life begins where the comfort zone ends

No school, no clinic. No wifi. No smoothies, no McDonalds. No Superdry. And no Playstation. Shouldn't these kids be crying?

Took me 3 years, but I found her back!

Somewhere early 2013 I took a picture of this woman in the Hoarusib riverbed, Namibia. A few months later I decided (together with designers Tiemen Harder and Karina Brouwer de Koning) she would be on the cover of my book Empty. And so it happened. I still think it's a great cover and I am very proud of the book.

Her name I did not know - I actually knew nothing about her. Probably she was a Herero woman but the distinctive headgear symbolizing the horns of a cow was missing (I actually liked the scarf she was wearing). Since then I have been back 3 times in Namibia. And every time I had a copy of the book for her in the car. But I could not find her. The secluded spot where she was living with a few children and some goats is now deserted. The basic huts are in decline. And in the nearest village nobody recognized her picture.

But that changed this year. In Puros I spoke to a local who immediately reacted: I know her! According to him, she works in Schoeman's Camp, a remote lodge on the border of Skeleton Coast. I know the place because I crash it every once in a while for a cup of Nescafé. And I have sneaked on a few 4WD tracks that are actually exclusive to their guests on a few occasions.

When we arrived at the lodge we met a woman who knew my covergirl. But she referred us to 'the location' - a local euphemism for the living quarters used to separate black workers from the upper class. On a piece of paper she wrote the name of the woman I was looking for: Karirii-he. In the location, only 500 meters away, a bunch of very poor people was visibly surprised when two whites drove into their camp. The children did not look healthy.

I did not recognize her immediately, but my guest at the time Ingrid de Groen did: there she stood. Much smaller than I remembered, and more than three years older it seemed (but people do get old faster than time overhere). Again wearing such a beautiful dress, made out of countless scraps with love and patience. To me these dresses breathe beauty and attention - but I believe that for local people poverty is more what comes to their mind when looking at these dresses.

When I showed her the book, she was beaten dumb. She could not even remember that I took that picture, she said. But she simply loved it. She did not stop touching the cover with her hands, looked at it again and again. She clapped her hands and kept yelling: dankie-dankie-dankie! It was so nice to see what was happening. I think we were looking at somebody who - for the first time in her life - was really seen by others. That is at least what I think happened.

We stayed for about fifteen minutes and left some stuff, like Ingrid's lare towel - because the nights were getting cold we were told. The Ralph Lauren shirt I bought 15 years ago in the US was gratefully accepted as well (I heard the new owner proudly tell the children that this shirt had been all over the world. But when I asked him about a 4WD track that starts 10km away he said: sorry, I've never been there). We also gave them a pair of scissors, for one of the older girls had scabies or something else under her messy and unorganized hair - and the only solution they could think of was a bald cut.

Just when we wanted to leave, Karirii-he re-appeared. She had dressed up quickly and this time she was wearing the headdress typical of the Herero. The intention was clear: she wanted another portrait. So there she is! Meet Karirii-he.

we're not bringing blankets

Just last week I had a meeting in Amsterdam, to discuss another assignment in Jordan. The last two years I have been documenting the lives of Syrian refugees there, together with reporter Rinke Verkerk. And we might go back.

I am not really sure what happened during that meeting, but something big ignited there, something almost out of control. We are now exactly one week further and here's where we are now. This Friday we are flying to Amman, for a 2 week trip to both Jordan and Lebanon. We'll be shooting for a book that will be launched in December. Just last friday - that's two days after that meeting - we sold 400 copies of that book-to-be to a company that likes our positive approach. Now it's wednesday and we're at 800+! In December there will be an exhibition in Amsterdam, focusing on the strength and resilience of the refugees, not on their dependency and misery.

