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An Interview with Photographer Els Vanopstal

Els Vanopstal is an exceedingly talented photographer from Belgium. Both her self-portraits and her photos of others contain depth, honesty and relatable emotions. I had the fortunate chance to speak with her about rawness, lighting, photography genres, and more. I hope this inspires you to look at your work from a different perspective and be fearless when it comes to creative challenges.

What inspired you to start taking photographs?
Since childhood, I have always been interested in taking pictures. I loved capturing fun moments on family holidays with a Polaroid or disposable film camera, as digital wasn’t around yet during my childhood. So the interest was always there, but I really only started taking photographs intentionally when I was in college studying journalism, as it was an optional class we could follow. Ever since that moment photography has been part of my life. It was strange because I started studying journalism because I considered writing my passion, but then when photography came along, writing kind of got swept to the side.

Your images possess the most beautiful and natural honesty. What does a typical self-portrait shoot consist of?
First of all, thank you very much for your kind words. I think when you’re young you find it very important to ‘look good’ in pictures. The past years I have tried to make my self-portraits more honest and open and to focus mostly on expressing a feeling or an idea, and less on making myself look the way I think I should look. I think it’s important to accept our flaws, as well as ageing and the ways in which our faces and bodies change over time. It is still hard sometimes, but taking pictures actually helps me process all this. For example I gained some weight the past year and it was something that I was really struggling with. But then I decided to make a photo of the exact thing that was making me feel insecure. It helped. There is beauty in imperfection. I hope in a way my self-portraits portray this. The way I work really depends from shoot to shoot. Sometimes I have an exact idea of what I want a picture to look like and I then try and make it look like how I see it in my head. Sometimes that works out. Other times I will be shooting and the idea will just transform into something else entirely. I always try to have at least a vague concept before I start shooting, because I find it very difficult to just start taking pictures without a clue. The things that inspire me most and where I try to find inspiration beforehand are emotions, details, locations, and colors.

What has been the most challenging thing you’ve dealt with in your artistic life, and how did you overcome it?
I think the most challenging thing is one I am still struggling with today: having the self-confidence to really see and represent yourself as an artist. It has been my dream for years to become a professional artist and I have held myself back out of fear of failure. There is a quote that says ‘fear tricks us into living a boring life’. I think it is true and I really want to fight against that. I have decided that 2017 will be the year I take the leap. There are so many talented photographers that I would consider myself extremely lucky if it would work out, but it’s better to try (and perhaps fail) than to wonder your entire life if maybe you could have fulfilled your dreams if only you had followed them.

You take photos in such gorgeous locations. What’s your favorite place to shoot in and why?
My absolute favorite place is Iceland. It’s a country I had wanted to visit for quite a while until I finally went there in 2015. I have visited it twice last year and I am currently planning to go back in the summer. Iceland is not your regular holiday location. It is cold and rugged, it gets a decent amount of rain and the winds there can be awful. But it is beautiful beyond words. When I visited it in 2015, there was a moment at Skogafoss waterfall I will never forget. We arrived by car at this big forceful waterfall, spraying water everywhere while the sun was out and shining abundantly, and then suddenly two rainbows appeared. It was magical and dreamlike. I had never experienced the overwhelming beauty of nature like this. It’s a place I will always go back to whenever I’m in Iceland. And there are still so many other beautiful places there , some even where you can be away from the crowd and just stand in awe by yourself or with just your friends.

Which artists have influenced your work?
I think subconsciously we are influenced by all the things we see, so I cannot even begin to name everybody who has influenced my work in some way or another. There are many photographers I admire, but the ones that have definitely stuck with me for many years are Cig Harvey (for her colorful and beautifully composited (self-) portraits), Sophie Delaporte (for her amazing work with color) and Jody Rojac (for her beautiful natural and colorful portraits).

Is there a photography genre you’d like to experiment with more?
I really want to try and make a cinemagraph sometime this year, which is sort of a combination of a photograph with a video, where part of the image is moving and another part is not. I also want to try and get a better understanding of landscape photography in order to make better (self) portraits in combination with landscape.

What do you love photographing most?
I really like photographing people. Whether it be studio (self-) portraits or (self-) portraits in a beautiful environment or just a close up of a part of someone’s body… I think people are the most mysterious subject and I love the challenge of trying to capture something about them, at a certain moment in time, to be kept for eternity.

What advice would you give to someone who’s new to photography?
Learn the rules and then break them whenever you feel like it. Find out what works best for you. Find out what you love. Don’t do something because everybody else is doing it. Practice. When I was taking my first photography classes, I was the worst photographer at the beginning of the year, and at the end I was amongst the best photographers. Practice and heart beats talent in the end, so don’t be discouraged if you feel others can do it so easily and you can’t. And don’t forget to take pictures just for fun, or for memories, as well.

You have the most incredible relationship with light. How did you learn to work with it so gracefully?
Again, thank you! I usually work with natural daylight so to me it doesn’t really feel like I’m working hard for my light. One of the first things I always do is try and see how the light is falling and how to work with it. Sometimes the slightest change in position can change the light on your subject completely. You just have to experiment and look for what you like and what kind of feel you want your photograph to have.

What’s the most valuable thing photography has taught you so far?
I think photography is a very powerful thing. It can – as it did in my case – completely change your life. One day you’re a normal person and the next you’re… Well, a photographer! It taught me that you can think you are destined for one thing, but then something might happen that changes your whole idea of destiny. For me has also taught me ways to express my emotions and ideas, as this is more difficult for me in daily life as I’m very introverted. In the same way, photography has brought me closer to other people and it has given me the opportunity to capture beautiful moments that I can relive forever. But it also has its limits. Photography can’t capture everything. Some things cannot be caught on camera. So you have to try and capture these things yourself.


About the Interviewer: Els Vanopstal is a Belgian photographer with intensely powerful conceptual and film photography. She creates visual art that is poetic and striking with bold color contrast and careful composition.