Earlier this year, a seemingly innocuous black-and-white photograph of a young girl on a fairground ride began appearing across cities, newspapers, scaffolding, bus stops—even in an art gallery. There was no caption, no clever copy trying to communicate a message. Just one image, of one girl, about whom viewers began to create their own narratives and ideas. Who was this girl?

She was the sister of Erik Kessels, artist, art director, and co-founder of ad agency KesselsKramer, and she died when she was just a child. The image that was suddenly and widely disseminated was the last photograph ever taken of her—enlarged, heavily cropped, and framed by Kessels’ parents. Until that point, it had only ever hung in their living room.

According to Kessels, today we “see more images before lunch than someone in the 18th century would in their whole lifetime.” As such, “we’re becoming a species of editors. You need to constantly decide what you see, read, or hear. I thought that if I took one image across a city or a festival, and people don’t know what it is, then it’s a mundane or unimportant image at first glance. But when you see it everywhere it becomes a curiosity that forces people to look at it and wonder what it is that image is.

“I work with the reproduction of images now, and that [image of my sister] was a very early thing I never forgot. The image was taken by an anonymous photographer at a fairground–you could buy it at the end of the ride–so we didn’t even know him. I like to experiment with how far you can tell a story with vernacular and image.”

Erik Kessels, One Image
Erik Kessels, Unfinished Father

But how does working with such personal subject matter feel? “It functions a little bit like therapy,” says Kessels. “With the picture of my sister, the image isn’t fading, it’s still around, and so the function of a single image becomes almost iconic. She would have been in her 40s now, but the image never changes. Things happen in every family, but imagery can help you overcome them. But it has a double meaning, too, and I can feel a bit insecure about it. I feel like ‘Why would people be interested my story? What do other people get from it?’ But on the other hand so many people have had a similar experience.”

This isn’t the first time that Kessels has created artwork from fragments of poignant family stories. In 2015, he unveiled Unfinished Father, a piece that presented a Fiat 500 (or “Topolino”) car alongside a number of photographs of the model’s restoration project. Kessels’ father worked on a number of projects to restore these cars, completing four and working on his fifth when he suffered a stroke that left him immobile and unable to speak. “This work is about a man who, like his vehicle, will never be complete, but remain forever interrupted,” Kessels said. This powerful piece went on to be shortlisted for the Deutsche Böerse Photography Prize 2016.

Notions of shared experiences are never far from Kessels’ personal work. Neither is the appropriation of found imagery—something at the heart of In Almost Every Picture, the magazine he’s published since the early 2000s that draws together images by other, usually amateur, photographers discovered by chance; at flea markets, from various online sources, or through found physical photo albums. Edited together, stories emerge, both in the readers’ imaginations and in real life, as Kessels frequently tries to track down the subjects of his images.

Erik Kessels, 24 Hrs in Photos, at Vevey Images Festival 2014

These in-depth studies of seemingly irrelevant and detached photographs demonstrate the dichotomy of imagery in the internet age; each single snapshot is fascinating if we give it enough time, yet we’re surrounded by such a mass of visuals that they are, more often than not, ignored. This was demonstrated in Kessels’ vast installation 24 Hrs in Photos, in which every photograph generated online in a single day was printed out and dumped in a space—unsurprisingly, the collection spanned floor to ceiling in holding pens as vast as Amsterdam’s FOAM gallery, and an entire church at Vevey’s 2014 Festival Images in Switzerland.

Image from Erik Kessels, Failed It!

So what sparked this fascination with found imagery? “Working as an art director in advertising for many years. When I started there was a group of advertising photographers who always made the photographs close to perfection. I hated that as it’s a fake world, so I always tried to see what other photographers could make. I love the mistakes you see in certain works and images, and when I visited flea markets at the weekends I loved going through these obvious and funny mistakes.” This love of error was cemented with the publication of Failed It!  in spring 2016, subtitled, How to turn mistakes into ideas and other advice for successfully screwing up. Ironically, the book has been a great success.

Erik Kessels, Failed It!

The distinction between “amateur” and “professional” photography is becoming increasingly blurred. Everyone today with a phone is potentially a photographer, and with the right kit and some time dedicated to technique, most people can take a pretty great image. Many would see this democratisation as dangerous, frightening even for an industry built around learning a trade and establishing a creative identity. Not Kessels. “When photography was only for a few people, there was a sort of mist around professional photographers,” he says. “They were the craftsmen. Maybe I’m wrong, but I feel like today every amateur sometimes has a great idea. I like that a lot, as it pushes professional photographers further to come up with a creative idea. It’s not just about things that happen in front of the camera, but behind it, in your head.”

Teaching a workshop at ECAL, Kessels became increasingly concerned that students had impressive and beautifully designed portfolios, but were unable to unpack their meaning. He explains with a metaphor: “A lot of young designers or photographers spend much too long in the front garden of their house. That’s where the work is on display for people to see. But the back garden is where you need to be more, as there’s a fence around it. You can make stupid things and errors that you might be embarrassed by later, but you’ve made those ideas and roots that you can bring through to the front garden.”

Away from workshops and personal projects, let’s not forget that Kessels’ name is also synonymous with the famously bold, irreverent agency he co-founded in Amsterdam in 1995. KesselsKramer now has a studio and gallery in London, a publishing arm, and an outpost in L.A. Unlike most ad-land heroes, KesselsKramer  doesn’t distinguish between its client work and the unusual personal projects created by its staff. Both are celebrated, both are valued—perhaps that’s what has fostered such a strong body of work, and one that retains clients over long periods of time.

Kesselskramer, Sint Lucas identity

While staff isn’t allocated specific time to work away from client work, it’s hugely encouraged. “Design and advertising are there to solve a problem, and art is there to raise or create a problem. But I always learn from doing things in one, then take that into the other. For me it’s about ideas; while one discipline serves a totally different purpose to the other,  you have to think further than just the job you’re on.”

In agency life day today, this means giving staff the freedom to pursue other avenues away from their commercial deadlines, though not in a timetabled way. Kessels asserts that “time is a relative thing,” and when working on one project deadline “sometimes you need a diversion or side street to go into to take a breath and clear your mind, and later come back to it. A lot of creative people need to be overfed—you need to have a lot of stuff on your mind—and if you work for two or three months on one commercial project you get sick of it by the end.”

I ask if there are any projects he’s looked back on and winced at, or anything he’d rather forget. As a sweet and thoughtful interviewee, he seems at once shy to admit it but enormously fulfilled that there hasn’t. “In 20 years of KesselsKramer, I’m very proud that I or anyone else here has never made anything that has been so compromised that I’ve never wanted to see it again.”