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I AM ABOUT TO CALL IT A DAY

Mirelle Thijsen (MT):

I Am About to Call it a Day is a book printed in A-3 format. This book publication is No. 169 in the row of books issued by Patrick Frey in Zürich. This particular publication has been prepared in cooperation with Hannibal Publishing, I read on the cover, and in the colophon on the inside of the Brown minigolf cardboard cover. You can hardly call it a ‘book’; it has the appearance of an oblong calendar contained in a carton sleeve. This is not meant to be a depreciative comment, but an observation based on just the book-technical aspects. And the title (in a large bold Franklin Gothic Condensed font) printed in black on the front cover slams in your face. Why did you and the Dutch designer Mevis van Deursen choose for this format, this form of presentation? Tell me please how it all came about.

I AM ABOUT TO CALL IT A DAY

Bieke Depoorter (BD):

Hannibal Publishing is a Belgian Publisher. I collaborated with Armand Mevis on a book project published three years ago. A modest edition it is.

 As for this book, it is important to me to let the images speak for themselves. Therefore deliberately is chosen not to include too much text. And for the same reasons captions are lacking. I think it is important that there is room for the viewer to interpret the pictures. I like to create a narrative; to use photography to tell a story. That is why the book size was important. Many small details are blended in the story, such as small texts incorporated in the photographs. It’s good to be able to view the pictures frame by frame, even though the sequence of frames makes up the story. That is why I have chosen one picture per page.

I AM ABOUT TO CALL IT A DAY

MT:

Yes these are full bleed images, and large in size. Actually you dive into the picture, right away into that space, be it a living room, a bedroom, or a kitchen-diner, somewhere in the United States.

BD:

Yes! I have tried many things, such as a smaller page size. Initially it daunted me, such a large book size. But finally it turned out well. So why not!

 

MT:

Isn’t the form of binding called ‘Swiss binding’? Looking at the tape cloth lining on the topside, and the cover is not attached to the face top edge.

BD:

Swiss binding..? I’m not exactly sure how such book-technical details are termed!

MT:

You have previously cooperated with graphic designers Mevis and van Deursen, I understand. During the production process of which book did you collaborate?

I AM ABOUT TO CALL IT A DAY

BD:

Ou Menya … is a book containing pictures taken in Russia. And I got to know Armand (Mevis) while I was studying at KASK in Gent. He gave a lecture on design at the time. I thought highly of his artist’s strategy; I’m suspicious of designers who put themselves forward. Further, Armand is eager to understand my work and to search for a solution in book form together. When I graduated I asked him if he would like to create a book with me. The production process went very well, both then while compiling my first photobook, and now. It was perfect.

MT:

When did that take place? When did you collaborate on your first book project?

BD:

In 2011 Ou Menya was published.

MT:

We will get back to that later in our conversation. By the way, what is the size of the initial print run of I Am About to Call it a Day?

BD:

One thousand five hundred copies.

I know Edition Patrick Frey prefers to keep the print run low. And both publishers have 750 books for sales and distribution. So, Hannibal distributes in Belgium and the Netherlands, and Patrick Frey mainly internationally.

 

I AM ABOUT TO CALL IT A DAY

MT:

Let’s talk about the title of your recently published book, which is strong and inviting… It is a typical American colloquial expression: “calling it a day”. How did you come up with that title?

BD:

I actually thought up the title. I make videos because I feel the medium of photography falls short, although I have not implemented any of the moving imagery in my work so far. At one time I was visiting a lady who lived in a small apartment home in a public housing complex, and I stayed overnight with her. She sat for 12 hours, the entire day, in front of her door. With her dog. I filmed her for a few hours straight. I knew already I might use a quote from that movie as the title for my book. She was constantly directing everyday life, from her chair, in front of her door. At one time, as the sun went down she looked at her mobile phone and she said: “I am about to call it a day.”   And she went inside. She had done nothing else that day. I consider the title quite appropriate, because only then did I start photographing people as they would round off their day. That moment I find quite interesting. Because as soon as people are indoors, they become more in tune with themselves, away from everyone … They start to relax.

MT:

How did you come to that conclusion: that you actually wanted to photograph that specific moment in the lives of other people? When did you become aware of that? I mean, to realize that this time of day, this subject matter appears to be appealing to you?

