September 13 : 2022
When we first saw Eddy Verloes' photo, "Losing Our Minds," it immediately hit us: we had never seen anything like it before. To make something truly original in this day and age is a huge feat, which is why it is no surprise to us that the judges chose this image to win.
by Lily Fierman
Image: "Losing Our Minds"
I like layered photos and contradictions in photos. Why shouldn’t elements such as seriousness and play coexist?
How did you get your start in the world of photography?
I am a Belgian photographer and started with photography about 8 years ago after I stopped as the organizer of a major musical event “Leuven Plaza Proms” in Belgium. I studied photography, literature, philosophy, and arts at the Louvain CVO (Belgium), at the University of Louvain (Belgium), and the Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg i.B. (Germany). I published four books: No time to Verloes (2015), Cuba libre (2016), Seasighs/Zeezuchten (2020) and Losing Our Minds/Buiten zinnen (2021).
The first time I felt like a photographer was two years ago when I took a series of ultra-Orthodox Jews on the Belgian coast who enjoyed their freedom in an unorthodox way in the storm (of their lives) and escaped the lockdown. This series has been traveling around the world for more than a year.
Tell us about creating your 1st place winning image, "Losing Our Minds." Where did you take it, when, and how much time did you spend creating it? Please feel free to add anything else you’d like to share about creating this image.
I took this series on the Belgian coast not far from Ostend. It happened during the beginning of the corona crisis 2020, when I was walking all alone in a heavy storm and, all of a sudden, these ‘black shapes’ appeared in the dunes. I couldn’t believe my eyes and I thought I was dreaming. I love walking in stormy weather at the seaside, but this was a very strange feeling. I immediately recognized that these ‘black shadows’ were ultra-Orthodox Jews, and I was perfectly aware that I had, somehow, strayed into a unique setting. Normally ultra-Orthodox Jews walk the streets of Antwerp (Belgium), but certainly not on a beach in a terrible storm. They were about 20 of them and they enjoyed it very exuberantly and intensely. What a huge coincidence that I bumped into them in these stormy times! They stayed on the deserted beach for about an hour and, during that time, I took about 50 pictures of this enormously fascinating happening in the least obtrusive way I could imagine. I tried to get as close as possible without being noticed because I didn’t want to disturb their privacy. I could clearly see that they were so absorbed in nature, the sea and in themselves that they actually ended up in a kind of communal trance. I must admit that they also put me in a trance as I kept taking pictures shivering. I was by now very aware of the unique photos that I was taking. They clearly enjoyed their time together and their temporary coming together on the stormy beach. After an hour they disappeared as quickly they had come: suddenly and unexpectedly. My dream and their dream came to an end.
Many gallery directors compare my photo series with well-known photographers or painters. Kevin Tully, Gallery Director of A Smith Gallery in Johnson City (Texas) gave it the Director’s Award. It reminds him of the work of the French photographers Cartier- Bresson and Robert Doisneau, but it also has a touch of Monty Python. In an interview he writes:
“As I was hanging the exhibit, I kept going back to it. Truly joyful. It was a smilemaker during the pandemic. In my opinion, it accomplished much of what a work of art should – it wouldn’t let you just walk by, and it proudly evoked an emotion. How many folks just walk by “Guernica” or can’t feel good looking at Wayne Thiebaud’s cakes?”
Other fellow photographers or gallery directors see similarities in my photo series with famous photographers such as Mario Giacomelli , Martin Parr, or with painters such as Léon Spilliaert, Leszek Skurski, or even Edward Hopper.
Vincent Dupont-Blackshaw, a professional travel photographer, just discovered my work through my multi-awarded series ‘Losing Our Minds’. He's really impressed with "...how I manage to capture movement and stasis at the same time and how I manage to tell stories through my photos.”
These images feel a bit surreal and almost playful, but serious at the same time. Can you tell us more about the contradictions here?
