“I think it’s the process of making the photos. I think making the pictures is pressing on the pulse just to stop the moment. And looking through them afterwards also, but what I find very interesting is the look in the eyes in self portraits and portraits of Boy, because he also doesn’t always want to be in the photo, he’s like ‘Ahh again?’ but I think the look in his eyes is very interesting. There’s a self portrait of ours and when I see that picture we are so tired in our eyes, it’s really how it was in that moment. I think that’s very interesting. To read our faces.”
Berber Theunissen photographs all that is natural to her, from untouched wilderness to intimate shots of friends and her lover, Boy. Rather than manufacturing or capturing beauty, Berber finds it in every moment she preserves in the 10 precious shots each roll of film allows her.
Icelandic scenery, the wild serenity of Holland’s countryside, Moroccan beaches, bedrooms, bodies, and wildlife all come together to form a body of work that is quiet yet overwhelming in its depth of emotion. Aesthetics are clearly a strong point for the young photographer, but Berber isn’t just another person with a camera, chasing anything pretty. She moved away from the hustle of Amsterdam to sleepy Rheden so she can focus on what truly matters – pursuing her dreams in a place that offers stillness, inspiration, and a life closer to nature. And now, in a home that functions as both a studio for her and a workshop for Boy’s motorcycle renovation business Pancake Customs, Berber is in the perfect place to pursue the work she loves and the lifestyle that allows her to do so.
We met with Berber at her studio for conversation and coffee and couldn’t resist acquiring a stunning print for our own collection. We can’t wait to see where this incredibly talented photographer goes, and what she shows us along the way.
How did you first get into photography?
I was always photographing with little digital cameras, but then I found this camera, it doesn’t work anymore, but I found it at my granddad’s house, and I started with analogue photography. I really liked it but I didn’t really know what I wanted to do after high school so I went to styling academy. I didn’t like college fashion people, it wasn’t for me, but for my graduation project I did it with that camera and I really liked it and enjoyed using film, so I went to the Foto Academie because I wanted to learn more about it.
So you studied styling first, does it influence your work now at all?
For me it doesn’t, but when I was studying in the Foto Academie they would tell me that it feels a little bit “fashion” and I was like, “But it isn’t fashion,” but they had that feeling, and so maybe it influenced me a bit but not on purpose.
Why did you choose to shoot on film?
When I started at the Foto Academie I went digital again because of all the assignments – it was easier and cheaper. But I did love to use film. With the camera I use now, there are only 10 photos in a film so you are very busy with “What am I going to capture?” If I shoot with digital it’s just click click click and it doesn’t matter because you can shoot over and over again and when you shoot with film it’s like “Oh I only have ten chances with this film!” If I shoot with film I really have the feeling that I’m photographing and when I shoot digital I’m just like “Oh I’m making some photos, it doesn’t matter what.”
I saw that you call yourself a nature-based photographer?
[laughs] Yeah, two years ago I didn’t want to live in Amsterdam anymore, but I met Boy so I stayed. Amsterdam really doesn’t inspire me, all the people and the crowds, and nature does inspire me. I grew up in this neighbourhood, about 30 km away, and I decided that I really want to come back here, to nature. Then we found this place, so we moved to Rheden. That’s why it’s “nature-based” because I love to say that I live in nature.
And does that also extend to the subjects you like to shoot?
I think the mix of shooting landscapes and people is very interesting. When I looked at my work, I never shot outside in Amsterdam because I think it’s very distracting, all the buildings and people and trams, and all the stuff people put in there. I love the silence and emptiness of nature. That really inspires me.
I kind of see that in your portraits as well because it seems like they are just humans that are part of nature as well.
That’s what I try to show when I portrait people. People always put on a mask when they get photographed and I really want to see the person behind that mask, the real, real person, so when I photograph people I really want to take time, have a cup of coffee so everything is chill and relaxed – I think that’s very important.
Do you feel like these day to day issues were affecting your ability to create? In Amsterdam it seems like you took a lot of photos anyway of your friends, portraits and that sort of thing, but it was all inside.
Yeah it was all inside, everything was inside, and it was really funny because two months ago or something we came here to look at the house and we drove through the Post Bank and I thought, “Oh where’s my camera I really want to photograph.” It inspires me so much. When I was in Amsterdam I didn’t have that feeling.
Did you guys decide to move here to get away from distractions?
Yeah this really feels like home. For me that step wasn’t really that big, but Boy grew up in Leiden, also a big city, in the west of Holland. Smaller than Amsterdam. Not as many tourists, and more cozy. I was very curious how Boy would react to living in nature, in a silly village with people who are staring at us like “Who are those crazy people?” But he has space to work on his motorcycles, and in Amsterdam it’s just not possible, you have to have so much money and pay so much rent, and here we have the chance to make our dreams come true.
