how much can I get into a photograph

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Looking back on the year 2011 I remember all that moved the world, revolutions and wars in the Arab world, and the west that couldn’t believe its eyes, hesitant at first, confronted with what it saw as being so “western”: a secular mass movement demanding democracy, spilling over from one country to the next, Tunesia, Egypt, Lybia, which next…Seeing and hearing their brave and fair demands did more for understanding and sympathy than many years of th so-called multi-cultural society have achieved so far.

Then there were natural disasters, terrorism, the economic crisis. There were demonstrations over here too, especially in Amsterdam. I went to a Spanish demonstration, students who realized there was hardly any future in their home country with no jobs for more than 1/3 of young people and numbers rising whilst the country remained deep in debt, its Mediterranean coast lined with empty white hotels. I photographed those proud young people full of life, and the girl behind the banner, with the white flower in her hair, aware of her act and visibly enjoying every moment of the comradeship and common goal. I kept hearing vague memories of songs from the Spanish civil war and Charlie Haden’s plaintive bass lines with the Liberation Music Orchestra.

The second image that still stays with me is from another demonstration, supporting the people on Tahrir Square, Cairo. I was photographing an Egyptian family in Amsterdam and concentrated on an older couple. The woman was not looking at the men, who were waving an Egyptian flag, but at the baby in the pram she held. Amidst all the noise and shouting I could not hear what she muttered, but I tried to understand, because she cried. Then I suddenly heard what she said: “Misr habibi….Misr habibi” – my dear Egypt.

becoming the tree

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It used to be fashionable for the photo gurus to proclaim that, in order to take “good” photographs, you should “become one with your subject”: to photograph a tree you should become that tree. In an extreme form: you had no “right” to express your opinion about/take a photograph of e.g. poor people if you did not belong to the same social class!  No matter what ideological or philosophical thoughts these seemingly “deep” ideas stem from, they have always struck me as plain nonsense. Would an extensive study of all the pharoahs and dynasties of ancient Egypt have resulted in better photographs for my Egypt series….hardly. I did not want knowledge to get in the way of experience. I was going to absorb the country as it presented itself to me during the five weeks of my stay.

Useful as it may be to know at least something about your subject (be it old people’s homes or Latino gangs), it certainly is no guarantee for better photographs. A quick intuitive response is far more important to me than study, meditation or even identification with the subject. Being able to look at things your very own way and thus maintain a certain distance – figuratively speaking! – sometimes helps to avoid being overwhelmed by a subject, or may add to an atmosphere of alienation, when opportune. Having an open mind, not losing yourself, is the key to good observation.

Being an insider, and I’m thinking in years rather than weeks, may get you those special images and a feeling of belonging, and seeing details that stay hidden to the casual eye. In both my “house parties” series and the upcoming “gypsies” series on my site http://www.tomstappers.com you may find this involvement which permeates the best photographs from the many thousands I’ve taken over a long period of time. It is fascination with other people’s lives that drove me, not some supposed “professional attitude” of pursuing “the ultimate picture” that “says it all”, should such a thing exist.

special delivery mystery film

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When I was in Egypt, in 1989, towards the end of my 5 weeks journey I ran out of film. No problem, I thought, after all I was in Luxor which is a tourist center with a lot of shops. I went to a local photographer, who said that black and white was a long gone item in Egypt, no one had asked for it for years!  I noticed that he cast a quick glance at my Nikons too see if maybe they were antique too… To my surprise none of the photographing tourists I had spoken to that day used Tri-X, let alone had some spare stuff to sell to me. The friendly Egyptian saw my disappointment, and said he could phone a family member who took official photographs for passports, and was bound to have some black and white film left. The only problem was that he lived in another town, I forget which, but if I paid a little extra for the trip if he could deliver them before tomorrow. At first I thought this was a clever con trick, but since he did not ask for a prepayment of the amount of money he asked – which was indeed reasonable – I agreed.

As promised I was contacted late that night at my hotel by the good man who proudly produced 5 or 6 refilled plastic cartridges with black and white film of mysterious origin. I was both glad that he had gone through all the hassle for me (for the little extra money) and disappointed by the fact that it was not sealed and packaged film (and so little of it) with no proper name and a date on it. After thanking and paying the man I inspected the material closer. The cassettes had probably had a long and fulfilling life of endless refilling because the felt entrance looked as worn, flattened and dirty as the hotel entrance carpet. After all I did not dare put them in the one Nikon body that had survived the desert sand storm of a few days back. So I rationed the few remaining Tri-X’s I had left…


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With the addition of three more series today my website has come fullsize, though ready for more. The number of photographs shown has risen to 123 now, so it’s a more varied look at my work, and since the boundaries between subjects are not strict, you will already get glimpses of other subjects yet to come. So keep coming back for more, and for now have a look at the newly uploaded photoseries Paris, periphery (of The Hague) and Egypt on www.tomstappers.com ! Accompanying texts on this blog.

more photographs

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I’ve just been selecting photographs from the following series:  Paris (1970’s-1990’s), Egypt ( January-February 1989) and Periphery ( June-November 1991). Only “Periphery”, an assignment by the town of The Hague where I grew up on the eastern town border (autobiographical), was on my former website already, although the selection may be slightly different. The other two are new on the net. There’s more to come, e.g. gypsies, tattoo, jazz musicians, London, Barcelona and other cities… If you want to buy a personal favorite from these added or earlier photographs for your collection (reasonably priced signed gelatin silver prints 30×40 cm.), be welcome to email me. The 3 current series have been scanned and will be uploaded to my photosite www.tomstappers.com in the next few days, probably soon after Easter. Do visit, I think they’re interesting allright, and keep an eye on this blog. I will comment on my photography in several more posts to come!

text 3

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Tom Stappers’ work in this exhibition represents the aesthetic reflex. The photographer looks at the outside world to see what all of us others no longer see, because we are a little tired and lead our lives absorbed by our own thoughts and sorrows. He rediscovers for us the visible reality and shows us how fascinating and disturbing, how beautiful it can be. To this end he uses an adequate aestheticising imagery which owes a lot to the adventure of modern art. We experience the same urban atmosphere. I’m not surprised to hear that Stappers is also a jazz photographer. The urban atmosphere – and in a way the atmosphere of  the artistic live photography of the 1950’s and 1960’s with its graffiti and “la beauté du laid” [the beauty of ugliness].

(spoken introduction at Egypt exhibition, CC Hasselt, Belgium, by Karel van Deuren (1921-2006)  ©1995) translation of this quote: TS.