When I first saw Pieter Ten Hoopen’s photographs a year ago, I couldn’t get them out of my mind. The haunting images drove me to seek out the man; the persona; the eye, behind them.
haunt·ing [hawn-ting, hahn-] adjective 1. remaining in the consciousness; not quickly forgotten
Pieter’s images linger, like a drifting fog. But it’s not a blinding experience, not at all. Instead, he pulls us into his subject’s mysterious and private world, giving us an intimate view of a certain ‘state of grace’ in the human condition.
Pieter talks of the importance of stories. And is committed to telling them. It’s what quantifies human existence in a way that validates who we are. When you look into his photographs, you can’t help but feel the depth of a life lived in his subjects – old or young.
Pieter rarely shoots to capture a moment in time, like many street photographers do. He’s not looking for the ‘decisive’ moment. Instead he works hard to give you a complex story of life. The characters he meets and photographs are introduced to us like old friends whether they are news photos or stories he worked on for months.
Through Pieter’s images, we are afforded a rare look into the fragility of humanity. He’s able to present vulnerabilities as a strength, rather than a weakness of the human spirit. And it takes a seasoned and caring eye to capture human dignity and hold it close to the subject’s heart.
Here is my interview with PIETER TEN HOOPEN:
Nick Name: None that I am aware of. I am curious what it could be.
Currently living in: I split it between outside Stockholm- in the countryside and in the city of Stockholm.
Motto: I never really thought about a motto to be honest.
Photographer since: Since 2002- 11 years.
How did you get started in photojournalism? Did you start off in photojournalism first? First of all, I wouldn’t call myself a photojournalist. However, I studied photojournalism in Stockholm. I would consider myself a photographer or storyteller. Those are better labels. I do all kinds of photography. It’s a great challenge I enjoy. I shoot different assignments from commercial to news. I never say no to any photography job. For me, the goal is to finance my books and projects, which are about storytelling.
In the past, I worked for New York Times magazine, Time and some European media. Although, I like to work for Swedish clients as they pay better. Sadly, Swedish print media such as newspapers and magazines are quitting much of the struggle. It’s a dying outlet for news and stories. Because of this, I had to find other ways to make money to supplement my goal. So I teach workshops, in all parts of the world and Sweden. I also shoot more commercial work for companies these days. As you see, all different forms of photography. I’ve also been providing visual solutions for clients in both film (moving) as well as stills. At the moment I’ve been filming a lot, which I really enjoy.
I am also a full member with Agence Vu in Paris. They represent me and resell my journalistic photo stories. They also sell my books but not my art prints. Those are sold through my homepage and some galleries in Sweden.
Profession/Job: Professional photographer
Organizations or Group: Agence Vu
What was the first camera you started with? I started with a compact camera whch a friend gave as a gift.
Favorite Camera & Lens: Nikon D800E, DX3. I tried all their cameras and lens models and my favorite lens is 35mm these days. Although before it was 28mm. I always work with prime lenses – no zooms. I’m one of the photographers Nikon is sponsoring. I also often use Yashica box cameras as well as the Widelux- which is very sensitive.
Back-up Camera & Lens: Nikon D800E is also my back-up with the 35mm lens. I always work simple. I work with one set of cameras with back-up in hotel room.
Favorite photography gadget: I am the most boring photographer. I only use whatever is necessary to get the job done. No more and no less.
In general, I am not interested in cameras. Being a camera geek was always for the techno insane. But I am slowly appreciating the technology and camera equipment, thanks to Nikon’s sponsoring.
I want to say, photography is about a feeling in my body. That’s why I like to test shoot with many cameras to find that feeling.
Favorite street food: We don’t have that much in Sweden. I avoid street food because I am picky. I prefer a good restaurant in the evening.
Favorite music when shooting and/or editing Photos: Never when shooting. When editing- I listen to quite a lot of radio in the background – like public radio, news programs, music as well. A lot of trance- like quiet trancey music playing continually in the background all the time to create the right atmosphere.
Favorite photo software: Photoshop C6. I work with RAW files. I generally don’t do much post work – just dodge and burn and correction of colors. We’re not allowed to do any post work when it comes to news and journalistic work. I work the same way on my own work. I am quite consequent that way.