With Vagabond, your graduation project, you weren’t in one place for more than three nights a week and you mentioned that you felt like you didn’t have a home. What kind of insight did you get after that project?
That I really needed a home. When I look back at that project, everything was so messy, my life, my self, it was very strange, and right after my graduation I met Boy, and everything is so much more peaceful right now. I don’t know how to describe it, but it’s like everything is ok. With Vagabond I was just going going going, and totally not focused on what I was doing.
When you’re creating work and getting into photography does that help you escape from all the negativity and distractions in society or do you still have to be physically removed from it?
It helps me understand the situation more. I also take a lot of self portraits and when I’m photographing and I see those pictures again, a week later or maybe two months later, or a maybe a year later, it’s really like “Oh whoa, it was more like this” but at certain moments I didn’t realise that. It’s like looking at my life like a movie. That’s why I also think it’s very interesting to photograph other people to see how they react in certain situations, to see if I’m the strange person who feels that way or if other people feel the same way.
Some people I photograph a lot, so if you see all those pictures together, you see a sort of timeline through their emotions. I think that’s very interesting.
Were you and your Grandfather planning on going to Iceland together?
It was very funny because I graduated and I really wanted to immediately shoot a new project, I was very afraid of the black hole thing after graduation, and since I was twelve or something I really wanted to go to Iceland. So I was planning my trip to Iceland, and I was with my Granddad, and he was like “Oh I really want to go to Iceland sometime” and I was like “I’m planning my trip to Iceland!” I went for three weeks, and he went for a week, so I stayed there for two weeks alone.
I was just photographing, I knew I wanted to have a project at the end of the trip, but I had no clue what. With all my projects I never think “Oh I’m going to shoot this or I’m going to make this project or that project” because with Vagabond that was over a period of 18 months, and my latest project Frisson is also over a period of a year and it’s still going on. So, it never really stops because I’m always photographing.
What was it like photographing your grandfather in these situations? Usually the people you’re photographing are your friends and boyfriend, so was it different shooting with him?
Yeah, not really scary, but it’s your Granddad, and in Iceland we saw each other 24/7 and before we saw each other on birthdays or we’d have a coffee with each other, but not 24/7, so I was really curious about how it would go between my Granddad and me, with 51 years difference, but it was amazing, and I had no idea it would be so cool! My granddad is pretty religious and I’m not at all but we had very nice discussions about it, not with hate, like, “You have to go to church!” or something, but really understanding each other. I really liked those moments also, the small things with your Granddad, not everybody has that.
Gyula: How did he feel about the trip?
He was amazed by it. I put him on a plane and I was staying there, and he was crying. My Granddad is from a village smaller than this, like 2000 people, and now all these pictures are going around the world, and he’s getting published in books and everything! But he’s supportive. I was talking about him in an interview and he wanted a copy of the magazine and showed it to everybody, so I think he’s proud.
In your latest project Frisson, you mentioned that it’s the things that bring you pleasure and that also make you feel vulnerable. With this project, does location also play a role?
No, not really, it’s really the things in my daily life so it could be anywhere. It’s really my daily life, and some things touch me more than other things. So no, place is not important, it’s more the moment that’s important.
After graduating from the Foto Academie, were you interested in working in the commercial side of photography?
When I graduated I really made the decision that I only want to work on my personal work because I heard so many stories of people who were like, “Oh I need money,” so they do some stupid commercial assignments and they didn’t have time anymore for their personal work. So I was like “Ok I choose to have no money and to work on my personal work and I’ll see how that goes”. And it’s going pretty well so I’m really glad that I made that decision.
I noticed that you have a lot of exhibitions going on and lots of things happening and I think it’s really good that you’re doing that right after graduating.
Yeah, it’s going well. I was recently invited for an exhibition in Stockholm. It seems to work and I’m really happy about that.
A lot of people seem to think that in order to be an artist you have to do the commercial side or you have to spend a lot of time out there branding and promoting yourself but maybe just doing the work is the important thing.
I think it’s also very hard because it’s all about connections and socialising but I never go to an opening. I really don’t like to.
Gyula: I guess with the internet you really don’t have to. Like your Granddad – he doesn’t go to openings either but he’s out there!
[laughs] Yeah exactly! I also think it’s all about timing. The right time, right people. If somebody important who can really influence sees your work that helps. But I think you can’t choose to see those people. There are so many photographers, so it’s also being lucky maybe.
Do you always have something around you that inspires you or do you always have something to photograph? How do you feel about finding new subjects and new work?
