I started getting involved in photography quite early, sometime during my teenage years. My memories are rather hazy. I don’t remember ever going through the point-and-shoot phase. I went straight for a serious camera, a Soviet-made Zenit single lens reflex (SLR). Clunky and built like a tank, it allowed me to familiarise myself with the basics of composition, exposure and depth-of field. In those years, taking photos was completely subservient to my main passion: mountaineering. I was completely mesmerised by my first visit to the Alps at the age of 12, and from then on, life came down to a passionate yearning for my annual summer holidays. The highlight of that early phase was probably the 1991 South-Greenland duo trek with my pal Ralf, which was documented in an elaborate slide show, subsequently projected at one of our Alpine Club’s member evenings. Although I don’t usually think about this early stage as integral part of my biography as a photographer, it was important in many ways. Besides familiarity with the technical basics of the craft, my relationship with the photographic image gradually became infused with simple but powerful elements of story and mood.
My birth as a photographer can be accurately dated. It was 15 September 2001. It was four days after 9/11. I was 36 years old. In the early morning of that day, I had a very intense and unusual dream. I woke up with the word ‘dervish’ on my lips. It felt like a kind of summons. I sought help from friends to decipher the vision. Luc Hoebeke offered me a very evocative reading that amounted to a call to confront myself with ‘materiality’. There and then I decided to become a painter. Remarkably, I did not sit down with brushes, tubes of colour and paper. No, true to my nature, I started studying canvases in art museums and filled my Moleskin notebooks with ballpoint sketches of compositions and brushstroke patterns. While this did not bring me any closer to my goal of becoming a painter, it did broaden my appreciation and knowledge of the modern masters of the early to mid-20th century. And I started to get a more discriminating sense of images’ composition and texture.
A year later I was invited for a professional assignment to Mongolia. The place had a mythic aura, and I tucked my dusty Canon SLR into my suitcase. On that first visit to Central Asia my relationship with photography suddenly snapped into focus. It was a homecoming. From there onward I threw myself obsessively into the craft. I became a member of the local photo club where I met my first mentor, Paul Leemans. He was a professional who generously welcomed me in his studio and darkroom, and taught me everything he knew. I experimented extensively with different camera types and formats but stayed away from the emerging trend to digital image capture. The discovery of film-based medium format, with its increased sharpness and smoother tonal range, got me hooked on larger negatives. In those years I devised my first genuine photo project: a tour around all the capitals of the European Union which I shot in black-and-white on a basic Russian swing-lens panorama camera. The portfolio was published in my first photo book, was exhibited at the top floor of the Berlaymont Building in Brussels, seat of the European Commission, and was also a modest commercial success. These years constituted a phase of technical experimentation and led me to develop an initial, fairly simple conception of what constitutes a coherent body of work.
Every photographer runs at one point into a piece of work or a book that has lasting mark on his or her vision. For me this was Raymond Depardon’s Errance. A diminutive but monumental book. I’ve written some reflections on it here. For me Depardon’s “unsentimental, but deeply compassionate” vision has lost nothing of its power. His work also taught me how rigorous adherence to a relatively simple base position can lead to a layered and complex oeuvre. It took me a long time to solidly incorporate that insight into my own work.
I signed up for a summer workshop with a Italian photographer, Lorenzo Castore, then 35 years old. But five minutes into our first encounter I was completely captivated by his no-nonsense, existential approach to photography. He brutally confronted me with the question of what it means to be an artist rather than just a craftsman, or, in his own words, what it takes “to be a Goethe, rather than a Walter Scott”. It didn’t instantly recover from this experience. I had lost my bearings, I was shaken and insecure. But I was also grateful to Lorenzo because I felt that his shock tactics were nourished from a deep well of love. In the years after that experience I continued to work, but discreetly. I had understood in some vague way that photography was neither a hobby, nor a contest to score ‘likes’ but a rigorous discipline of being honest with oneself.
From 2012 onwards I became very involved in cycling. Initially the bike pushed my photography into the background. But the practice of countless hours of ‘unthinking’ in the saddle came with a somewhat unexpected bonus: I decided to grant myself a sabbatical. Which turned out to be a quasi-sabbatical, a period of traveling and reading punctuated by more or less short periods of intense professional activity. I’ve written more fully on that experience elsewhere. Towards the end of that 9-month interval I started to re-engage more with my photography again. I reconnected with Lorenzo at a bracing workshop in Catania. I followed up with a week-long tutoring session with Anders Petersen, the doyen of Swedish existential photography. Anders shared an unforgettable lesson with his workshop participants: “Photography is not about making ‘nice pictures’. Use the camera as an alibi to put yourself in situations you deeply desire for.” That was a call to courage and curiosity I have cherished ever since. As I concluded the quasi-sabbatical I decided to ask Lorenzo to mentor me on a more regular basis. Which he accepted.
