With his balanced compositions, a profound understanding of style and an eye for detail, Michaël Smits belongs to an exciting new generation of Belgian photographers. Born in 1989 and based in Antwerp, Smits comes across as a perfectionist, albeit one who’s learning to loosen up a little. As he attempts to move away from the minimalism that regularly cropped up in his earlier work, Smits explores psychedelic dreamscapes for his latest project, as he settles in to a brand new studio.
At which point did you decide to focus on photography as a medium?
I didn’t plan it, to be honest. When I turned 16, I changed schools often and couldn’t really find a place I felt comfortable with. My mother realised there was something going on and she sat down with me to discuss what I wanted to do. I was really into sports at the time, like skateboarding and surfing. She noticed I liked taking pictures of friends and suggested I take a photography course. When I was 17, I enrolled at Sisa in Antwerp and studied there for 2 years. You could choose to do painting, cinema or theatre. I felt really good there and was using analogue cameras all the time, which helped me learn a lot about photography. I guess I fell in love with making images.
How did you get into fashion?
I became friends with students at the Academy and some of them asked me if I could shoot their graduation clothes. I was up for it and that’s how it started. I had never done it before but enjoyed the whole process, even though I didn’t really take it seriously at the time. I like telling stories through photography and shooting clothes allowed me to build a fresh narrative each time.
You’ve had a new studio since the beginning of the year. Has that changed anything for you?
I feel more committed now and want to go forward. It’s a different mindset and I want to progress in my work.
It seems that you have an affinity for fashion. How do you work with designers?
I listen to them and get into the spirit of what they create. The important thing for me is to appropriate their story and make it my own. I spend quite a bit of time researching their concept and gathering images along the way. I meet with the designer again and show my ideas, which leads to a new discussion.
As a photographer, you have to keep on finding new ways to be creative, otherwise you end up getting stuck.
Is fashion still important for you?
In my recent work, I’ve moved away from it in order to develop other areas, but clothing still inspires me. As a photographer, you have to keep on finding new ways to be creative, otherwise yo end up getting stuck.
Your style seems quite minimal and pure. How would you define it?
I guess my first series was quite minimal and had a darker sensibility, but, after a while, I started finding the ‘clean look’ slightly limiting. My images were very controlled then, but now I feel like experimenting with new extremes and adding some craziness to the pictures. As a photographer, you always have to keep finding new ways to express yourself.
Which projects have you been working on lately?
I’ve been working on this project called “Wovon träumst du?” which, in German, means “What do you dream about?”. We shot it in two days and it’s a story about this boy who has a dream that takes him on some sort of psychedelic trip. We shot in a studio the first day and a friend of mine sculpted some props, including this mountain we used. The next day we shot by the seaside, which illustrated the psychedelic part. I’ve also worked on a Margiela inspired story for Louis in Antwerp. They were looking for someone to create fresh content for the website they’ll be launching soon.
Are you planning on staying in Belgium or will you work abroad?
I’d quite like to go to London to see how things go there.
How old are you now?
Do you feel there’s a lot of pressure on young creative people to get it right and be successful quickly?
I don’t know. I guess nowadays everything has speeded up and the Internet obviously triggered it. There’s this expectation that most things should happen instantly, but I don’t believe it works that way. It takes time to create good work. You have to think about things instead of producing constantly. You also need some sort of distance if you want to improve.
What do you think of the fashion press at the moment?
To be honest, there are a lot of titles I don’t even look at. One of my favourite magazines are 032c in Berlin and POP is good as well. Purple in Paris still has some really good features. I used to love Encens, too, because it’s a beautiful magazine and it really inspired me in the beginning. The problem is that there is a lot of copying going on, instead of trying to find a new language. You have to be open enough to experiment with what you’re doing and that’s one of the aspects of my work I like the most. The older you get, the more confident you are.