With Vagabond and Dozens of Bulls I was just photographing what I see around me. I had a talk with my dad, he’s a car dealer, and he really doesn’t understand anything about my photography and he isn’t creative at all. I have a picture from Vagabond, it’s a sunset and a small building, and he said, “I love that picture but I don’t know why you captured that moment, it’s just a sun and a building, and if I would have seen that I wouldn’t have taken a picture of it”.
Gyula: Does it bother you that he thinks in a different way than you?
Yeah in high school and stuff I had no clue what I wanted to do, I didn’t want to go to school, I hated everything, but with Vagabond I graduated Cum Laude and my dad was like, “I never, ever expected someone in our family would graduate Cum Laude but especially you, no! I never ever expected that,” so I was like, “Thanks Dad…” [laughs]. He was really proud though but he never expected it.
Gyula: I guess that proved your point then, that’s why you took the photo of the sunset and the small building.
You mentioned that you found that you fit in very well into the negative aspects of society or your place in it, what was it that you felt was very negative or uncomfortable around you?
It was more about graduation and what I wanted to do after that, and when you open a newspaper it was all negative, the crisis, and how everyone’s going to be poor, and I always get the reaction like, “You’re studying photography? What you don’t get any money?” and stuff like that. I really felt like everything is negative – on the TV, in the newspapers, people on the streets were negative, everyone got fired… and I hated it and I was really like – this isn’t how it supposed to be and what’s the solution for it?
So what was the solution for you?
It was funny when I met Boy he had the same feeling about it and he had a 9 to 5 job which depressed him more and more and we both didn’t want to be part of a society that we didn’t choose. We were really busy with how we are going to make our own future instead of listening to what society expects from you. So he created his job and decided to go with the bikes further and I decided I’m going to do my personal work and accept that we probably won’t have that much money but ok we’re going for it! And now at a certain point I’m really glad we made that choice. After 8 years in Amsterdam it was time for a new chapter. We didn’t want to only work for a roof over our heads.
It seems like people can associate with these themes a lot, they can’t just stay in one place.
It’s really funny you said that because I had this discussion with my parents and I said I don’t really feel Dutch. I am Dutch, I was born here and I live here and I speak Dutch – and that’s it. I don’t feel Dutch, I don’t really have that connection.
Gyula: We just had this conversation a couple days ago as well. We feel the same way. The earth didn’t decide that there will be a country here called The Netherlands or Germany or whatever, you’re just born here by chance, so why am I stuck here? When there are billions of planets out there and I call myself this or that.
Yeah! I feel exactly the same! It’s really strange…
I think for a lot of people, especially where we are coming from, the art scene is very much focused on where you’re from. What’s your race, what’s your nationality, where were you born… and if it’s not in your work, then they don’t really understand. Like if you’re Iranian and you don’t focus on Iranian subjects, then they don’t really understand that. Do you get that sense here as well?
No, I think in the Netherlands you have to be big in other countries and then you’ll be accepted as an artist in the Netherlands.
Gyula: But in other countries when they invite you to an exhibition, do they care or does it matter to them?
No, not at all, just “Where are you from, oh the Netherlands ok.”
Gyula: That’s good though, because a lot of times we read about photographers and then the first thing they start with is not what kind of photos they take, but where they’re born. Why is that the most important thing? It’s like starting with your gender or age or country, I don’t think it has anything to do with your art.
Actually people always think I’m a boy, because of my name, Berber. In the north of Holland it’s more common. A lot of times people say “his photographs” but I’m a girl!
Do you think it makes them look at your work differently?
Maybe, because I think if you see my work and you know I’m a girl then it’s totally different than if I were a boy, especially with the girls and the nudes. I think it’s always different if you know it’s a female photographer or a male photographer but I always look at photos thinking about what’s the approach and how do they make the picture.
Do you think gender affects style?
No, not really, but maybe a bit… I think it’s very different if a girl photographs another girl or if a boy photographs a girl. I think that’s different.
Gyula: Maybe it’s perceived differently. People make it sexual. Nudes aren’t supposed to be sexual. But depending on if a guy or girl takes it people will perceive it as sexual or not.
Yeah it’s like that photo of my Granddad, it’s so different if I took it, as a girl, or if a boy took it. It’s a different association I think.
Exactly – but men have been involved in photography for so long, much longer than women, and men have been taking photos of naked women for as long as they have been able to take photos. It feels a lot more natural when women take photos of other women for example. Like the photos you take of your friend, who you shoot regularly, it doesn’t seem like you were telling her what to do or how to pose. It felt much more natural and real than a lot of nude photoshoots.
I photographed her so many times, always, always her, so we have a very good interaction with each other. We’re always looking for each others’ boundaries and going further and further.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY GYULA DEAK.