In this interview, Hon Hoang talks to Kris Vervaeke, a portrait, commercial, and street Photographer.
Physical exploration abroad can bring about much left unexplored within one’s own mind. Many questions that people are not confronted with are presented to the foreground as we move across the globe, finding ourselves in different yet familiar places. Observing those that breathe the same air and bleed the same blood yet noticing the subtleties and idiosyncrasies that make us unique. The ability to observe and even admire these quirks are necessary as a North Star for most photographers. Guiding them towards their subjects and creating stories through images. Photographer Kris Vervaeke presents his work with realism yet accompanies it with a tinge of wonder as he’s guided by this sense of direction.
What were some of your early experiences with photography?
Just taking a few snap shots here and there during my travels when working for a steel company. Nothing special.
Whether through formal education or self-taught, how did you develop your style as a photographer? Are there any photographers that influence you in particular?
After many years working in an industrial environment, I switched careers completely. Did some evening school and I’m still self-teaching me with every experience. Photography is what I do now. I think I developed my style by just wandering around, looking and trying out different things.
Some old and classics: e.g. Cartier-Bresson and August Sander, Lee Friendlander. Martin Parr, Alec Soth, also Larry Sultan. Kadir Van Lohuizen, Misrach… but I also can get inspired by some starting photographers.
Being born in Belgium, what is it like to photograph people native to your country compared to the projects you take on abroad?
To be honest I have not really photographed many Belgians yet… and if so it would not be that different I assume. I probably will adjust in some details here and there but in general, the way I approach and connect with the street and with people would be the same.
You spent 13 years living throughout Asia. What can you tell me about your first year there and how did it compare to your last?
As I was just new in the photography business with no experience, I started with variety of small jobs from shooting 1500 wine bottles to silly portraits for a little local magazine. With each job I learned more and added on experience. Over the years you get to know the region better and I started doing more personal projects towards the end.
Can you tell me a bit about your House Full of Gold series? How did the project start?
The title refers to the name of a fortune tellers booth. When living in Hong Kong, I visited this temple taking pictures of the Chinese New Year rush. This is when I first saw those fortune tellers in the back building and became interested with them. I didn’t pursue any images with the fortune tellers at the time, but it always was in the back of my mind.
A unique place of worship and wishes, 160 fortune tellers concentrated in one building, neatly lined up in tiny offices; waiting for customers to come by for good fortune. They invite you in their little sanctuaries, stacked to the roof with knowledge and paper and history. They read from ancient shading books, from the cracks of your smile and from the shape of your jaws. They juggle with jostle sticks and birth day numbers and find the future in your hands and forehead while you sit on hard wooden chairs. I found myself going back many times. I started talking to them and eventually had my hand and face read by some. This gave me a better understanding of these fortune tellers and the traditional art of fortune telling. It made me want to document this unique place.
So I started to take portraits of the fortune tellers and their empty booths when they did not want to be photographed. It is only later on that I decided to do something with it. That year I participated at a photography workshop organized by Magnum. I wanted to re-create these rows of fortune tellers and the bizarre atmosphere that is at the same time religious, superstitious, carnival, shopping mall, historic site, temple and theme park, all packed in one. Allowing you to see the shops and its interior from the outside makes you a visitor choose your fortune teller. I also included detail images of the interior , plus quotes of the fortune tellers about my own fortune.
Are there any particular moments or stories from this project that has stayed with you?
When doing the interviews, one fortune teller said ‘Once I told a customer she would become a prostitute and she did. I’m not sure if my prediction led her into it.’ I smiled, sometimes people put too much trust in others. As mentioned for this project I had my hand and face read several time . One fortune teller (an ex fireman) advised me ‘OK, Mr. Kris , you pay first’ ‘You have long ears. You can be famous, but you are stubborn. Keep good Feng Shui. This year, put some fresh flowers every day at the north side wall in your house. This will help you become famous’. Well, I tried this but it did not help. Another one said ‘Your career is like a river, like it cannot stop. At 65 you’ll still have a career.’ So now I guess I’ll keep my faith in that one…
Do you have an image in mind before you take a photograph? How much do you allow the moment and your emotions to dictate the direction compared to what you have planned?
I work very intuitively. I often find my inspiration in daily life or on the street. I like to take pictures of what I think is somehow intriguing, bizarre, senseless, curious or surreal. Sometimes it is so bluntly ordinary that I find it becomes queer, daft or surprisingly entertaining. For my new project where I take images of objects in a studio I do have the image in mind and work with more structure.
How much of yourself do you put into your photographs? What is it about your subject that makes you want to create a photograph?
Unconsciously I put a lot of myself in my photographs. I see subjects, I see stories. With an eye toward storytelling, I use my camera to take you to some strange and wonderful places that you may not experience in your own day-to-day life. I love to make photo stories that capture some of the humanity and goofiness I discover.
Are there any long-term personal projects you’re hoping to explore or are currently working on?
My personal work tends toward in-depth projects that become books and exhibitions Currently I’m working on a project called ’98 objects found in my mother-in-law’s-basement’ I photograph objects found in people’s basements. A surprising collection of prosthetic devices, dysfunctional tools, tooth brushes, 20-year-old cans of food, old toaster, decapitated toys, to a single shoe. Through these kept items a portrait of an era emerges, everyday objects as a capsule of time of society
If you had to start all over again, what advice would you give yourself?
I should have started with photography much earlier…
Would you have any advice for aspiring photographers?
Follow your instinct, don’t be afraid to throw yourself into it and own your project. It’s advice I still need to give myself.
Photos Courtesy of Krisver Vaeke