BD:

Gosh…Why? ‘WHY’ I always find such questions hard to answer! It started with my work in Russia. There I stayed overnight in people’s homes. At the time, that was not my intention. I only did that because I had no money. And because there were no hotels in the villages I visited. Next, I started to approach people and asked them if I could stay overnight. It was then that I realized that this was a fair way for me to work with photography. Previously, I often took pictures on the street, but never really felt comfortable with what I was doing. Because I had the feeling that this way of working was too snapshot-like. And I felt I did not give the people I documented a fair chance. That was a moment of insight: I realized how I wanted to deal with people in my work. That’s how it started.

And in this body of work, in America … I have a feeling that people are much less reluctant in their home environment. When the night falls, the time people go to sleep, is often a very intimate moment, not a chance occurrence. That aspect was attractive to me too. I don’t want to emphasize that the photographs are about these American citizens per se, they are also very much about me. The cinematographic atmosphere … is what I want to communicate. I feel that atmosphere especially at night and during that intimate hour.

MT:

So that expression “Call it a Day” is the outcome of that one meeting with the lady sitting all day in front of her door?  

BD:

Yes!

MT:

Now you have finalized the project, what does the phrase mean to you?

BD:

This book might be a collection of images, but the project isn’t finished. Each picture refers to the night that falls, to the day that dawns. Currently I’m working on a similar project in Egypt. And maybe one day I will be able to combine all the photowork into a more substantial large book. Already, in exhibition presentations I often bring parts of the different projects together. So, I do not consider the project accomplished at this stage, at the publication of this book.

MT:

So it is an artist’s strategy, a way of working that you will continue, at different locations, in terms of geographical area and social-cultural environment?

BD:

Yes. The project in Egypt started during the revolution, three years ago. It’s very interesting to be able to apply the same concept to a different culture. It is very similar. Anywhere in the world people go home after a workday, choose a way of social withdrawal, go to sleep.

 

MT:

Let’s go back to your book. First, who is Maarten Dings, the author of the afterword on the back flap?

BD:

Maarten Dings is a friend of mine. We have studied together. He is also a photographer. At some point, for a major exhibition, I asked him to write an introductory text. I did not think about it beforehand. It moved me immensely; I am not good at talking about my own work, in explaining things. I considered it relevant that someone close to me, and my work, wrote a text. And I preferred a text, which is not too vague, not a theoretical notion. That’s why I asked him to write an afterword for his book.

 

I AM ABOUT TO CALL IT A DAY

MT:

I wonder! And this might be my only criticism: I wonder to what extent his words refer to you, honestly!

BD:

Seriously?

MT:

Yes! Because he makes statements like … I’ll try to highlight some of them…What is Dings referring to with words like ‘the image of oblivion’ and ‘a figure moon bathing in the nightly gloom’? It all sounds pretty mysterious…

Like in this text fragment: ‘Her mind wonders off to places’. To WHOM is the author referring to?

I AM ABOUT TO CALL IT A DAY

BD:

Maarten describes a picture: the next to last picture in the book. Do you have the book at hand?

MT:

Yes.

BD:

This is a picture of a woman taking a bath. Maarten Dings is making reference to that specific image in the first two paragraphs of the text.

MT:

I understand, so “her mind” is not about you.

BD:

No, this is about her!

MT:

That was not clear to me. Okay, we will return to this image later.

One more example: Which moment is Dings referring to with the phrase that ‘the photographer succeeded in making seem perfectly self-evident’? I did not understand what is meant.

 

BD:

In that section, he writes about my photographs in general. In saying that my photographs speak for themselves.

MT:

Yes, in that manner. I feel that the words seem to ‘hoover’ above your work, but not describe what you actually see: the reality. While reading the afterword, I was seeking for things. What exactly does the author mean?

 

BD:

Okay…Thanks.

MT:

Bieke, I am not so familiar with your work yet. Actually I am About to Call it a Day, is my first encounter with your work. Would you please introduce me to your debut author-photographer book publication, you mentioned earlier, entitled Ou Menya. What does the title mean? In which language is it written? And what is this photobook about?

 

BD:

That means in Russian: ‘with me’. The Communist ideology has flaws in the Russian language: for example, if someone says, “that car is mine”, one says actually: “that car is with me”. I think that is a beautiful way of expressing. Russians use that phrase in a similar way when they say: “come and stay with me overnight”.

 

MT:

Nicely said! So that is the way the possessive pronoun is expressed? Along the lines of: “that car is mine”?

 

BD:

Yes. Actually, in Russian you don’t make that clear. The car is rather ‘with me’, than ‘mine’.

MT:

Now I see! What is the book about? Would you please explain the content to me?