Only 24 hours ago we launched www.facebook.com/wegaangeendekensbrengen (which translates as 'We are not bringing any blankets') and within a day we scored 250 likes. The phone is constantly ringing by now; tomorrow we'll have a first interview on national radio about the project and national daily De Volkskrant will publish a feature on their opinion pages, tomorrow as well.

There's hardly any time now to explain all this, but what I can say is that both Rinke and me feel it is time for a different approach to the refugee crisis, and especially to the way the public is being informed about this. We feel it's time to look beyond all the numbers and figures that people are arguing about every single day. And to focus instead on the human beings behind these numbers. To document their lives and their stories. Their fears and their hopes. Their very existence.

We notice an incredible load of energy ever since we decided to start up this project, and we see the same happening to the other people that are getting involved. I'm sure that's a good sign!

You can follow us at the facebook page; I'll be back with more information here as soon as we return from the Middle-East.

Oh, and if you have a great title for the book, please don't hesitate to suggest it!

edit April 2016: the book was published in December: www.anythingoutofnothing.com

 

Better images in 5 minutes

Why do my holiday images look so boring compared to what I felt myself when I took them? How do you ask permission to take somebody's portrait? How can I make my landscapes more vivid? 

Typical questions I get from people during my lectures and workshops. And interesting enough you can improve your images very easily by simply sticking to 4 ot 5 simple rules. Avoid the sun, especially if taking close-ups, for example. And try to avoid the horizon in the middle of your image.

Dutch magazine Z!n publisehd a 6 page feature in which I tackle some of these common questions, plus their easy solutions. Here it is (in Dutch).

All alone on a deserted island

That's the mission. Next week I'll be on my own on an unihabited island. Not in the Pacific or the South-China Sea, but in the good old Dutch Waddenzee. The name of the island is Griend, and it is a very well protected nature reserve, that only receives a handful of scientists every year.

Griend is not big, maybe 1200 metres long. There is one simple hut, for the scientists and birdwatchers. And it is home to tens of thousands of birds, summer and winter.

Here I'll spend a week all alone. Without any contact with the outside world. No phone, no radio. No Facebook, no Twitter, not even a watch. All this for a couple of features in Dutch magazines. But the real reason of course is that I simply like to do things like this.

I have experienced loneliness like this many times before, especially in the Australian outback and in the Namibian desert. That's why I do not expect any big events happening, like huge new insights, or feeling teribbly lonely.

Then again, you never know.

For Dutch natives: here's an interview I had this week on BNR national radio about my trip to Griend.

 

PS April 29th here's the feature that Dutch newspaper Volkskrant published on this journey. It's in Dutch I'm afraid.

 

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There is a connection here

Only one more week and my new photo book 'Empty' will be out. For this project I travelled the remotest corners of Namibia for 6 months. And there, visitors from Holland would jump on board to join me for a week or sometimes two.

All in all I had 16 people coming over to experience what it's like to be completely on your own in the African bush, in a world run by Mother Nature, not by humans. None of them had ever experienced this before. Some of them had never been to Africa.

I asked the people that joined me to write something about their trip, and 10 of their stories are included in 'Empty'. This one, from Marc Knip, struck me as particularly strong and powerful, because Marc is so open about his uncomfortable start.

I feel he touches the very essence of what it's like to travel like this.

Hope

Only a week ago I returned from Jordan, where I was together with reporter Rinke Verkerk to document the lives of Syrian refugees in an area close to the Jordan-Syria border. Last year we'd been to the same place, and boy, it was a sad mission then. The people were angry and the war was everywhere. Little children in Al Za'atari refugee camp were throwing stones at us. If we only mentioned the possibility that the refugees might have to stay in Jordan longer than a few weeks, people immediately got mad at us. It was almost impossible to find a trace of positive energy then.

Now, only a year later, I was taken by surprise when I returned. The war is still there, and so are all the trauma's, the pain and the tears. But amidst all that I sensed something else: hope.