As the summer of 2019 approached, I felt very tired. The period after my quasi-sabbatical had been draining. We had moved to the countryside after living in a busy suburb for 22 years. And two years earlier, my father was diagnosed with cancer at the age of 72. His illness and self-chosen time of passing had been a test for the whole family. Around that time, I was introduced to the work of Judy Marshall, an emerita professor of Learning and Leadership at the University of Bath. Her book First-person Action Research. Living Life as Inquiry encouraged me to get in touch with her. The exchange with Judi led to a period of intense reflection and micro-experimentation. In August, I undertook a week-long solo trip to Kirchhorst, a small village near the German city of Hanover. One of my favourite writers, Ernst Jünger, lived there from the late 1930s to the mid-1940s. Relying on his diaries from that time, I retraced his steps. It was anything but a methodical undertaking. My mood there was extremely relaxed, almost dreamlike, and besides the short excursions, I spent a lot of time in my small room in the nearby Kloster Wienhausen reading Jünger and taking notes. I casually took photos to document my stay. Then, in October, my wife Ann and I spent two weeks in the Bay of Naples. Here it was the spirit of Friedrich Nietzsche that animated our stay. The philosopher had spent the winter of 1872–3 on the Sorrento peninsula to mentally lick his wounds after his break-up with Richard Wagner. It was there that his philosophy of the “free spirit” was born. With Paolo D’Iorio’s wonderful book in mind, I conducted and documented my own modest geopoetic experiment. First Jünger, then Nietzsche. A new creative project was born. A project that sparked my literary, exploratory and visual imagination and which I truly felt was mine to bring to fruition. To this day, I have not been able to finish it. Two other Germans — Hölderlin and Benjamin — have joined the cast of geopoetic wanderers, stretching the geographic and philosophical ambit of the project even further. They will keep me busy in the years to come.
In this important time interval I was invited to make another important step. In October I submitted myself to my initiation to Reiki master. I got acquainted with the Reiki approach through my friend and business partner Jo Goossens. Reiki therapy can be explained in different, complementary ways. It emerged early in the 20th century as a condensation of decades of spiritual practice by Japanese healer Mikao Usui. It is usually seen as a healing method that partakes of a universal, cosmic energy. Practitioners act as conductors for this energy to individuals or situations that might benefit from healing. People who are unfamiliar with spiritual practices may find this unappealing. For their benefit I would explain what it means to the practitioner. I would describe it as a technique to expand our range of awareness, particularly with respect to one’s own purpose and path. Connection with one’s own purpose strengthens the confidence to walk that path. And that confidence allows one to engage in more authentic, meaningful, loving and generative relationships with others: human beings, other living creatures and also the a-biotic world. Hence one develops the capacity to create, or to position oneself in a creative field. This empowers us to bring things to life and to negotiate life’s challenges. It took me about 15 years to mature to the point where I felt ready to be initiated to the master-level. I came away from the experience with a renewed sense of purpose. The feeling of being handed a mission was strong and felt natural and evident. I knew: “I have to go my path, no matter what. I have to live a form of spiritual leadership that reflects the fluidity, humbleness, generosity, detachment and courage to follow my deepest desire that I associate with mastery. My professional, relational and creative pursuits will be the territory in which I will enact that leadership. This encompasses my roles as advisor, teacher, colleague, convenor, mentor, mentee, husband, parent, friend, photographer. At the root is an ethos that reflects connectedness with all that is under the sun. That is the deeply spiritual core of it.”
This renewed sense of purpose truly blossomed during the lockdown interval triggered by Covid-19. It was very fertile period for me. Spring was exceptionally serene and luminous. I had time to reflect, muse and roam the forests and fields in our neighbourhood. At home we lived together with our nuclear family under one roof for probably the very last time. I published the photographic journal of these days as a limited edition photozine titled Under Star Light, Under Lamp Light. I am still very fond of that portfolio. However, it was in my writing that I experienced a breakthrough. I started to write poetry. I dared to take a more personal tone and found that my readers responded similarly. As a result, intense friendships blossomed online, notably with Karima Kadaoui who has been a close friend and an important muse and mentor ever since. In those days my soul was at its most liquid and receptive. At no time in my life had I felt more ‘artist’, more genuinely generous and generative, more in tune with my own purpose.
After the summer the containment measures had been somewhat relaxed and I travelled to the south of France to join Claudine Doury for a week-long photography workshop. Exactly a year earlier Lorenzo Castore had told me that he wanted to cease the mentor-mentee relationship. He had offered me all he could and he proposed to move on “as two friends, each with his own limitations.” It was a characteristic gesture, both brutal and big-hearted. I accepted his proposal, grateful for his wisdom and friendship. Nevertheless, I felt that I still needed mentorship to move on with my work. Up to that point my photographic community had been overwhelmingly masculine in character. I decided to seek out a feminine source of inspiration. Claudine Doury’s rigorous and highly poetic universe appealed to me and so I was happy to have the opportunity to be tutored by her. The Covid lockdown spell still echoed in me during these radiant October days in the enchanting Collioure region. I worked hard and with heart and won Claudine’s respect with a portfolio shot through with dramatic clair-obscur. It was gratifying to be validated in my approach and in my artistic intuition by an esteemed photographer.
