Interview by Costanza Francesconi
All Images © Berber Theunissen
Born in 1989, Berber Theunissen is originally from Otterlo, a little town in the Netherlands. She graduated from the Photo Academy in Amsterdam where she first gave shape to her poetic idea of intimate photography. Today, she lives in Rheden and continues her artistic career, supported and represented by Open Doors Gallery in London, where her prints are available.
Hello Berber, welcome to Pellicola!
How did your career as a photographer begin? Did you have any idea of what your future work would be when you were a child or did a sudden passion for photography arrive out of the blue?
When I was younger I found an old camera in my grandparents’ attic. It was a Yashica, tucked away with a bunch of slides. I always played with it but never with the intention of becoming a photographer one day. After secondary school I had no clue about what I wanted to do professionally. I ended up studying at fashion school. That wasn’t really my calling, taking pictures of the things we styled was more interesting to me than the actual styling. However, I followed through, but my graduation project ended up being a photography project, shot with my grandparents’ Yashica. This is when I decided to study photography at The Photo Academy in Amsterdam. There I developed the art of photography in the way I do now.
Looking through the albums of your portfolio, we can see a strong theme in all the works. They are very connected to your private life, to your personal story. Photographers, do not frequently make themselves the subject of their photos, as you do. Where does this come from?
I capture the situations I feel I have little grasp of. Through photography, I create my own solid position from which I can view my life more objectively. This approach is part and parcel of my research and curiosity into what ‘the other’ is. It helps me understand everything a bit more.
You work a lot with light – with natural light and shadows. Do you think this characterizes your art?
Probably, I guess – hah! Light does inspire me a lot to take certain photos. But then I have to say that you cannot take a picture at all without light. So it kind of goes hand in hand.
Sometimes you use black and white, especially for portraits. This provides a strong contrast, creating an almost timeless quality in the subjects. Through your photography, what are you trying to share with your viewers?
I don’t want too much distraction in any form in my images, be that color or objects. It’s all about peeling of the layers, exposing the deeply intimate and true.
Atomic Punk is a powerful project that concerns you very closely, as a mother, as a woman and an artist: where did the idea come from?
Four months before our wedding we had an unexpected pregnancy. The pregnancy ended in a miscarriage. It was all such a weird, emotional, rollercoaster. First it was like “fuckkk, we’re having a baby!”. “Okay, this wasn’t the plan, but hey let’s do this!”. Then there were the ultrasound scans with eleven weeks when there was no heartbeat. We were just getting used to the idea, and then the bubble burst. I have never been able to imagine the impact of a miscarriage until I experienced one myself. This is real. The hormonal rollercoaster, the changing of my body. And then the void, the loneliness, the bloody mess, the dreams and fantasies that suddenly disappeared. The positive thing of this whole experience was that Boy and I became closer and closer; starting with this dramatic event we really went to a next level. Atomic Punk was photographed during our honeymoon, right after the wedding. It felt if we finally had the time to contemplate everything, realizing that we can handle everything together.
Your photography is so intimate, intense and deep. For example, several of the nude photos. How would you describe your relation to the body expressed in your work?
For a long time, I felt very insecure about myself, totally out of line with my body. I can still have my bad days. Photography helps me to understand and accept myself better. It is a form of self-acceptance that I also reflect on others with my Skin series. I understand that what makes us really unique is that we are all different and all beautiful in our own way.
A short poetic text introduces the Atomic Punk album. It regards life as a question of sliding doors. Do you believe that unforeseen events and changes are recurrent themes in the path of your pictures?
Oh yes, definitely. My work is really about what I experience in life and what I feel. It is so dependent on which emotions are involved in every situation I live. That is why sometimes my photographs are taken at a precise moment and sometimes they are retrospective.
Can you tell us about your photographic technique, how do you prefer to work?
All my personal work is taken with a Pentax 6×7, an analogue medium format camera. My negatives are developed at a laboratory, and then I scan them by myself. My plan for the winter time is to focus the attention on developing my film as a personal project, curated by me in first person. In so doing I will have the total control over all the facets.
Is there anything special you would like to recommend to our readers? Is there something or someone that has been a fundamental source of inspiration for you? An author or a documentary, an experience or an artist who was a revelation to you?
I really must say that Sarah Mei Herman is a big influence. When I started studying at the Dutch Photo Academy, I really liked photography, but there wasn’t really any depth to it yet. At one point we got a workshop from Sarah Mei, where she let us shoot very personal works. It was very confrontational, but also very interesting. Suddenly it went beyond just creating a beautiful image; it really touched me. I have continued in this way and it is constantly evolving.
Thank you so much Berber! I hope you have enjoyed sharing your personal experience with us!