It was everywhere. The kids were going to school and didn't have time to throw stones at us any more. Birds were singing in the air. People have started to grow crops in tiny little gardens just in front of their tent or caravan. Whenever I had a coffee or a shisha in one of the little cafe's in Za' atari people would refuse my payment, showing me hospitality in a way that touched me deeply.

Last year I thought Al Za'atari was a miserable place. Now I still think it is, but I've felt it is also a center of hope, and a monument to the power of love. And I have a deep respect for people that lost almost everything and still have the strength to go on.

Want to see the images? Here they are.

Dead line

Today is monday, the rain is falling outside and I find myself on the floor again, a few hundred images scattered around me. Should I skip this one? What's the story behind that one and could it be that the other one is more powerful? May be this one, if combined with.... Or..

For my new book 'Empty' I spent six months in the desert in Namibia, drove something like 25.000 kilometres and took a few thousand images. And now I am compressing all that into 128 pages...

Producing a photo book is never easy. This is the fifth book I am making and although I am beginning to recognize the different stages in this creative process, I can't seem to get them under control. And I probably shouldn't even try.

Making a photo book is a time and energy consuming thing. I do feel how the chaos is slowly but surely heading towards one goal, towards order and something that makes sense, both in txt and photographs. And with only a week left to the deadline, that is a comforting thought!

Last week I sat down with designer Tiemen Harder from Koningharder in Utrecht and he showed me the first real results. So here's a few spreads that will definitely make it into the book. I think.


The smile detector

I love taking portraits, but I if there’s anything I really detest, it’s images of people with a fake smile. In my opinion the ‘say cheese’ thing has become so normal these days, that we are having more and more trouble distinguishing between a genuine smile and a fake one. There are even camera's and apps on the market with smile detectors. They will only take a shot if everybody in the frame is smiling. 'This will result in hilarious moments and pictures with friends and family.'

Just how pathetic and sad is that? How can an image of anyone be good if he’s pretending to be something that he’s not?

To me images of people are so much more powerful when they give us an insight in what’s really going on. Whether happy, scared, mad, sad or full of joy – I consider it a privilege that people give me the opportunity to have a look, or a glimpse at least, into their soul. And in my opinion I would completely destroy that precious moment with the words ‘say cheese!’

I guess if you have a look at some of my portraits you'll get the picture. This shot one is just an example. While sailing along some of the most Eastern islands of the Indonesian archipelago we visited one of the tiny little villages dotted along the coast. This man was smoking a cigarette and chatting with a few other guys - just like old men do anywhere. His blue eyes really struck me (it turned out he suffered badly from glaucoma).

Can you imagine what this portrait would have looked like if I had told him to smile just before releasing the shutter?

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Portraits: a little confidence helps

Most people like pictures of people. But the general perception is that most people don’t want their picture being taken. The result is that many photographers start shooting snapshots, without their objects’ consent or knowledge. Although this can work out fine every now and then, in my opinion this approach usually ends up with bad results. I’m talking about the messy images from crowded markets, with tilted horizons and all sorts of crap in the foreground. And even worse, when people discover what’s happening, there is a good chance that they will be angry.

In my experience, most people don’t mind having their picture taken at all, many of them actually like it! I think it all comes down to the way you ask. If people feel that you have a genuine interest in them, the chance that they refuse is very small (and if they do so – that’s not terrible either).

It does help if people can see (and feel) that you know what you’re doing. That’s why it may be a good idea to adjust all your settings (shutter, aperture) before you start the conversation. Even more so if the light conditions are challenging, as was the case in the image below. I took the shot in a small shop in NW Namibia. While I bought some groceries I noticed the man and his grandson, sitting next to the entrance. I chatted a little with them, grabbed a camera from the car, took a few images of the shop to get the exact settings I'd need and then took this shot in only 10 or 20 seconds.

