics when and where they make sense. That's not surprising: If Microsoft has decided that it wants to put Scroogled behind it, it probably doesn't want to spend a lot of time explaining its rationale. Here's hoping. In a possibly related development, Mary Jo has a second article reporting that Microsoft has put its online version of Office into Google's Chrome Store, making it easy for Chromebook owners to edit Word, Excel and PowerPoint files using Microsoft's own online apps. The move is semi-symbolic, since those services already worked just fine on Chromebooks if you knew they existed. But it belies one of Scroogled's arguments against Chromebooks, which is that they force you to use "cheap imitations" of Office which will mess up your documents. Of course, there are plenty of instances in which people will be happier with the far more full-featured Office apps available for Windows laptops than the basic online ones which you can use on a Chromebook. But Scroogled's over-the-top assault on Chromebooks--which it calls "imitation laptops"--is at odds with Microsoft's own excellent, Chromebook-friendly incarnation of Office, which it somehow forgets to mention even exist. Scroogled's message is also out of whack with the progressive vision expressed by Microsoft's new CEO, Satya Nadella, at the company's recent Office for iPad launch event and Build conference. Nadella isn't drawing a stark line between Microsoft's platforms and the rest of the world, and telling prospective customers to choose. But that's what Scroogled--supposedly the brainchild of political adman and Clinton confidante Mark Penn, who Nadella shifted from heading Microsoft marketing to a strategy role--effectively does. Now, the chances that we're entering a period of peace, love and understanding are approximately zilch: In her story on Scroogled's possible demise, Mary Jo says that she expects Microsoft to continue to go aggressively after Google. So do I. But consumers are smart. Chromebooks will succeed if they offer something of value to a meaningful number of people, and will fail if they don't. Scroogled won't have a meaningful impact on their fate one way or the other. If these "imitation laptops" are around for the long haul, telling the people who like them that they've been duped, as Scroogled does, isn't going to make Microsoft any new friends. The alternative approach, reflected in the Chrome Store news, is to encourage such folks to be part of the Office faithful. Which strategy do you think is a smarter way to keep Microsoft and its products relevant in the post-PC era?
Viviane Sassen

Sassen made the leap into photography. She recalls that “in the beginning, [photographers] like Nan Goldin and Nobuyoshi Araki [were] very important for my work because of their formal language, but also because they depicted their own lives in a way that appealed to me.”

A turning point in her own photography came in 2002 when she returned to Africa with her husband. The fine art photography she has made there in the past decade shines as some of the most original, unexpected work to emerge from the continent by a Western photographer. But one finds no victims of war or famine here; instead, the viewer confronts contemporary Africans engaged in sophisticated, if mysterious, dream performances.

“Working in Africa opens doors of my subconscious,” Sassen explains. “Sometimes, when I wake up in the morning after very vivid dreams or if I just suddenly have an idea, I sketch. My photographs are sometimes almost literal pictures of these sketches.” At other times, she says, “I might just find something on the street that excites me.”

Her images are somehow primal and hallucinatory at once: two youths embrace in the dark, a giant banana leaf sprouting between them; a figure lies nestled in the diaphanous green cloud of a fishing net; a boy lounges on the ground, his limbs painted bright turquoise. Critic Vince Aletti says that Sassen “tends to treat the body as a sculptural element—a malleable shape that combines with blocks of shadow and bright color in arrangements that sometimes read like cut-paper collages, bold and abstract but full of vibrant life.”

One key part of the body that is often missing or obscured is the human face, as models turn away from the camera or appear with their faces cloaked in shadow. As Aaron Schuman noted in Aperture, the images might thus “appear to ignore the individuals they portray and instead inherently possess—maybe even propagate—the problematic histories, legacies, and relationships between Africa and the West. But perhaps in Sassen’s case this is the point, at least in part, and where the power of her photographs lies.”

