Chris de Bode on visual languages, respect and his Panos print ‘Walking home’
I want to show love because I think everything in the world, between people, is essentially about love. It’s for most people the reason that they’re born and and hopefully when you die you’re surrounded with people you love. And if you manage to do that, I think you live the good life. When I photograph I also feel that I am looking for that, for gentleness. In the work I have done, you know, you’re not only a photographer, you’re a human being, you deal with people, you have a responsibility, you have to have communication skills, you work with people who are, in certain cases, heavily traumatised, you have to listen very carefully to what people say, you have to be careful what you ask, and you have to come up with a decent image.
This image is shot in South Africa. I was working on a story with the Panos Institute on the high prevalence of HIV in the Drakensberg region and we were following a couple of families there who had HIV positive family members. We were driving around, from one family to the other and we passed this girl by chance. She was the daughter of one of the families, on her way to school, and she was walking on the road with this very dramatic sky all around and the sun shining through the clouds. It almost feels like a metaphor maybe for what is waiting for in her life. It was a long assignment, we had the budget to do research, which I have to admit is very special, and how it should be. I’ve done so many assignments, where you only have a couple of days, and the expectations are always very high. Sometimes you lack information, or it’s just too short and too quick. Which is frustrating sometimes. But on this assignment we were able to meet people before we started shooting and have quite a few conversations. That is really meaningful to have such an approach to people’s stories.
This image doesn’t reveal the girl’s identity. That’s something that I’ve been struggling with during my career. We project our own thoughts onto somebody we see in an image. An image is so subjective. Maybe they just look the way they look because I pointed the camera at them. Maybe I chose that picture where they have that certain look, which illustrates my story best. During my career, I’ve slowly but surely drifted away from making images of faces, because I thought there were other ways that could explain more than a face would do.
On one assignment I decided to take along a backdrop that I could put in the landscape and I did family portraits with this. I would walk away sometimes 50 metres or so and stand at this distance from the people I photographed. It became more like you were looking at a community in a sense, who are living somewhere. And so the context was given a much bigger role in the image. The image allowed for more layers. I find it really interesting. If you’re close to someone, as a photographer, you have much more importance, because I have to tell people, you should look a little bit like that, or you should move your hands or you do this, do that. Then my personality, my mind becomes very important in the image, but the image should in fact be all about them. I think it’s all got to do with making people feel respected.
I did a shoot on hunger, around Lake Chad where Boko Haram was very active. Buying or growing any kind of food was very difficult, people were really affected by it. I decided not to photograph the people but rather the food they had available. Through photographing the foods and food items, I was able to explain how hunger works, and how people have to deal with it, and without showing any faces. When we look at stories on hunger, we are so used to seeing images of really unwell people or animals, and the reason this story was so successful was because it didn’t tap into that bank of images we all have in our heads.
I’ve tried to shoot stories in different ways, to come up with a visual language relevant to the project. When I teach photography, it’s one of the first things I mention, to put an idea in your photography, think about it. There are so many images which are beautiful, Instagram is full of them. The idea is what is powerful.