BD:

I have never done this kind of travelling before; this was the first time. I took the Trans Siberia Express, from Moscow to Vladivostok. Every time I start a project, I like to have no expectations whatsoever. This project was my graduation-work for the art academy. The only intention I had was that I wanted to take a trip on the Trans Siberian Railway. Prior to leaving I contacted one person, in Moscow, where I could sleep over the first night. She spoke English. She was the only person who spoke English during my trips. I also knew that I wanted to visit small villages. Everything else was left open. And because I had no money, and hotel rooms were not available in these villages, I asked the lady in Moscow to write a note in Russian, with the announcement that I am a photographer. I don’t have a lot of money and asking the person receiving the note whether I could stay overnight. With that note in my pocket I went travelling around. I showed it to people, in order to find a place to sleep, but at the same time, hopefully, it was the doorway to photograph them. I continued to do so, every night, consistently. I made three trips to Russia, each time I spent one month. I’ ve always travelled by train. Every morning I took a local train, I get off in a small village, walked around and encountered a person, and I took photographs.

 

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MT:

And people are open to the idea?

BD:

Apparently! Haha…

MT:

But what do you say to them? Or you just show that note to people?

 

BD:

We can’t talk to each other, because we don’t share a common language. That’s exactly what gives me a thrill. Without common language, and for a very short time – I stay only one night – we became emotionally intimate with each other. I was quickly included as a family member.

MT:

So basically you could say you don’t know each other’s history, don’t know each other’s background, you barely know a person’s name, and still you receive great hospitality?

 

BD:

Yes. Novelty and familiarity play an important role in this kind of meeting. First I thought it had to do with the fact we did not share a common language. Whatever cliché question we would like to pose to each other (Who are you?) was impossible. We, literally, could not talk to each other. We had to observe each other in order to see whether we trusted each other. You deal with one and another in a different way, allowing you to meet up and get to know each other quickly, much quicker than by other means, by using language.

MT:

In one of the book publications issued by Rob Hornstra and Arnold van Bruggen in the realm of the Sochi project I read that Russians are extremely hospitable. As if this is a culturely-induced gesture, socially essential, and therefore everyone considers it important to be carried out.

BD:

Yes, as well as being very honest. On the other hand, people on the street were fairly gruff, they looked down, and they didn’t smile.   For example, in case you want to buy a train ticket, and you do not speak the language, then that’s your problem. But once they invite you into their homes, and feel they can trust you, the Russians are extremely friendly! I met extremely poor people: they lack any private property. Sometimes I simply slept next to them in one bed.

MT:

Extraordinary!

In 2012 you joined Magnum Photos as a nominee? How did the nomination come about? And has your status changed since?

BD:

How did it come about! Ha-ha… Anyone can submit a portfolio, but in general members, Magnum photographers, who support your work, will nominate you. Then all members take a vote. Some Magnum photographers were acquainted with my work already. I had won a prize with my graduation project: the Magnum Expression Award. Alex Soth had seen my work. Susan Meiselas was then serving on a jury. In the past I collaborated with Harry Gruyaert. Half of the votes need to approve. So now I’m an associate member at Magnum Photos, again after a further round of voting occurred. One more step to go: in two years time Magnum members will vote once more, and the outcome of the votes may result in a full membership.

MT:

Okay, that is the procedure and what additional steps have to be taken. Well, bon chance!

BD:

Thank you. Ha-ha!

I AM ABOUT TO CALL IT A DAY

MT:

Let’s move on to the United States. Let’s try to make that transition. Why did you take that decision to continue the project in the US?

 

BD:

I wanted to continue the project in another location, when not faced with a language barrier. In order to experience whether that would make a difference. I wanted to find out whether getting as close as I could to people had to do with the fact that I don’t command the local language. We have plenty of stereotypes about Americans… This applies equally to Russians; I had very little knowledge about the US. I was simply curious. I just started travelling around, out of the blue!

 

MT:

Again by train?

BD:

No, because in the US, there is minimal public transit services in the US.

MT:

Greyhound bus lines?

BD:

Yes, but the Greyhound bus does not stop in the villages that I wanted to visit. The first five trips I hitchhiked up and down and around. It was not so pleasant; I don’t like to hitchhike. But I had no money to rent a car. I really wanted to go to unknown territories, visit small communities. So the last three trips I rented a car. During these travels the landscapes were recorded. These vistas are intertwined in the book.

I AM ABOUT TO CALL IT A DAY

MT:

Yes, interesting. These landscapes are like different pauses, scattered throughout the book. They are not intended as chapter divisions, I assume?

