A Conversation with Bert Teunissen



Bert Teunissen’s Domestic Landscapes is one of my favourite photography books, and I had wanted to talk to Bert about his work for a while. A little while ago, I finally sent him an email to ask, and he agreed to an interview.

Q: It has taken you years to compile all the images in “Domestic Landscapes”. How did the project start? When did you realize that preserving those kinds of domestic environments is something that you would want to pursue?

A: It started accidentally when I found this little cafe in the south of France where I stopped for a drink. The interior was exactly the same as when it was built, and the light coming in from the outside was simply too beautiful. Half a year later, I found a similar place in my native village, and the similarity struck me. That was the moment that I thought there was a theme. It didn’t become a series until Finn Thrane from the Museet For Fotokunst in Odense, Denmark, asked me to make an exhibition of the work. Then I started looking for more.


Q: Your work - just like that of many other Dutch photographers - works only with available light, and it thus manages to create this kind of quality of light that one sees in Dutch paintings from the Golden Age a lot. I would be curious to learn a little bit about your motivation for working in this mode, in particular whether - apart from showing those places people live in in the same light as they would appear if you were to visit them in person - there is a connection with painting. Have you been influenced by painting at all? Or is this continued reference made to painting when viewing Dutch photography really just some sort of stereotype - just like presumably, all Germans take photos like the Bechers?

A: First of all: Name one other Dutch photographer that works only with available daylight? I know none.

I was not influenced by the painters; in fact it was not until my first show in New York in 2000 when my work was compared with the works of Vermeer, De Hoogh and Rembrandt by New Yorker magazine that I became aware of that. I even went straight to the Frick Collection to go and see for myself. That was the first time I really understood what I was doing. Before that it was just intuition, and after I found out what my work was really about I became aware of the fact that it had to be in connection with my youth. The house I was born in and grew up in had the same atmosphere. It was torn down when I was 8 years of age, because my parents had to modernise their house and shop. When that was finished and we went in to reoccupy the place, I realized that with the walls and the rooms the light and the atmosphere was gone for good. I felt sorry.

Eventually, my motivation to work this way is because of the fact that this light situation gives this specific feel and atmosphere that I am looking for.

Another aspect about this way of working is the joy of working with little equipment; as a commercial photographer I was used to bringing along lots of lights, tripods and flags. Really, I hated it and by working this way I discovered a total new way of making pictures that was hardly known to me before. What also came along was the experience that the people being photographed appeared much more natural and relaxed if I didn’t bring along all the shit. The whole action is much more natural and people reflect to that.


Q: I read a bunch of questions that you posed, along with one of your images, where you’re talking about franchising, multi-national corporations, and food production. How much were these thoughts in your head when you started your project?

A: Not at all. This is something that I stumbled upon when doing the series. I found out that the situations that I want to photograph are those that have not been altered too much and that still have the function as when they were built. This way, the natural daylight also plays its role. The matter of the franchising comes into the picture when you realise that the further we get in our way of becoming one nation (Europe), the more we start looking the same. You have to understand that it is only a few years ago when we introduced the Euro. Before that we would have like six or seven envelopes in the house carrying the money of as many different countries that we might visit or had visited and would be visiting again in the near future. Just look to all the different languages that we have in Europe and the variety of cultures. Everything is becoming more and more the same, and the central government in Brussels decides more and more how we are going to behave in the greater picture. New rules and regulations are telling us that we can no longer buy local products, because multinationals and insurance companies have decided that our health is at stake and that risks become too big as long if we eat locally produced cured meats and cheeses containing fungus.

But what is happening in reality, of course, is that multinationals want bigger pieces of the cake, and they are able to get it because they are in fact part of the same money system. All they have to do is to scare the population with stories of diseases coming from eating such food and to provide the masses with large supermarkets where you can buy everything at once for low prices, and the damage is done. Add the urbanisation and the circle is round. We are getting further and further away from where we actually come from, and it takes only one more generation before our (grand)children will not know where meat, milk, cheese and vegetables come from anymore and that you need to actually kill an animal in order to get the steak on the plate. Watch the series of Jamie Oliver who wants to improve the meals that kids at school in the UK are being served; just fat and salt. They have never ever seen a real vegetable. These stories horrify me. On my travels I ran into these facts when I found out that large parts of the European countries are simply empty; not even 50 years ago you would find at least one, more often two schools in each village. Now they have to gather all kids in a circle of 50 km’s to fill only one small class!


