‘A lot of people want to consider me the last of the Mohicans’


As a retrospective of his 30 years behind a camera is staged in Antwerp, Flemish photographer Stephan Vanfleteren talks about sifting through his archives, working in colour and leaving analogue behind

Still lives

At 51, Stephan Vanfleteren is an institution in Flanders. The photographer with the highly recognisable visual style is perhaps the region’s best known writer with light.

He broke through to the general public 12 years ago with the exhibition Belgicum, a series in which he uncovers, with great empathy, Belgium’s scars and melancholic soul. He has now returned to Antwerp’s photography museum FoMu for the first time since Belgicum for his new show Present. It is an overview of three decades of photography and is accompanied by a stout book of nearly 500 pages.

The most surprising element about the book is the amount of words: each chapter of images is introduced by a long text. “It isn’t the first book for which I’ve written some text,” Vanfleteren says, sipping a mint tea with a dash of honey. “But never as much, indeed.”

He hadn’t planned it, he notes. “Sifting through my archive made me remember so many thoughts, anecdotes and emotions. I decided to write them down, and it got a bit out of hand.”

Colour is a foreign language that is nice to speak occasionally because it allows me to discover new things

- Stephan Vanfleteren

Throughout his career, Vanfleteren has covered a wide variety of photography – purely journalistic, reportages from conflict areas, landscapes and cityscapes. But he is most strongly linked to his striking portraits.

His high-contrast black-and-white photos of people both well known and unknown seem to expose the person underneath. All masks fall away and show people for who they are, whether vulnerable or confident.

“Writing for this book was the first time that I thought so intensely about the portrait,” he says. “We photographers – I’m generalising – jump from one commission to the other. We often have only a very limited amount of time to make a picture. As a journalist, you have prepared this conversation, we talk for an hour-and-a-half, you listen to the recording and write the article. I live in your head for a few days. I don't see you interviewing five people a day, but I can shoot five portraits in a day. Or rather: I used to be able to do that.”

Vanfleteren refers to the time when he started, fresh out of school, freelancing for the daily newspaper De Morgen. He had several assignments a day. Soon his work started to appear in publications around the world, from Le Monde to The New York Times.

Later on he started to work more methodically, taking more time for a series. This sometimes took months, such as the time he stayed in Charleroi, resulting in a large body of work.

Vanfleteren achieves an ultimate stillness in two series of works that he is exhibiting for the first time at FoMu. They are presented in two rooms that are much darker than the rest of the exhibition.

And there are two series in colour, something some of his fans have never seen from him. He used to use colour sporadically, he says, but “it’s not my mother tongue. Colour is a foreign language that is nice to speak occasionally because it allows me to discover new things”.

You should see the disappointment that I sometimes read in people’s eyes when I say I work digitally!

One of the series in colour is Nature morte, for which Vanfleteren photographed dead animals. Some he found in his garden and others elsewhere,  like a porpoise that had washed up on the beach, a deer that was hit by a car and a lamb on its way to the butcher. At first glance, the photos could be mistaken for oil paintings. They refer to baroque painting in motifs and lighting. “The lamb is a literal reference to Francisco de Zurbarán,” explains Vanfleteren. The Antwerp painter Frans Snyders is another source of inspiration.

As is Caravaggio, particularly in the second colour series Corpus which includes naked bodies. Although he knew most of the people he brought before the lens, he is now able to approach strangers with bodies that intrigue him.

“I could show them what I was doing with this series,” he says. “I am not interested in simple eroticism, let alone pornography. People come to my studio, undress, start to pose, and then starts a search that can last a few hours. ”

Vanfleteren switched to digital photography eight years ago. “Since then I have not set foot in a darkroom.”

Many people assume that he still works in analogue. “Well, they have an image of you, and it is difficult to change that. Just like the idea that I am a black-and-white photographer. A lot of people want to consider me as the last of the Mohicans. You should see the disappointment that I sometimes read in people’s eyes when I say I work digitally!”

Except for artistic reasons, Vanfleteren doesn’t really see any reason to not work digitally. “It would be ridiculous not to do it. The devices have improved, you can work faster, and the budget is much lower. You have no idea how much the expenses of a photographer have plummeted thanks to digital photography.”

Present is the result of almost a year of hard labour. “I could have made it much easier for myself,” admits Vanfleteren. “Writing is not my profession. I could have saved a lot of time, and it would have been a cheaper book. From a commercial point of view, this was a stupid choice.”

He’s glad he did it, but it’s time to move on. “I'm going to shut up now,” he says with a smile. “I reflected a lot, and opened my heart wide. But not anymore now. I think.”

We can assume, though, that his camera will speak again soon.

Present, until 1 March, FoMu, Waalsekaai 47, Antwerp
The accompanying book is available in English, published by Hannibal

Photos, from top: Kosovo refugees, Kukës, Albania, 1999; Sean, Koninklijk Werk Ibis, Bredene, Belgium, 2017; Jan Decleir, Belgian actor, Veurne, 2017
All photos ©Stephan Vanfleteren, courtesy FoMu