The visual artist Juul Kraijer began her career in drawing, then expanded into sculpture, and for the past two years has focused on photography as her medium. She was one of the international photographers who participated in LensCulture FotoFest Paris 2013. We had the opportunity to meet in person and talk about her work. I love this work, but I have difficulty finding words to express how it affects me — it's that mysterious and haunting. Kraijer is very generous in talking about her methods, and what drives her, but again, there is quite a bit of the mystery that goes unspoken. The following is an edited version of our conversation and later correspondence via email. — Jim Casper, editor, LensCulture

The eloquence of my images I can’t match with words. In spite of this, I’m asked so regularly and with such persistence to give a specific explanation, that I don’t want to refuse outrightly doing so.

Personally, I shrink back from interpreting my work, considering the fact that the meaning of a drawing or photograph is always ambiguous. If it were unambiguous, I would have chosen a more direct form than the poetic–associative one of visual art. Visual art is a good medium for giving sharp definition to that which, due to its not being finite, cannot be captured in language and theory.

Interpreting a drawing or photograph, as soon as it’s done with some certainty, deforms into the dictating of a meaning, whereby one artificially restricts the work, amputating the other possibilities in favor of that single one.

And keep in mind that an artist whose work is characterized so much by deception will probably not avoid it in her words either.

As an artist, I am inspired by Surrealist photography featuring parts of the human body. I am equally inspired  by fin-de-siècle medical photography and photographic documentation of séances. Some of the photos of Julia Margaret Cameron have deeply influenced me, as well.

Without being literal, I'm employing the Surrealist grammar of alienation; mirroring, fusing of disparate entities, animating an object, objectifying a human body part, or casting a dazzling web of shadows on it.

All photographs of the series share an emblemata-like concision, showing no more than what is strictly necessary. In each image, the figure looms out of black undefined background. Definition of time is absent as well. No hairstyles or dress belonging to any specific period are shown.

The postures and facial expressions are deliberately restrained. I want an intensely concentrated pose that seems to have been adopted for eternity. I am particularly drawn to the neutrality and timelessness of Cameron's models — they are vehicles for ideas rather than straightforward portraits. 

For some of the images I hired animal trainers to supply snakes, barn owls and large reptiles for the photo shoots. The animals are specially trained to stay relaxed in the glare of photo-lamps and draped on strangers' bodies. My model was extremely courageous.

I was interested in shifting the traditional hierarchy between humans and  animals, in which the animal generally is a mere accessory, a pet or of symbolic value only. For example, in the photographs the snake is the coldblooded protagonist, coiling over the girl's face supremely oblivious of her living presence.

— Juul Kraijer