 

BD:

No, absolutely not. Also the landscapes do not necessarily convey something about the people who are depicted before or after. While travelling by car, I try as little as possible to think about what I’m going to do. I feel too restricted that way. But I was automatically being drawn to those landscapes. It comes first and foremost from the threat, the desperation I was facing in the mountainous areas. I started to document the landscapes. When I got home, I realized, while I started to create the story line of my book, that the landscapes fitted in and radiate the same type atmosphere as I felt when encountering these people. For me the landscapes are equivalent to the portraits. The end result is the combination of both.

 

MT:

You say for five times you hitchhiked as primary mode of travel, and three times you rented a car. When did that take place? What is the time frame?

BD:

I started in 2010. I enjoy working on multiple projects. Further, it requires a lot of energy to stay overnight with other people. I need to return back home and have to bother myself with something else. And even after returning home I do not immediately view and edit the pictures I’ve made. Sometimes it takes up to six months before I look at the material.

 

MT:

You have been to the US about three times per year?

BD:

Usually twice a year.

MT:

And how long would you stay?

BD:

Three weeks.

MT:

How many people have you visited in total during each of the three-week periods?

BD:

Every five days I take a break. Gosh…How many?

MT:

Let’s try to calculate: three weeks…An average of five per week?

BD:

I think I met about 18 people per trip. And the last time I took an ocean voyage to the US, I just went there to photograph landscapes. Not with the intention to stay overnight with people.

MT:

And the snow landscapes?

I AM ABOUT TO CALL IT A DAY

BD:

Yes, I photographed the snow landscapes during the last trip, but also during previous trips. I felt drawn to that atmosphere, like a cinematic technique that creates drama. And Yes, I wonder, when actually is a project finished? Anyway, you evolve as a professional photographer. That process went so rapidly, it made me realize that the photographs I took during the first trip I could hardly use any longer.

MT:

So you came up with the idea to spend the night at the homes of perfect strangers in the US. How did you encounter these people? Would you please try to sketch a few of these meetings, give some examples?

BD:

I would meet people on the street. I would walk around and observe people. And try to discover who can I contact; someone who I can trust. Next, I rather bluntly ask whether I can stay overnight with them.

 

MT:

The author wrote: you actually ‘wander around’, as the text on the back flap suggests. So that is what you do, that is the case?

BD:

Yes!

MT:

Sometimes things can go wrong, or not?

BD:

Yes, sometimes that is the case, although extremely bad things haven’t happened. If anything goes wrong, then that is related to people I haven’t met earlier, or are unexpectedly present in the house I visit. But the people I have met on the street I have always been able to rely on. As soon as you pose the question, you assess the nature of their response, and their good or bad intentions.

I often decide immediately: “Okay”, or “I rather not stay overnight with you”, because once out and in the open, it feels a bit awkward.

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MT:

So in a split second, you need to determine: I do it, or I don’t. You will have to be very attentive, to know when it feels right?

BD:

Yes. Much is derived from reading another person’s body language signals, from personal behaviour.

MT:

Would you please mention one or two examples?

BD:

The lady in the hot springs, the second to last picture, I met her in a grocery store.

MT:

The Marylyn Monroe-type!

BD:

Yes! It is strange. Because it was night, and I always want to have a place to sleep before darkness falls, because that is safer. It was so dark and I was desperate; It was the first night of one of my travels to the US. She was a friendly lady, but it didn’t really feel like this would be a night in which I would take some pictures. You feel something is – or is not – going to happen, as soon as you enter the home. And suddenly she asks me to come along with her to a hot springs in the middle of nowhere, in a forest. The location was absurd.

 

MT:

Where exactly is this story taking place, in the US?

BD:

In New Mexico. Close to a village called Las Vegas! In the region of Albuquerque and Santa Fe. So every encounter that matters is a surprise; you can’t predict what will happen.

MT:

The very first time I saw one of your pictures, I was looking at the one of the elderly man with long hair, sitting in a wheelchair, and sleeping in an awkward posture. What kind of interactions did you have with this older man sleeping in his wheel chair? Did you stay with him, until he, literally, ‘called it a day’ and fell asleep?

 I AM ABOUT TO CALL IT A DAY

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BD:

There is also a picture of an older couple lying in bed, embracing each other. That’s the same man. I stayed overnight at their home as well. The next day they went to a wedding ceremony and they asked if I wanted to join them so I could leave from there. They had also invited me to stay overnight during this occasion. As you can see the photograph is made in a hotel room. This elderly man just came back from the wedding party, in his neat suit, and fell asleep in the wheelchair.

MT:

Why is he in a wheelchair? What is wrong with him?

