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Into the wild with Belgian photographer Frederik Buyckx

© Frederik Buyckx
Frederik Buyckx
© Frederik Buyckx

Frederik Buyckx was born in 1984 in Antwerp, Belgium. He received a Master’s Degree in Advertising Design at St-Lucas Antwerp and studied photography until 2013 at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Ghent, Belgium. Frederik became a freelance photographer in 2010. Since then, he started working for national and international media. Besides assignments, he mainly focuses on personal projects. In his current works, Frederik goes deep into the nature, immersing himself with the forces of its elements. His work has recently received much international acclaim and attention, and in 2017 Frederik was named ‘Photographer of the Year’ at the Sony World Photography Awards. The Brussels Times sat down with Frederik to learn more about his work, sources of inspiration and projects going forward.

Where do you draw your inspiration?

Usually it starts with a curiosity of some particular country that interests me. I love travelling and it’s from my encounters with people while travelling that I get the ideas for topics, which then evolve into a project.

Do you see yourself as a documentary photographer or a fine art photographer? 

I’m a documentary photographer. I never compose, intervene or direct people in any way to stage my photos. I just document what I see. There are some who intervene and that’s okay, but it’s important to be clear and open about it because it becomes a different kind of style. I’d call it story telling.

Steve McCurry, one of the most successful and best-known photographers in the world, was criticized after altering or “photoshopping” photos, as he had never communicated that he did it. It caused a lot of controversy about his work.

You recently won the prestigious “Photographer of the Year” award by the World Photography Organization. How do you think this will affect your work and career?

I hope it doesn’t affect my work, haha, as I want to continue doing what I’m doing. But in terms of exposure and opportunities, it’s already having results. For example, I’ll have my first solo exhibition outside Belgium as a result of the award. It will take place in Rome, and I’m very excited about it. I have worked as a freelancer for six years now and am not connected to any agency that promotes me, so I hope this award will draw further international attention to my work and enable me to acquire new contacts and more opportunities.

“Project Horse Head is about the semi-nomadic lifestyle in Kyrgyzstan. Kyrgyzstan has always been a nation of horsemen and has rich nomadic heritage and traditions that have been woven into the identity of the Kyrgyz people. During summer months, many families continue to graze their herds in mountain meadows, called jailoos, preserving old customs and ways of nomadic life. In winter, the shepherds and their livestock have to deal with incredible harsh weather conditions in the mostly mountainous terrain. Most winter evenings these days are spent in front of a television and the warmth of an always-burning stove. And although even the isolated areas often have cellphone reception nowadays, most of their daily life hasn’t changed much in the last decades. The horse has always had a central role in their semi-nomadic life. It is crucial to herd their animals in the mountains and the horse is also indispensable for its milk and meat. Also the Kyrgyz like to spend their leisure time on the back of a horse and they often play games in which horsemanship dominates all competitions, like “Kok Boru” in which teams on horses fight over a carcass of a sheep.” © Frederik Buyckx

From Project Horse Head                                                                                                                                                                      © Frederik Buyckx

Which projects have been most interesting to you?

The ones I’m working on now. They’re called Wolf and Horse Head. I’ve been working on them for two or three years. They’re really the start of something completely new and different from what I’ve previously done. The two projects focus on nature and about those living in contact with nature. They stem from myself missing nature so much.

In the Horse Head project, I document the ethnic environment of a group of semi-nomadic people in Kyrgyzstan during their treks in the mountains, where they take their livestock to graze.

Project Horse Head                                                                                                                                                                                  © Frederik Buyckx

Project Wolf is a combination of my personal experiences with nature and meetings with people living deep in the nature across Europe. I have a van that I travel around with in Europe, so I can drive anywhere I want. I usually go alone and in the wintertime because that’s when you can really appreciate the full power of nature and how the elements take over. During winter, when it’s dark, cold and foggy, the feeling of danger becomes part of the experience, and you develop a fuller appreciation for the forces of nature.

Project Horse Head                                                                                                                                                                          © Frederik Buyckx

You have worked both in press/photo-journalism and personal projects throughout your career. Do you mix your work or keep a clear separation between the two styles?

There is a big difference between the two. In assignments, there are strict deadlines and time limits. Sometimes for assignments, I could be told to go somewhere and document someone or something, which I’ll discover not to be so interesting, but I’ll have to take the pictures and accept it. Had it been a personal project, I’d just take my time to get it right or maybe go to the next village to shoot the pictures that I’m satisfied with.

Project Horse Head                                                                                                                                                                         © Frederik Buyckx

How easy/hard is it to make a living as a photographer full time?

It’s very hard to begin with because there are many photographers out there, so it makes it hard to stand out. But on the other hand, it’s easier to get started, as cameras and smartphones are cheaper and more accessible nowadays.

My advice to anyone wanting to get involved in photography and turn it into a profession would be to be persistent in the beginning, try to find freelance assignments, and little by little combine it with your own personal projects. For me, selling artwork from my exhibitions isn’t enough, and I need to combine it with paid assignments to make a living.

Project Wolf: “Once upon a time we all used to live close to nature. But nowadays in our overdeveloped society we seem to have lost contact with nature. Too fast it seems to me. We lost comprehension of what used to be our natural habitat not even that long ago. We feel at home in our concrete jungle that we live in, but once in the real outdoors we are like a lost sheep, vulnerable and scared. I wanted to feel nature again in every possible way and to experience the force of its elements. Isolation is a key to getting as close as possible to this experience. Putting yourself in the most uncomfortable situation is what makes you use all your senses at its best. I met the people and animals that still depend on nature and at the same time have to cope with its unpredictable character. Together with them I experienced what it is like to live together with or against the force of nature and I try to investigate the interaction between human and nature. Nature can be overwhelmingly beautiful and unpredictably harsh at the same time. But nothing ever felt more intense than being caught by beauty and anxiety at the same time.” © Frederik Buyckx

The good news is that there is a lot of freelance work at the moment, but these assignments are not long-term contracts, so you always need to prove yourself, stay on your toes and challenge yourself. Although this can give the feeling of job insecurity, on the positive side one has more freedom and flexibility to pursue personal projects.

From Project Wolf                                                                                                                                                                              © Frederik Buyckx

What new personal projects would you like to pursue in the future?

At the moment there is a connection between my two projects Wolf and Horse Head. I feel so good and happy with them, they feel so natural. So I think when I finish them, I’d like to do similar projects but perhaps in different parts of the world. In other words, I’ll keep going into the wild.

By Boré Kedober

Frederik Buyckx will be exhibiting, for the first time, work from his current Wolf project at Ghent’s International Photography Festival. It runs from 29 June–17 September in Saint Peters Abbey. 

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