In conversation with... Chris de Bode


Chris de Bode is a documentary and portrait photographer. He became interested in photography during his previous career as a professional climbing instructor. Following a trip to Palestine he decided to focus his work on humanitarian issues.

We speak to Chris about his photo Series 'I have a dream' which documents children's dreams worldwide and discuss with him the stories he has covered that have had a profound effect on him and the way he lives his life.

Could you tell us a bit about your background? For instance, when did you first realise you wanted to be a documentary photographer and film director?

Since I was able to walk to primary school I always passed a camera shop and I saw all these cameras and how beautiful they were, I was mesmerised at the thought maybe I could own a camera. I thought taking pictures could be something that I would really like, and I just forgot about it until I was older.

While climbing I started to take pictures and bought a camera, which was one dream come true. I started to make taking pictures of climbing the most important part of being up in the mountains and showing my adventures or the adventures of others. That’s where I learnt to make a picture with meaning, you can make a picture but you can also try to photograph it in a way that’s more compelling or beautiful. These were my first steps in using photography to explain something. And then it started to get out of hand because I kind of stopped my climbing career, I picked photography and made it my main interest.

I was always very interested in following the news. The war in Israel and Lebanon, those were the wars of my era when grew up. I realised that if I wanted to do something with photography, maybe I could go there and make stories about what’s happening over there and that’s what I did. I was very lucky that the first images that I shot were published in a newspaper, not just one picture was published but many and I thought yes this is what I want to do.

I started to work for NGO’s and that’s what I do now, I hardly take pictures in Holland where I live. My clients are NGO’s like save the children or the British Red Cross for example, generally each month I travel to a country or a conflict to show what’s going on. 

Your work focuses largely on humanitarian issues, can you tell us a bit about how and why you got into this field of photography?

As a matter of fact I got the chance to do a few assignments, around 15 years ago, to work for docs without borders and that’s something I still do. I try to do something for an organisation that’s also worth publishing in a paper or magazine. If this happens the organisation is really happy it's been published in mainstream media and I’m very happy that I’m allowed to do the work in a way that’s really close to my heart. 

How do you deal with the levels of hurt and suffering that you must witness when you are documenting the various communities that you do?

Sometimes I compare it with being a GP, if you sympathise a lot with the people you photograph you take a lot home and really get emotionally involved. That becomes pretty hard because your back pack is filled with stories of people and I think after a while you won’t be able to continue your work because you get affected yourself.

I would say it’s important being empathetic with people and listening very carefully to what people experience and try to visualise that in a photograph. It's not that I have a shield around me, that I block things off but it makes it a little easier to deal with because of my experience over the years. I have to add that somethings that really touch me, they come really unexpectedly, sometimes I get emotional when I talk to someone and somebody reminds me of my own father or my children.

I deal with a lot of life and death actually and sometimes when its too much I talk to someone, if I have experienced something quite intense and it stays with me longer than 2 weeks then I realise I need to do something with that and get help. There are people around me that I can talk to, and sometimes an organisation provides help and after the project you are debriefed by a psychologist. You really have to have a certain state of mind to do this work. 

What story have you covered in your career that has had a profound effect on you and the way you live your life?

One of the most compelling stories was covering the Ebola crisis in 2014 where I went to Liberia in the middle of the issue, things were happening there that were affecting so many people. I had to really adjust my behaviour when meeting people, I had to stay a safe distance and wash my hands 40 times a day.

When coming home, the incubation time of Ebola is 3 weeks, so each day I had to take my temperature in the morning and evening and if your body temperature would rise you would immediately go to the hospital and be in quarantine for a couple of weeks. Being home was the hardest part of the whole trip, but also the fact that the enemy was invisible, that’s when I thought things can go wrong in a second without even realising it and its affecting a lot of people. That was one of my most important stories.

When you are in that situation and you fly back home it’s difficult. On this occasion I had to transfer in Casablanca and the second flight I took was a flight full of tourists coming back off their holidays. The girl next to me said what have you been doing, how was your holiday? At that point I was confronted with my emotions and what I had witnessed. I realised the things you experience are sometimes more intense than you realise yourself.

Your photo series I have a dream which documents children from around the world to tell their hopes and dreams is really beautiful. Can you tell us a few of the children’s stories and dreams that stood out to you and why?

There’s quite a few. One of the most important things I realised whilst doing this project is the level of using your imagination is directly linked to the amount you are challenged to use your imagination. Children who grew up in a civil war for example, they don’t deal with ideas of what would I like to become in the future, it’s more around how can I survive, how can I get enough to eat for the next day. The response you get when you ask a child about their dreams is linked very much to their own situation, many of those dreams are directly linked to their own well being.

There was one particular case, it was one of the first dreams I photographed, a young girl in India, she wanted to be an air hostess. She lived in the slums in Delhi and of course there’s lots of traffic there and when you look up there’s a lot of planes. I got her to make a drawing of a plane on the wall near her home. In making that drawing I hoped whenever she walked past it she would remember her dream and her motivation.

5 years later I went back to the same girl and the photograph I took of her back then was hanging on her wall in a frame. I asked her to go back to the place where we painted the plane and so we went there together and it was gone, the owner of the house had repainted over it. I asked her what she dreams about now 5 years on, and she said she was almost done with secondary school and she wanted to do something for girls, that she’d love to become a lawyer or join the police force and defend the rights of others.

