The tension and struggles among invisible powers (often economic) and society, the artificial world and nature are often at the fore of Jacqueline Hassink’s work. In The Table of Power (1996) and The Table of Power 2 (2012) the Dutch-born, New York-based photographer looked at Europe’s economic landscape through some of the largest industrial multinationals; in Car Girls (2009), she visited major motor shows across three continents to compare how femininity is used in corporate identities.

Launched recently at the Nederlands Fotomuseum in Rotterdam, Hassink’s ‘Unwired’ – presented as both book and exhibition – looks at the asphyxiating relationship between the human and digital worlds, confronting our addiction to mobile devices.

Installation view of the ‘Unwired’ exhibition at Nederlands Fotomuseum

The exhibition is an amalgamation of two projects: Unwired Landscapes and iPortrait. It started in the summer of 2012 on a trip with her assistant to a Japanese island, Yakushima, where they found their first ‘white spot’. ‘On the first day of our expedition, we entered the forest and at a certain point we went separate ways,’ explains Hassink. ‘We thought we could just text each other and find the way back but we soon understood that we were in a “white spot” – a place without internet or mobile phone coverage. It was all confusing but at the same time liberating.’

Hassink then began her quest of creating a map of the world’s white spots, to see what is happening off the telecom grid and to remind us of the fundamental human need for inner peace. The desire of escaping from the digital world took her to faraway places such as Norway’s Svalbard archipelago and the volcanic desert of Iceland. ‘When you have this vast, huge landscape in front of you where there are no houses or anything, just nature, it’s an incredibly strong experience,’ she recalls. However, white spots also imply the modern-world irrelevancy of the remoteness of an area – ‘these are seen as economic wastelands, so there is no connectivity’.

Onoaida 8, 30°17’59”N 130°31’49”E, Onoaida Trail, Yakushima, Japan Fall, 2 October 2016, by Jacqueline Hassink. © The artist

There are also artificially created ‘white spots’ – at the digital-detox-themed getaway Villa Stéphanie at Brenners Park-Hotel & Spa in Baden Baden, Germany, for instance. ‘This is something from the first world; something from the luxury world that we are living in,’ says Hassink. Copper walls are installed in the hotel so that guests can disconnect themselves with just one switch, ‘so you create this tranquil zone for yourself in a way’.

In iPortrait, the photographer dived into the subway systems of cities like New York, Paris, London, Shanghai and Tokyo to portray travellers so deeply immersed in their smartphones that they appear to be in another world. Hassink focused on the body language and emotions of these passengers and observed with her lens the interaction between their hands and the appliances. 

A project map of connectivity white spots for ‘Unwired Landscapes’

In the exhibition, designed by Irma Boom (the Dutch graphic designer who also created the accompanying book), visitors are asked to strip off their digital layer before entering the space, so that they can be absorbed in photographs of the unwired landscapes and experience a moment, physically and mentally, of disconnected peace. But it was interesting to see how so many people tried to sneak their phones into the exhibition, or who were in denial of the need of an occasional unplug. It seems one needs a bigger commitment to stay sane than to stay online.