Looking at the World from a Place of Respect, with Photographer Frederique Peckelsen

Western Mongolia, 2018. Photograph by Frederique Peckelsen.

 
The best travel photography is simple, rough and honest.

“I have travelled a good deal, though I don’t really know how to travel,” remarked Henri Cartier Bresson. “I like to take my time about it, leaving between one country and the next an interval in which to digest what I’ve seen. Once I had arrived in a new country, I feel almost like settling down there, so as to live on proper terms with the country. I could never be a globetrotter.”

If not now, then when? Truly wanting to see and live in a place, trying and being present with the people, trying and experiencing their way of life as authentically as possible, trying and understanding their symbiotic relationship with nature, trying and understanding their past, experiencing their present, imagining their future, getting out and looking at the world with curiosity, wonder and respect. You have to move softly and instead of burdening yourself with useless visual recordings, take time, feel the space, observe its people and cut to the very essence of what you see so that what your photograph radiates outward is a whole story in itself.

Frederique Peckelsen’s photography possesses that quiet beauty and vigorous readiness that come from both a sense of respect for its subject matter and from an ever-attentive eye, one that does not intrude but is intuitive and honest about what one sees and feels and lets oneself surprised. In capturing the moment, Frederique’s photography can evoke a whole story, and a whole world with barren skies, but one that will only reveal itself to those who truly want to discover it. With a slow step, an open mind and always looking with a new eye.

In our conversation, I have talked to Frederique about photography, people, nature and what travels means today.
 

Western Mongolia, 2018. Photograph by Frederique Peckelsen.

Western Mongolia, 2018. Photograph by Frederique Peckelsen.

 
Frederique, what do you make of this moment in history when tourism was put on a halt? Will people travel more with purpose?

There are two sides to this story for me. On the one hand, I am very much aware of the fact that traveling by plane to see far off places, doesn’t do the environment any good. It saddens me to see how the earth is changing because people can’t have ‘no’ for an answer. We want the things we want, and we feel like we are entitled to do whatever it is we long for. Sometimes you may want something, but you know very well that you shouldn’t do it, because it is irresponsible. I’m not sure if we are able to change this as humans. The powerful we as a race become, the more entitled we feel. As if the earth owes us something. But somewhere deep down, I think we all know it is the other way around – we owe our lives to our planet. Or maybe, it is only the people who live closer to nature, and those who still feel connected to mother earth, who realise that earth will always win in the end and we might not live to see it. I wish I was more optimistic on this topic, but I’m afraid not even this crisis will teach all of us the importance of change.

On the other hand, I also know how much travel can enlighten a person. We can be more open, more tolerant, more understanding and very much inspired by seeing different ways of life. We learn to reflect on our own cultures and the way we act. How lucky or how unfortunate we or others sometimes are. Travel, and the change it evokes as a little spark, can be the beginning of a person doing better. So however contradictory it may be, travel can be both the reason for the planet’s negative climate change, and it can also be the reason for people wanting to change their own ways for the better, which may lead to a better planet in the end.
 
 

”I’m not there to judge or disturb.
I always try to build a connection with people
in my photographs, however short that may be.”

 
 
Where do you think lies the responsibility of the travel photographer nowadays, as we all know that there is the downside to travel photography of encouraging more and more people to go to the same locations?

I think we are all very much responsible for what we do, and to some extent what we might evoke in others. You can’t always control it, but you have to take your choices and their consequences into consideration. I feel that a travel photographer should take into consideration that whenever they take the time to show a place in all its glory, that others will probably want to follow. There are so many places on earth, but a lot of people seem to want to go to the same places, because those are the places with the most glamorous photos online. But there are so many places that are mind-blowing, but you have to find the path that brings you there yourself. And I think that this is what might keep people away from places less travelled – the fear of figuring it out alone. We know that certain places will be harder to get to. That those places might not have the luxurious hotels, not have the fastest internet – or none at all. I would not want to go to places that are overcrowded, or overpopulated, because it won’t give me that connection to earth I’m looking for. I think there are many overwhelming places on earth, and I do hope that editors and travel photographers all think of places less visited when they choose what to share with the world.
 

Omalo, Georgia, 2016. Photograph by Frederique Peckelsen.

 

I was reading something Wim Wenders wrote in his book of photographic research for his film Paris Texas. He says: “There’s a distinct kind of satisfaction that you get from looking and travelling alone, and it’s connected with this relation of solitude to photography. […] If you’re not alone you take different photos. I rarely feel the urge to take pictures if I’m not on my own.” I think this also comes from that place of travelling and figuring it out alone that you mention. It’s the difference between travelling and tourism. Travelling forces you connect with the world. “Tourism is sin and travelling on foot virtue,” Werner Herzog said, a dictum that his friend Bruce Chatwin also liked.

