Discussion between Lotte van den Berg and photographer Hapé Smeele

Lotte van den Berg always has Hapé Smeele’s photo books close to hand. 1997 saw the publication of Een andere werkelijkheid (A different reality), about the mentally handicapped in the Netherlands. After that Hapé Smeele (1962) spent five years taking photographs of a group of elderly people suffering from dementia in Rotterdam and in the Buddhist Ladakh (Northern India). Met de moed van een ontdekkingsreiziger (With the courage of an explorer, 2002) captures the final stage in their lives. These two books are part of what will be a set of three on the subject of ‘quality of life’. Lotte van den Berg’s fascination with Smeele’s work brings us to a café on the heath in Laren, near Hilversum. “… Because every situation in life is a challenge for us and a problem we have to solve for ourselves, the question about the point of life can in fact be turned around. In the end a person should not ask about the point of his life; rather he should be aware that he is being asked something. In short: people are questioned by life, and they can only give an answer by means of their own life; you can only give an answer about life by being accountable.” (Opening words of psychotherapist Victor Frankl in Met de moed van een ontdekkingsreiziger.)

Van den Berg : You say you are flattered by this meeting. Is that because you don’t make theatre but books, and so don’t know your public?

Smeele : Photography is fairly anonymous work. That suits me quite well. I like working covertly and on a small scale, only coming out when the work is finished. That is to say, when as far as you’re concerned, it’s finished. Making is investigating. Once the investigation is complete, your work is done. All you have to do then is get it published.

Van den Berg : It is totally different with theatre. You hope your production will be ready in time for the première, but it is different every evening. Theatre is a transitory medium, so it is never ‘ready’. A book of photographs can be ready, but if after a while a production is no longer performed, then it is finished rather than ready. Then nobody can ever see it again.

Smeele : But do you also see your work as an investigation ?

Van den Berg : Yes. In Stillen (Suckle) I looked at how people are together or not together, what they need from each other and how they can be alone. Then suddenly you have six actors, all with different answers to those questions, and then, by putting two people together, you are very directly involved in that investigation. I once made a play called Begijnenstraat 42 with seven prisoners in a prison. That is very different from working with actors, who are trained to carry out that investigation.

Smeele : Yes, I can imagine. If there is one group I find difficult to photograph, then it is actors . I am easily impressed by them and think I am making wonderful photographs, but then I get back home and am disappointed. I find it very difficult to get through to the genuine side of actors. So I can imagine it is interesting for you to work with prisoners who are not trained. Van den Berg : I learn so much from working with non-professional actors. Ergens staat er nu een iglo leeg involved mentally handicapped actors. It’s great to be able to take with me what I learn or experience from them to my work with professionals. It is a challenge to be able to work with both professional and non-professional actors. An actor is just a person. It is certainly possible to ‘undress him’.

Smeele : You just have to be careful not to be taken in. You have to be shrewd enough to see through them.

Van den Berg : Funny you call that ‘being taken in’. When children came to see Het blauwe uur, they always asked me afterwards what was fake and what was real. So the actors were fake. The children were totally confused about the cat, for example, whether it was real or fake.

Smeele : I have to admit that I wanted to ask the same questions. Did that cat just happen to come along and you incorporated it rather cleverly? Or was somebody sitting ready in the bushes with the cat?

Van den Berg : It is very strange that as soon as people are given a framework and look through that framework to reality, they suddenly have the feeling that everything is stage-managed. I do nothing with that cat, your perception does it. When I have people sit on chairs in a street and tell them to do nothing but observe for an hour, they suddenly start to look differently and to find links between things. And they are so surprised by that, because apparently they walk past those things every day without seeing them.

Smeele : That’s a really good point. I have to give a lecture soon for managers from the care sector, and by way of preparation I’m going to ask them to take photographs of what lies between their car, bicycle or train and their place of work, a distance they may have covered a hundred thousand times, but they will suddenly start to see it differently through a camera lens.

Van den Berg : I always begin my productions by building the tribune. I pay a great deal of attention to the spectator, to what it is to look, to be a spectator. What does it mean to watch a performance in prison, or sitting on a long grey bench on a piece of wasteland. For Het blauwe uur everyone had to bring his own stool. And because people start looking, there is something to see – not because I tell them they have to look at something.


Smeele : You have lived and worked in many different places, you do lots of different things. Is there a constant in your work or life at all? A theme or something you keep coming back to?