The workshop with Claudine led to a downstream connection with curator and strategic advisor Isabella Brancolini. She told me to stop starting new projects and to put more effort into finding a presentation format for the work I had built up over the past decade. I took that message to heart and began seriously tinkering with ideas for publications and exhibitions. After a long hiatus, I mustered the resolve to show my work again.
Another trickle down effect of the Covid year was the invitation to start a PhD research at Newrope, the Chair of Architecture and Urban Transformation, at ETH Zürich. The idea to engage in academic research was seeded by my lockdown exchange with Houda Khayame, who was working on a PhD in Systems Science under the guidance of Ray Ison at The Open University in the UK. Newrope felt like I found a needle in a haystack. It has been such a welcoming environment for me these past two years. The research has been formative in many ways. It allows me to experience a generative form of togetherness. It deepened my understanding of systemic change. It has acquainted me with a set of exciting, new ideas. And it has reinforced my identity as an artist-researcher. That is how I want to work in the coming decades, at the service of some of the foundational questions for our times.
Véronique Sutra, who organised the workshop with Claudine, put me in touch with Valérie Fougeirol, a hands-on, Paris-based curator. She encouraged me to think about how I wanted to present myself as an artist. I worked hard on this question and came up with a statement that felt like it was all mine. I articulated the impulse behind my work as arising from a tension between two force fields. There is a temporal axis that stretches between past and future. There the work emerges from the inflection point where a cherished and taken for granted past slips away and we tumble into an unknown future. The second axis is anchored in a musical metaphor: hymns at one pole, elegies at the other. It’s a textural variable that is intimately linked to my inner world. Visually it translates into a fascination with chiaroscuro, and and a preference for compact, frame-filling compositions. Somewhere at the intersection of these two axes my work takes shape. I am very certain of that.
Just when I was pondering my artistic position, I visited a space in an abandoned industrial building that seemed to me the perfect location to showcase my project ‘The Coming’. The so-called ‘cathedral’ in the old De Ridder brewery on the outskirts of Antwerp was a very peculiar space: 20 metres long, 10 metres high and 5 metres wide. It was halfway between a chapel and a torture chamber. The spacious yet claustrophobic environment naturally reinforced the eschatological vibe of my project. The basic idea for a scenography was quickly found and I developed it further in collaboration with Valérie and with my son Witold, himself also an artist. The result was a delightful baroque extravaganza. The icing on the cake was the twice-repeated performance of John Tavener’s Hidden Treasure by a string quartet. This ambitious and entirely self-executed project showed me the way forward in presenting my work.
Earlier this year I presented a new publication. It is titled simply Maggia, a pointer to the alpine valley where I made the images during a writing retreat in the early spring of 2021. I refer to it as a cahier, which is French for ‘notebook’. 64 pages, 24 images, and 2 poems from my own hand. I’ve written elsewhere on Medium on the significance of this modest project. From a developmental perspective it represents a key milestone as it is the first rounded product I’m putting out into the world since in 2007 I published the record of my journey through all the capitals of the European Union.
The provisionally last inflection point is my visit to the Rencontres d’Arles last week. The Rencontres are probably the most important photo festival in the world, hosted by a tiny city in the French Provence. The opening week offers an unbelievably rich array of events and encounters, in a most attractive historical setting. I’ve been aware of the event for a long time. But there is an unhelpful streak in me that wants to keep myself apart from any obvious hotspot. But this year I could not avoid it as I was under orders from Valérie Fougeirol to present my work at the festival. It was a most engaging experience that reinforced my calling to walk the path of a postdisciplinary artist-researcher. The art world does not isolate itself from global issues. Anthropocenic questions abound. This is a very interesting space to work and reflect in an interdisciplinary way on our common future. I feel that, finally, I’m starting to live up to Anders Petersen’s maxim: “Use the camera not to take ‘nice pictures’, but as an alibi to put yourself in a situation that you really, profoundly desire for.” Photography is turning into one vector, in resonance with others, that stretches the canvas for a post-disciplinary research practice around some of the important questions for our time: how can we open up (re-)generative spaces? what does it mean to operate from an ethics of enchantment? how to shape and embody benign relationships between human, vegetative, animal and artificial life forms? I relish the challenge to contribute to a more fluid, pluriversal, just world. That for me has become the calling of photography.
Taking the long view backwards and reconstructing this journey has been extraordinarily gratifying. It has been such a vibrant and resonant experience. The story is about much more than putting in 10.000 hours to become an expert. Photography has become genuine soul work. It is part of my élan vital, whether I have a camera in hand or not. Pushing the shutter button has become a form of prayer. And it has reinforced my desire to turn everything I do into a form of prayer. Prayer is intimate, and hence life-giving. François Jullien writes about intimacy as anchoring a double movement. It descends into the most private parts of our inner world. Bringing one’s eye to the viewfinder and, through that gateway, feeling your way into the world, is a very private moment. At the same time one opens up, one is intimate with. Intimacy is relational, goes beyond the self, constitutes a larger body. Many friends and mentors have shared part of my photographic journey. Their breath animates the images that roll out of my camera too. As does the breath of a complicit world that in every frame yields to reciprocate my gratitude.