This resonates so much with me. Without wanting to play down the positive effects of the tourism industry, I do agree that there is a big difference between travelling a place and flooding it with tourism. To me, mass tourism seems to turn culture into a profitable and commercialised product, in which culture loses in value. Hotels can, for example, claim land and sea where generations of indigieous fisherman had lived and fished and forbid these people to keep living there. It is a paradox in that way: we go to a place because we are moved by its nature, their people and culture, but by doing so, we destroy little parts of it so that we can comfortably stay amongst them for a short period of time. Mass tourism in this way tramples or artificalises culture. If you truly want to experience a place, a way of life, you have to take the time, and undergo that life without exhausting or claiming a land’s richness of culture. You shouldn’t leave a footprint at least, and have an equal exchange at most. 
 
 

”I think it is the place that makes the people.
People are an expression of the landscapes they grew up in.”

 
 
You have documented different cultures in your work, yet your photographs never seem to intrude, regardless of how up-close you may capture your subject matter. How difficult is it for you to keep the distance while getting close?

I wouldn’t say I’m shy, but I’m not one that would physically get too close to people, or demand people see me. It is not about me, not even just about them. It’s about the nature they move in and that they are part of. I very much like my own space, so always respect other people’s spaces.

I am just honestly blown away by some place, cultures or people. But always from a place of respect. Never from a superior standpoint, or from a purely voyeuristic standpoint. Maybe it is because it is equal. They find me different and interesting, and I feel the same about them. I always try to read a situation, and while doing that, keeping their culture in mind. Before I go to a certain place I will read up on their history, their religion, symbolism, folk stories and social rules as much as I can, because that gives much more context to a certain place. I love to have my camera with me at all times, but I’m careful with pointing it at someone. Some cultures might not like an outsider just shoving a camera in their face. Or some cultures won’t like it when I, as a woman, will come in and confidently click around. I’m not there to judge or disturb. I always try to build a connection with people in my photographs, however short that may be. Just to know whether it is ok to shortly look at them through my lens.
 

The Valley of the Moon, Wadi Rum desert, Jordan. Photograph by Frederique Peckelsen.

 

Do people make the place?

Ha! I honestly think it’s the other way around. I think it is the place that makes the people. I know that might not exactly be your question, but I think people are shaped by their environment. And I do not just mean the way their parents raise them, but more how nature is at the start of everything.

People are an expression of their landscape.

You can learn to understand people when you look at the nature around them. I am fascinated by the influence of landscape and environment on people, and how their culture and religion are partly formed from this. People find explanations and solutions in the form of gods, rituals, decorations and clothing that fit the obstacles that life and nature throw up for them. People are an expression of the landscapes they grew up in.

Has there been any place where you have experienced this deep connection, communion, of people with the nature surrounding them, more than anywhere else?

I would say some countries in Central Asia I visited and Iceland. Both parts of the world have weather conditions that can be so harsh, that nature is always in charge. Your plans aren’t set in stone, but nature dictates whether what you wanted to do will happen today, tomorrow, or in half a year. I’m from the Netherlands, where we have battled the sea many times, and ultimately won. We always try to predict the weather, try to dam the water or claim land that belonged to the sea and succeed in it. I thought it was interesting to see how another European country with a somewhat similar culture and history is not trying to go to battle with nature, but just accepts its hardships (and beauties). And of course places like Mongolia and the countries around the Pamir Mountains like Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan where nomads move whenever the seasons change. Instead of overcoming nature, they live in harmony with it and have learned to read its signs. I do not want to put one way of living above the other, as it is not about good or bad, but it is because I was brought up in one that the other intrigues me.

Your photography does this, it seems to communicate that you are not only observing, but always learning from nature, you are listening to it. Visual poetry: that’s one way I would describe your photography, visual stories with many depths. Do you ever feel the need to explain your photographs?

What a beautiful compliment. As a child, I believed that trees could communicate with each other through the wind, in a language we humans forgot how to speak. So I would listen carefully, and see if I could intuitively relearn their signs. Of course I never really succeeded, but this might be how I still view nature – as a force we can’t quite understand because we don’t speak its language anymore.

So to me it is very important to not only look through my lens, but really sense a place. I am always looking for the invisible magic of the earth. Places that are overwhelming or very quiet and mystical. Only when I sense something, when a place triggers my emotions or when my mind starts to wander off and think about what folktales might have been told here, do I capture a place.

Because of this approach, it is sometimes hard to explain my photographs in a rational manner. So I never really feel the need to explain them, but rather talk about what I felt or how nature behaved whenever people ask about them.
 

Western Mongolia, 2018. Photograph by Frederique Peckelsen.

 
 

Website: frederiquepeckelsen.com | Instagram: @frederiquepeckelsen

 

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