I like layered photos and contradictions in photos. Why shouldn’t elements such as seriousness and play coexist? That’s what makes a photo interesting. People are stuck in fixed patterns and rarely dare to deviate from them. The strong point of these images is that they deviate from expectations: you don't expect these Hasidic Jews on the beach in stormy weather. It's alienating. That’s why people start to question the authenticity of these images. Some Jews are very serious: they are praying or meditating, alone or in groups. Others are elated: they dance, play, run, they fall, and get up again. They fight the elements of Nature, but maybe they also fight themselves, and even against the world. Fantastic isn’t it! These photos are real tableaux vivants. It is perhaps no coincidence that such scenes should take place in Belgium, the country par excellence of surrealism. Just think of the paintings by the famous René Magritte, for example. And also think of the carnival in Aalst, where all kinds of local and international political and social issues are lampooned every year.
The Carnival of Aalst, or Aalst Carnival, is an annual three-day event in the Belgian city of Aalst. It was delisted as a UNESCO Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity amid controversy over the use of anti-Semitic stereotypes in 2019 during the carnival and in its promotional materials, this on top of previous controversies. It was the first time anything was ever removed from the UNESCO list of Intangible Heritage of Humanity. The carnival is celebrated in the days leading up to Ash Wednesday. It is mainly a street event; the celebrants dance around the city squares and set off on a pub crawl.
I also was present at Aalst Carnival during late February 2020 to take pictures of the happening and a few days later I see these Hasidic Jewish boys on the Belgian beach. In person and in a serene environment. What a contrast!
On your website, you mention that these images beg the viewer to question whether the figures are real or staged. So, tell us, was this image real or staged?
If you look at these photos, you'll see that these images can't be staged. By the way, fellow photographers who know me a little know that I rarely, if ever, take pictures that are staged. I enjoy letting things come to me, literally and figuratively. After winning a lot of awards with this series, many people asked me if, maybe, I was a member of the Jewish community and if I had staged the scene with these Jewish boys. I think that is the greatest compliment anyone can give to a photographer, of course: trying to mislead the viewer, making him doubt the authenticity of the photos, something that is particularly topical in our contemporary society. In the long run, people think everything is a set-up game. I like to make the viewer doubt. That's when he finds the image interesting, thinks about it more. So you get stuck with the image, you don’t just walk by on the other side.
The title of the image “Losing Our Minds," feels like it could apply to the subjects but also the duration of timing during Covid where we were all stir crazy. Can you tell us more about making this image during such a specifically impactful time in our shared cultural history?
I’ve chosen the title "Losing Our Minds" for several reasons. You could indeed refer to the Hasidic Jewish boys who, in their exuberance, as it were, enter into trance and thus ‘lose their mind’, which I see here as something positive: because they are so absorbed in Nature that they become one with the mighty sea. The connection between Man and Nature is perfect here. However, it is not only the Jewish boys who were temporarily in a trance, but also the photographer. Rarely, if ever, have I shivered so much while taking pictures because I was, as it were, in the middle of a surreal film that I was directing at the time. So I, also, temporarily lost my mind. But, of course, it also refers to the Covid period, a time when a lot of people did not know what was happening to them and to the world. Was this a joke or something to cry for? On the one hand, people lost their minds, but on the other, over time, a kind of solidarity and friendliness sprang up between people that we all hoped would strengthen...
The various awards I received with this photo series were also noticed in the media by the Jewish community in Belgium. They contacted me and congratulated me on the positive and respectful way in which I had portrayed the Hasidic Jews on the beach, in contrast to the rather vulgar and stereotypical display at Aalst carnival. The Jewish community introduced me to the well-known Dutch poet-writer, Benno Barnard, who knows and loves Jewish culture very well, to write poems to accompany my images. The book ‘Losing Our Minds’ is the moving, witty result of our cooperation. Inspired by the photos, Belgian band ‘The River Curls Around the Town’ took up the challenge to set these English lyrics to music. Photos, poems and CD are bundled in a beautiful art book (ISBN 978-90-5655-289-3). With this project we are currently touring in the Belgian cultural centres.
