Berber Theunissen and a shiver of pleasure

Features November 3, 2015

“I capture the situations I have little grasp on. Through photography, I create my own handhold in order to look at my life in a more objective way.”

Berber Theunissen strikes us as an intuitive photographer with a great sense of narrative in her photography. There are hints of a story, but the viewer is able to come up with their own version of it. Berber sets the stage and casts the players but leaves room for interpretation. This is what we love about her work, the free associative nature of it. Intimacy, love, friendship are all themes that make their way into her portfolio.

Berber has been on our radar for a long time but we needed a landscape or two in order to go “all right, this totally suits Sunday Mornings at the River.” So when dreamy waterscapes started appearing in her series ‘Frisson’, we felt it was time for a chat.

frisson by Berber Theunissen_02 frisson by Berber Theunissen_03

Hiya Berber, how are you?
Hii! I’m doing great, just got back from Scandinavia, so I’m totally fresh & fruity again ;)

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself? What’s your favourite childhood memory? Any guilty pleasures you want no one to know about?
Uhm, well I’m twenty six years old. I was born in Otterlo, a small village in the east of The Netherlands. I moved to Amsterdam when I was eighteen years old. But in January this year, me and my boyfriend moved to Rheden, another small village in the Dutch countryside. After eight years of living in Amsterdam I really started missing the woods, the quiet and the smells of nature.
When it comes to my favourite childhood memory, I have to pick one with my grandmother in it. I remember a big old dying tree in the back of her garden. We were always pretending that little dwarves lived in there. One day a niece came to play with us, and she thought me and my sister had gone crazy when we told her about the dwarves. She even got a bit pissed off.
As for my guilty pleasures… I love musicals, like Grease and Dirty Dancing etc. I know all the songs and can finish all the lines.

Can you tell us a little about your latest serie Frisson? What is it all about?
I capture the situations I have little grasp on. Through photography, I create my own handhold in order to look at my life in a more objective way.
During the creation of my most recent series ‘Frisson; a shiver of pleasure’, I’d focus my camera on all things affecting me personally during the past year. All the things that I love, but also the things that make me vulnerable. I documented moments, feelings and memories in which these intense emotional situations were present or revolving around me.
But something strange happened during the creation of this project. This summer I realized I was not only photographing the things that affect me, but that I was also still searching for what affects me, the things that make me happy. I started to ask myself the question: how do I achieve the highest state of happiness?
So instead of simply a project where I registered things, this project became more and more like a quest.

frisson by Berber Theunissen_04 frisson by Berber Theunissen_05 frisson by Berber Theunissen_06

Some of the images seem really intimate, how do you get people to pose for you like that?
Frisson is mainly about me and my boyfriend, so a lot of the photographs are self portraits. Sometimes I’m driving him crazy with my camera, but it’s a part of me he has come to accept. I shoot almost everything from a tripod, so it’s almost always there, ready to shoot, when the moment is right.

Why do you take self portraits? What do you prefer about them instead of using models?
I have two reasons for this. One of them is that I have the feeling I can only justify taking pictures of other people once I understand what it feels like being on the other end of the lens myself. That the model and me are equal in that way.
The second reason, which is also the main reason, is that I see selfportraits as a way of (objectively) looking at myself. It’s kind of daunting and confrontational to see some of the photos afterwards. Sometimes I spot something in my eyes, or a certain expression which I wasn’t aware of at the time. Most of the time these pictures end up in an archive, not to be touched until months later when the quiet has returned to my life.

Why is photography your medium? What is so special about it? Have you ever tried other media to tell your stories?
I’m a horrible drawer and painter. It’s really not my thing and I really don’t have the patience to practice. So I stick with photography.
When I was younger I found an old camera on my grandparents’ attic. It was a yashica, tucked in between a bunch of slides. I always played with it but never with the intention of becoming a photographer one day. After secondary school I had no clue about what I wanted to do professionally. I ended up studying at the styling academy. That wasn’t really my calling, taking pictures of the things we styled was more interesting to me than the actual styling. I followed through though, but my graduation project ended up being a photography project, photographed with my grandparents’ Yashica. This is when I decided to study photography at ‘De Fotoacademie.’

frisson by Berber Theunissen_07 frisson by Berber Theunissen_08

How did studying photography help you develop your practice?
Well I still suck at the technical aspect of photography. I don’t know anything about cameras and lenses. I shoot everything with a Pentax 6×7, an analog medium format camera. At the academy they often told me my scans were as bad as my exposure times. But I really went searching for who am I, asking myself what I really wanted to do. I really developed the self-examination there, digging deeper and deeper into the inner-me. They really turned me inside out emotionally.

Who or what inspires you? Can you name some of your favourite artists? Why do you get inspired by them?
I have a few. Like Antoine D’agata because of his colors, I love Cindy Sherman’s self portraits. I like how filmic her work is. Especially her earlier work, what I find so fascinating is the fact that it appears that she didn’t position herself in a picture deliberately. I love painters like Egon Schiele and Edward Hopper. Egon Schiele fascinates me because of his technique, the human and inhuman shapes he creates. The rawness of his lines on the paper is beautiful to me. I like Hopper pretty much because for being the complete opposite of Schiele. His work has a clear composition. great light and bright but saturated colors. I also get inspired by nature; mornings, evenings, rain, thunder. Those mood swings make me more aware.

How do you hope to grow as a photographer?
I hope to continue developing in the way I am now. I hope to find more depth in my personal work but also hope to find ways to bring that depth across to the viewer.

frisson by Berber Theunissen_09 frisson by Berber Theunissen_10 frisson by Berber Theunissen_11

What is the best advice you ever had as a photographer?
I don’t know exactly. You always get so much advice from everybody, I think it’s just as important to filter the things that are important for you. The last advice I got was: “Creating art is a process. You have to just do it and not worry about how you get to the end.” That sentence was very usefull for me at that moment. Just follow your own gut.

What is your favourite photobook? Why?
Antoine D’Agata’s book ‘Ice.’ It stays so intriguing, because of the movement, the colors, probably the subject. A recommendation for everybody!

Any famous last words?
“We photograph things in order to drive them out of our minds. My stories are a way of shutting my eyes.” – Franz Kafka

Who should we interview next?
Devon de Koning, she went to the Fotoacademie as well and we share a passion for Iceland. You should really get in touch with her about her Iceland series.

w. berbertheunissen.nl

Photographs and words by Berber Theunissen
Interview by Rebecca Rijsdijk

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