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Olivier De Vos

Photographer & filmmaker

Olivier De Vos, a selection of works.

Q: Where would you start if you portrayed me in an image? Light? Form? Colour?...?

A: The light, naturally. Light is the essence, it allows form to appear and colour to exist. In my first years of experimenting with photography, I didn’t quite understand the importance of light. I was very young and photography still was very dramatic to me. Being more of a ‘situationist’ at that time, I mainly shot images with my small pocket-size camera. Every seemingly photography-worthy event that enrolled itself in front of my eyes, or stunning face that crossed my gaze, fell prey to a quick snapshot.

Of course, these ‘snapshots’ have artistic value, and made me the photographer that I am today. But I felt more of a collector than an artist. When I started to shoot more with SLR and later with medium format cameras, I became more aware of light. The procédé of photography revealed itself, and I immersed myself in it. Now, carrying heavier cameras, I take more time and wait. I observe and really try to see the image before I shoot it.

Sunlight peak hours I avoid, because they’re not generous. Natural light I fell for, clouds are my friends, the sun my eternal lover.

Q: When do you see the soul of the person portrayed in the image?

A: This is one of the great lies of photography, no soul can be bared by a photograph or any other image, not even the most revealing ones. Wanting to bare one’s soul by portraying them, for me, is a weird and quite perverse idea, something amateurs look for in a delusional effort to capture ‘the truth’. The soul is such a mystical thingy and I’m not exactly convinced one can even grasp what ‘seeing’ the soul of a person looks like, or more importantly what it means. Of course you can be touched by a portrait, and have the idea that you encounter the portrayed subject’s soul, but this is a fiction that spectators like to create for themselves. It’s one way to live with an image and cope with its existence, but a powerful image will more likely function as a mirror to one’s own soul rather than the subject’s.

Q: What is the most important quality to possess as a portrait maker?

A: Patience is a valuable asset when making portraits. Personally, I only shoot on film which is a rather expensive procedure, you don’t always get to shoot a hundred shots. You are kind of obliged to hit the mark in a couple of shots. So, I wait and patiently find the right angle while comforting the subject.

I don’t do a lot of ‘planned’ photoshoots, most of the time I just carry my camera with me. I really try to be present and see the portrait appear in the moment. I’ll say: “Wait, sit still! I’m gonna photograph this!” The waiting time has always been the main reason why I shoot on film, again it’s really how I’ve learned to understand photography.

Q: What is the impact of cheap cameras or instant filters on portraiture in photography?

A: The arrival of cheaper cameras and instant filters that give a ‘professional’ look to your snapshots has for sure democratised photography a lot. Today, it seems like photography is no longer centred around craftsmanship. Through the years it has become the means of self-expression of the masses, leaving behind its elitist status as an art form. Especially with the arrival of smartphones, we’ve come to incorporate ‘photography’ as an integral part of our everyday lives. I’ve put photography between brackets, because the technical procedures behind the images we create with our smartphone have very little to do with photography as we know it; the lenses are tiny and although some phones have five of them, they’re rubbish, this means that half of the data being captured by the camera sensor is actually digital noise. Then, through an algorithm, the camera discerns the image from all the noise. The algorithm compares previous pictures that you’ve taken, scans through your network and, in a manner of speaking, ‘imagines’ what the picture ideally should look like. We went from analog to digital photography, and now we’ve entered the computational era.

In my opinion photography in the classical sense will continue to exist. It might become niche (if that didn’t already happen...), but the whole process and ritual of photography seems to be something we long for. And a ritual is not so much dependent on the hard- or soft-ware we use, it’s about a shared moment between two subjects. The result will always be a relic of that shared moment, no matter its form or the algorithms it has gone through.

Q: Does gender matter in self-portraits?

A: Gender in portraiture often lies in the eye of the beholder, it’s hard to control the way people look at photographs or what gender identity they ascribe to the subjects portrayed. For my part I’ve always looked at gender in a fluent way, and I pretty soon became aware of photography’s possibility of transforming gender, transcending it even. A certain light or pose can reveal gender in a completely different way.

Does it matter? Well, it really depends on what the artist wants to achieve, and I‘m not completely sure that gender is at all times an active element of an artwork, nor am I convinced that it should be. As an individual I’m not 100% of the time aware of my gender, it flows and feels like the tide. Now, taking a self-portrait can be just a fragment of the many waves that beach upon gender land.


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