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2013 annual report

We're already two weeks into the new year, but I feel I haven't finished 2013 yet. So much happened. So many new experiences. Crossing new borders, meeting thousands of people, feeling welcome in the most inhospitable places, being helped by people that could only be described as vagabonds and robbers in our civilized definitions.

Tears in my eyes when I spent a week with the Syrian refugees in Jordan. Excitement when a grizzly came up really, really close in the wet forests of BC, Canada. Joy and sheer fun, driving an old Volvo all the way from Amsterdam to Dakar, Senegal for charity.

I spent 4 months in Namibia, travelling to the most remote places together with Dutch guests that would hop on the 4WD for a week or 10 days. Trips full of adventure and surprises, overcoming our fears, tackling technical challenges, sleeping like babies..

The first weeks of the new year I spend a lot of time just enjoying all my memories. So I am sharing a few of them with you. Here's my annual report. In 10 images, or maybe 11. If you enjoy them, please share. Thanks!


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During our travels in Namibia we encountered loads of wildlife. Elephants, lions, cheeta's, giraffe, the whole thing. Snakes, scorpions and spiders too. Most of the times it was great, there were moments were it was a bit scary (remember that hyena coming to the fire Marc?). But this brown hyena was a sighting that really struck me. For the first time I could have a close up look at this magnificent and legendary animal. And understand how it is possible that they eat anything, including the thickest bones of their prey.


The fishing beach in Mauritania’s capital Nouakchott is one of the craziest places I've ever seen. While hundreds of fishermen have a hard time landing their boats in the rough surf, on shore these fishrunners are trying to get the merchandise loaded into fifty year old Peugeots as quickly as they can. They need to be fast, because hundreds of locals are doing everything they can to pocket one or two fishes themselves. They will even snatch 'm out of these baskets, attacking from the back!


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Namibia became fully independent from South Africa almost 25 years ago, but life on some of the white-owned farms still reminds very much of the days of apartheid, especially in the south. Many black workers' rights only exist on paper and they are living in the most basic conditions.


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Nikolaus Hakusembe (64) proudly points out one of his former church choir members that made it to governor in Namibia. When asked about the little blue crosses Hakusembe, the vicar of the Dutch Reformed church in Takwasa in Northeastern Namibia, explains those are the choir members who have already died. HIV is a major problem in Namibia, even more so in the North, where over 35% of the population is infected.</span>


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Meeting the himba people in the remote Kaokoveld was the most impressive part of my journey. I can only talk in superlatives to describe what I felt here. Himba are an incredibly beautiful, tough, proud, strong, straightforward and happy bunch of people. The inevitable conclusion I had to draw is that the less pampered your life is, the more happy you can become!

I photographed this beautiful girl in Orupembe. Due to the worst drought in decades practically all Himba left Orupembe in 2013; at the end of the year only a handful of people resided here. In better times the village may have 400+ inhabitants.


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2 year old Jason lives with his grandmother Theresia Swartbooi (43) in a corrugated iron shed on the Huns farm where his grandfather Timothias (54) works, in a remote location close to the Fish River Canyon. Lovely people that literally didn't even have salt to put in their porridge. Another moment where I felt how love can give so much that money can't buy.


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Mundo Resink was one of my first guests in Namibia. He is taking his daily shower here, early morning on the Gainas plains. Want to know how remote a place like that is? Check out Google maps: this where I shot the image.

Having guests joining me was such a nice way of exploring remote places like this. So THANKS Richard Zweekhorst, Daphne Prieckaerts, Pieter Hemels, Jeroen Hemels, Mundo Resink, Bert-Jan ter Hofte, Jeroen Stolting, Erik Hoekstra, Godelieve Janssen, Annemarie Vd Toorn and Marc Knip!