Putting young, inexperienced pilots into a 50-year-old Air Force plane seems like a risky idea. Even riskier? Getting rid of crew's parachutes to save money. But that’s what the Air Force did last May 3, when it launched a mission to refuel U.S. warplanes over Afghanistan using a KC-135 Stratotanker delivered by Boeing to the Air Force on June 26, 1964. A problem with the plane's flight-control system cascaded toward trouble after actions by what the Air Force has concluded was its inadequately-trained crew. In short order, the double-barreled dilemmas ripped the airplane’s tail off three miles above Kyrgyzstan’s Himalayan foothills. The plane quickly entered a steep dive, dooming all three aboard. Both pilots graduated from the Air Force Academy in 2008, shortly after the service decided it couldn't afford to keep parachutes on KC-135s. "A lot of time, manpower and money goes into buying, maintaining and training to use parachutes," the Air Force said in March 2008. "With the Air Force hungry for cost-saving efficiency under its Air Force for Smart Operations in the 21st Century Program, commonly known as AFSO 21, the parachutes were deemed obsolete." Captain Mark Tyler Voss, 27, Captain Victoria Pinckney, 27, and Technical Sergeant Herman “Tre” Mackey III, 30, were the first airmen killed in a KC-135 crash since the Air Force stripped the parachutes from the planes. Given the violent end of their mission, the parachutes may not have made any difference, according to the official Air Force investigation into the crash. “The [accident investigation] board sort of concluded, informally, in talking among themselves, that even if there had been parachutes, there would have been no way for them in this particular case for them to be used,” Air Force Lieut. Colonel John Thomas, a spokesman for the service’s Air Mobility Command, said Monday. Others aren’t so sure. "Deploying aircrews to a combat zone without parachutes is an unconscionable risk," says Alan Diehl, who spent 18 years as an Air Force civilian investigating the safety of the service’s aircraft. "The airmen aboard this KC-135 would have had to don their chutes, jettison the cockpit bailout hatch, and dive overboard—all in a matter of seconds. But to take away the option just seems wrong." The aerial tanker arrived in Kyrgyzstan the day before the accident. Earlier flight-control problems had reportedly been fixed. Pilot Tyler, co-pilot Pinckney and, Mackey, the refueling boom operator, boarded the aircraft early that afternoon at the Pentagon's transit hub at Manas, just outside Bishkek, the country's capital. [caption id="attachment_62639" align="alignright" width="560"] A KC-135 refuels an F-15 fighter. 2nd Lt. Lindsay Horn / Air Force[/caption] They were the first crew to fly the 707-based aircraft toward Afghanistan, loaded with 175,000 pounds of aviation fuel, since its arrival at Manas. Tanker crews are the unsung heroes of the service, the so-called “global reach” that vastly extends how far Air Force aircraft can fly without landing to refuel. Voss had slightly more than 1,000 hours flying such tankers; Pickney had fewer than 600. Mackey was the most experienced member of the crew, with 3,350 KC-135 flight hours, but as the boom operator he had nothing to do with flying the airplane. Shortly after the flight, dubbed Shell 77, took off, a problem with the flight-control system triggered “rudder hunting,” which caused the airplane to yaw, its nose turning from left to right and back again. [caption id="attachment_62648" align="alignleft" width="190"] A dutch roll. Picascho[/caption] Nine minutes into the flight, the plane entered a “dutch roll,” which can happen as increasing yaw generates more lift on one wing than the other. That causes the plane to roll, until increased drag pulls the wing back and the process repeats itself with the other wing. “It’s kind of waffling,” the crew reported as they climbed above 20,000 feet. “The jet’s bent.” The pilots tried to bring the five-second-long dutch rolls under control by using the plane’s rudder and auto-pilot. But that only made matters worse. “The cumulative effects of the malfunctioning [flight-control system], coupled with autopilot use and rudder movements during the unrecognized dutch roll, generated dutch roll forces that exceeded the mishap aircraft’s design structural limits,” the Air Force says in its investigation into the crash, released last month. “The tail section failed and separated from the aircraft, causing the mishap aircraft to pitch down sharply, enter into a high-speed dive, explode inflight and subsequently impact the ground.” Voss’s superiors described him as a “peerless aviator” who was “highly motivated and extremely dedicated." Pickney’s commanders said she was “a superior leader with the drive and ability to succeed at any task.” But despite their demonstrated skills, the investigation said that instead of trying to halt the dutch roll with the rudder and auto-pilot, they should have shut down the malfunctioning flight-control system and manually used the ailerons on the main wings to regain control. So why didn’t they? “The mishap crew appears to not have been adequately trained for the dutch roll recognition and recovery; they experienced a condition they had not encountered in training,” the investigation concluded. “The mishap crew received a total of 10-15 minutes of recognition and recovery training several years prior to the mishap,” during initial pilot training. Such training “appears to be insufficient,” the probe added. “The mishap crew was a qualified, but minimally experienced, crew” whose “inexperience led them to rely on the autopilot