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Stephan Vanfleteren I

A Visit at the BELGICUM Exhibition

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It’s not often that a photogapher is himself so photogenic and so charismatic as Stephan Vanfleteren. This is the first of two interviews with him and it’s really worth watching both.

Vanfleteren’s work is readily identifiable as his own: Classical and documentary portraits, some landscapes, all in rich black and white tones, often with a thick black line inside a white border and mounted in a black frame. Stunning, compelling images.

The interview takes place in his exhibition ‘BELGICUM’ and he begins by talking about how this project came to be. It is an overview of 15 years of his photography in Belgium. A personal, nostalgic, melancholic view. “Just the way I see it“.

Not may photographers do projects on their own country so he’s quite happy about that. As a press photographer he’s seen a lot ot the world but, as he says, “You forget about your own country. And especially while Belgium is so small. It’s like being a boxer – this is your ring, your territory where it all has to happen. And Belgium’s a strange country.”

Some of the photographs were ‘stolen’ from the street. But in the main they are taken in the intimacy of poor people’s homes. Sometimes, Vanfleteren says, he was the first visitor they had had in weeks or months. It is charachteristic of him that he “kind of became friends with them and visited them again” when he was in the neighbourhood. “I feel comfortable with these people, more than sitting with a banker.” Everyone in this exhibition portrayed with dignity and respect.

Vanfleteren then goes on to talk more generally about his approach to photography and his decision to stick with black and white. It was a concious decision made some six months after art school and beginning his professional career. He chose the ‘little thing’, the ‘narrow track’ because he just felt good about it. Resisting pressure from the newspapers to deliver colour images cost him some interesting assignments. But the quality of his black and white work meant that he was still always in demand and he kept getting work. Now he has a body of work which bears his style while others adapt, as he says, from month to month to new fashions.

When making portraits Vanfleteren is rather quiet and contemplative. There is no shouting or loud music or rapid changes of pose. He moves slowly round his subject “as in a dance”, occasionally giving instructions on where to look. Even after all these years taking portraits is something very special to him. “It’s an energy that is very strange. Even if you see the people years later there’s a connection. Because some people really let you into their life, their heart or their mind – so it’s something very intense. That’s why I like portrait photography.”

The beautiful thing about photography, Vanfleteren says, is that you can “really go wherever your head is”. If you feel sad and melacholic you can express that: If you feel outgoing, go out, meet people and express that too.

Stephan Vanfleteren sums up his refreshing approach this way: “I don’t want to be a photographer that proves that he can photograph everything. I want to be a happy man. And how you become happy is to photograph the things that you are interested in. ‘Artist’, ‘documentary journalist’ - The words I don’t think about. I just want to make photographs that I like and that other people can understand and feel too.”

Learn more about this outstanding photographer in Part 2.