God, this is travelling the way it's supposed to be! 'The most pure, powerful and intense experience of my life', as one guest put it. So I decided to set up another expedition in 2014: http://thijsheslenfeld.com/join/


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It took us almost three weeks, but then again, we didn't do it the easy way. In February I joined the Amsterdam-Dakar Challenge. Driving an old car of 500 Euros max all the way deep into Africa was the challenge. Our Volvo performed great and Gerard Reddingius and I had a great time. The image was taken in Mauritania, the most dangerous part of the trip due to terrorist threats (the reason that the Paris-Dakar is now held in South-America). This is an adventure I can recommend!


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I didn't know it could rain so much in August. But in British Columbia, Canada it can. I spent 10 days here and it felt like the rains never stopped. Still, BC's nature was as beautiful as ever. And I finally spotted my first grizzly bear. What a great animal!


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O yeah, I almost forgot, but in September I did the Transsiberia Express, all the way from Bejing to Moscow. Not my piece of cake, to be honest. It all went too fast and too organised. Nevertheless, I loved the two days we had in Mongolia and picked up some Russian culture. And found out that in Poetin's Russia the old habit of having children march at the monument for the unknown soldier is re-established. That's where I took this portrait. In Jekaterinenburg. Or was it Irkutsk? I really can't remember...


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Leon Coenraad van Wijk portrayed in his farm in a remote location in the Groot Karasberge, in the South of Namibia.

Namibia became fully independent from South Africa almost 25 years ago, but life on some of the white-owned farms still reminds very much of the days of apartheid.

The hunting trophy's from Leon's grandfather certainly add to that atmosphere.


a girl and a poem

It’s over three weeks since my return from Jordan, where I was reporting on Syrian refugees for Volkskrant, De Correspondent, Parool and Nieuwe Revu. In the meantime I already spent a week in BC, Canada. But the images and memories from Jordan are still in my head and my heart. So I have to tell you something.

Za'atari refugee camp was like a tornado of emotions and feelings. I met hundreds of people, had stones thrown at my head, ate sumptuous meals in illegal restaurants, found some great new friends and was awed by the enormous resilience of the 140.000 refugees here... Each and every encounter was impressive and intense. But some of them were even more than that. Meeting Safa'a was a moment I’ll never forget.

Together with reporter Rinke Verkerk I spent one day photographing  the children in the camp for a report in Dutch daily Het Parool . Safa'a was one of the children we met - just randomly, somewhere in the camp. And whenever I think back of that encounter, I get tears in my eyes. Boy, did she touch me…

Here's what happened. 

The conversation Rinke had with Safa'a was not really smooth. Short answers, silences. Safa'a was a little uncomfortable. Rinke asked her a few questions about school. What is your favorite subject? 'Arabic,' Safa'a replied. Do you also write, Rinke asked. ‘Yes,’ she replied. So what do you write? ‘Poems,’ said Safa'a. Rinke was surprised. ‘How nice! Would you know one by heart? No, that was asking too much. But then Safa’a took a little piece of paper out of her pocket, and began to read. 

Calm down, wait, calm down
Because we are far away from home

Send my peace and my love
To our country, where we grew up

Send the birds in our country my greetings
Because they will sing when we get home

Greet our lemon trees, greet my family
Who raised me, sang to me, taught me life

My mother can still smell the scent of her bed at home
Greet my neighbors, my beloved

Salute all the brave people, bow down to our last strength

Which we give collectively for our country

It was an incredible moment. Safa’a really concentrated on doing well while reading her text, so I guess she hasn’t seen my tears. Or maybe she did. It doesn’t really matter.

What does matter is that her poem - along with the stories of other children - was published this Saturday in Het Parool (check out the article here ). And now - because of this publication - her poem will be part of the Tribute to Peace concert from Dutch popstar Trijntje Oosterhuis,  this Sunday in the garden of the Peace Palace . A fancy operation, together with the Hague Philharmonic. UNICEF also contacted me; they picked up the story and want to share it. Just how nice is that?

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heading for the syrian border

Dutch daily Het Parool called me with a question: 'Do you want to go to Zataari, one of the biggest camps for Syrian refugees in Jordan, to photograph the children there?' Didn't have to think long: sure!