to make timely inputs in an unstable flight regime. Although the Inflight Manual does not explicitly prohibit autopilot use in dutch roll, the system is incapable of making the precisely timed inputs that are required to counteract dutch roll. Both times the mishap aircraft engaged the autopilot the oscillations grew worse.” Shouldn’t KC-135 pilots train for such predicaments in their simulators? They can’t. “Insidious onset of dutch roll is impossible to replicate in KC-135 simulator training due to mechanical limitations,” the probe said. Nor can the simulator replicate more serious forms of the roll: “A former KC-135 Instructor Pilot and current simulator operator, who experienced severe dutch roll in flight, confirmed the current simulator training does not reproduce a severe dutch roll.” Can’t pilots practice it, carefully, while actually flying? No. “The Inflight Manual prohibits pilots from practicing dutch roll recognition and recovery in the aircraft, specifically stating `intentionally-induced dutch roll and aerobatics of any kind are strictly prohibited’” the investigation noted. Once their plane lost its tail, was the crew's fate sealed? “Egress was not possible,” the accident report said. “The KC-135R is not equipped with parachutes, ejection seats, or any other means of inflight egress.” The report didn't mention that parachutes had been on the planes until 2008. “They made no comment on the flight data recorder that `We need to get out of here’ or `This is going down,’” Thomas, the Air Force spokesman, said (the recorder shut down when the plane was at 21,760 feet). “The indications were that they continued to fight to regain control of the aircraft until probably they lost consciousness.” And how did that happen? “There is some surmising that goes on,” Thomas explained. “But [the accident board] had several experts to address this point directly, and their best understanding of what probably happened—because they have to put together their best guess based on the flight data—is that when the tail broke off, the aircraft that remained pitched, and because it was in the middle of a dutch roll it probably pitched up first, because as the tail section broke off it probably gained altitude as part of the physics of it swinging back and forth, they probably experienced negative G-forces that would have probably blacked them out.” That 2008 Air Force news article detailed the logic of jettisoning the KC-135’s chutes: By design, parachutes slow things down. Crew members forced to evacuate in-flight aircraft with parachutes, for example, have much gentler impacts with the ground than those without chutes. But the only thing being slowed by parachutes aboard KC-135 Stratotankers, Air Force leaders recently decided, was the mission. So they got rid of them. Removing parachutes from military aircraft may sound peculiar, but KC-135s are not like other aircraft. They seldom have mishaps, and the likelihood a KC-135 crew member would ever need to use a parachute is extremely low. “The [accident investigation board’s] technical experts didn't recall that there’s ever been an attempted, successful or otherwise, egress from a tanker aircraft,” the Air Force’s Thomas said. But the technical experts are wrong, according to former airman Joseph Heywood. He bailed out of a KC-135 over Michigan—along with three other airmen—as their plane ran out of fuel in August 1969 (the pilot landed the plane short of the runway, but safely, at the now-closed K.I. Sawyer Air Force Base). “If they were in a dutch roll, I think it’d be almost impossible for them to get out,” he said. But removing the parachutes “doesn't make any sense—it’s just another way of saying that money is more important than people.” Bailing out used to be a key part of the KC-135’s Cold War mission. “Our job was to fly up and plug B-52s up near Greenland,” he says. “And if they demanded it, to give them all of our fuel, and then to bail out onto the ice pack and make our way back on foot to Billy Mitchell field in Milwaukee.” The missing parachutes don’t bother Heywood now. “It doesn't cause me any heartburn, because I’m not one of the people flying them,” he says. But the former Air Force captain well remembers when he needed one. “The day after I bailed out I took a bottle of booze—I think it was Chivas Regal, actually—to guy who packed mine,” he recalled. “I’d rather have a slim chance than no chance.” The combination of an aging aircraft, poorly-trained young pilots, and the need to save money that led the Air Force to remove the parachutes, shows a force frayed by ever-tightening, and perhaps misallocated, budgets. "The various problems surfaced by this mishap—overlooked maintenance issues on older aircraft, limited crew experience and training, poor flight simulator fidelity, and no parachutes—are all driven by funding limitations," former Air Force crash investigator Diehl says. "The Pentagon and our Congress need to stop sequestering safety." The Air Force recently detailed changes it is taking following the crash. KC-135 crews will be getting more training to help them deal with dutch rolls. The service is revising flight manuals, beefing up maintenance, and improving rudder controls for the 396 KC-135s still flying. The fleet is also in the middle of a $1 billion refurbishment. But restoring parachutes to the planes—slated to fly until at least 2040—isn’t on the list of improvements. [caption id="attachment_62826" align="aligncenter" width="560"] An honor guard carries photos of the KC-135 crew members during a memorial service at Manas six days after the crash. SSgt. Stephanie Rubi / Air Force[/caption]
Viviane Sassen

