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Bieke Depoorter: In between

As a homeless itinerant from Russia to Cairo, Depoorter's photos capture the hidden intimacy of family life

If anything, Bieke Depoorter is brave. Undaunted by revolution and accusations of being a Western spy during her Cairo project, this young Belgium-based artist still prefers to spend the night in the houses of strangers as the premise for her work. Somewhere between photojournalism and performance art, Depoorter insists that her series from Egypt, Russia, and the US all capture the intimacy of life behind closed doors: its humanity's similarities that she's primarily interested in, not its diversity. Not one to rest on her laurels, this winner of a Sony world photography and Hp Magnum Expression award wants nothing more at the moment than to plunge back (with her camera) into Egypt's political turmoil. Here's why.

Where did you get the idea to stay in other people’s houses?

I was doing my graduate project in small villages in Russia, where I knew there were no hotels. So I started staying in strangers’s homes. Once I started, I knew it was the right way to take photographs. Before I was more into street photography,but entering people’s homes and spending the night felt more honest. It added a degree of emotional intimacy.

Are you attracted to poor, dangerous places in the world?

Its just happened that many of the people who took me in were poor. A lot of rich people did too, especially in the United States. But they usually gave me my own bedroom and bathroom, so I was more isolated and couldn’t take these kinds of photos.

So you’re not trying to make a statement?

People are very similar. I wanted to focus on that, rather than the differences. I recently had an exhibition where I mixed all my photographs from the US, Cairo, and Russia: they all fit really well together.

What was the most challenging aspect of shooting the Cairo series?

I was there in September, March, and then again in June; each time I returned it was more difficult. The first time was during the revolution and elections. It wasn’t that dangerous then, but the hardest part was that no one really trusted anyone else on the street. Government TV ads urged people not to talk to foreigners. A local girl helped me to communicate with a nice people who were willing to host me. But as soon as she asked the couple if they had voted the week before, we were out on the street again. They thought we were spies. 

Was your approach to your Cairo and I’m About to Call It A Day series similar?

The biggest difference wasn’t so much cultural but where I couldn’t speak the language. In the States, I took more portraits because I could speak English and people ended up telling me a lot about their backgrounds. I think you can see a difference in my Cairo pictures, where I couldn’t verbally communicate so well—they’re more atmospheric. 

Any influences and inspirations?

The good thing is that my parents are not into art, and until I was eighteen I never visited a museum. So I didn’t have any preconceptions before I started taking photographs. I just shoot how I feel. It sounds cliché, but its the small things in life that continue to inspire me.

Did you ever have a negative experience with a host family?

It can be a little scary. Even though I’ve stayed with some dangerous people, I remained on good terms with them, and made them feel like they were okay—that they were people too, and had something good to offer.

What’s your next project?

I’m trying to save up to go back to Cairo. The series isn’t finished yet, in my mind.