Oxford School of Photography

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Why You Should Meet Your Heroes: Jonathan Debeer

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Why You Should Meet Your Heroes – An Interview With Stephan Vanfleteren
by Jonathan Debeer

They say it is important to have heroes. People you can look up to; whose achievements make you feel small but at the same time, fire you up to do something great yourself.

They also say you should never meet your heroes for in real life, they may fall short of your expectations.

Obviously, they never met Stephan Vanfleteren.

There are few contemporary photographers, especially in Belgium, I hold in such high esteem as Vanfleteren and I’ve had the tremendous honor to interview the man for a piece in the Dutch photography magazine FOTOgrafie. We met in Bruges – a two hour journey for what I was sure would be a 30 minute talk. Still, well worth the travel! Honestly, could I expect the man to give me more of his time?

When we sat down I was completely blown away by his cheerfulness, by his humility, the way he is “down to earth” and by the ridiculously long time he let me interogate him (three whole hours!). The interview left me exhausted and exhilarated. Here was a man for whom held a huge admiration completely living up to the expectations and surpassing them without breaking a sweat. Stephan treated me not only to a fantastic interview, but most of all, a great talk to a terrific person.

So without further ado: a very concise summary.

In 2013, Belgian photographer Stephan Vanfleteren (b. 1969) received a World Press Photo Award for his series on the “African Mercy”, a hospital ship on which patients with tumors, eye and skin diseases are treated. It is but one of the many international awards he received over his career. His big breakthrough came in 2007 with his book and accompanying exposition “Belgicum”, portraying landscapes, people and general impressions of his home country the way only Vanfleteren can. Still, becoming the chronicler of his country was mostly a happy coincidence to him.

“As a young photographer, I traveled a lot. But because I got homesick and longed for my wife and kids I thought: I want to work more in my home country – not just for the papers but also on personal projects. While my colleagues declared me insane I set out to explore the home front in depth.

I had the advantage of having evolved over time and having developed my style early on. But good photography is more than patience and making good images: timing is essential too. I belief inzeitgeist. I think a good artist distinguishes his or herself by his or her ability to feel these things. For “Belgicum” (2007) the timing was perfect: Belgium was embroiled in a deep crisis and everyone was able to distill his own message from my images. It received a lot of attention and even made the national news.”

Interested? Read more here

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