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Life through a lens: Six Brussels photographers share their tales

10:53 11/02/2018

Brussels is home to more than 180 nationalities, different cultures and neighbourhoods filled with sights and cuisines from faraway places. With so much to see and do here, it’s no wonder some want to slow down to capture the moment.

Many people have come to Brussels with cameras in hand, with the hopes of capturing what makes the city most unique. Whether it’s black and white or colour, digital or film, street photography or staged, each picture shares a story of what life is like on the other side of the lens.

The Bulletin met six photographers who have taken countless pictures around the world but have found something unique to capture right here in Belgium. Each one shares a little about their personal journey within photography and how they ended up taking photos here in Belgium.

Sebastian Boatca

Sebastian Boatca, a photography enthusiast based in Brussels, says taking pictures is one way he chooses to embrace life. "My artistic expression through photography is one of the ways I can blend into life’s events and communicate with people around the world,” he says.

He always looked for creative outlets since he was young, but his passion for photography came from his grandmother. "She was a studio photographer, the last one of her kind in our city, before the photography became quite popular with its 35mm film compact cameras and later, with the digital era.

"She used to work with large format cameras and back then, the photography involved the art of using correction pencils on negatives, like paintings. So, this passion for photography and visual arts started with the heritage from my grandmother and continued with the growth of my spirit and life experience.”

After coming to Brussels three years ago with his wife he found the best way to photograph the city was by trying not to define it. "I try to see Brussels as it is - a great city, abundant in its multicultural life and events, not like too many other European cities of this size and importance,” Boatca says.

His favourite places to capture the city are small streets with old architecture: "For those interested in street photography, Brussels is the place to be and the old, narrow streets, with their small shops, restaurants and terraces, are the right spots where you can capture the true Brussels flavour and the local rhythm of their inhabitants."

David Nollet

David Nollet is a recently self-published photographer who came to Brussels in the 1990s, although his passion for photography came much before that. He too found a love of photography from watching a strong female photographer in his life: his mother.

“I was always by her side as she worked in our dark room laboratory,” he said. His book of photography, Façade Democratique, features exclusively black and white street photographs, taken with the hopes of capturing something he lost during childhood.

“In the eighties I grew up in this village, Ottenburg, and there you could see a kind of social cohesion, a kind of social life, communal life, people had really deep knowledge of each other," he says. "While growing up, I saw this disappearing."

He said that the loss of interaction between neighboirs in his small town seemed to hurt his soul. It was healed when he came to Brussels. Nollet found this healing in the people on the streets. He said people in Brussels are different - when they are photographed on the streets they don’t look defensive, they look alive.

Julian Hills

When Julian Hills was 20 years old, he began experimenting with photography. After years in a rock band, he started taking his photography seriously.

The self-taught photographer began capturing emotional moments at concerts, and soon began working with different charity organisations. His new book, Ordinary People, highlights people with disabilities, or just ordinary people that deserve recognition in a world where only the perfect get on the front of magazines.

"It's true that I have a natural sort of attraction of wanting to photograph people where most of the time we turn away from them," Hills says. "I want to put them in the spotlight."

Most of the subjects in the book are people from the different organisations he takes pictures for, but some he stumbles upon in the street.

One of the most breathtaking portraits in Ordinary People is of a homeless man in Berlin. After seeing him digging out of rubbish bins all around the city, he noticed his infectious smile and found the courage to go and take his portrait.

"Each person has a different story," he says. "[My work] is not the type of photos you would put in your lounge… but it seems to bring positive emotions to people."

Although he does take photographs of landscapes and beautiful scenery, he focuses on people because he can always have a connection with his subjects, many of who are his good friends now.

"It seems to be the sort of thing I am good at," Hills says. "I think the main reason for me to be taking pictures of people is because I love people. I honestly love people."

His book Ordinary People can be ordered on his website, or found in select local bookstores.

Nicolas Witczak

Nicolas Witczak always found it difficult to express himself. He found ways through theatre and writing, journalism, and then discovered photography.

"I think I’m learning about myself a little bit. I have overcome a lot of difficulties," Witczak said. "I want my pictures to not just talk to me, but to other people."

His photography became his gateway into the world. After reading books and learning techniques through videos, Witczak's self-taught skills are seen through powerful and vibrant photos.

It has not always been easy for him, though. "Sometimes I don’t even take pictures on the street because I don’t want people to see me," he says. "It took me some time to accept that I was going to show [my pictures] to people. It was a bit scary."

Last summer, Witczak took a trip to Amsterdam and began taking photos of the crowd, and his photography has changed ever since.

"[There was] a guy that was kind of alone in the crowd. When I looked at the picture, what I was seeing was my own loneliness," Witczak says. "I think that was pretty interesting, and it added a layer. I am trying to express myself more and put more layers in the pictures, but is pretty complicated."

To help him overcome his shyness and keep him motivated as a photographer, he has began posting one photo a day on his Instagram account. He wants his pictures to help people understand him, and help him understand the world.

"I like to show my reality," Witczak said. "It’s a mix between reality and my own world." His photos are displayed in Au pays des Merveilles, a bagel and coffee shop in Saint Gilles.

Ximena Echague

Ximena Echague grew up around photographers and filmmakers, and now doing her own work, it seems to come naturally to her. Starting with doing street photography, she soon became interested in documentary.

"I use to spend a lot of time just looking at portraits out of a book from Richard Avedon," Echague said. "It was called Nothing Personal and it just marked me a lot."

Echague has always felt passionate about immigration policy and issues going on across the globe. She first began documenting internal migration in China, but decided to move her efforts more to Europe due to the language barrier in China.

When she moved back to Brussels, she began her project, which is now shown public, called Odyssey. "It was 2015 and I said to myself, this is where you must be and what you must do," Echague says.

Most of the exhibition focuses on one subject, Sharali, who escaped from Somalia after constant civil war. The photographs tell the story of how he lives everyday life as a refugee without documentation. The rest of the photographs tell the stories of different refugee’s journeys.

Echague says she wants the photographs to show that the refugees “are human beings, just like you and me.”

She has been working with many subjects for a long time, forming bonds and friendships that will last her a lifetime. “They deserve to be here,” she says. “They are here right now, so we must have solidarity.”

Stanislav Dobak and Jamie Lee

Stanislav Dobak from Slovakia and Australian Jamie Lee are both part-time photographers in Brussels. Besides photography, Dobak is a professional contemporary dancer and Lee is a film director.

The couple married in 2013 and went on to create an artistic project called Dreams which created and captured images of Lee's dreams. The series was critically acclaimed and won several prizes.

“I decided for this series to tap into my nightmares as a way of confronting them and using my fears in this creation," she says. "Little did I know that it was very natural for me to create narratives of a darker nature. The photographs are stories which I felt would work better as still images or because they are very blurry memory of a dream.

She adds: "I think, being a multi-discipline artist, photography tends to be overshadowed. So when the right photo project comes along it is quite refreshing to just focus on that."

Dobak also gave some advice for budding photographers. "Always carry a camera on you,” he says. "It doesn’t have to be your best camera - it’s just sometimes you miss a moment and wish you had something more than just your phone. Most of the time something semi-decent will do to capture a moment."

Written by Taylor Kinnerup, Molly Dove