Birth, marriage and death are constants around the world, yet strikingly varied across different societies. Over a period of six years, Belgian photographer and documentary filmmaker Lieve Blancquaert travelled the globe – from Africa to India to China, across the US and Europe – documenting how we are born, how we marry, and how we die in different cultures. She shot the diverse series entirely on one L-series lens, the Canon EF 24mm f/1.4L II USM.
The three-chapter project began with Birth Day (2013), continued in Wedding Day (2015) and concludes with Last Days (2018). Each chapter is made up of a TV series, book and exhibition.
The idea for the project came to Canon Ambassador Lieve while working on a documentary about mother and infant mortality rates in a small village on the Congolese border with Angola. "I'd been doing this job for a long time and I'd always felt like a tourist," she explains. "I realised that staying in one place – the place where children are born – gave me the opportunity to really go into the heart of a culture."
Working on a story for Birth Day about the place of daughters in Indian society, Lieve met the father of newborn twin girls. "He now had five daughters and was really stressed about how much money he would need for their dowries," she says. "I started being interested in the wedding ritual. I decided to go back to the start, to look at why people connect and how it happens. And then I had to finish with Last Days, about how people age and die. That's the circle of life."
Instead of trying to create a comprehensive study – an impossible task – Lieve decided to be selective, focusing on unusual or contrasting angles. She went to Greenland, one of the world's quietest places, and Kuwait, one of the wealthiest. She saw crowded labour wards in Nairobi with three women to a bed. She saw gaudy Las Vegas nuptials and austere Communist ceremonies. And she captured each of them with the same Canon EF 24mm f/1.4L II USM lens, usually on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III and then on its successor, the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV.
Lieve's decision to use the Canon EF 24mm f/1.4L II USM lens exclusively was initially a matter of pragmatism. She always works with primes – 24mm, 35mm and 85mm – but tends to prefer a 35mm lens for portraiture. On shoots, however, she found herself positioned in front of the TV camera crew, extremely close to the action, and needed the wide 84-degree angle of view afforded by the 24mm lens to ensure she got everything in shot. After a while, it developed into a strategy. Dealing with sensitive subject matter, she found it to be increasingly important to immerse herself in the scene, rather than observing from afar.
"In the beginning I struggled with that lens," she says. "But now I believe it's good to be so close to people. You can't hide, you have to be in the open as a photographer, and I think that's an advantage in those particular moments." That wide angle pulls the viewer into the frame, creating a sense of intimacy, without distorting the perspective, thanks to the lens's aspherical elements.
One of the saddest moments Lieve captured was surprisingly not at a funeral, but at a wedding, in Nepal. The young bride's name was Punam. "She didn't know her age, but she was young, 14 or 15," Lieve recalls. The groom, Ashock, was himself just a teenager, and they barely exchanged a glance during the three-hour ceremony. "It was shocking to watch this forced wedding. Instead of happiness, there was just fear and crying." As Lieve was shooting at 24mm, without the distance created by a longer lens, she makes it impossible to shy away from the intimacy of the moment.
The milestones of life are often marked in ways that are intense, dramatic and unpredictable. Working with a single prime lens forced Lieve to be active. "I realised that with this lens, I had to move a lot," she says. "Certain lenses make you lazy. With a zoom you always stand in the same position, and I don't like that. If you put 20 photographers in the same room with the same lens and conditions, you will have 20 different pictures. That's because they have different ways of moving, not just different ways of looking."
Lieve was determined to use available light sources as much as possible, so the fast f/1.4 maximum aperture and low-light capability of the Canon EF 24mm f/1.4L II USM lens was a great help when the light conditions were unfavourable, from shooting in dingy apartments to lavish nighttime Delhi weddings. "Sometimes I used a flash, but only indirectly, and only when there was really nothing else to do," says Lieve. "I prefer to increase the image sensitivity. With this lens, you can push your ISO to 3000 or 4000 and still have beautiful results."
Above all, though, sticking with the same lens gave a visual consistency across the three series. Lieve is re-editing the three projects into Circle of Life, a forthcoming book and an exhibition running from September 2019 to January 2020 at St Peter's Abbey in Ghent, Belgium. "It's nice when you have a book or an exhibition done with one lens – it's like one line through all those stories," she says. "I believe the lens creates a very specific kind of atmosphere."
Whoever you are, wherever you live in the world, you are born and you die. In the brief moments just after we enter the world and before we leave it, we are, says Lieve, profoundly connected to one another. "But in between those two breaths – the first and the last – each life is a different story," she adds.
"I remember meeting a midwife in Israel who said to me, 'I am the first human being who ever touches a human being after they are born'. That touch has to be a very gentle, warm, welcoming gesture, because otherwise their life starts in a bad way. It makes you think, who touched me for the first time? And who will be the last?"