Van den Berg : Actually, I think I’m a bit of a nomad. I love exploring new ground, getting to know new people, finding out where the photocopier is… I want to work both in the small and the large auditorium, inside and outside the theatre, for children and adults, with amateurs and professionals. I love the combination of all those variables. The constant in my work is the question of how we deal with the transience of things in life, dying, imperfection and the desire for perfection. I made the play Braakland based on Coetzee’s books. He writes about a white woman in South Africa who is raped by her neighbour, but decides not to report the man and just to go on living there and carrying on with her life, to the incomprehension of her father. In Braakland we looked at what happens when you decide not to resist and not to defend your life. On the one hand it feels wonderful just to accept the things that come your way and to go with the flow, but at the same time, of course, you wonder where the boundary lies. The production was about that paradox: you have to want to live your life and fight for it, but you must also accept that it is finite and that you can’t do much to change it.

Smeele : And yet you seem to me a very dynamic person; I would say you are the sort of person who would resist and take action.

Van den Berg : Yes, that’s true. Yet many of my productions are not about action. Smeele : So what is it that appeals to you so much about resignation? The fact that you find it incomprehensible?

Van den Berg : No, I don’t find it incomprehensible; on the contrary, I find it very attractive. In my plays I want to show both things: how reacting and not reacting go hand in hand. Very often I have my actors perform an action which has a knock-on effect or peters out. A movement and then nothing. I like to look at a tree, a branch moving in the wind, and next to it someone at the bus-stop with a shopping bag containing a jar of peanut butter. The ordinary alongside the intangible. Do you see what I mean by that?

Smeele : Yes, I think so. Someone I know was on Terschelling a while ago, and he told me that he walked along the beach every day and suddenly realized that that beach and that sea would be there in a hundred years time, but he wouldn’t. Strangely enough, that gave him a safe feeling.


Van den Berg : I bought both your books at the same time, when I was in Amsterdam once. One of the two is always on the table when I begin work on a new play. I look through it myself or together with the actors. What always strikes me about those photographs is the attention, the peace, the time and the patience that emanate from them. That’s what I want to take from them.

Smeele : My investigation in those two books is about quality of life. I still have to produce the final part, the third book. It will be about my young son Wolf, who was born with a fatal genetic abnormality. Each of the three books deals with a group of people whose lives are said to be deficient. I had been working on that subject for ten years when Wolf came into my life. Right from the start when I was making the first book about the mentally handicapped, I knew I wanted three parts, without knowing what the third part would be about. When Wolf was born, I realized I could no longer avoid the issue. The theme suddenly touched my own life on all fronts. We have taken countless photographs of Wolf, and my wife, who is also a photographer, wrote a lot in that period as well. So all the material is there, but I’m waiting for the right moment, because I don’t want to make a therapeutic book. I may make it next year, or in ten years time, or possibly never.

Van den Berg : I like the way you begin the second book, about elderly people suffering from dementia, with a photograph of Wolf and a letter to him. You juxtapose that tiny life with those long lives, which are in fact so similar. Smeele : The publisher wasn’t happy about that at all and it was the subject of a good deal of discussion, but I was determined to dedicate that book to my son. As a photographer I come very close to others in their lives, and often at very intimate moments, so I couldn’t not reveal a part of myself.


Smeele : I think your work would lend itself very well to film. You just need a very good cameraman.

Van den Berg : I’m working on that right now. I think that plays like Braakland and Stillen could be filmed quite easily. After Stillen I was approached quite spontaneously by a film producer. In 2008 I’m not going to make any plays, but concentrate on the business of the film. And I don’t just want to record a performance, but to make a totally new film. I would like to spend a couple of months investigating that possibility. In my productions I am always concerned with the spectator, and in film that is of course very different. I will have to tell my story in a different way. I’m really looking forward to making a start. Having said that, I have never held a camera and I don’t even like taking photographs. I always find it difficult going around as a spectator and constantly observing. When I went to Siberia and Mongolia I deliberately didn’t take a camera with me, so as not be even more of an outsider.

Smeele : I can imagine that you see the camera as an obstruction. But you could equally well go to Siberia and spend the whole day just looking through the camera lens. That way you are still very much present.

Van den Berg : But don’t you take a step backwards when you take a photograph? If you are photographing a family, do you sit with them at the table, or do you stand next to the cupboard looking at them?

