This article originally appeared on VICE France.
In 2009, Flemish photographer Bieke Depoorter boarded the Trans-Siberian railway with just her camera, a sleeping bag, and a hand-written note with the following words scribbled in Russian: "I'm looking for a place to spend the night. I don't want to stay at a hotel because I don't have much money and I'd love to see how people live in Russia. Perhaps I could crash at your place? Thank you very much for your help!"
Depoorter thoroughly documented her three-month journey, from which she drew pictures of strangers in their living rooms and naked women showering in the snow. The resulting series, Ou Menya, won her the Expression Award from the prestigious agency Magnum Photos. After joining the agency, she started another project by following the same process, this time in the United States.
I got in touch with her to discuss infiltrating strangers' lives.
VICE: How did you get started with photography?
Bieke Depoorter: I don't really have a big story. I studied photography when I was 18, right after high school. Before that, I was mostly studying maths, economics, and human sciences and I didn't know a thing about art or photography. Somehow, I felt like it was the privilege of people from big cities. Having been born in the small Belgian town of Courtrai, I didn't feel artistic at all.
During the summer, I heard about a course at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Ghent. I felt like I had to give it a try, otherwise I would end up doing something I didn't want to do—I would probably be a psychologist by now. Everything pretty much snowballed from there.
You did your graduation project—Ou Menya—in Russia. What drew you there?
I was really attracted to the country because I knew nothing about it. It was basically just a huge chunk of a world map to me. The only thing I knew was that it was easier for me to work with strangers, so I didn't think too much about it. I just went there.
As I didn't speak the language at all, I looked for people on the internet and found a Russian girl who could speak English. I spent my first night in Moscow at her place. I didn't have any money and wanted to stay in small towns, but most of them didn't have hotels. So I asked her if she could write me a note asking people if I could sleep at their place, be it on a bed or a couch. At first, this note was just a solution to me, but once I started traveling, I realized it was a nice way of entering people's homes. I decided I would do this every night—and the note eventually became a tool and the center of my project.
I traveled to Russia three times—each time staying for a month. Of course, people didn't always react positively. Some ignored me, but others took me by the hand and trusted me very quickly. In some cases, I came to feel like a family member over the course of one night. I only had one rule: not looking for homes during nighttime, when I didn't feel safe.
How did you manage to get so intimate with these people?
I don't have any trick, but for me it's very important that people see me as a person and not a photographer. I want them to know that I don't see them as objects. I really think I got to know some of these people. I had dinner with them, watched TV with them, joined them in saunas… When you don't share a language, it means that you don't have to do small talk or ask stupid questions—you're left with pure observation. Because of this, you can get to know someone more easily and deeply than with language. I really appreciated this aspect of the project. You can share a lot with silence, and this felt more intense.
I guess your experience must have been really different in America, where you worked on I'm About to Call it a Day using the same process. This time you could speak to your subjects in English.
I decided to go there because I was curious to see how it would be if I spoke the language, but it was actually harder. First, I booked a flight to Atlanta, and my flight back home was from New York. I had three weeks to kill in the meantime, so I went to all the towns I could visit on my way to New York. I would choose two big towns and pick the smaller villages from there.
It took me more time to start photographing in the US, because people wanted to know everything about my travels and my work first. But I always carried my camera in front of me and started taking pictures as soon as I could. Even if I don't have to use these pictures later, it's really important for me to make sure that people won't be scared of the camera and that they can get used to it.
It's true that when I look at your pictures, people seem to be oblivious to your presence.
At the beginning, a lot of people were posing. But after a few hours, they tend to forget. It was difficult with some strangers, but some of them were extremely easy going and some very inclined to share their stories. One woman actually showed me her old diary and allowed me to shoot a page where she wrote that she wanted to commit suicide. People know I will be leaving on the following day, so they really tend to tell me things they wouldn't normally share with others. For this woman, it was important to share that story with me—her husband was in the next room, but he didn't know anything about it. We talked about her life, how she felt. I love portraits, but I think this letter says more than 100 pictures of her could.
I'm kind of scared to visit people a second time because our moments were special and I want to keep it that way. I like to keep these nights a one-time thing, and I don't necessarily feel the need to stay in touch. But I tell them who I am and if they want to add me on Facebook or something there's no problem. I'm always happy to send them pictures or books.
Most of your work seems to be done abroad. Have you ever done a project in Belgium and are you planning to?
I would love to do a project in southern Belgium, but I definitely won't do anything in Ghent, where I live. It's my base to come home, and I want to keep it that way. Many photo projects require energy and if I had to do these projects here, I would never get any rest. I'm very attracted to central Belgium though, because it's really different. Even when I'm with my friends, I don't take pictures. I'm actually very shy in my area, and I don't like my friends to see me taking photographs.
Your project In Between documents the period of change Egypt is undergoing. How has the uprising changed people's lives, in your opinion?
I hadn't been in Egypt before the revolution, so it's difficult for me to say. When I was working on that project, I really focused on the individuals and not on the politics. I think that there are many personal stories to tell. At the beginning, I felt like a lot of Egyptians were hopeful and that made them quite open, even though it's not an easy place to take pictures in. But the second time around it was harder—some Egyptians thought I was a spy. I was seen as a foreigner and I think that has to do with people losing their hope. I haven't been there since last May, but I'm afraid that people still don't have much hope.
Even when you do investigative journalism, you focus on human stories. I am thinking of He Who Hopes Is Crazy, where you followed a family in Srebrenica, Bosnia, and Herzegovina.
Actually, I was only there for two weeks—it was an assignment for a newspaper. I worked with two journalists who were working on the conflict, and they asked me to join them. But I still took photographs in my own way in these refugee camps in Bosnia, where I spent one night. I always feel strange if I go somewhere, steal a picture, tell my story, and leave without knowing anything about these people.
I read that's the reason why you stopped doing street photography—because you didn't like stealing from people you didn't know.
I took a lot of street photographs as a student. I always had this feeling of stealing something—that people were not people to me anymore, just subjects. I could wait for a very long time to find a nice environment and wait for someone to pass by, and I composed a picture in my head before I even took it. The pictures turned out OK but I didn't like them—something was missing.
Seeing people and talking with them in their homes in Russia made me feel like my pictures found that missing layer. I think it's important that photographs have different layers. The biggest mistake I made as a student was obsessing about the perfect picture—I never managed to take a perfect picture.
Interview by Julie Le Baron