3 Favorite Master Photographers: I am a big fan of Eugene Richards. He’s my all time darling. His story telling is fantastic. Otherwise, I don’t look that much to photographers anymore. I am more a movie guy. Movies are about effective storytelling. I watch a lot of slice-of-life movies. Not spectacular fantasy, just small little stories. I love to experience the feeling of small things.
Deliverance was the last movie I watched recently. I have seen it time and time again. I think it is a fantastic movie. The tension is insane and horrible. I love to dig through archives and DVDs and watch them many times. They are super inspiring for my photography.
3 Favorite Contemporary Photographers: I have no specific persons whom I follow or see as favorite. I think I’m more interested in film and there I have plenty of favorites, too many to mention I guess.
Which 3 photographers’ prints do you own? I collect a few and exchange with fellow photographers. For instance, I have a print from Erika Larson, an American. I have a bad conscience, I still owe her a print of one of my images. She will get it. I also own a great print of the dead Swedish master of social photography, Christer Strömholm. Another print I have is by Erik Refner a Dane. I also have prints from a lot of Russian photographers. Russia has some exciting photographers. When I do my workshops there I swap with them.
Color or Black and White? Nowadays I work 99% in color. I enjoy color way more. Just gives me more inspiration, more options to visualize – I love the relationship to the story. Black and white doesn’t inspire me anymore. If I do something nowadays in black and white then it is an emergency scenario because I can’t fix it in color. Color is more complex and challenging.
Shoot Film or Digital ? I love to shoot both. When it comes to commercial clients it is digital. But my new book next year is all film. My Tokyo series was shot 50/50. I would like to have all the options open. I enjoy film a lot. It still gives such a beautiful warm, imperfect feeling while the sharpness in the digital files has its own qualities.
If Film, what type of negative? I always use Kodak Portra 400 or 120 iso Professional.
Is there a special time of the day you like to shoot or is any time good? If I have the possibility to choose, then late afternoon when the light is soft. Although, I can work in all kinds of light. You’re not always able to choose.
How do you define photojournalism? It doesn’t matter how it is defined. I think the term was born in the US. It is very American.
Why did you choose photojournalism and not another form of photography or stamp collecting? Storytelling. Simple as that. I chose this line of work because I enjoy communicating with my stories. It is like movies: there are so many ways of telling and making perfect stories. If you look at my “Tokyo stories” series you’ll see I love to work closely and intimately with people. I like to tell the poetry of daily life.
How do you choose a journalistic subject? Depends on the story. For instance in Tokyo, Jay is a friend of mine. So it was a natural. In the story, the others are friends of his. In other stories you might use ‘fixers’: people who are on the ground who can help arrange the meeting of people for you. In Montana, I just did a lot of door knocking. So it all depends. You have to seek out any opportunity that works with the situation. You have to be flexible.
What motivates you to photograph in general? Pure storytelling and to pay my bills. I do my specific things, but I have to pay bills like anyone else. Sometimes it’s poetry and sometimes it is just a job.
What motivates you to photograph difficult subjects? They may be difficult topics but they are important issues ‘of our time’ and important to communicate. We need to cover them because we need to make the atrocities against humanity or to nature official.
Is Photography an obsession? It is not. I think if it is an obsession it tires you out. It has a strange vibe that makes it difficult to deliver high quality images. You have to be sharp and strong to work the material. If you work in top form, you are really focused. I enjoy it a lot. I am good at it. You have to be so good in the field in the thing you are doing. It would be like a soccer player walking with a soccer ball all the time. I need to be able to focus and relax. So I never carry a camera around when I am not working.
Do you always develop a relationship with your subjects? By developing a relationship, are you trying to make yourself invisible to your subjects? In my line of work, you are very close to the subjects because you work in the same space. You photograph everything they do. It depends on the story you are working on but it’s clear you are part of their life during the period of day, week, or month. I am not invisible, but the aim of my presence is to make myself non-intrusive and not distracting to the subject.
How do you approach a subject to develop such a relationship? You explain who you are. In Montana, I spent over 10 years documenting. You must be very straight forward as to who you are and what you want to do. You tell them you want to tag along. If they don’t like it in the beginning then they won’t like it in the end.
Favorite city to shoot in: I love Tokyo – it is one of my favorite places to be. I love the Japanese people. It may sound strange but I feel relaxed in that city. I love to walk there. I love Istanbul too.