BD:

His knees aren’t working well; He walks lame. I like it when people, while studying my pictures, do not know the storyline, what subject matter is depicted. And that brings up these kind of questions. And my answers do not fully address your questions. That is also the reason why I have no captions accompanying the pictures.

MT:

Yes, this openness is very tangible in your book.

The author of the afterword, Dings, (I bring him up one more time) suggests you did ‘win their hearts’? It says by candidly admitting to your ‘own vulnerability’. What does he mean by that? What is Dings referring to by saying your ‘own vulnerability’?

BD:

My vulnerability? People lead with their chin, introducing me into their homes, and vice versa. I think it is important that we keep a conversation going; I am there not only as a ‘professional photographer’, but more as a person. I live with these people. That openness is vital. I am genuinely interested in them.

 

MT:

Do you stay in contact with some of the people after you’ve left? Or all that remains is the momentary encounter, and that’s it.

BD:

That moment itself is what counts for me. I do not contact all those people I have met again, because I cherish that one occasion. That is a beautiful memory. I’m also afraid of being disillusioned if I would meet these people again. Many people add me on Facebook and send emails from time to time. I do sent messages in reply. In general I leave it up to the people themselves..

MT:

You just said the following: ‘I’m afraid of being disappointed if I would meet them again’. What do you mean exactly?

BD:

Usually, It is in these moments when unique pictures are hatched. A particular atmosphere is created, since I’m only staying one night. We all had agreed upon me leaving the next morning. People share a lot because they realize we have decided to part ways the next morning. And this is why I do not consider it necessary to seek after those people again.

MT:

You savour the intensity of the moment?

BD:

Yes! That single night counts, yes.

MT:

I presume you stay awake all night.

BD:

The evening, I mean, that is more accurate!

MT:

I like to get back on that topic, as I assume, one or two pictures were not taken at night, but during the day.

But let’s first talk about a technical aspect of your book: Two kinds of paper have been used for the reproduction of the photographs: Olin regular natural 80 grams for the landscapes I presume, which is a type of thin paper with a fine texture. And Hello Fatt matt natural 150 grams, used for the main characters, for the narrative. We touched on this topic: Please tell me more about the pictures interleaved in the book depicting desolate snow landscapes and cities by night. Where did you take these pictures?

 

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BD:

There are eight landscapes featured in the book. Yeah, where did I take these pictures…? During my travels, in-between stays. I took several pictures in the Rocky Mountains.

 

MT:

How many US states have you visited? You just mentioned New Mexico. Where have you been?

BD:

I always choose two major cities from which I would depart from and at which I would arrive, such as Atlanta and New York. So I fly to Atlanta and my return flight is from New York. Then I travel in three weeks from one city to another. In the course of this project I crossed over the US. I took another trip from Seattle to New York. Yet another journey I took from Seattle to Denver. I also travelled across Florida. I have visited many US states, except for the Mid-West.

 

MT:

Well, now I get a glimpse of the range of itineraries. What happened to me is, while looking through your book, is that I did not get to the landscapes because that thin type of paper (Olin regular natural 80 grams) is sticking to the photo pages.

BD:

Yes! The opposite effect to that intended…Ha-ha.

MT:

I’d like to pose another question regarding the landscape photography: How do you relate these pictures to the book title I Am About to Call It A Day?

BD:

The comprehensive title is reflecting an atmosphere. Similar to the one reflected in the portraits.

MT:

Indeed, you consider this is a similar way of communicating, I understand.

BD:

Yes.

MT:

I’d like to address now a different aspect of your way of working: How does your work incline towards the cinematographic?

I AM ABOUT TO CALL IT A DAY

BD:

I don’t know if ‘cinematic’ principles and techniques are the right qualification. To me my photographs are a form of fiction, like a movie. My predisposition was that my work about Russia was truthful: it is about reality. While in the US my work was evolving in a different direction: I am trying to make use of reality, not so much in terms of staging, but I admit that this body of work is not the representation of Reality per se. It is above all my reality. The people depicted are not so much portraying themselves, but rather a persona.

 

MT:

Aha, So it is! Your pictures had already led me suspect something, but I didn’t dare to ask! The facial expressions show it sometimes, like that little boy, sitting at the table studying his sheet music. The expression in his eyes is highly revealing.

BD:

Well, the positioning of the people is not staged.

MT:

I don’t mean posing, more … something going beyond reality.

BD:

I try to reveal something about these people: A kind of personal atmosphere. That might be the cinematic aspect: something ominous is hanging in the air… I find myself thinking being arrogant if I would confirm that those people are in daily life exactly like they are depicted in the pictures. I try to capture ‘something’ in people. The getting away from this world, and search for the moment in which they find themselves in a world of their own.

