Getting lost in the West with Hannelore Commers

On the Road August 3, 2015

When she was feverish, she spoke slowly, cautiously; a fight against negative thoughts that tried to overrun her words. “America,” she said, chewing on her words like they were chunks of tough jerky. “America,” I repeated. It seemed an innocent enough idea; flying across time barriers in order to get a second chance and relive the day.

What she wanted was to weaken the effect of the days she lost; catching up with the holes in her perception, like animals do in the sunlight after a long hibernation. I agreed, and the sensation of immediate regret took a hold of me. Pity in consenting. I wanted her to spread out all of her scars in front of me somehow, so that she could glue them together like a giant surface of wild meat. Happier now, and with a smile on her face, she disappeared into the crowd that had gathered in the park. “I’m melting,” she cried over her shoulder. I loved her smile, but I never understood the ‘melting’ bit. – Hannelore Commers

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We love this girl and an interview was long overdue. We spoke to Hannelore about her images, traveling and writing.

You are from a small town near Antwerp, what is it like growing up in a small town being a creative person like yourself?
I never had the desire to move to the city when I was younger. The city was something big and daunting, and just thinking about it almost filled me with fear. I associated Antwerp with a lot of noise and crowded streets, both things I didn’t feel I needed it my life. I used to play outside a lot when I was a child; camping in the woods with my sisters, climbing trees, returning home covered in bruises and with red mouths because we had picked too many berries. I wouldn’t want it any other way. No that I am a little older, I start to yearn for the city. I think I need the stimuli. I also feel the need to be ‘nobody’ for a little while, to submerge myself in the anonymity of the city. In my hometown, everybody knows everything about everybody and I find that rather tiresome.

You started taking photos at a young age, we were amazed to bump into your work when you were only seventeen. What made you pick photography?
I grew up surrounded by photographs. My mother always emphasised the importance of images, I think they function as anchors for the insecurities that come with life. When my sister and me were little, our mother used to tuck a disposable camera in our hands, inviting us to look at the world from different angles. Photography is a medium which enables me to express myself in a way that also makes me feel free. This is what makes it my medium. If you take another art form, like music for example, I feel restricted by rhythm and notation, when it comes to painting and drawing I get frustrated by my lack of talent (which doesn’t mean that I still practice it anyway). Photography isn’t really a conscious choice, it has just kind of stuck with me and turned out to be an excellent remedy for my fear of ‘forgetting.’

Who or what inspires you?
Travel, hiking, reading. My latest fascination is with colours. I can get really excited by the color of a watermelon, or I can spend minutes staring at the blue of a pair of jeans. This inspires me. I am also quite fascinated by the way children behave. They are so honest and pure and are an endless source of inspiration. To me, being a child is one of the most beautiful things.

We are featuring some of your photos from a trip to the United States, can you tell us a bit about that trip? Some of your favourite moments, some of your not so favourite moments.
I am a very nostalgic person and although I know nostalgia is a dirty little liar and it makes memories look better then the events that created them, but it is truly hard for me to find something negative in travel. I loved camping in Yosemite, to watch climbers on ‘Elcapitan,’ the pastel tints of the mountains in Death Valley. The sun rays took away my worries, the mountains my sadness. I loved the road trips. Hours and hours on the highway. Like with any trip, it involved some frustration and tensions, but those quickly disappeared when we chatted, laughed and sang along with songs we didn’t even know the lyrics of. I like the act of simply looking out of the window without any expectations whatsoever.

Do you think exploring a new country is also exploring yourself a little?
Without a doubt. I don’t understand why people say things like ‘No matter where you go, you will always bring yourself.’ I think that is only partially true. I discover so many new things about myself during a trip.

Any more trips in the near future?
I just returned from Rome and this city made me feel all loved up. Trastevere is an amazing neighbourhood. I am about to embark to the south of France together with my sisters and after this I will hop on a coach to visit some friends in Switzerland. I will also stay in Slovenia for a while in October but beyond that everything is still wide open. Maybe I can do some volunteering in a buddhist centre in Thailand this summer, or if my health permits it, walk the Camino to Santiago. Traveling is my biggest motivation to get healthy. Once I wrote: “I noticed how one can only love people who leave and just come back every once in a while. So what reason is there for me to stay?”

Some of your images seem to convey a struggle. Especially your portraits. We see a lot of young women with unhappy faces and defeated poses. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
I always had a soft spot for the duality and contradictions that exist in emotions. Fragility goes hand in hand with rawness, softness pairs with bitterness. To me it creates a certain kind of intimacy that I aspire in my photography; an atmosphere which hurts a little, drops of mist on people’s faces. Don’t get me wrong though. I also like capturing happy moments. But to me, happiness comes in a sole form, and contains no contradictions.

We see reoccurring faces in your work. Can you tell us a little bit about your models? Why do you work with them? What do you find so fascinating about them?
I love photographing my sisters, so you see a lot of them in my work. I am proud of them; they are beautiful creatures. I also take a lot of pictures of my friends, girls my own ages or a bit younger. For some reason I feel a little insecure when it comes to photographing girls that are older than me. I also think my age is an interesting age because it contains the element of turning into an adult; responsible adulthood casting a shadow over the careless child I used to be. It’s a difficult phase; climbing a mountain like you own it, but with your mother’s encouraging words in your back pocket. Growing older makes me feel afraid, even though I try to hide it.

You also write short stories. How does writing help to express yourself? Why is it different from photography?
I have somewhat of a love-hate relationship with writing. I can’t write when someone tells me to, my words aren’t there for the taking. Sometimes writing makes me miserable, because I feel it keeps me away from people my own age. I need to be a little bit lonely in order to be able to write. Sometimes I would like to just ‘unzip’ my belly, throw all my feelings on the table and then I would say something like “all right, this is the way I feel inside and this is what I try to communicate.” The combination of letters is insufficient to what I am really trying to say. Unlike with photography, writing has less to do with coincidence because so many different factors are involved. Serendipity has brought me great joy when it comes to photography, with writing this is often not the case.

What are you working on at the moment?
I am working on a zine with Sunday Mornings at the River at the moment, and am also working on a little book of poems with one of my best friends. But I think the biggest project I am working on nowadays is myself and I think of this as an ungoing project. Last October I got really ill and this illness resulted in having to cease my studies and a lot of the things I held dear. A good friend of mine once said: “people that are standing on the shore have a much better view of the the boat than the people who are sailing it.” So I joined the people on the shore for a little while in order to get some rest and to evaluate whether I boarded the right boat. The journey to health is probably the most difficult one but at the end it will be all worth it I guess.

w. tumblr | flickr
e. hannelootjec [at] hotmail.com

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