BA: How’s your day going?
BB: Pretty good. Pretty intense couple of weeks at work, but also preparing a small exhibition. But also interesting and fun. And the UP thing was definitely the cherry on top.
Nice to have you onboard. What’s the exhibition?
I have been shooting in my old hometown, where I lived for 36 years, the past year. And i’m showing a selection from that work in my hometown. Opening this Friday.
What is your hometown? Is that were you were born?
Yes. It is called Emmeloord. It is a small town, about 30,000 people, on reclaimed land. So it has a special history. I lived there from 1977 till 2013. My dad still lives there.
Reclaimed from the North Sea?
Yes. Well, originally the North Sea. But they made a huge dike to connect two parts, so it became a huge lake. And then they started to reclaim some land.
The Dutch are very industrious.
Yes! Especially good with dikes.
Why did you leave Emmeloord for Sneek?
Found me a nice gal. And both of us didn’t want to live there. There isn’t much going on. So we moved to the province of Frisia, a bit up north, to the old town of Sneek. Bought a nice old house there. 2013 is also the year I got into photography. Hence “Postcards from Fryslan”.
What got you into it? Was it related to the move?
No. It came out of my holiday photos actually. I really enjoyed taking pictures on vacation. And then in the winter of 2013 I started to look on the Internet and stumbled upon “street photography” and the work of Sternfeld and Martin Parr. And that ignited something in me. It never occurred to me I could walk out my front door and explore the world in my own street.
Sternfeld and Parr are color shooters. Did you shoot color initially?
Yes, and black and white as well for the first couple of years. Although my affinity with B/W was bigger. Then it slowly dawned on me that my B/W images were stronger and I felt more connected to that way of looking. It feels so much more natural to me. Funny thing is, when I studied fine arts, I was trained as an illustrator. I graduated with huge B/W drawings. My teachers tried to get me into colour for a while, but I just didn’t really get it.
You circled back to your origins.
That’s how it feels.
Where did you study illustration?
College. I started there when I was 18.
Did you ever work in that field?
No. I tried to for a bit. But my passion was illustrating poetry and short stories and then designing the work into a book and then making the book by hand in a small edition. Very labour intensive. And I had no idea how to market this. So after about a year and a half I decided I had enough and went and became a primary school teacher. But the fascination for B/W images, poetry/language, book making/binding was already there!
Are any of your drawings online? I’d be curious to see them. Maybe there were a few in those chapbooks you sent me?
I posted my old handmade books a while ago on Insta. What I sent you is new stuff, just some doodles. Two drawings in my living room.
Do you have photos up too? I’m embarrassed to say I don’t have many up in my house. I get sick of them too easy.
I know the bird one!
And below yours there is a Sergio Larrain print.
He should be above me probably.
I also have a couple of prints in my work room. Matt Weber, Northrup and Kranitz. All the other stuff is in folders and photobooks.
I don’t know the first color photo. Who’s is that?
Stephen Leslie. Swapped it.
I love Stephen Leslie’s videos. I like his photos too, but I never quite got on board with the accompanying stories.
Same here. Love the videos though!
I think photos work best on their own. When you mix them with written text it gets complicated. Just my personal bias.
It is very hard to combine words and photos like that! I tried and failed at it multiple times. My Tiny Moments project is IMO the only successful one I did.
It can work. It’s just a different thing than photos on their own. Which have a special charm. Less is more, usually. Then again I like all the extra information in his videos. So I may contradict myself.
Anyway, back to 2013. What happened from that point? Who did you look at after Sternfeld and Parr?
I knew the work of Koudelka and Bresson from college. And then I discovered Eggleston. And then Winogrand. That blew my mind!
You liked Winogrand from the start? For most people (me included) his work is an acquired taste.
Yes, I did! It was such a huge feeling of recognition. I had the same thing when I discovered haiku, feeling like: this is me, this is how I experience the world.
What kind of photos were you making then?
On one hand I was making these sometimes poetic B/W photos. I took my camera to work often as well, documented the children at school. Usually in B/W. On the other hand I was trying colour, switched even to analog, because that seemed like the cool thing to do. And I do like the look of some of that work. But the colour street work didn’t really work. And a couple of photographers whom I respect, sort of pointed that out to me. And then I went fully for BW. But was still interested in shooting analog. I had a full darkroom setup and was ready to build a darkroom in my garage, but then my daughter was born and I became aware quickly that I wouldn’t have as much time to shoot anymore as before. So I sold everything again, including my analog cameras and bought a proper digital one. That was a huge liberation!
So the children in some of your photos are school kids you taught? I just assumed they were your own kid plus her friends.
Oh yes, they are mostly. The photos I shot at that primary school aren’t really online. And the photos I’m shooting now at the primary school in the refugee camp where I work aren’t really online as well. Just a small selection. Officially we are not allowed to take pictures there.
That was my next question. What are the rules about shooting children under your care, and showing the work, etc?
At the school where I work now, you are not allowed to publish any photos of children with their face visible. They never said anything about me taking pictures. So I’m documenting it for the future.
