We recently caught wind of Ghent-based photographer Thomas Vandenberghe’s work whilst sifting through the latest edition of .tiff magazine, the bi-annual publication published by Antwerp’s FoMu and dedicated to emerging Belgian photographers. In this extended interview, the 30 year-old artist talks frustrations, dedications and seeing photography “as a kind of therapy.”
You mentioned you are working from home, do you sometimes feel the need to have more distance from your work?
I don’t have distance from my work, as I’ve also worked in photo labs for six years. Now, I am working part time in another lab. I print for other photographers who are having exhibitions. It’s funny because I make good quality prints for other people, but for my work I prefer contact sheets or smaller prints. People always think they are found footage, but they are all my pictures. I work very fast, I don’t care if they come out like they do. I sometimes give them away. I like that pictures live. Sometimes I give them away and then take them back. Some I stole back. Pictures are just pictures and they only get a story because they interact. I always take pictures of places I’ve been or people I’ve met because in my life everything is very fast, people are always coming and going.
People sometimes misunderstand, other times they understand [photographs] very well… when I have an exhibition I always try communicate with one particular person… it’s like writing, only one person can really read it. Just like with .tiff magazine, which is dedicated to someone. This is my diary. All of my series are connected, Black Diary is connected to À la folie, and so on. The bottom line of my work is about how I feel. Most of the time it’s about dark moments in life, not only the good moments. Sometimes a picture can be a very beautiful moment, but I can always give it another story afterwards. A lot of my work comes from frustrations, or dark moments in life, which you can make into something beautiful. I see photography as a kind of therapy, it’s very personal.
Has your work gotten to the point of defining your relationships, if so, how?
I am showing my private life, and I have to think about not showing too much. I am always looking to show something with a bit of mystery and anonymity, because I don’t want to hurt other people or show too much.
The pictures go online, people see them, and some might end up in museums, what do you think about people not knowing the stories behind them?
Yes, people don’t get that, and it’s funny, and I like that. For others it is just aesthetic, they feel something but they don’t get the original story, and the story is not that important. For me it’s important, but who cares about my story. I think it is more interesting if you can tap into it with your feelings and make your own story, because everyone has their own history and feelings.
How did it all start?
I quit my job eight years ago. I worked during four years as an educator, but I wanted to do something with photography. Then I started working at a one-hour service photo lab. People don’t know there is always someone looking at the pictures, they usually think it’s just a machine that does it. They were not meant for other people’s eyes, yet that was my biggest inspiration for starting diary photography. The things I saw in the photo lab were not meant to be seen by others. Yet they are the best pictures I’ve ever seen in my life, better than any exhibition, better. People don’t know when they have good images with a lot of feeling. They are private pictures, so I just got very lucky to have seen them.
How did you feel about looking at someone else’s pictures?
I got addicted to it… every photographer is a voyeur and an exhibitionist. Otherwise he [or she] wouldn’t show you their pictures. You are showing a little piece of yourself… even if it’s documentary photography or something else, you are showing little pieces of yourself to the world. It’s through your eyes, and it’s how you want to be seen. That is the game between voyeurism and exhibitionism…
How do you mediate that line between exhibitionism and voyeurism?
I think it is more an aesthetic line. I don’t want to harm any people. I don’t. I have a lot of pictures I can’t show because they are showing too much, and will hurt other people’s feelings, so I always have to shift or play with the boundary of what I can and cannot show. I’d like to go further, but I need some years to reach that point.
Where do you imagine taking your work in the future?
It’s a funny question because I now want to stop showing pictures for two years. I don’t want to have exhibitions any more, except for the project I was selected for with AM projects (After Midnight). That is the only project I will do in these two years. During that time I want to read more about photography, art and about psychology. I want to know more about how pictures, or the medium of photography, can be used to deal with emotional problems and how it can be a sort of medicine for dealing with life, and how a picture can be very important for not only one person, but for many people. Now my pictures communicate with one person, but maybe I can communicate with more that just one person.
Are there photographers that have influenced your work?
I have never been amazed by one sole photographer. I like a lot of photographers, but just for the pictures and not so much for the story behind them. But, there is one photographer from whom I really like the stories behind the pictures, and that’s Leigh Ledare. He made a work about his ex-wife, Double Bind. So for me, he is the biggest influence and part of the reason why I am a photographer. He examines the relationship with his ex-wife. Going to his exhibition made me see the defining line in my work. I am constantly analyzing my relationships, in all of my work. It all started with one picture, I got lucky when someone saw something in it… Jan Desloover, from Standaard magazine, contacted me, then there was an article about the girl. About who was the girl. The title was Muze, and she was my muse. She was my first girlfriend, and my muse for everything I did. For my working process this was very important, but it’s not that other people have to recognize this.
What is it about a certain moment that makes you want to take a photograph?
For instance, I made my first dummy book when I got a letter, a sort of goodbye letter of eight pages from an ex-girlfriend. And she really wanted an answer to it, I mean after eight pages of feelings. I never had written a letter in my life, but I had to write something back, yet I can’t write, so how did I explain myself? I made a book about it. The title is Sorry Would Have Saved Me The Trip, and it’s about how I dealt with the aftermath of the relationship. I showed the story of the aftermath and what it did to me and how I escaped it. It was about six people who took me to six places in five different countries. I did not take portraits of the people, but of the places they took me to.
Why did you decide to make a book on these six people and six places?