In fact her dream had changed in a way that was more connected to her way of thinking. I think she’s a role model for the whole project, because its exactly what you would wish for someone. There are many other children, a few of the girls I photographed are already mothers or didn’t have the opportunity to go to school or continue studying, that’s the reality.

But this whole collection of dreams visualises the fact that we all have similar dreams but it all depends on where you were born and your personal circumstances.  I’m busy making a book at the moment of all the dreams which will be out in the fall.             

Images copyright: Chris De Bode for Save the ChildrenNL

Images copyright: Chris De Bode for Save the ChildrenNL

Images copyright: Chris De Bode for Save the ChildrenNL

Images copyright: Chris De Bode for Save the ChildrenNL

June 12th marks World Day against Child Labour. Some of your work has covered this issue, like the documentary you created for Save The children with Steven Elbers; ‘Living on a Scrap’ which documents two young boys working to support their families collecting scrap materials in Jordan.

Could you tell us a bit about how you went about producing this?

That was an assignment for Save the Children, I wanted to shoot a film together with someone who was not from a documentary background, Steven was a music video filmmaker. I wanted to combine his vision with mine, we wanted to be really close to the kids and that’s why I chose to put go-pro cameras on their chests so you would really see the world from their heart. They were collecting scrap, so you would dive with them into dustbins, they immediately forgot about it when they put it on.

We got to know more about how the whole system works, with people buying scrap and ripping them off, it gave a really in depth feel of what was actually going on. It was pre produced, as it was very important we had all access and we found two families who allowed us to follow them.

Copyright: Chris De Bode and Steven Elbers: Living on Scrap for Save the children Jordan

Which of your projects do you feel have made a real difference and given more awareness to the cause that you were shooting?

The last project I worked on I had to visualise 7 years of war in Syria. I decided at one point to photograph 7 year old refugees living in the camps in Jordan, I wanted to photograph them in a way that we would all look at them being 7 years old instead of victims of the war. Because when you’re 7 you carry thoughts and feelings but you are a child who likes to play, fight with your friends and have fun.

I used a photo technique, which is a school photo and we all know what the typical school photo looks like. I found almost 50 children and I would take a photograph of them one after another. Not taking a lot of time, so they looked just as they were.That series was very disarming in a way because people looked at this with different eyes, they could adapt really easily with what they saw.

That series was quite successful, it went all over the world, it was published widely. It reached a lot of people and even one of the images was shown at the Security Council in the United Nations, to raise awareness of the war in Syria. I was there and I felt really proud for the girl, it meant a lot to me that you can make a difference with photography. 

What photographers or filmmakers do you most admire and why?

There are a few people who I like, the old war photographers likes Don McCullin with his Vietnam pictures, that was more during the time when I started out being a photographer – when I went to Palestine his work was one of my main references. But over time that has changed, there’s a bunch of National Geographic photographers which were really close to my heart because of my climbing history.

But also I just came back from a photo festival in Austria and the theme was Africa, and there’s quite a lot of African photographers like the old portrait photographersI like; Malick Sidibe and Seydou Keita these are photographers from Senegal and Mali. In a way that’s also a reference for what I do in Africa and  sometimes without even realising it.

There’s also a whole new generation of emerging photographers, like Omar Victor Diop a Senegalese photographer who is really creating work based on African identity and African history.

There’s not a lot of photographers with a very genuine talent, we can all make beautiful images but what matters more is how you are able to visualise. Having that really strong signature, that is a thing that really draws me to certain photographers.

I’m not educated in photography, I never went to school to study photography so I never went through the process of finding my own signature, I kind of had to find it myself. Sometimes it feels a bit like I missed out on something and on the other hand I’m happy I’m not influenced a lot by others, but I love to look at other peoples work and love to be blown away. 

What do you love most about your job?

For me the most important part is making the contacts, the people I photograph are the sources of everything in my line of work. I really need to establish those contacts and I need to feel what somebody is about. Having these conversations and building a bridge between my culture and their culture is what it's all about, all of sudden you’re talking about daily life and are building a bridge that is really easy to cross and very interesting to hear. 

When you are out and about on a project or assignment what subjects or things do you look for or seek out?

I love to work in a certain framework so I can really concentrate on what I’m looking for, that really helps me to cut things that really don’t matter to the story. If you set boundaries you can go deeper into the subject.

It's a lesson I learnt photographing in Palestine, the conflict is complicated there’s so many things that matter or are connected. If you for example just follow one family, that family at the end will show you everything that is important to what you want to show, that's very helpful for me to narrow the story down. The simpler the story, the stronger it gets. 

When you travel to distant places to document life what do you take with you?

I don’t take too much stuff, I always work with one camera and one lens to make it simple and easy for me, so I’m not distracted by all my tools.My phone is really important too, I take a lot of pictures on my phone but also to ease my mind I play games on it when I’m in my hotel room, or play music. So I continue doing stuff I would normally do at home, it soothes me in a way. 

What do you have in store for this year? Anything we should keep our eye out for?

Next week, I’m starting a new project for a client who is doing research for an agricultural purpose. I’m bringing the researcher to the farmer, I’m now looking for researchers in labs who are examining soil in rural areas of the western part of Kenya. I’ll take that researcher to that piece of soil on that farmland and let them both meet each other and talk and take double portraits of them. I'll also show their daily lives and compare their daily lives. This project has got a lot to do with social aspects and economics.

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