Ghent-based photographer Sybren Vanoverberghe discusses his series Conference of the Birds. His work functions as an analysis of the correlation between place and time and is part of #5 Architecture.

Could you explain your practice and how you work in a few sentences?

My work originates from my interest in how time changes places and objects. Some of the places and objects that I photograph are ‘important’ from a historical perspective; others are less so. My practice concerns how we look at artifacts and certain symbols, how we perceive icons as icons. I’m interested in how photography can engage with these issues on a historical, artistic, and political level. Questions raised by my recent work include why are photographs and art based on the landscape important, what is our motive to make such images, and does landscape have the ability to show the cyclical character of history?

What one thing has most helped to shape your practice? 

Seeing images as individual works that are able to stand on their own. As photographers, we tend to think in terms of series or projects. However, try to focus on each image in isolation, then decide after a while which project it fits in. Some images seem to me like they should be archived before they are shown, whereas for others it is very clear immediately that they belong in a specific project or atmosphere. I like to just begin and see where I arrive. Then, by sequencing photographs on a wall or in a dummy, a project starts to make sense to me.

© Sybren Vanoverberghe, Black square, from the series Conference of the Birds, 2019
© Sybren Vanoverberghe, Sand Eyes, from the series Conference of the Birds, 2019

Why photography? Why the still image? 

Up to now, photography has been the medium that I felt most comfortable with, and it also suited the stories I wanted to tell. The still image, once taken, is part of history, of an archive, of a moment that happened and is gone. It captures time and space in the same frame. It is an immediate and subjective document to me that gives both the photographer and the viewer lots of room for interpretation and evaluation. Photographs are accessible, and can have social and historical value, which is important in the times we live in.

Where do your ideas begin?

Ideas grow out of images by others that I see, from reading, and from my own images – sometimes one line of text or one particular photograph is enough. These ideas generally need to percolate in my head for a while before I do something with them. Most of the time I plan what I’m going to do and then the final result is completely different from what I had envisaged. It’s a very intuitive process for me, and a lot of decisions are made after getting home and developing the photographs. I find that sometimes it’s good to take a step back and to start again from the beginning every now and then – it keeps my head fresh.

© Sybren Vanoverberghe, Shadow Ruin, from the series Conference of the Birds, 2019
© Sybren Vanoverberghe, Mountain 01, from the series Conference of the Birds, 2019
© Sybren Vanoverberghe, House of Palms, from the series Conference of the Birds, 2019

What’s next? 

At the moment, I’m particularly interested in the work of artists such as Kishio Suga, Richard Serra, Hanne Darboven, Richard Long, and Robert Smithson. Somehow my use of photography as a medium is changing into something a little different from what it used to be. Finishing my last three series (2099, Conference of the Birds, and 1099) felt like the closing of a chapter that was very important for me, because it allowed me to discover my artistic voice. These projects feel like a summary of a lot of ideas that were in my head for the past three years, an introduction somehow.

I’m also more and more interested in sculptural and land art – I want to have more input in the scenes in front of my camera. Although my most recent project, Conference of the Birds, incorporated some references to land art and installation, I have never fully engaged with those media. I now feel more motivated and confident to take this step, and there are several ideas I want to experiment with, and lots of places that I want to go to. But photography will always remain an important part of my work.

© Sybren Vanoverberghe, Palm 08, from the series Conference of the Birds, 2019
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