What inspires your photography? I like paintings. It’s very important for what I do. I studied other photographers but I find studying paintings gives me much more. I always look at the Dutch maters because of the light, even if you don’t like the subject but the light is fantastic. I also love Egon Schiele’s work.
Is there a philosophy, concept or aesthetic behind your compositions that you apply to your photos? The aesthetic changes based on the mood and atmosphere of the story. Every story has its own character, temperament and feeling that determines what it will be. It is not a philosophy but a fact.
When you shoot, do you come with preconceived ideas or a specific point of view of the subject, or do you let events unfold? When it comes to stories, I need a clear picture of what I am going to do there. It costs too much money to do these projects, so I can’t afford to have it not pay out. You can pitch it to a newspaper and magazine; you contact people; you have to do a lot of research; and the most important part of the story – you have to research the ins and outs of the topic you are working with. Once you’re on the ground you continue researching. This is where you have to let things unfold before you. You’ll often find that your previous research might have given you a specific view. But when you get there it is not what you envisioned and it turns out to be nothing like you expect it. You have to be able to recognize that and go with the flow and not stick to your initial point of view. Positive or negative.
The magic thing about doing stories is you constantly have to adapt to a new situation. If you go into the story with a specific vision and force it, you will be bored. That’s not saying it’s not frustrating when it first happens when things don’t go the way you envision it to go. But it’s liberating when it happens because you have to adapt. It is part of the fun.
Can you elaborate how you develop a complete series for the media like New York Times? Is it any different when you develop a book? The two are distinctly different. The photographic material for news must fit to the text the reporter is writing. There are specific details you have to communicate. When it comes to a book, then it is a personal choice and very emotional.
What do you look for in a good photograph by others? I don’t look that much for aesthetics. I look for emotions in other people’s work, a good body of work. I want to be touched, either positive or negative. Most importantly, it must communicate it successfully.
What do you look for in a good photograph by you? I don’t think that much in single images, I think in a series. A series is difficult when it comes to my feelings. It has to do something to me. It has to trigger me in some way. It has to create curiosity, awareness, beauty and poetry. It must be emotionally compelling. I see movies in the same way as my photos – you take the viewer into this little trip. The art is to keep people involved in the whole trip – otherwise they are not good enough.
How do you go about shooting a photograph? I tried for many years to blend in and it doesn’t work. I have a big camera and I am quite tall. I gave up that game. Now I just work. I don’t care about other things, I just focus on what I have to do.
Can you describe the entire process of photographing these photos, from preparation to when you pressed the shutter button?
From the series: Kitezh in Russia. This is a story about my search of the invisible city of Kitezh from an old Russian myth about sacred waters. I never found it so I decided to take pictures of the people I came upon in my search in Vladimirskoe. I used only the late afternoon and evening light during the work on this series. I love to continue working this way. The light becomes like silk helping to create a lovely atmosphere in which to shoot. The story won the First Prize in the 2007 World Press Photo Daily Life Stories.
From the series: Stockholm- Book. This picture was taken during the time I worked on my Stockholm book. A dear friend called me and told me his father had died of cancer and wondered if I could photograph them saying their farewell. I remember this moment clearly as it was very peaceful. The family was close as they gathered during this moment of grief. Before it was normal in our culture to photograph family members who had died. But I think this has changed in the modern society where we don’t want to be reminded. For me personally, this was a very intimate situation and moment to be part of.
From the series for New York Times Magazine: ER Kabul This is a picture taken in a war hospital in Kabul, Afghanistan. I was doing a story for the New York Times Magazine about this hospital. I spent a long time in Afghansitan working on different stories but this one in particular was important to me. We worked most of the time in the emergency room and did follow-ups once the patients were doing there rehabilitation. Most of the men and women who come here are injured by mines or bullets. (see photos below) This young man was badly injured and he died some days after this image was taken because of complications. Before he came to the Emergency war hospital he was mistreated and wrongly diagnosed in other hospitals. So the damage was to very bad when he arrived.
ER Kabul: Man with pink gloves I shot this during the same assignment for the New York Times Magazine as mentioned above. The man works for the Italian war hospital emergency. One of the biggest suicide attacks in Kabul in years killed 80 and injured hundreds of people. The injured and the dead were all driven to this entrance at the hospital. There were literally lots of body parts coming in. The man in the gloves is gathering the body parts which were laying on the street.
