Duration: Five years.
Location: Savannah, Georgia.
Education: Master of laws in international law and human rights from Vrije Universiteit Brussel, Brussels, Belgium; BA in film/video and photographic arts from Savannah College of Art and Design, Savannah, Georgia.
Career path: I was born in Northern Belgium and grew up in a small town called Tessenderlo. I received my first camera from my mother when I turned twelve years old, and I photographed everything I saw: my family, nature and everything else. My family and I traveled for most of my life, so I was lucky that I was able to experience different cultures and ways of life, and see the beauty of diversity around the world. This gift filled me with a love for visual storytelling and instilled in me a deep interest in social justice, youth culture and activism.
After studying human rights and international law in Brussels, I traveled to Ethiopia and Kenya to document the growing climate crisis in eastern Africa. There, I realized how great of a storytelling tool photography could be, so I began making photo documentaries. In the past couple of years, my work has been focused on environmental issues, human rights, gender and the exploration of identity.
Artistic influences: As a child, my mother—who is fascinated with art history—would always bring me to museums, and we would try to draw the sculptures or paintings we saw. I still feel heavily influenced by painting and sculpture, specifically neoclassical and renaissance artists like Jan Van Eyck or Raphael. I have always loved the gestures and the intricate details in those paintings. I also draw a lot of inspiration from contemporary artists, like Belgian painter Sam Dillemans; his portraits always feel emotional and dynamic. Photographers like Martine Franck, André Kertész, Alec Soth and Joel Sternfeld have always been big sources of inspiration for me as well. Each of these individuals brings a unique voice to the medium of photography that captivates me.
Favorite work: Currently, I’m working on a long-term project called America’s Girls. As a young European woman growing up in Belgium, I really idealized the culture of the United States. I looked at glossy magazines and dreamed of looking like all the beautiful women I saw in ads. As a photographer working in the United States, I became interested in trying to depict the role that young women play within American society. Living here now, I see things in a more nuanced way.
For this series, I’ve photographed a variety of young American women between the ages of six and sixteen years old. I’m interested in adolescence as a fleeting, transitional stage of emotional discovery. Young girls go through an incredibly rapid change in their teens, and for many, that transitional period is the most difficult part of life. While your body is growing and developing, you are swarmed by images that depict what you’re “supposed” to look like. The expectations hoisted upon women from every corner of society can make it hard for young girls to feel like they measure up. This is an important dialogue—one that often can’t take place in words as effectively as it can in photography. The long-term goal is to create a body of work that feels diverse and inclusive, showing beauty in its truest, purest form.
For America’s Girls, I find inspiration in my daily experiences as a woman, hearing stories of younger women and from the general feeling of being overwhelmed by images that represent unrealistic images of female bodies. I really feel like there is a large need for images that create realistic, healthy expectations for young women, and I feel driven to make a positive body of work that makes people feel happy and at ease, rather than anxious and nervous. That being said, I don’t want my work to feel cut and dry; I want to incorporate some ambiguity that prompts the viewer to think about what it is to be a young American woman in this time.
Work environment: My ability to make this work comes from building trust. Usually, I start planning photoshoots months ahead, regardless of what I’m working on.
If I’m working on America’s Girls, I’ll talk to parents, schools and sports clubs about my work and see if they are interested in having me take photographs. On the day of the shoot, I’ll introduce myself and talk with the girls; we spend some time talking about what they find interesting, what they think is beautiful about themselves, how they feel in this period of transition and so on. After that, I set up the camera and let them choose a position that feels comfortable for them. Once they are holding a position, I take the photograph.
If I’m working on Looking for Water, my ongoing series investigating climate change’s effects on communities in eastern Africa, I usually stay for a more extended period of time—one month or more—with the families I photograph. Together with Sumsum, my friend and translator, we live with the people suffering from the consequences of climate change. We spend this time photographing and interviewing people throughout their day. This work environment is completely different—both culturally and physically—from the other projects I do. It’s nice to have both environments in my practice. I always enjoy doing things outside of my comfort zone.
Approach: I use a large-format, four-by-five or eight-by-ten view camera. The nature of large-format photography helps me create an honest, judgment-free environment. Without the presence of a digital screen on the camera, people feel no pressure of seeing the photos right away, so they embrace the unknown. Film photography enhances this by giving the images a timeless feeling. When the people I take pictures of stand still, I see all façades fall away. It’s a really magical process.
Philosophy: “To believe in something, and not to live it, is dishonest.” My father gave me this Mahatma Gandhi quote printed on a little wooden block as a teenager, and it has always stuck in my head. As a documentary photographer who photographs the consequences of climate change and talks about gender inequality, I often keep this quote in mind during my daily actions.
Anything else: Besides working as a photographer, I also work as a filmmaker. With fellow photographer and filmmaker Spencer MacDonald, I cofounded a collective called Juniper. Over the past few years, we have been making short documentaries for various nonprofits. I’m also an active member of Women Photograph, an initiative that elevates the voices of women visual journalists. I organize many exhibitions, talks and gatherings for creative for a plurality of femme voices, including trans, queer and nonbinary people.