Interview: Mieke Verbijlen
July 13 2014
Antwerp-based photographer Mieke Verbijlen shoots a different kind of interior. A far cry from the trappings of modern interior photography, which puts hollow architecture and aspirational furnishings on an impossibly burnished pedestal, her Apartments series serves as a document of interaction between people and their homes rather than a catalogue of curated objects or meticulously configured sitting rooms. Her photos are sensuous, rich in texture and play of light. The spaces which catch her eye are are raw and lived-in. Unmade beds, ruffled pillowcases, clothing on hangars suspended from a cracked drywall ceilings. Each image is rife with implied use, offering an intimate glimpse into the lives of Verbijlen’s subjects. In this way, the living spaces become portraits of their inhabitants.
Tell us a little bit about yourself and your background. How has your work evolved over time? Have you always shot interiors?
I grew up in a small village and ever since I was about 13 years old I wanted to be a photographer. When I was 18, I applied at the Academy in Antwerp and I still remember how happy I was when I got in! I really liked those four years in school. I didn’t learn so much from the teachers, actually, especially not about technique, but I met so many nice people and saw a lot of good work. And I loved living in the city!
I haven’t always shot interiors, but I have always been interested in how people live- what they collect and how they arrange those things. When I was in the academy I started already with this matter. My work has always been about the relationship between people and objects. For example, I did a series of portraits where I asked people to make a silhouette of their body with their favorite objects. I also did a project once based on a flea-market find. I found a box with 3 accessories from a doll and asked some friends to make a box with their 3 accessories.
Two years after I graduated I opened a shop with a friend, the concept was something like ‘things we love”. So shooting interiors came very naturally. It’s a combination of all my interests. I do see the photos more as portraits and hope people won’t look at them as lifestyle-photography.
How do you find the spaces you shoot?
I started shooting the places of close friends, because I find them all very interesting. When Iwas done with that, I visited friends of friends’ places and so on. Every time I think “now i don’t know where to go anymore”, I soon end up with a new list of places. Recently, I took photos for the final year students of the Antwerp Fashion Academy. I visited their 10 studios and made portraits. Some of the places weren’t the ones I would pick out for taking photos, but it turned out to be an interesting assignment. I really liked seeing how they all had very different personalities and then seeing their spaces, and then their clothes.
Often interior photography can seem rather devoid of life, but your work tends to capture a very natural human element, almost tableau-like scenes. How do you parse out these moments while shooting in a space?
I’m not interested in shooting an empty or over-styled place. I am also not very good at shooting the architecture of an apartment. What attracts me are always the little things. A pile of books, an unmade bed, a messy shelf, a beautiful plant, a collection… I also love coming home with the photos and realizing the color palette of someone’s place. That’s something I don’t always see while I’m there.
I do take my time for the photos and I am very sensitive for atmosphere. I like to drink tea when I arrive at someones place, and then I start slowly. I always want the people to be around and just keep busy with what they were doing. In between, I like to talk to them, to make them feel at ease. People often tell me they didn’t realize I took a portrait of them, and that’s nice I think, because often people will act uncomfortable when there’s a camera around. I really don’t like to be photographed myself, so I always try do this very carefully. When I don’t know the people well I can become very nervous about taking their photos. But I’m working on it, and keep trying :)
Your eye for lighting is particularly remarkable, when is your favorite time to shoot?
I love different kinds of light. But it has to be natural light. The evening light in summer must be my favorite, but I haven’t shot many places around that time. I don’t like waking up early so I usually shoot places around noon. I sometimes cancel photo-dates when the weather is really bad. I do think dark photos can also be very beautiful, but I don’t like grey weather.
Your subjects tend to have an unfinished quality to them, somewhat worn-in, raw. What draws you to these types of spaces and objects?
I don’t like perfection. For myself, I never like new shoes, I like them a lot more when you can tell my feet have been wearing them and they change shape. I don’t mind a hole in a cardigan. Which doesn’t mean i don’t take care of my clothes. At home it’s the same. I like it when people made a home of their place. When it’s a place where they can be themselves. When they use the things that are there. Even when it’s just a few small objects on a mantelpiece that they like to look at. I like to photograph those things that are impossible to copy. The combinations of objects and colors that show very much how these people are.
What’s next for you? Any new projects on the horizon?
The past year I’ve been working on many projects with friends. Now that they’ve all come to an end I’m looking forward to work on my own portfolio again. I want to continue photographing interesting places. I would like to travel a bit and shoot interiors outside of Antwerp as well. Two projects I did with friends will become books. I can’t wait to hold them in my hands. I would also like to publish more work in magazines, and I’m interested in different assignments, as long as I can do them my way :)