Story 147: Wouter Van de Voorde

What is your backstory?

My interest in images goes way back to when I was a pre-teen. When I was eleven, I drew this game board, an A3 sheet of paper divided into little squares. Each square had a different drawing in it. Some of the themes present in these little squares in this childhood drawing have been carried through until the present day. Themes like fire, darkness, the skeleton of a house, dream images and ghosts appear in this early drawing. When I went on to study painting at the Royal Academy in Ghent (KASK), some of these themes came back to the foreground unconsciously. Currently, in what I am doing in my photographs, some of these elements are still carried through. 

The recurrence of this subject matter feels like I am doing something authentic and deeply personal. Somehow I always seem to flow back to these continuous pillars of my oeuvre: fire, darkness, beauty, death and the unknown. Within these subjects, there is a vast range of approaches. A critique of this way of working could be that my work is too inward-looking at the risk of being self-referential. As I grow older, the intensity around these themes deepens and becomes more severe and complex. With all the other life events thrown into the mix, the subjects and concepts expand and contract.

I have never tried to adhere to a particular style or conglomerate of practising artists. 

In a nutshell: I have always been making strange images that spark joy in myself; it is something I’ll continue to do for better or for worse.

What camera gear/editing setup do you use?

Many people seem to think that if they'd acquire the same gear I use, they can produce the same work I make. I shoot anything I can get my hands on, digital or analog format, any kind of focal length, half-broken cameras, lenses with fungus, broken leaf shutters, and so on. I suppose one of the characteristics in lots of my work is my proclivity to use artificial light. I have a cheap Chinese flash setup with a portable battery which is rather powerful. I often refer to it as 'lightning in a can'. I feel like this gives me a kind of superpower, being able to light whole areas at the click of a button. Using a flash makes it possible to shoot without a tripod at any given time.

Each camera has its intricacies and dictates your workflow to some extent; this is why I love to use a wide range of gear. However, using a disparate array of tools correlates with how I see reality, not a cleanly curated series of images shot in the same format. Therefore, I don't stick with one type of setup to represent this chaos and disparity.

How do you achieve the look of your photographs and could you take us through the process?

I may have a recognisable atmosphere or vibe in some of my work, but I wonder if I have or want to have a 'look'. To some viewers, it may seem like I randomly tackle different subjects, but there is a method to the madness. Slowly different threads develop and mature; the more time one spends looking through my work online or looking through my most recent book Death is not here, the more you'll start to see connections linking pictures to other pictures.

A decent chunk of work is of course, made in the darkroom. I am lucky enough to be connected to a local organisation here in Canberra (Australia) called PhotoAccess. We have a public darkroom where I have spent countless hours chipping away at printing images like a possessed person. A few times, I had some lucky scores where I got my hands on stacks of expired paper; I love trying to figure out how to get the best outcome printing on the expired stock. I am far from a perfectionist in printing in the darkroom. Of course, I can smash out a decent baryte print, but I embrace things like stains and other imperfections that sneak into the final prints. The lion share of my recent book is made up of scanned darkroom prints, warts and all.

The analog aspect is vital in some of my work, but I am by no means a darkroom purist. In the end, the essence is what is happening inside the images, whatever the medium or approach. 

Could you tell us the backstory of some of your photographs?

I could tell you a bit about the Australian Ravens I've been shooting. A friend gave me this old telescopic lens a few years ago, which is somewhat temperamental to shoot. My wife has been a passionate amateur ornithologist for many years, and by proxy, I have developed a big love for our feathered friends. The Australian Ravens in particular, are very dear to me. One year I started following this one murder of Ravens nearby the school my son used to attend. To this day, I have been shooting this group on a weekly basis, and I'm pretty sure that by now, they know me as well as I know them. 'There's that silly human with his camera again'. Initially, I saw these birds as symbolising rather dark stories or omens of bad tidings, but my view has shifted to adoration and love for these particular birds. They are with me every step of the way, calling out and observing me as I watch them.

What advice do you have for aspiring photographers?

Focus on something other than solely project-driven work if you want to form a sustainable practice. I see many photographers desperately seeking themes or concepts to use as a coat hanger to hang images of. When you only try to make work which is completely resolved and ticks all the boxes in terms of concept or narrative, it often becomes dead and stale. As I mentioned before, reality does not present itself in a resolved way, and we get to experience a series of seemingly unrelated events. These events are only bound together by the fact that they are experienced through the eyes and mind of a single person (you). Half of the time, I don't even know why or what I am shooting or working towards; the critical thing is that you keep doing it. Listen to what sings out to you, point your mind and lens towards it and watch this subject or concept grow; it's like watering a plant. I believe in exploring your immediate environment, the objects, spaces and people in your ecosystem. If you do this, you'll never run out of inspiration or things to shoot.


Wouter Van de Voorde


Story 146: Samson Dell