For three periods of one month, I have let the Trans-Siberian train guide me alongside forgotten villages, from living room to living room. Some Russian words, scribbled on a little piece of paper, allowed me to be welcomed and absorbed in the warm chaos of a family. Accidental encounters led me to the places where I could sleep. The living room, the epicenter of their life, establishes an intimate contact between the Russian inhabitants. For a brief moment, I was part of this. Their couch became my bed for one night.
The image casts before my eyes an intimacy which comes across in total intimacy – through sight, hearing or the meaning of the words.
Jean-Luc Nancy, Au fond des images, Paris, Éditions Galilée, 2003
The amazement of a passer-by
At eighteen, the world of photography seemed to her to be almost inaccessible. Four years later, Bieke Depoorter was travelling for three months through Russia and Siberia with a camera in her bag, gathering material her graduation thesis.
Young photographers tend to be guided by a concept. In this way they remain students for a while after completing their studies. Until they lose their inhibitions. But Bieke Depoorter had already reached this stage during her final year. With no artistic plan and little luggage, she stepped on to the Trans-Siberian express. She looked around attentively, at the train, in the villages where the express train stopped and in the houses of the people where she stayed overnight. Back home, it was the photos she had taken in people’s houses that attracted her most. She had a good feeling now of what she wanted: short but intense contacts and fixing these intimate moments in photos, as she had done the first time in Russia. She travelled there a second time. And a third time. Driven by amazement. And without knowing a word of Russian.
To avoid planned photography as much as possible, she worked largely by intuition. She never knew in advance where she would arrive that evening by train. Usually she went up to a person and handed him or her the note that her first hostess had translated for her into Russian: “I’m looking for a place to spend the night. Do you know someone who might have a bed or a sofa? I don’t need anything special and have a sleeping bag with me. I don’t want to stay in a hotel because I have little money and I want to see how people live in Russia. May I sleep at your home? Thank you for your help!”
Bieke Depoorter never knew exactly where she would end up. The fact that the woman she addressed was well-dressed meant nothing. Women in Russian villages dress up even to cross the market square to the store. It is often their only outing for the day, with a room full of children waiting at home. And in this way our young photographer crossed one threshold after another, full of curiosity. It takes much courage to cross that boundary again and again. This brought her into all kinds of surprising family situations. Contact was by sign language. This created a different mode of expression, in which face, hands and the posture had to become language. In this way Bieke Depoorter quickly gained people’s confidence. She was amazed how smoothly this often went. Sometimes her unannounced visit turned into an unexpected night party. Although many of the families who gave her lodging were themselves hard up, the best food was put on the table for the young lady who had came from so far to visit them in a godforsaken village. The photographer was quickly incorporated into their cocoon of warmth, stories and vodka.
For me the photographs bear witness first of all to human encounters. This is certainly not photo-reporting. The photographer was not out to produce a visual cross-section of life in the Russian countryside. Bieke Depoorter’s pictures exhibit an enormous, raw uninhibitedness. Some of them are grainy, owing to the poor light. However professionally the photos are taken – and her perspectives in particular show that Bieke Depoorter is no novice – what they show first is the connectedness with the people whom Bieke has met and the places where she ended up. The photographer has waited for the right moment. If she felt it was not right to shoot, she did not. She just let things happen. She was not aiming to get ‘the good photo’, but to capture those intense moments in which she suddenly felt a great sense of involvement.
The intimacy splashes in your face. Intimacy that comes across in total intimacy, to use Jean-Luc Nancy’s words. How connected do you need to feel not to be embarrassed to continue your washing routine naked, knowing the photographer is watching behind her lens? Bieke Depoorter brings us inside and we cannot but be involved. Each photo is a declaration of love: either you let yourself be overwhelmed by these pictures or you don’t. Take it or leave it, just as a single glance is enough for triggering an irresistible love. These photos are poignant impressions of someone who arrived in these places first of all as a human being. It is less a question of seeing than of being.
These are pictures by a photographer who has intentionally set out alone, driven by amazement, thrown back on herself, until once again she has been given hospitality by a family, if only for one night. They display great alertness in constantly new environments. Browsing through the book, we also become passers-by who watch in amazement, just like the photographer.
The images bear witness to a quest for a temporary nest. This is reflected in the layout of the book: through the places where Bieke Depoorter spent the night, we are time and again guided into an interior landscape, along with the photographer. We penetrate people’s intimacy, even though they are almost never shown in a close-up. And we gaze slowly around the room, along the walls these people have formed around themselves like a second skin. Hung for example with prints which carry them far away to exotic beaches.
In his book, Spheres, the German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk notes we are often too obsessively concerned with time, forgetting that life takes place not only in time but also in space. Sloterdijk states that “whoever is in the world is always in a ‘sphere’”. In the first part, Calling, he talks about ‘microspheres’: a representation of people sunk in metaphorical bubbles, cut off from the outside world. In the second part, Globes, Sloterdijk describes how people try to extend their mutual intimacy into society, seeking protection. There is a human need for interconnectedness. For him, when people live closely together, everything ‘starts to foam’. An endless number of tiny cells come into being. In the third part, Foam, he states that ‘foam’ stands for fragility, individualism and pluralism, something he sees as positive: “A single cell in the foam is not yet foam; a single cell, but also several cells together, offer resistance to the power of the larger whole. Life takes place in homes and local groups of friends, where it constantly reinvents itself.”
Ou menya. ‘With me’, or ‘At my place’. Which in Russian can also denote possession, ‘it’s mine’. Ou menya. Also in the meaning of: ‘Come and sleep at my place’.
This human involvement foams intensively in Bieke Depoorter’s book.