Dirk Wollaert: Art as the Language of Emotions

Dirk Wollaert is a Belgian photographer whose image won second prize in the competition organised by the Brussels Street Photography Festival (BSPF) and THE PHOTO ACADEMY.
Dirk tells us about the relationship between art and the artist’s emotions. He shares with us his story, and what pushed him towards photography, a passion that has driven him for 50 years.

Hello Dirk, can you introduce yourself to our readers?

I started taking pictures about 50 years ago, at the age of film rolls, and I won my first contest at 18.Due to my studies, my family life and a very busy career, my photography has been left in the background. But the main reason was the sudden death of my younger brother who was studying photography at the Narafi in Brussels when he died in a car accident at the age of 19.

“It was a kind of family tradition to compete with my father and uncles to get the best picture.”

At the (old) age of 58 I had the opportunity to take early retirement and decided to study photography at the KISP in Ghent and I managed to complete my 5.5 years of studies in 4 years. On top of that I attended three extra modules for 1.5 years and attended a few international workshops on street photography.

Brother and me – ©Dirk Wollaert

How did your passion for photography begin?

My passion for photography has always been there. It was a kind of family tradition to compete with my father and uncles to get the best picture.

How did you start to be interested in street photography?

It was during the module Photo Analysis of my photography studies that I visited a Vivian Maier exhibition in Ghent and I was so impressed that I bought the same Rolleiflex camera and started shooting analog again in the streets in Ghent.
It was during one of these shoots that all the sudden another photographer who was working at the same market square told his model “Stop ! Respect … that man is still using a film camera !”. Turned out it was Stephan Vanfleteren in person.

“[My brother] was 11 years younger than me and we often went out to take pictures together.”

At the same time, I contacted Bieke Depoorter and became interested in her social reportages. It was above all her work and her exhibition “Caïropolis” a joint project with Zaza Bertrand, Filip Claus and Harry Gruyaert, that inspired me a lot.
As final work for the Photo Analysis module, I decided to make a presentation on Vivian Maier and her work by comparing her to other street photographers of the time. For this presentation, I also had to give a detailed overview of the history of street photography and some of its iconic photographers such as Henri Cartier Bresson, Saul Leiter, Vivian Maier, Helen Levitt, Garry Winograd, Robert Doisneau, Elliott Erwitt, etc.

So I decided to take a series of street pictures for my end-of-year work and to do my exhibition at the Zebra in Ghent. Zaza has agreed to be my mentor.

©Dirk Wollaert

You told me about your brother. Would you like to share your story with our readers, and explain to me what impact your brother’s passion for photography has had on your own practice of this art?

As part of our family photographic tradition, it was actually me who gave him his first camera as a gift and encouraged him to start taking pictures. He was 11 years younger than me and we often went out to take pictures together. This is what finally led him to start studying photography.
Sadly he died in a road accident during his studies at the age of 19.
His last school project was street photography in Brussels …
That was probably also the reason why afterwards after my own photography studies I started to be more interested in street photography.

“My winning picture was taken at the anniversary of my brother’s road accident.”

Brother and me – ©Dirk Wollaert

You have compared your images of Brussels with those of your brother. Can you tell us about this work?

My winning picture was taken at the anniversary of my brother’s road accident. On that same day I took many other images in the center of Brussels. The day after I visited his grave with my mother as I do every year. It was only then that she told me that my brother was working on a street photography project for his school when he died and for the first time she showed it to me.

I was almost shocked to see the similarities with my photos. The buildings in the background were still the same, only the people and their activities had changed.
This inspired me to work frequently with well-known building as a background for my street photos.

“Whether it is visual art, music, literature, theatre or any other form of art, a perfect work will always contain the inner joys, struggles or emotions of the artist himself.”

©Dirk Wollaert

How have your emotions and personal experiences affected your work?

Art is the language of emotions.
Whether it is visual art, music, literature, theatre or any other form of art, a perfect work will always contain the inner joys, struggles or emotions of the artist himself.
ThereforeI think art is the language we use to express our emotions. If you are able to express your own feelings by photographing people’s facial emotions or body language, it will be related to what the viewer feels when the artwork is seen.
If not what is the point of most art being created and shared in the first place ?

“If we can freeze the emotions of others and add our own emotions […], we can create a great work that will even have historical value.”

©Dirk Wollaert

What do you wish to communicate through your images?

The world, cities and locations stay pretty much the same only the people and their daily life interactions and emotions are constantly changing.
With street photography we are able to freeze one second of that continuum in some kind of a time capsule.
If we can freeze the emotions of others and add our own emotions to these street pictures, we can create a great work that will even have historical value.

“Don’t be too quickly disappointed with the final result.”

What are your inspirations?

Vivian Maier: very personal emotions and even frustrations or own negative experiences in the past.
Bieke De Poorter and Zaza Bertrand: social engagement
Stefaan Vanfleteren: raw and contrasting images and an artist who shows his emotions perfectly in his work.

©Dirk Wollaert

What advice would you give to take good street pictures?

Don’t go out shooting when you don’t feel the vibes
Be patient and do some location scouting in advance.
Look for the best place at the fishing pool where you hope to catch your “moment décisif”
Try to pay attention to the basic technical aspects of your camera settings (exposure triangle) and composition
Make sure the available lighting is correct.

“I intend to broaden my street photography horizon and explore Paris and London.”

Try out different moments of the day or weather conditions at that same location
Respect some of the golden rules of old-fashioned street photography: such as balancing intimacy and candid shooting, using only available light, never depicting beggars or homeless people, and avoiding cropping it up or too much post-production.
Don’t be too quickly disappointed with the final result. Remember that a standard ratio for a perfect image is only 1 in 1000.

And above all… have fun!

Do you have any ongoing projects you can tell us about?

Ongoing projects are mainly the photography of archaeological sites in Flanders.
Whenever there is enough time in between – and certainly now after winning this street photography award – I intend to broaden my street photography horizon and explore Paris and London.