What age do you teach? What subject? Where are the refugees from?
Right now I have the 11 year olds. And it is all the subjects, like a normal primary school, but the focus is on learning Dutch as quickly as possible. Most of them fled countries where there is war or a bad political situation: Syrië, Irak, Afghanistan, Iran, Turkey, Ukraine, Eritrea.
Matt should join your class, haha. I think his Dutch needs help.
I’m roomies with Matt in Paris. I’ll give it a shot!
Why do refugees come to Sneek?
The center is not in Sneek. But it is half an hour drive from here. They stay there waiting to see if they can get asylum or not. Sometimes up to three years. Crappy system.
So your kids come from all backgrounds and languages? Sounds very challenging.
It is! All different levels. But that is the fun thing as well. And children come and go as well. So you have to adapt quickly. But they are very sweet and eager to learn. I only work there three days a week now. This way I can have some quality time with my daughter as well.
What percentage gains asylum eventually? Is it most of them, or just a few? In the U.S. I think the odds are very small. We have a HUGE backlog of asylum seekers and no good system to deal with them.
Phey, wouldn’t know exactly. But most of them do. System is wonky here as well. It takes way too long. Some of the children speak Dutch perfectly and then they get sent back.
Your English is great by the way. How many languages do you speak?
German and a bit of Spanish and Arabic (learned that from the students). I have been reading skateboard magazines from the US since I was 12.
There’s definitely a skateboarding pipeline into photography. Or halfpipeline?
Yes. That’s where Matt and I connect as well.
Are you guys bringing boards to Paris?
I won’t! Photography is the main thing for me now. I want to see the city. Haven’t been there in 11 years. And the leg is a bit jacked at the moment.
This could be a Paris question, or it might apply to Sneek too. How do you find photos? What’s your process? Do you always have a camera? Do you set aside shooting times?
Both. I don’t have much time to shoot. So a planned day shooting happens on average once every month, tops. Other then that it is just moments in between, doing groceries. But somehow I’m pretty effective. I can shoot just about anywhere. I don’t understand people who say they can’t take any photos because they are not inspired.
I think you can get inured to your surroundings wherever you are. It might be Tokyo, Berlin, Greenland, the Sahara, whatever. Any place can become familiar over time, which can be a death nell for curiosity and photography.
Yes, but still that familiarity doesn’t bother me.
My process is similar to yours. I don’t have trouble finding raw material. But sometimes I need to kick myself in the pants to go out and shoot, if it’s rainy or cold or whatever. But when I do it’s always worth it.
Yes! There is so much to see. That’s what I liked about my hometown project. I systematically walked the streets there, and it is a pretty quiet and dull town, but still enough photos to be taken. But maybe because I don’t shoot a lot, I’m always eager to go out when I can.
What was your impression of your hometown? Did it feel different? Do you still know a lot of people there?
It is a weird combination of recognition and unfamiliarity. On one hand I know it so well and a lot of it is still the same. But because I don’t live there anymore, there is way less emotional binding. So it feels really close but also really distant at the same time. On the other hand some parts of it have changed and are changing drastically. Where our old skatepark was, and I have spend sooo many hours and days there, is now an old folks home. And the third thing is, I’m not the same person anymore. For instance I’m now looking with a photographer’s eye. It’s a different way of connecting with your surroundings. I always find it amazing that you can walk around in this familiar place, but then feel like you are in some exotic foreign country at the same time. A bit like your Grid project.
Well the grid project is a direct test of familiarity. I’m often going to parts of town here I think I know well. So the material might seem static. But when you dig around a little, it’s just as you say. There’s always more to discover. For me good photos are more a function of time than place. If I put X hours in I am almost guaranteed to come home with Y good photos. Or something like that. I’m like a grain thresher or something. It’s almost mechanical.
It does work like that. If you are not forcing it too much. Things will come when you stay light hearted and open. That’s what I have learned in these past years. So I never come home disappointed. If you go out thinking I’m going to get this amazing shot today, then you are only making it tough on yourself.
Do you visit other cities very often?
I do a bit in Netherlands. Amsterdam now and then. And some cities up North here.
Paris should be fun. Where are you staying? What’s on your agenda? Are you guys driving down?
No, by train. And we are staying in a dodgy hotel at a great location in the center. Thursday evening is the presentation of the new edition of Revue Epic, so I’ll go there and meet Eleonore, Julia and Graciela. Friday we are going to the main, commercial event. And other then that?? Enough to do and see I think.
The big convention sounds cool but I’d probably spend most of the time outside exploring.
Exploring the city?
Yes, walking, looking, shooting. My normal routine. I know I said place is unimportant for finding photos, but I’d make an exception for Paris.
Yes, I want to definitely do that. There are only so many books I can look at in a day. Might bring my Atget book with me.
Have you seen Christopher Rauschenberg’s book Paris Changing? He tracked down Atget’s original photo locations and reshot them. Cool project.
No, haven’t seen that one yet. Didn’t you do the same thing a bit with Shore?