It happened very spontaneously. I was dealing with the aftermath of the relationship… like in Black Diary. It is always about relationships, all kinds… like this, now. It’s always about interaction between two people, or what they do in their life. Things I don’t want to forget. I want to confront myself with what I do, not only the good moments. That is the beauty of it. It is not always fun to look at, but for others it can be very aesthetic.
Does your relationship with what your photographs represent somehow change after you publish them online or exhibit them, and if so, how?
It’s a way of dealing with a moment, and the moment sometimes gets more romantic, or I make something beautiful out of the bad moments. So I give it a place, it’s like you have two universes: one in real life and one in photography life. The pictures are all taken from real life, but with them you make another life to handle certain things, to give them a place, and make things beautiful, even if they aren’t. I think it’s a way to lose some things and let go and move on.
You mentioned the pictures gain a life of their own when you give them away, and on sometimes wanting them back? Can we talk a little more about this?
Some images I want back because they are also about frustration, and if something happens you want to take these memories back. And ok, you can say these memories are in your head and you can’t take them back…
Do you ever question what it would be like if you did not take a particular photograph?
I know perfectly when I don’t have to take the pictures, you just feel it…I know when to take the pictures, maybe I don’t take the picture of you, but maybe when you leave I might just take the picture of your empty chair…so I really know when I have to take the picture and when I don’t.
What would you say differentiates that ‘moment,’ of when you do and when you don’t have to take a photograph?
I feel it, constantly, if I am in the moment I feel it. I have to remember it and take the picture, and it’s also partly telling myself not to do it, to just do it later … then I start to look for something else to take a picture of.
Has it happened that you forgot to take a picture you really wanted?
A lot, and I am constantly thinking about it. “Shit I did not photograph it,” I tell myself, and then I’ll have the picture in my head…the frame is perfectly in my head. I know what it would look like if I were going to print it. I will then look for other pictures that can tell the same story.
Was photography always a significant way for you to communicate with friends or family?
I think that in the last three years I really saw that happen. I think it was with a picture in Sorry Would Have Saved Me the Trip, from a place my mother took me to. I took a picture of the place and printed it and showed it to her, and it was the first time I had the feeling that another person, in this case my mother, understood what I was communicating. That picture was so important for her, yet it was just a landscape, but she really felt what I was trying to explain, what the landscape did.
Did you actually discuss what it represented?
No, she just said something very small and she got it…. She did not explain what the picture meant for her, she explained what the moment meant for her. While I just explained the same thing with that picture, not by taking the picture of her in the landscape, or her portrait but, for me, this [the landscape] is her portrait and this is very important.
Some of your pictures are of landscapes or objects, but many are of female body parts. How do you imagine the body, or what is you relationship with the body in those images?
I think they are all the same, flowers, female bodies, and landscapes. You can think of my pictures as very sexual or a bit degrading towards women, but sometimes the best way to explain intimacy is by showing it very literally. Intimacy is so hard to show, but for me, even a flower can be intimate, or a landscape. The search for intimacy is a big part of my work. It’s not only about the female body, beauty or sex, it’s a part of it, but it’s all the connected.
You mentioned looking at other people’s pictures and how that was a way of playing with your desires?
I am always looking for intimacy in other people’s work, but I am really playing with my own desires… like in one of the pictures of Leigh Ledare. It’s so simple. It’s just a woman, his ex-wife, but it’s my favorite picture. And it is the biggest inspiration I can have. It’s a picture anybody can take of a loved one. For me, that is photography. That picture is my desire. If I see that picture I think ‘fuck this is a moment of intimacy.’ I am jealous of it, and I think that I’ve also had such a moment, and my desires and shortcomings come through that picture. I want to do that with my pictures, that others get a feeling of intimacy.
How do you imagine your work evolving?
Now I see my photography as just sketches, as though I am just practicing. I see myself ten years later with a final work. And all of the things I would have done before that are just efforts to get there. In ten years I will have the final work, when I look at it I will know that it’s the work. Right now it’s too early. I am making sketches and other people like them, but the sketches are not THE work. Now I can see the main line of my work has always been about relationships. Then I started thinking I don’t understand relationships and this is my way of analyzing them. Sometimes I also test my connection with other people by taking portraits. In Take a Seat I invited people I did and did not know to pose. With some I had cake and coffee, and I was very easygoing and social, and then I’d take their portrait. With others I’d just let them in, did not say a word, did not even give them coffee and I’d put some music on. I was looking at how people reacted to me, and I learned a lot about who I am.
Are there any galleries representing you?
Not yet. There have been talks of being represented by one, but it’s not certain. I am not that commercially minded. I sell a lot of pictures, but maybe it is just people who contact me by mail or in an exhibition. Last year a lot of people told me “you are on the train now, and you have to keep going, it is good.” And I am telling them “no, sorry I am jumping off the train.”
You are stopping for two years, how do people react to that?
Some people say it’s the dumbest thing to do in the world, but for me it feels really good. It is very easy to get your fifteen minutes of fame. I don’t know where my photography will be or end up. I have to rethink my work and let it loose. Yet, the medium is not important. I just chose photography because it is easy. Everybody can be a photographer.
You believe anybody can be a photographer?
Yes, I work at a photo lab and I’ve seen great pictures worth being hung in a museum and people did not know they took the pictures. Everybody can be a photographer. But what makes a difference for me is that you have to know what picture to select and what story to tell, or what feeling you have to convey – that makes a difference between a good photographer and someone who can take good pictures.All images courtesy of Thomas Vandenberghe. thomasvandenberghe.be