 

MT:

But how do you do that? You learn to observe people closely? Do you give instructions to people? Can you direct an emotion? Or you just wait and see?

BD:

I hardly direct anything. For example, in the case of the portrait of a woman lying in bed, staring at a red shaded lamp: she is well aware I am taking a portrait. Once I might say: “Stay like that”. At the start of a session I focus on communication, then I stop talking, allowing people to be thrown back onto themselves. That is the moment when I begin to take pictures.

 

MT:

And how much time is in between? Half a minute…or more?

BD:

It takes at least half an hour!

MT:

Half an hour! That session alone is most telling. So you’ll just sit in silence together in a room?

BD:

Yes, as is often the case! Before starting to take portraits in the bedrooms, I usually begin with a conversation. At a certain moment I am just living the present; I don’t talk anymore.

MT:

You don’t hear the camera’s shutter click?

BD:

In fact, you do!

MT:

So you make multiple shots of the person, in half-hour time frames?

BD:

Yes. My way of working varies from place to place. And it depends a lot on what kind of people I meet. Sometimes the pictures are taken rapidly, due to a volatile situation, at other times really slow.

 

MT:

Very nice; this provides insight in your inward disposition towards other people, as well as your artist’s strategy. Let’s focus on the cinematic aspects of your work, in a broader context. I don’t think that your work refers to Dennis Hopper-like movie scenes, or Wim Wenders-like scenes.

BD:

No, it comes from within myself, from being inspired by others. I just returned from the Ardennes: a week without internet, no telephone connections. The outer space radiates an atmosphere in the forest, there is the smell of manure, a type of threat, that moves me very much. Maybe that is what could be defined as the ‘cinematic’ aspect…

 

MT:

Or should we say ‘suspense’?

BD:

Suspense?

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MT:

‘Suspense’ is [a state or condition of mental uncertainty or excitement, as in awaiting a decision or outcome, usually accompanied by a degree of apprehension or anxiety] the thrill of the unknown, like in a movie.

BD:

Yes, indeed!

MT:

We have a house in a forest, in the Vosges mountains, I know what it feels like!

BD:

Ha-ha…Super!

MT:

Let’s talk about the pictures some more, and also about text, because text seems to be an essential part of your way of expressing yourself. Who wrote the letter ‘My Useless Existence’ on July 2nd, 1997? Where did you find the handwritten letter?

BD:

I got to see that letter at a woman’s home; I stayed overnight at her place. She was present, as well as her husband. At one point I was sitting in her bedroom, we sat together on her bed, and she started telling me very personal stories. She was very open about her suicidal thoughts. This is an excerpt from her diary: A kind of farewell letter that she had written in the 1990s. And her husband actually knows nothing about that letter.

 

MT:

She took the initiative to show you that letter?

BD:

Yes. I also took portraits of this woman, but to me the picture is more a meditation on the significance of the letter as a symbol, on a more figurative level, much more significant than the portraits I took of her.

MT:

So you will not find her portrayed in this book? Only the letter is included?

BD:

That’s right.

MT:

And where did this take place, in which part of the US?

BD:

Gosh, that I don’t remember right now.

 I do keep a log, or notebook every morning or afternoon I briefly write down my feelings, the names of the people I have met the night before, and the location. But I do not know everything by heart!

 

I AM ABOUT TO CALL IT A DAY

MT:

One more example: the same counts for the note written on tinfoil, or is it paper kitchen towel?

BD:

I think it is written on duck tape. Is that what you mean? It reads: ‘It’s not because you hear noise…’ Yes, that note is handwritten on duck tape.

MT:

What is meant by that piece of text?

BD:

‘It’s not because you hear noise that we’re home…’ Not a very welcoming phrase.

It was glued to the front door. I have been inside, though! And I considered it appropriate for the book.

MT:

Was that note meant for you?

BD:

No, no. The note was addressed to visitors coming to the house. Actually I did not see the note until I closed the door and left the next morning.

 

MT:

Are these people represented in the book? Or did you merely take a picture of the note?

BD:

No, I photographed just the handwritten note.

MT:

In fact, text is very much part of your book project. We find personal notes, slogans on a wall (‘I love class’, scribbled on a wall in a teenager’s room. And this one is a little weird: ‘A little hope’ in adhesive letters glued on a wall in a living room. This phrase is adorable: There is a pencil drawing showing a heart pierced by a sword and surrounded with flowers. In the very heart of it, it says: ‘I Just Wanted To Tell You How Much I Like You’ – each word shaded in fat capital letters). This is truly a description of the emotional world of people.