Who or what inspires you?
I really like the work of many photographers and, in some of them, I see similarities to my style of photography, especially when they have a kind of humour in their photographs. Martin Parr is one of my idols in street photography. He has been photographing beach life for many decades and in many countries. One of the reasons why I love his work so much is that his photographs have strong statements about society - and always have a certain viewpoint or critique. Many of his photographs are funny, interesting, or sometimes downright depressing. He interjects his own opinion and thought into his photographs and shows how he sees the world - and challenges us to see the world differently as well. When looking at Martin Parr's photography, the viewer is often unsure whether to laugh or cry. He finds the extraordinary in the ordinary. In some of my photos, I found inspiration in him.
Other photographers I admire are Harry Gruyaert and the surrealism of his work. I love his book "Roots" about the banality of the beautiful and the beauty of ugliness of Belgium.
Also, Stefan Vanfleteren with his book "Belgium," a subjective photographic documentary about Belgium in B&W.
Josef Koudelka, because of his unusual point of view, the magic of the street photography of Saul Leiter, the importance of composition in the work of Martine Franck, the photographs of Jehsong Baak, which are a reflection of his many travels and testimony of his incisive eye. His velvety, ink-like images bring to mind artists such as Bill Brandt and Man Ray, where the dark and the light are surrounded by a symbolist air.
Aloneness is a dominant theme in Hopper's work and also in my photos. Though termed a realist, Hopper is more properly a symbolist, investing appearance with a clenched, melancholy subjectivity. He was masterly as a painter of light and shadow, but he ruthlessly subordinated aesthetic pleasure to the compacted description of things that answered to his feelings without exposing them. He leaves us alone in our own solitude, taking our breath away and not giving it back.
Once you've seen a Hopper, it stays seen, lodged in your mind's eye. I also see a connection between Hopper and Alfred Hitchcock. The emotional tug of many of Hitchcock's characters and all of Hopper's requires their unawareness of being looked at. Hopper shows how, exploring a condition in which, by being separate, we belong together.
I think my photos "My eternal love" (Image 1, below) and "Mother, why are we living?" (Image 2, below) express the same atmosphere.
If you could create a dinner party of your dreams featuring guests of your choice (including artists, designers, or writers both living and deceased), who would you invite?
It would be a very big dinner party with a lot of guests. I’ve always had a problem with selecting, including in my own work. Killing your darlings is never pleasant. In the first place, I would invite musicians of all kinds to keep the atmosphere in permanently. Some of my favorites are Nick Cave, Patti Smith, Jim Morrison, Lou Reed, Leonard Cohen, Nina Simone, Concha Buika, Amy Winehouse, and Prince. During the main course, I would like to discuss anything and everything with painters such as Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Vincent van Gogh, Pablo Picasso, Jan Van Eyck, Henri Matisse, Francis Bacon, Joan Miró, William Blake, Caspar David Friedrich, Salvador Dali, Hieronymus Bosch, Frida Kahlo, Egon Schiele, and Edward Hopper. At the end of the dinner party, I would like to discuss the absurdity of existence with some famous writers such as Franz Kafka, Samuel Beckett and Georg Büchner. And that must be accompanied by a few glasses of red wine.
And, at the very end, all the guests as well as the host would play a role in an Alfred Hitchcock film.
What are you working on now?
I'm currently working on a new project on themes such as vulnerability, connectedness, melancholy, and hope. Based on thirty of my photos, world-famous pianist and composer Jef Neve has cre ated a new composition, while Flemish poet Geert Jan Beeckman has written thirty poems. The result of this work will be a photo and poem book + CD called “Earthlings”. It will be out in December 2022.
I also work on a parallel project in which clients, patients, and employees of a psychiatric institution are inspired by my photos to make their own creative works.
For more information on Eddy Verloes’s work, you can visit his website: www.verloes.com