The land lies fallow, and you start wondering where our food is being produced?!? In f….. Kenya, and our meat comes from South American countries. Cows over there eat the rain forests, are being slaughtered, the meat is deep frozen and put on transport on floating freezers where it will stay for a year and a half until the prize is right, after which it will be sold to, for instance, the Netherlands. Then it appears some two years after the cow died in our supermarkets as FRESH MEAT. And they are allowed to call it fresh because it is not frozen!!!!

I get very angry of these speculative ways of trade; and only a little bit longer and we don’t know any better.

Q: This is obviously getting away from photography a bit, but I feel I need to follow up on this. When I traveled to Amsterdam a coupe of years ago I did have Euros in my pocket, but Amsterdam was still Amsterdam. People were speaking Dutch, and the general feel and atmosphere was very different from the one I see in Germany - even though the currency is now the same, and you can drive from Amsterdam to Cologne, say, without even noticing you cross a border. I’m wondering whether the assumption that everything will just be the same in a unified Europe is not glossing over the simple fact that despite people wearing the same sneakers they still are quite different, and they will remain different. The question of mass production of food aside - where I totally agree with your points - I think it’s a bit too convenient and simplistic a picture to say that everything will end up being the same, because, after all, a country is not only defined by what is consumed but in particular by its history and local culture. In fact I’d even argue that in a unified Europe people will put even more stress on preserving their local histories. I mean if you travel to Germany, the vast variety of local cultures - Bavarians, Swabians, Franconians, Friesians, etc. etc. - is still very much preserved. Why would a unified Europe result in the Dutch, Germans, French, etc. morph into some sort of Euromutant?

A: I would say: Watch and see. Of course there will always be differences, but the variety that I’m referring to are of a kind that came slowly over centuries and by mule. These variations will now disappear very fast, and the new variations will come by the speed of light and (in terms of speaking) out of the blue. What I mean to say is that the norm that is disappearing has been around for hundreds of years, and it will go for good. The new norm is still to be established and will sprout from a totally new consciousness. We are leaving an era and entering a complete new one.


Q: One might argue that while your questions certainly contain some truth, they also gloss over the fact that many of the people shown in your photographs live in a condition that could easily be described as “poverty”. For example, access to electricity in a house is not only a sign of our lives being homogenized, it’s also a sign of our lives being made easier and more pleasant. I’m wondering whether showing these domestic landscapes maybe makes the conditions the people live in look more romantic than they actually are?

A:NO POVERTY!!! I strongly oppose against that vision. The people I photograph are not poor, they do not feel poor and they have chosen to live the way they do. They see it as an inheritance, and they do it because they were taught to do so by their ancestors. If people are poor and feel poor they would never let me in and take their photograph. They would feel ashamed of their situation and would not want to be exposed in that way. I consider these people as the richest of our society because they still know where they come from and what they represent and they are still able to look after themselves. They are all more than 80 years of age (often up to 100) and totally happy with their situation and healthy and strong as an ox.

Q: So, in essence, your work also shows us a different way to address the question of “poverty” - away from simply monetary concerns and towards including the culture and quality of life?

A: Yes of course, I mean define poverty for me. I don’t think poverty has anything to do with simplicity. I would define poverty as a condition in which someone doesn’t have the means to stay alive, to look after himself and/or his family, when one has no or cannot afford medical support, when there is no education for one’s children. I think that is poverty. Again: if you described the people that I have photographed as poor, you would insult them in a terrible way and you would not understand what I am trying to do. Also in the eyes of these people, we, the Westerners (and especially the Americans), sometimes have more poverty that they have ever experienced in their lives; no health insurance for millions, and big financial problems due to mortgages that cannot be paid because of the ridiculous loans people have gotten themselves into. In many ways we think we’re rich, but in fact we go on tick.


Q: Of course, I have to ask you this: What’s next? Will you move to a new project or have you already started one? Or will you continue your survey of domestic landscapes?

A: I have already started to continue the story. The story is not over. I am building an archive, and an archive needs to grow. I have always said that I wanted to cover at least the whole of Europe. I wanted to finish the western part first because here the places disappear fast due to globalisation and a bigger and faster development. Now that I have published the book with Aperture, the project stands, and now I can concentrate on the rest of Europe; the East. I want to continue this project also because there is no better way to spent your time and money. I come back richer after each trip. In the meantime, I will also publish the diaries that I make about the travels for this project. These are small travelogs in which I tell a very personal story in black & white pictures (the first ten should appear before the end of 2008).