Some photographers gradually develop close relationships with their subjects over years, or even decades. But Belgian photographer Bieke Depoorter has taken the opposite approach in her personal projects. For that work, the Canon Ambassador travelled around Russia, the USA and Egypt, spending each night at the home of a stranger and documenting the experience.
She's photographed people tucked up in bed and naked in saunas, the chaos of teenage bedrooms and the everyday routines of families watching TV. Her pictures are intense and intimate, revealing something about their homes that might elude a more conventional observer. The unusual setup lowers her subject's inhibitions and makes them open up.
"Everyone knows I'm going away the next morning, so we only have a few hours together," Bieke explains. "It's easier to share secrets with a stranger – someone you know you'll never see again – than with a close friend who you see every day. For me, there's something special about night and people inside their homes. When it gets dark, the atmosphere changes. People are more real, in a way. On the street you pretend to be someone else. I do this myself. But when you come home, that layer falls away."
Bieke initially struck on this method of travel and documentary photography out of necessity, while studying for her Master's degree in photography at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Ghent, Belgium. For her graduation project, she headed off across Russia with a note written for her by a Russian girl she'd met online that said: "I'm looking for a place to spend the night. I don't want to stay at a hotel because I don't have much money and I'd love to see how people live in Russia. Perhaps I could crash at your place? Thank you very much for your help!"
The project, titled Ou Menya, garnered her acclaim and won her the Magnum Expression Award in 2009. She joined the agency as a nominee in 2012, aged just 25, and is now a full member.
Repeating the strategy in the USA, for her 2010 series I Am About to Call It a Day, was a different experience. Bieke found it harder to work this way in America than in Russia, where the language barrier meant she was free to observe instead of making small talk.
Nevertheless, Bieke managed to photograph the Americans she stayed with in an unobtrusive style, capturing intimate moments. Images in the collection border on voyeuristic, such as her image of a moonbathing lady in the stone bath (above) and portraits of couples embracing. It also shines a spotlight on family relationships, routines and traditions, an example of which is Bieke's image of a family viewing the neighbourhood Christmas lights (top) and others of siblings hanging out in their bedrooms.
Her next project took her to Egypt eight times between 2011 and 2017, and became a book called As It May Be (published in English in February 2018 by Aperture). Bieke initially went to Egypt on an assignment, but when her commission was complete, she stayed. She was intrigued by the wariness she sensed, particularly towards foreign journalists, in the wake of the January 2011 revolution.
I wanted to try to find trust in a place where there's no trust.
"I wanted to try to find trust in a place where there's no trust," she explains. "It really felt like people were protecting their private lives. They're friendly on the streets, but they wouldn't invite you inside." To overcome this problem, she enlisted the help of a Belgian woman who lived in Egypt and spoke fluent Arabic. "We'd travel together to small towns or cities and walk the whole day until we found someone who trusted us and who we trusted. Then, once we'd both agreed that I was going to stay the night there, she'd leave me by myself."
Eventually, once Bieke decided she had taken enough photographs, she made a dummy book. However, she felt overcome by reservations about what she'd created. "It didn't feel right to publish it like this, because it didn't show the complexity of the country," she recalls. "Many people in Egypt simply don't like photography, or they don't want to show what their life is like indoors. I was really thinking of how I could solve these problems.
"I decided to go back to Egypt with the dummy book and show it to people on the street. Not the same people I'd photographed, but others. I showed it to people working in a bank, to farmers and those who couldn't read or write. I showed it to those who were very open-minded people and those who were very conservative. I let them look through the book and write their comments directly onto the photographs."
Once a few people had commented on images, others began to comment on those comments. "There's a whole conversation arising about religion, culture, photography, and sometimes about politics as well," says Bieke. "People who would never talk to each other conversed through the images." The more people wrote, the less you could see the images underneath. For example, a portrait of a woman would start to disappear under a heated debate concerning the ethics of whether or not she should have her arms uncovered.
As It May Be is part of a wider evolution for Bieke, who refuses to be limited by the conventions of the stills medium. She directed her first short film, Dvalemodus, with musician Mattias De Craene, in 2017. It was shot in the Norwegian village of Skaland on a Canon C100 Mark II, so she was able to use her existing Canon lenes. "It was a very easy switch," she says.
The film came about while she was in Norway during the winter, doing a residency. "Skaland was a very interesting place. The harsh nature and constant darkness were really inspiring. I tried to make portraits of people and to capture the atmosphere, but it felt like still photography was not enough."
The nine-minute film sits on the borders between fiction and fact, staging and observation, using the inhabitants of Skaland in scenes inspired by their daily lives. It tells the story of a village engulfed by perpetual darkness and has been shown at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Despite her success in filmmaking, she has no plans to move away from photography entirely. The power of a still image is clear from one encounter she had in Egypt. She will never again meet most of the people in her Egyptian, US or Russian series, but she made an exception for Walla, a young girl she photographed in Cairo in 2012.
Returning to the city last year, she decided to look up Walla's family and was amazed by the impact her image had on them. "I'd lost their names, their phone number and their address," she recalls. "I only knew roughly where they were living. I framed [a print of] the image and went back and found them. I'll always remember seeing them again. They were so happy to have the photograph and hung it up straight away. It was a beautiful moment."