Turned out there is a Dutch group called Syrious Mission (I like the name)  that sends out musicians to the camps; they sing and make music with the kids for a week and end the visit with a concert in which the children themselves perform. Now that sounds nice.

One small problem:  there is (obviously) no money for tickets and local expenses. So I kickstarted a fundraising campaign on both Twitter and FB. And within a few hours the phone rang. Pieter Hemels, director of Hemels van der Hart, showed me what friends are for and offered to pay the bill.

Thanks Pieter! Good to know that even in these times there are entrepreneurs who dare to let their heart speak.

I'm off tomorrow, together with reporter Rinke Verkerk, to produce features for Het Parool, Volkskrant, De Correspondent and Nieuwe Revu.

I'm sure it won't be easy. As one of my friends on FB suggested: 'It will be challenging to find a balance between empathy and switching your feelings off.'

I'm afraid he's right. But that is also exactly the reason I want to do this. More soon.

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less is more

Less is more, and that certainly applies to travel photography. Looking at tourists taking pictures, you will always see people taking a step backwards – just to get that beautiful church or that interesting tree on the image as well. I think the secret is to do exactly the opposite: skip the church and the tree and focus on what the image is really about: take a step forward. You might even want to take another step: close ups that only show a detail can sometimes tell so much more about a place than the whole thing.

While on a long trip to the Antarctic I visited quite a few penguin rookery’s, and shot many images with loads of penguins together. But one morning, on yet another beach loaded with king penguins on South Georgia, I sat down for about half an hour to see if that would lead to different results. This little fellow came really close because he was so curious. And I almost automatically shot this image of his feet. Only later, after the trip, I began to realise that this image, with not even half the bird on it, was in fact the most powerful penguin-image I had taken!

look!

Even as a kid, I didn't like zoo's. Well I did, but only if I had the feeling the animal I was looking at was not terribly unhappy. The electric eel, the spiders and the meerkats - those were all fine. But the lions and the polarbears - I could only feel sorry for them, and I still do. Actually I haven't been to a zoo for years.

Maybe that's why this image really struck me. What a great idea to turn the whole thing upside down! I'm not really sure that this what they had in mind when they started feeding lions from this truck in Orana Wildlife Park in New Zealand. But maybe the people on board give it a thought. Being inside a cage sucks! Especially if you don't have the key and the guys outside do...

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life is easy

...if only you can stick to this little scheme ;-)

Work, pleasure, money - for years these subjects and especially their relation have kept me busy. I made lots of money doing things I was very good at but didn't really like, I made no money at all doing things I did like but wasn't very good at, etc etc..

Now I am making good money doing the things I really want to do. And when I found this pure and simple overview, it all came together. In the end it's pretty simple or? Thanks Bud Caddell!

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the best advice: don’t prepare yourself!

Professional photographers may emphasize how important it is to prepare yourself thoroughly on your destination. That’s not what I do. In fact, most of the times I enter a new city or country without any preparation at all! But as soon as the plane touches ground, I start my research. I look, touch, feel, sniff & taste everything, and I talk with a lot of people. That usually helps me to get an idea of what’s going on somewhere pretty quickly.

If a guide tells me we really have to go somewhere ‘because all photographers do’, for me that’s a good reason not to go there. If the cab driver tells me a specific area is very attractive for tourists, I tell him to head the other way. And if I find a location or an area that I like, I don’t mind skipping all my plans for the rest of the day, just to stay there.

While on assignment in Lima, Peru I was driving through the endless slums of this huge city, when a peculiar tent, built from an old parachute, caught my attention. It turned out to be a tiny little circus, run by a family of less than ten persons. The setting was as beautiful as the people were. In just an hour I shot some of the most amazing portraits. And all this on a location where no serious guide would ever, ever have taken me. That – to me – is what photography is all about!

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