Smeele : I always work with very short focal distances; you might say that I position myself on top of the subject. Usually the distance between me and the person I am photographing is less than a meter. I have always been intrigued by the question of how close you can come to someone. How intimate can you be with someone you have known for years or who you met for the first time ten minutes ago? Actually I don’t photograph people or things; I photograph atmosphere. I’m constantly on the lookout for where that atmosphere is, how it expresses itself.


Van den Berg : In one of her books Patricia De Martelaere talks about the Western and the Eastern Enlightenment. Both forms of Enlightenment are about consciousness. In the West we had Descartes and the certainty of our own conscious experience and existence: ‘I think, therefore I am’. Whereas according to Eastern doctrine, you can only achieve consciousness if you eliminate thinking. De Martelaere wrote an absolutely wonderful piece about that difference. She talks about how in the East paradox is seen as the only way to refer to truth. If you are faced with a seemingly insolvable puzzle, racking your brains about it doesn’t help. You have to try and eliminate thought, to tackle it; only then will you be able to recognize truth. In Western thinking, on the other hand, a paradox is something very tiresome, something we want to solve as quickly as possible.

Smeele : In my view tackling your reason is something you have to do constantly as a photographer or theatre-maker. You make plans, you make progress, but you should never be afraid to contest everything, so that what you have planned is not absolute, but open to change.

Van den Berg : You also need that absoluteness, or things would never get off the ground. You have to want to act, to want to do things, and yet be prepared to review everything at any time. So then I come back to the coexistence of being active, on the one hand, and letting things happen and accepting on the other…

Smeele : In my work I draw a great deal of inspiration from religion and philosophy. My means of investigation is my camera, but photography is not my source of inspiration. I can imagine that you are also inspired by things other than the theatre itself, by literature, the cinema, etc. My background is politics, but that was not really for me. The void of religion is not really for me either. Taoists believe that you have the heaven and the earth, and in-between man. I think that’s beautiful. Heaven flows through people to the earth, man is a sort of link. He beavers away, things go wrong…. I find that a very intriguing process.

Van den Berg : That is precisely what I meant by that woman with her shopping bag and her jar of peanut butter. She is in the world and she blows her nose and a cloud passes by over her head or a branch moves. The transient and the intransient are ever present; the active and the passive.

Smeele : What appeals to me about Taoism are its lightness and anarchy. In the first text it says that the Tao is what we cannot know, the essence. The absolute, the most essential, is unknowable and indescribable. Because we cannot talk about the essence, we circle around it with myths, fairy stories, theatre, photographs, etc.

Van den Berg : But nevertheless we always try; we cannot resign ourselves to the fact that we will never attain the essence. In every photograph you take, in every production I make, we try to name the indescribable, don’t we? We try at any rate to relate to it.


Van den Berg : Religion is an important theme for me too, largely because of my father, Jozef van den Berg. He was a theatre-maker and puppeteer, but without a puppet theatre: he stood all alone on the stage and there were also puppets. He was a great actor, I think; he moved people deeply and inspired them. He suddenly became very troubled, very confused – that’s how I describe it; those are not the words he would use. His brother had died and he wanted to make a production for him. To lighten death, to fight it, I don’t know; I think he wanted to give him heaven. But he didn’t succeed. He says that is when he found God. He became very religious. He wanted to make a production about the truth he had found, but he didn’t manage it. You see, theatre has a lot to do with pretence. In that respect it is very different from photography: in your photographs you show people, you show what is real, or at any rate that is how it is seen. Theatre is about representation: I pretend to be a princess. In my work I try to present rather than represent.
“The man standing here in front of you has been in prison for two years.” Full-stop. But in general theatre doesn’t work like that. In the end it does say something about life, but indirectly, with detours. And on the stage, which is all about pretending and detours, you cannot say that you saw God yesterday. However my father didn’t want to make that detour any more, he didn’t want to tell any more stories. His last appearance was in front of a capacity audience at deSingel in Antwerp. He only had his Bible with him, and he decided to open it at random and to read aloud from it. And what he said was something like “thou shalt go my way”. At that moment he decided to stop making theatre. He told the public he was stopping and that they could go and get their money back from the ticket office. Laughter. He said he meant it, and the audience laughed even louder. Then he told them that that proved it is impossible to tell the truth on stage. That was sixteen years ago – and he has never set foot on stage since. He built his own place of pilgrimage, not so far from here, where he lives like a monk dressed in a monk’s habit and with a long beard. I was fifteen when it happened; it was a very confusing time. He claimed not to have gone mad, but lots of people called it religious mania. Suddenly you have a father who says there is only one way, and that he is going to follow it to the end. I had to learn to live with that. At first I thought I should believe the same as him so as to be able to understand him, but eventually I realized that it is enough just to believe that he believes. And to leave it at that. I’m telling you all this to explain why religion, and our attitude to it, is so important to me.

