The simple ideas are always the best, as London-based Dutch photographer Sipke Visser proves in his exhaustive project, Return to Sender. Now compiled in a beautiful little hard-backed, 480-page book – designed by studio Kummer & Herrman – Return to Sender is the result of three years of passion and dedication from the plucky Dutchman, who wears his heart on his sleeve throughout; as he randomly chooses addresses to send a photograph accompanied by a handwritten letter and self-addressed envelope. The letter? A request for the recipient to write something, anything – about the photo, their life; who they are, where they are and what’s on their mind. It’s a process that leaves Visser vulnerable to the responses and rejections of strangers, but equally warmth and fascination – whatever the outcomes, this is a personal project in every sense of the word.
Responses are as random as Visser’s selection process (via Google Maps): a biologist leaves the Dutch photographer under no uncertain terms that his work is not ‘art’ (neither are unmade beds or dissected cows, by the way), varying OAPs express confusion and scepticism, whilst one chap tells all about the three-day drinking binge that has led to an almighty hangover and his girlfriend ‘chucking’ him – the same chap also sends Visser images of his prized fighting cocks (which he doesn’t fight), and the fishing boat he works on. There’s an assortment of rude, borderline agressive responses and, although few continue the responses passed one or two, Visser and an old lady called Norma become pen-pals of sorts through a mammoth series of letters. Photographer’s assistant by day, Visser’s perseverance with this project (the countless no replies must surely have bred much disillusionment) bears fruits that restore faith in strangers, albeit too infrequently.
Charming, funny, sad, but – above all – utterly captivating; Return to Sender is a welcome reminder of a pre-email time that’s unfortunately all but forgotten. What binds this body of work together, and sets it apart from other snail mail revival projects we’ve seen, is Visser’s photography; something that can often be overlooked when trawling through the collections of reproduced, handwritten letters. As with the endearing exploration of humanity that the writing evokes, Visser’s photography is raw, real, and capable of causing society to look introspectively at itself; without prejudice or comment, the photographer’s snapshots offer a casual window into the many different worlds that he fleetingly finds himself within. Powerful, evocative, emotional… Visser’s project is difficult to put down, impossible to forget.