Within these mirror-like voids, Sassen allows the viewer to reflect on the clichés and prejudices Westerners so often fall back on when engaging the vast continent and its inhabitants.

“I want to seduce the viewer with a beautiful formal approach,” says Sassen, “and at the same time, leave something disturbing.”

Sassen’s fashion work borrows much from her fine art—obscured faces, extraordinary color. The acute graphic sensibility of Sassen’s fine art, meanwhile, works wonders in magazine spreads. In an elemental way, though, the museum show and Sassen’s images (made for magazines like Wallpaper, Purple and Dazed & Confused, and for brands like Levi’s and Stella McCartney) don’t make sense at all.

As Sassen told the British Journal of Photography in its December 2012 issue, “I find exhibitions of fashion photography within the context of a museum rather problematic. Most fashion images aren’t art, they’re fashion photographs—which is fine, but if you put them in a museum, enlarged and in a frame, they become something else…. Art photography doesn’t have to serve any purpose, fashion photography does, and that makes a difference…. [Then] there are images which are really between art and fashion, which I hope I do myself.”

Sassen hit upon a solution to this conundrum: projecting fashion images on museum walls, so the work retains a “kind of disposable feel.” Furthermore, Sassen has said she doesn’t care much about clothes. “My interest is not the interest of the fashion industry. My interest is to make fascinating pictures…. It’s always about desire and fear, about making images that are both appealing and unsettling.”

I have devoted probably an excessive number of words--see here and here--to Microsoft's ongoing "Scroogled" campaign, in which it bashes various Google products for invading privacy, deceptively incorporating advertising and, generally, being creepy and anti-consumer. I've always found the campaign to be grating and patronizing, and looked forward to the day when Microsoft concluded that it was counter-productive, or at least that it had run its course. That moment may have come. ZDNet's Mary Jo Foley is reporting that a Microsoft executive says that the company is now "done" with Scroogled. When Mary Jo sought an official statement, she got one which didn't confirm that it's over--but which didn't deny it, either: We are always evaluating and evolving our marketing campaigns. There are times when we use our marketing to highlight differences in how we see the world compared to competitors, and the Scroogled campaign is an example of this. Moving forward, we will continue to use all the right approaches and tactics when and where they make sense. That's not surprising: If Microsoft has decided that it wants to put Scroogled behind it, it probably doesn't want to spend a lot of time explaining its rationale. Here's hoping. In a possibly related development, Mary Jo has a second article reporting that Microsoft has put its online version of Office into Google's Chrome Store, making it easy for Chromebook owners to edit Word, Excel and PowerPoint files using Microsoft's own online apps. The move is semi-symbolic, since those services already worked just fine on Chromebooks if you knew they existed. But it belies one of Scroogled's arguments against Chromebooks, which is that they force you to use "cheap imitations" of Office which will mess up your documents. Of course, there are plenty of instances in which people will be happier with the far more full-featured Office apps available for Windows laptops than the basic online ones which you can use on a Chromebook. But Scroogled's over-the-top assault on Chromebooks--which it calls "imitation laptops"--is at odds with Microsoft's own excellent, Chromebook-friendly incarnation of Office, which it somehow forgets to mention even exist. Scroogled's message is also out of whack with the progressive vision expressed by Microsoft's new CEO, Satya Nadella, at the company's recent Office for iPad launch event and Build conference. Nadella isn't drawing a stark line between Microsoft's platforms and the rest of the world, and telling prospective customers to choose. But that's what Scroogled--supposedly the brainchild of political adman and Clinton confidante Mark Penn, who Nadella shifted from heading Microsoft marketing to a strategy role--effectively does. Now, the chances that we're entering a period of peace, love and understanding are approximately zilch: In her story on Scroogled's possible demise, Mary Jo says that she expects Microsoft to continue to go aggressively after Google. So do I. But consumers are smart. Chromebooks will succeed if they offer something of value to a meaningful number of people, and will fail if they don't. Scroogled won't have a meaningful impact on their fate one way or the other. If these "imitation laptops" are around for the long haul, telling the people who like them that they've been duped, as Scroogled does, isn't going to make Microsoft any new friends. The alternative approach, reflected in the Chrome Store news, is to encourage such folks to be part of the Office faithful. Which strategy do you think is a smarter way to make Microsoft and its products relevant in the post-PC era?
Viviane Sassen

Nevertheless, Sassen says she loves the “swiftness of fashion” as opposed to the “contemplated process of making art.” I asked her about the difference between shooting for magazines and shooting for advertisements.

“What I like about fashion magazines is that they create a platform to experiment and to work closely with people who can be super inspiring. I call it my laboratory. [It] should be like an adventure; not knowing where your play will lead you. When you’re working on fashion campaigns for a commercial brand it’s often much less experimental, but still creative in the sense that you have to match the pieces of a puzzle.”

Sassen has used a computer and a promotional flash drive to retouch some of her images, but mostly avoids it. “I think that something beautiful is even more charming when it’s not too perfect. You don’t want to feel the artificiality of the image, you want to believe in it. I feel related to reality, while slick images feel exchangeable.”

Sassen’s lifelong interest in Africa — and her ongoing explorations of her own subconscious — have contributed to some of the most riveting fashion photography being made today. For a photographer rooted in (or, as she puts it, “related to”) reality, her magazine work is a revelation.


See more of Sassen’s work at VivianeSassen.com.

Myles Little is an associate photo editor at TIME.


Contact us at letters@time.com.

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