 

BD:

You say it all yourself; I think so, too.

I AM ABOUT TO CALL IT A DAY

MT:

There is a letter from a husband to his wife, written in jail, on recycled paper. Would you please comment on this letter?

BD:

She is a woman with whom I spent the night. Her husband was in jail for paedophilia. The letter from her husband is about his children. But being a child, you don’t realize it deals with paedophilia. The letter is interesting for different reasons.

MT:

What struck me is that the tone of the letter is authoritative.

BD:

Definitely a cold mechanical letter it is. It might be considered even the opposite of the love note with the heart.

MT:

Yes … a chilly, authoritarian way of approaching a person, nota bene your partner. Where did you get the letter?

BD:

She was also someone who told about her past, like the woman who has considered suicide. Actually, I ended up visiting prisons with families fairly frequently, about two or three times, because I went visiting with people who have jailed family members. But I didn’t do that with her. She took me upstairs to see pictures of her husband, some letters … that way I came across that letter. It all happens by talking to each other, sharing things. This took place in Montana, I think.

MT:

Watching television is mainly how these American citizens fade into ‘oblivion’, just looking at these staring empty eyes. I have been counting: 8 photographs show people staring at the screen. And studying the expression on their faces, I wondered if photographs (such as the picture of the boy with neatly combed hair, sitting at the table studying sheet music); have been staged? It looks like they have had instructions.

I AM ABOUT TO CALL IT A DAY

BD:

This picture is taken of an Amish family. The boy is studying Bible songs, which are sung in the morning. They are always dressed this way. Children don’t go to school, I believe; they study at home. I sat at the table with him and at one point I said: ‘stop’, or ‘wait’, and then I took his portrait.

MT:

So while he is studying, you say: ‘wait’!

BD:

I cannot remember the chronology of events.

MT:

Why do you tell the boy to ‘wait’?

BD:

When a particular posture, glimpse or regard is of interest to me, then I put someone on ‘hold’. Other photographers work the same way, I think…

MT:

Now I understand. You want to hold onto that moment. The same with regard to the picture of the teenager girl lying down on her bed in her bedroom. That scene comes across as if something has been directed.Could we consider this atmosphere something what we have been referring to as ‘suspense’? A building of interest and suspense occurs in space, in the course of time; it seems to be a vital tool.

 

BD:

Yes, definitely.

MT:

I like to share a few more observations with you. What struck me is, looking at the picture of a young girl wearing a yellow plastic necklace and a pink sweater standing in a front yard, that it looks like the picture is taken early in the morning, at dawn. While ‘Calling it a Day’ is actually referring to the end of the day: there is nothing else to do, people are tired. Sometimes you work in the morning before you leave, am I right?

BD:

That girl was actually the only ‘volatile contact’ that I have had. The picture was taken in the evening, using a strong flashlight. I took a break, and was walking around the neighbourhood, not shooting any pictures, and I passed by that girl. As I took the next street, it felt as if she had hypnotized me, with her appearance. No further word had been spoken. I came back with my camera, and took that portrait. For me, the atmosphere was suitable for in the book.

MT:

Yes …And … I feel that, in this case, you are making contact with and photographing some anonymous person in public space. Because it was so intense for you, you were so magnified, that you went back with your camera. You worked outside ‘protocol’!

I-am-about-to-call-it-a-day12

BD:

Yes. Huh, I have no protocol!

MT:

I mean, usually, you repeat what is familiar to you; you use a way of working, a way to control the circumstances. You meet strangers on the street, ask them to stay overnight, go to their homes, get acquainted with each other and start photographing. In my view, it all has to do with creating suspense…

BD:

Yes, definitely! The fact that I stay overnight with people is ultimately part of a process, if you wish. And indeed, it’s all about suspense shared. Whether I stay overnight or not doesn’t really matter to me!

 

MT:

So in fact, that is not what it is about.

BD:

No.

MT:

And then the final picture: What are we looking at? For ease I call the person portrayed, a middle-aged Marilyn Monroe type. You met her at the grocery store, you said. She is relaxing outside, at night, in a dugout piece of concrete, wearing her swimming suit.

BD:

This is a hot springs in the middle of a forest. Probably in order to hold the water they poured reinforced concrete and dug a hole. An outdoor lantern has been installed above the hot springs. And that’s it. It is a weird place.

 

MT:

Speaking of cinematic atmosphere!

BD:

Yes!

