Bertien van Manen (1942, The Netherlands) started photographing in the late 1970s. Since then, she has travelled the world extensively with her small analogue cameras – giving preference to the unobtrusiveness and charm of lo-fi gear over more advanced equipment. We invited her for a conversation about her career.
We meet at her apartment in Amsterdam, a residence spanning the top floors of a tall and narrow 17th century canal house. It has a small rooftop terrace where we catch the last rays of the Dutch summer sun. Bertien, a slender woman with red hair, is walking around with chairs and cups. She wants me to smell the fresh mint that she has been growing. “It's good, right?" she asks as she finally sits down to talk. It's a strong, almost tickling, smell.
When did you decide to start exploring the world?
When something is foreign, my blood starts flowing faster. All that is Dutch doesn't really excite me, but when my children were still small I couldn't go abroad. In that period, I photographed migrant women in The Netherlands, as this was a way for
me to get close to what was foreign. These women somehow satisfied my curiosity and need for different life stories. But at a certain point I was desperate to go abroad and so, when my children were older, I went to America. This was in 1985, and it was my first trip to the Appalachians – an area that I have kept returning to for the past 30 years.
Are you looking for something in particular, in the places you visit?
Sometimes you might only know that you're in search of something in a country, but you don't yet know what it is that you're looking for. An extreme example of that was when I started going to China in the '90s. In the beginning, I was only capable of shooting beautiful 'calendar photos', even though that wasn't what I aimed for. Yet, China still fascinated me, so I kept my senses open for what it might be that I would like to arrive at. Then, one day, I walked out of a building in Chongqing with a few friends, and outside it was noisy, hot, and everywhere I looked there were people. Suddenly, being there really excited me. All those sensations hit me in the face like a strong wind, and right away I knew what it was that triggered me. It was still a vague notion, yet it arrived with the certainty that I knew what I wanted to do from then on. At a fast pace, like a machine gun, I started to shoot exactly the images I wanted to make.
Does it always work that way for you?
Yes, more or less. In Russia and America it was very clear what I wanted to do there; I had longed to go to those places for a long time until I could finally go, so they were exciting to me. China was more difficult, and when I went to Istanbul it didn't work out for me at all. I went there three times, and I never found what it was that I was looking for, so after the third time I stopped going there.
I'd like to ask you about our theme this issue, 'Sweet Life'. What does this concept mean to you?
When I hear 'sweet life', I immediately think of the book by Ed van der Elsken with that title.
Have you ever met Van der Elsken?
Actually, yes. I had a good friend, Kenneth Hope, who helped me a lot when I started taking photos. He showed me Robert Frank's book The Americans, which was where it all started for me. I totally related to his of photography. At some point Kenneth thought that I should get to know Ed van der Elsken's work, too. He said to me: “You should meet each other!" So, I went to van der Elsken's house and he welcomed me with: “So you want to meet the great master?"
We went through his slides for an hour and that was it. But you asked about a sweet life. We're so spoiled in The Netherlands, and that does not often lead to stories that I am interested in. I look more to the fringes of society, for edgier environments.
And is there sweetness to be found in those fringes?
When I'm in the Appalachians, I'm staying with the people there, and they might not be rich by material standards, yet they seem to have a good life... So yeah, what's happiness? Happiness is just a few sweet moments in your life, and they're always short. They can probably be found everywhere, even in a refugee camp.
Is there a specific picture that visualises such happiness for you?
There is a photo I took of Ljalja Kuznetsova, sunbathing in her red swimming suit. Ljalja is a Russian photographer with whom I was travelling. We were in Odessa and the weather was lovely. We were picnicking, and she was wearing her beautiful Russian swimsuit and lying down in the grass. I do think that was a truly sweet moment for her, and I took a photo of it.
Are all your favourite pictures of people you know and like?
I'm mostly interested in people who don't act like they're interesting. When I photograph people that I don't like so much, I don't feel at ease. For example, I can't photograph people in their homes when I don't feel a connection. As soon as I feel that people don't like me, or don't want me to photograph them, I get paralysed.
How do you know when you should stop photographing a person?
As a photographer, you're permanently walking the thin line between going too far and missing a great photo. For example, I like to photograph people when they're sad, and even when they're crying. But it's tricky. First of all, you need to take care it won't become a kitsch picture, and second of all, when somebody is really grieving, you need to leave that person be. You need to make those decisions in in a split second, and that's difficult sometimes. Afterwards, you might think, “Oh my god, I crossed a line." Or you think the opposite and regret that you didn't take the picture, because it keeps popping up in your thoughts. There is no rule of thumb, because every situation is different. The only thing to bear in mind is that you don't hurt people.
You often photograph people over long periods of their lives. What are the advantages of that?
When I've gotten to know somebody, I can go deeper with the photos I take. When you talk to somebody for five minutes, you talk small talk, but when you talk for an hour, or days, or years, it becomes more interesting. It works the same way in photography. And there's one more reason: sometimes you miss a moment that you wish you'd taken a photo of. But when you spend more time with that person, sometimes that same moment happens again. When that occurs, it feels like a present.
Your earlier work was documentary photography, while your later work is more poetic. Was there a specific moment when you decided to work differently?
It was a process. But that has to do with the spirit of the times. When I was photographing in the early '80s, photographers were supposed to engage in social photography. You were supposed to change the world and address social inequalities. It was almost accusatory. That's the way it was back then.
It doesn't sound like you agreed with that of working.
Oh, but I did! I made a lot of the work that I did because I felt I had to prove that there were people, like migrant women in The Netherlands, who had hard lives. It was almost an obsession for me back then. But, over time, I started to see that I was doing it in a very preaching way. I started to dislike that the photos were so clearly trying to prove something. Documentary photography is so descriptive that there's no room left for the viewer to give another interpretation to the photos. I simply became less excited about that kind of photography.
Is there a country that you want to go to but haven't had the chance to visit yet?
I always do what I want to do, so there's nothing I haven't done yet and still want to do. I'm very much enjoying my current work in Ireland. There'll be an exhibition in Ireland next year, and hopefully there'll be a book soon after that, because I always have a book in mind when I'm working on a project. But what I'll do after that, I have no idea. After finishing a project, you usually fall into a black hole, until you start the next one.
How do you deal with those 'black holes'?
They aren't pleasant, but they're part of life. You should just wait till they're over, and in the meanwhile, keep photographing. Like when I went to Istanbul: it didn't work out the way I wanted, but it was good for me anyway. There is one thing that you shouldn't do and that is: do nothing. Then you'll stagnate. Luckily I'm way too impatient for that to happen.
This interview was published in our Sweet Life Issue #43