I’ve reshot a small number of Shore pictures. But I interviewed a woman in Canada named Brittany Marcoux. She is rephotographing a lot of scenes from Uncommon Places.
Wouldn’t dare to touch any of that work!
Do you still actively write haiku?
Not as much. It really requires a different state of mind. I did this summer when we were on the road to Sweden. I purposely didn’t take many photos, so after a couple of days I could get in the groove of writing. I can’t do both at the same time. But I see it as a luxury problem.
Is it hard to write them? Do they require a lot of revision? Or do they just pop out fully formed like photos?
Both. Actually the process is sort of similar to taking photos. You just have to go out and do it. And sometimes it is a banger right away, other times you are brooding over them for days. I have books full of unfinished and lousy haikus. Just like with photography. The big difference for me is walking around and switching on the language system in my head, or the visual system. Can’t do both.
The photo/text mix is tricky. As we discussed earlier.
Yes, very hard. But it is great to get lost in this world of language and in a world of images. What I love about haiku is that the image emerges in your head by staring at a bunch of letters. That is an amazing mechanism!
I don’t think I’ve had text translate into image like that. But successful haiku and photos seem to operate on the same wavelength. Both hit the brain indirectly. Photos that try too hard come off like bad haiku or advertising slogans, very transparent. Better to aim for the edges of awareness I think. Like an Atget photo.
The nice thing about books of unfinished or bad haiku is they don’t take up much space. Photos seem to spread out physically in a way that’s hard to wrestle. Even the bad ones.
Not if you shoot digital. It can make one insecure at times though. Feeds are full of spectacular colours and photos, but if you take away the flashiness or cleverness, there is often not much left. That’s what I like, and have liked from the beginning, about your work. You are clever as well, lining up stuff, playing with shapes. But it is always with a sense of poetry. With a sense of authenticity. So it gets lifted above the mundane.
Thanks! Is there a haiku community like the photo community? With people sharing and commenting on work.
Yes, worldwide! Books, magazines, publishers, awards you name it. Big names, small names.
Is it a positive environment? Sometimes I get discouraged by the photo community. Such a weird twisted little world. Like a digital Gollum or something.
Same as the photo community, positive places, negative places, shallow places, etc.
Yeah, people are people.
Indeed. I try to stay away from a lot of that stuff and just participate in places that give me energy. When I started with “SP” I bumped into HCSP on Flickr. That was pretty confusing. But then you discover the work of people like Philip Perkis, Mark Cohen, Larrain, etc.
I think the $ element in photography skews it in strange ways. Not sure if it’s the same with haiku? I mean the fact you can make a living in photos, and the sometimes arbitrary nature of marketability upon which that depends. It’s just weird.
That’s not the case with haiku. Poetry is small business, and haiku is a tiny, tiny part of that.
Can you sell or collect haiku?
No, not really. I have a nice collecting of haiku books though. No ambition there. But I also don’t have that ambition with photography, and that feels good.
No ambition to get your work into the world? But you’re having a show?
I have that ambition, but not to make money out of it or market it. Whatever comes on my path. But the joy is in going out and making things. I want to protect that.
Do you think your photos are changing? How do you put photos together now that maybe you didn’t five years ago? That might be a pandemic related question.
Five years ago I was out hunting for what I thought a good street photo should look like. And as I said, 9 out of 10 times you’ll come home disappointed. Now I don’t hunt. I just walk around and I try to notice, look. In this way I learned that a lot of things can make a “good” photo. In that way my work has become more diverse, I think. Anything can be a subject. One ambition in that respect might be to get more people in my frames. People doing stuff in their neighborhood. I don’t think the pandemic made a big difference for my work. I did shoot in colour only for 8 weeks during the first lockdown. So that is an interesting document.
You said “what I thought a good street photo should look like.” What is that?
At that time? Close by, layers, flash, funny/weird juxta, somebody doing something crazy. All that stuff. But when i saw Cohen’s “cabbage leaf in the snow” things changed ha, ha. Or “flashed wire”.
Cohen’s photos are awesome. Who are some other photographers you’ve been impressed by lately? Or influenced by?
Steinmetz a lot the past year. I keep wondering how he gets people in the frame like that. Teju Cole’s Fernweh is awesome. Perfect balance between words and pictures. His other book Blind Spot didn’t have that.
I love Steinmetz but I had to declare a buying moratorium on his books. I have several already and he comes out with a new one almost every year. The pictures are always a pleasure but I don’t think the books are much different from year to year. I feel the same about Gerry Johansson and Guido Guidi. It’s kind of like buying music albums by old favorites. Do you buy every album like a completist? Or just stop at some point?
Yes, I have two Johansson books, love them, but it feels like two is enough. Haven’t looked properly into GG yet. I had a bit of a love/hate relationship with Steinmetz’s work at first. It felt too contrived sometimes, like looking at an advertisement. But I love it now. I still have that with Soth’s work though.
It is hard to reinvent yourself and stay fresh. Maybe that’s an advantage of being relatively unknown. There’s no earlier work out there to battle against.