MT:

You went along with her? First, you met this lady at the grocer, that evening…

BD:

Yes, she invited me to come along, and of course I was thrilled. We also bathed together in the outdoors hot springs. Then I stepped out and took some photographs. Everything is melting together.

Actually I feel a little uncomfortable explaining how I take my pictures. That’s why I don’t mention this in the book itself. It’s simply not important for the viewer to know. 

MT:

You do participate in someone’s life. You step into people’s lives, as it were.

BD:

Yes, that’s right. And those are precisely the circumstances, which create a living trust. This all relates to me getting access to a person’s bedroom. I can’t just say: “I’m going to take some pictures in the bedroom”.

 

I-am-about-to-call-it-a-day6

MT:

How to make it happen? How to convince someone to trust you? First you give that note, or you introduce yourself in English. Show me! Let’s say I live in a small village in North America, and we meet each other on the street. And then you ask me whether you can spend the night with me. How do you do it?

BD:

“Hello, I know this might seem like an odd question. I’m a photographer and I take pictures of people at home and I would like to ask if I may stay overnight with you”? That’s it, very direct.

MT:

Then you’re not yet in the bedroom!

BD:

The book consists of only 42 images… Well, how do I do it…? I participate. Things happen. I definitely do not knock on a bedroom door. It happens because the people don’t find my presence objectionable. And please realize than another method does not work for me.

MT:

That’s exactly it, what I am referring to; you have no method. You pick up their flow as a way of life. You’re built into it. Otherwise I think that you would encounter resistance of some sort.

BD:

Yes. When I take photographs, I’m just there, very mindful, and with them. Focussing on the emotions, thoughts and sensations occurring at that moment. The pictures just pour out. I definitely do not want to consider these people as objects. And therefore I take breaks, after three weeks I need to go back home, because otherwise there is a risk that I treat people unfairly.

 

MT:

That sounds respectful. It reminds me also of the working method of Bertien van Manen, as she proceeded in Russia in the 1990s. Although Bertien stayed with people for longer periods.

BD:

Yes, Bertien van Manen stayed much longer at people’s homes, I do believe comparing both ways of working is possible.

 MT:

Finally, please tell me what the work in progress IN BETWEEN is about. And to what does the title refer?

BD:

This is a series that I created in Egypt. The work is the result of a collaborative project with three other photographers. We were asked to photograph during the Egyptian revolution of 2011. Well, not so much the revolution itself, which at the time took place on Tahir Square. I just came back from the United States, and wanted initially not to stay overnight with people, but do something else. So I walked around in residential neighbourhoods, and realized if I am continuing on the project, then it should be here. Private life in Egypt is very protected. It is not easy to intrude upon people’s lives; to enter Egyptian culture. Foreigners were considered spies during the revolt. That in itself, I find very interesting: to be in a distrustful environment and struggle to win people’s trust. And to be able to photograph, something that’s simply not obvious. Initially we organized an exhibition on this topic in Belgium. After that exhibition I decided that I wanted to continue working in Egypt. I have been there five times since, and have decided to go back.

 

MT:

And how do you introduce yourself? How to get into the private domain? Because it also applies to this country: you do not command the language? You have a new way of working?

BD:

Because it is unsafe in Egypt, I not only don’t command the language, people also consider me a spy on the street. I work together with a girl my age, a Belgian (Ruth Vanderwalle) who lives and works in Egypt. She often works with the Dutch journalist Jan Eikelboom. We are young and good friends. She interacts with people in a similar way as I do. We continue to work on this basis. She contacts people on the street. If we do feel safe, she returns to the hotel and I stay with that person, for a night. That’s the way we work.

MT:

Your companion is on a tight schedule. First she joins you and some time later she withdraws herself… You do see each other the following day? Is that the way it goes?

 BD:

Yes. When we tour we’ll make sure we have a hotel booked. Then at some point she will go back to the hotel. Hence I return to the hotel in the morning, and try to get some more sleep. Usually I don’t get enough sleep, because in Egypt I stay with people together in one bed; there is simply no room. These are the rules and regulations.

 

MT:

So the two of you go down this unknown route for a period of three weeks?

 

BD:

For two weeks we continue, because it can be a difficult place to work. It is very intensive.

MT:

Are you able to sleep at all, while staying with complete strangers?

 

BD:

No! Therefore it is exhausting.

MT:

How would you define the project outcome? Is it also going to be a Patrick Frey production?

BD:

I have no idea … a book anyway. A photobook creates an intimate experience with the viewer and the work. That aspect I find attractive. But when I’m taking pictures, I am living the moment itself, not looking forward to the final product. Well…sure, definitely a book!