I cannot remember really what I was thinking during this shoot. When you come upon a day like this you work and work harder just so you can cover (shoot) it all. This goes for mentally and physically too. The only thing I remember was a brain laying on the street, an image I shot after this one. It was a child’s brain which was laying in perfect shape on the street. The moment I saw this, it hit me how horrible it was. I could not really let go of the image and thought of it for quite some time. Still today I think back to this moment often. Many children died this day after this big explosion resulting in many lost body parts. Most are injured for the rest of there lives.
Prostitutes in Damascus The story is about Iraki women being forced into prostitution in order to earn money to support their children. It was a longer reportage and all these women had lost their husbands during the war in Irak. And because of the fact they can’t show a death certificate they are not entitled to get any financial support from the government.
The story was mostly shot in the area where Irakis were displaced during the war. Most of the women suffered from physical and mental problems because of the work they do. Most of them had been badly beaten up by their customers… I had problems to photograph the women but it was made more problematic because it was a big project to gather all the women to be able to make it work.
The story was published in Swedish media and was shot for a TV show which was assigned by the EU. After the publication I was called both from Damascus and from the Syrian Embassy in Stockholm. I was told that I’m not welcome in Syria anymore. The reason for this was not that I had shown a sensitive or forbidden topic but the fact that the newspaper which published the work was pro Israel – so they told me. This is not true. It was published in one of Sweden’s most respected and best newspapers.
How do you choose your shots when you edit? What tells you that the shot is good? You have to ask what is the story about. You come home to 1000’s of raw files. You reduce it to 200, 100. When you are done, you start over again to see if you made the right decision. Books take weeks or months for me.
Best 3 tips for shooting the streets: 1) Everything is about the light- choose your light. It is extremely important. 2) Feel the place, feel the topic. 3) You need a full stomach. It’s hard to work with an empty stomach.
Best single advice on how to improve your work: Just shoot. Like any other sport, if you want to be good, you have to practice. It will come – you need to spend time with raw material- you need to know what you are shooting. Spend time with your images, in a meditative way. Go through your work in order to understand your work to see what you are doing right or wrong. I do a lot of workshops and teaching. So many students spend a half day with their work and think that’s enough. You have to show respect to the week or month of photography.
Best single advice on how to edit your work: You have to spend time with your raw material to be able to undertand what is in front of you. Selection is about making large edits. It becomes smaller every time until you reach the storyline.
Best single advice for someone who wants to get into photojournalism: Well, you have to enjoy what you are doing. You don’t have to be a professional. The joy of the work is extremely important. Don’t go for the quick fix. It is a marathon. Breathe. Having a long breath is what counts.
What’s the best moment in your photography career? I have no idea. Yet to come I hope!
What’s the worst moment in your photography career? Shooting in misery about misery. It doesn’t make you happy- it has its impact on you. It makes you grow old so you have to be aware.
Once, I had an assignment in Cairo after a man in California made a movie that was seen as against the Prophet Mohammed. I was shooting people on the streets protesting. Some guys took my iPhone which can happen. They were hooligans going crazy and attacking journalists. Religious demonstrations are normally peaceful, but it’s stuff like hooligans that create the large headlines dominating the protests at Tahrir Square. I have to say, journalists are experiencing more and more problems there. It’s not a good thing for freedom of press in Egypt. But a job is a job. I rarely do short news assignments anymore. I normally do long projects, so there is a balance between the stories.
What projects are you working on? A book on Hungry Horse, Montana titled “Hungry Horse”- next year. I have been working on it for 10 years with 1-2 trips a year.
What’s your next assignment? Will be working in northern Kaukasus this autum but a short trip will include Stockholm. It’s been a busy year. But I would love to work more at home.
Where do you want to be in 5 years with regard to photography? I am already where I want to be – I do my books and projects. I would love to produce more books. – you can’t make a living on photo books, you need commercial assignments. They normally cost you money. It’s a love.
Are there exhibitions planned in the future? I will show my Hungry Horse book in New York and also the multimedia work produced in cooperation with Mediastorm in NY.
You can view Pieter’s WORLD PRESS PHOTO prize winning entries below:
WPP 2009 -1
WPP 2009 -2
Pieter teaches workshops. You can check them out here from time to time.
Leica Liker thanks Pieter for sharing his experience and inspirational advice with us. We look forward to checking in with him in the future.
You can check out Pieter’s gear in “Liker Bags’n Gear” here.
This is Pieter’s self portrait.