Smeele : I can well imagine that people interpret your father’s behaviour as madness. In my opinion it is bordering on it. He believed in his work all those years and lived for his puppets. Then suddenly you decide it’s all worthless – that must be almost unbearable. You talked about transience and letting go and dying, but it seems to me that letting go of an idea you believed in so much is a terribly difficult thing to do.

Van den Berg : It’s nice to talk about the transience of a thought or an idea. So often it has to do with material things – how awful that I am getting wrinkles, or that my house is falling down, or that I can’t get this dress clean – and that sort of transience is complicated enough. But the transience of ideas, thoughts, concepts you hold dear, is much more fundamental.

Smeele : Yes, we set much greater store by them.

Van den Berg : In that respect knowledge is just as good as materialism. Materialism of the head.

Smeele : Yet it is strange: for centuries art has served religion, and now it is taboo to show religion in art. Here in the Netherlands there is enormous pressure to break with taboos, but then it is always about sex and shame, never about religion.

Van den Berg : I think that has largely to do with our fear of naming things. With the fear of saying that you are searching for something, and as a mere mortal want to find a way of relating to the larger whole. I once made a production called Ik zou mezelf willen weggeven maar ik weet niet aan wie (I would like to give myself away but I don’t know who to). It was really about longing to dare to say that you are looking for something, that you want to surrender yourself to something.

Smeele : In my view it also goes against the principle of self-determination. Self-determination involves control, and religion is about surrender. That goes against our desire to have everything under control. Our fixation with freedom is also a fixation with control: by freedom we understand freedom of choice, and choice is incompatible with surrender.

Van den Berg : In the autumn I’m going to make a play about religion. I travelled through Siberia and Mongolia. I spent a while in a convent, which was also a sort of farm. When I was there it was much too cold to heat the church, so the women held their services around the stove in the kitchen. They stood there praying, muttering and singing, and at the same time they stirred the gruel. The sheer humanity of their praying, really moved me. That was so different from what I know of the church here, where everything has to be magnificent and perfect. I experienced religion there as something really beautiful: people trying to relate to something they don’t understand, to something much bigger than themselves.

Smeele : We do have a very sacred image of Eastern religion. Films and photography always give us serene atmospheric images, while the ordinariness which is also there, is systematically erased.

Van den Berg : What I also find so confusing is that we make concepts like love and religion so mythical and huge, they become unapproachable. As if we constantly want to surround ourselves with things we can never have, things we can no longer measure up to. The most beautiful photograph, the most fantastic play. It seems we like comparing ourselves with the impossible and in that way tormenting ourselves.

Smeele : It also has to do with perfection and imperfection. Perfection is always unattainable, perfection creates distance, it kills.


Smeele : Actually I don’t agree with your father when he says it is impossible to be sincere on stage. If I’d been in the auditorium that evening, I might not have known how to handle it. But his words still had to take effect. You go and ask for your money back at the ticket office, you go home, and you can’t stop thinking about it. So what he said and did there on the stage, did trigger something.

Van den Berg : But then it is not so much what you say, as the experience. Then it is not so much a question of whether you can tell the truth as an artist, but of being able to give someone a real experience.

Smeele : In that sense you have as little contact with your public as I do, because your production also goes on working even when people are back home lying in bed thinking about it.

Van den Berg : I’m glad you said that, because that is very often misunderstood in theatre. Discussions about a production often take place immediately afterwards in the foyer. I find that difficult.

Smeele : Actually the foyer should be abolished. Everyone should go outside and walk or cycle a bit, instead of immediately starting to analyze.

Van den Berg : Yes, but in reality you are analyzing in your head, even while you are watching. Perhaps it is an occupational hazard: even while a production is on, you are already undressing it and killing it.

Smeele : Even before you are able to grasp the essence. That brings us back to the first quote about the Tao: the essence is unknowable and indescribable. That is also what makes it hard to take.

Van den Berg : It is terribly hard to take, but we do our best! [laughs]