by Tom Peeters
In 2015, Tom Callemin was selected as one of the most promising young photographers by the Foam museum in Amsterdam. Later that year, he was awarded the Prix Levallois in France, along with €10,000 and the opportunity to exhibit his work.
In its statement, the Levallois jury said that Callemin, who lives and works in Ghent, “is not searching for reality but is instead trying to reconstruct it through memories.” But the artist, who fell in love with photography at a very young, says there is more to it than that.
“Certainly not only through memories,” he tells me, as he describes the production process, which involves assembling files and making sketches, only to end up with a single photograph. “For three months or so I collect all kinds of images that are linked to each other and that tell me something about the relationship between the photographer and the model.”
He then stages the one image that’s left in his mind.
Callemin’s passion for taking pictures grew stronger in primary school, when he met a professional photographer. When he started his master’s programme at the Kask art school in Ghent, he was required to try street photography, but didn't feel a connection to it.
“I had to photograph people I had never met,” he says. “Asking ‘Can I take a photo of you?’ felt like a very awkward way to interact with the world. I also felt like something was missing.”
He talks of the childhood fascination with the mechanics of an analogue camera. “Creating more images and studying them,” he says, “I gradually learned how to turn them into a story.”
Initially, Callemin also wanted to become a writer, but he preferred the more solid and compact character of the photographic medium. “I’d rather put a month’s work into one strong image than into an extensive text,” he explains. “I don’t want my work to be anecdotal. Photography gives more space to the viewer.”
He reflects on that for a moment. “Isn’t that what poetry does too? Leaving the story untold, so the reader can imagine his or her own conclusion,” he says. “Photography appeals to me because it can be so open.”
The Levallois jury has described his work as striking. Shot mostly in black and white, their statement read, “the photographs evoke an uncanny mood that cannot be fixed in time or space. The subjects seem to be caught up in their own thoughts and withdrawn into their own world.”
Long overdue, but coming as no surprise, Callemin’s work can finally be seen in Flanders at the Antwerp Photography Museum (FoMu). For the exhibition, Callemin has selected five years’ worth of work, mostly from his time at school.
For the first time, the photographer has also combined the staged black-and-white photos with the portraits. “In my head, I always kept them separate,” he says, “but here, they are presented together, though the production process is entirely different.”
When he shoots portraits, he’s behaving more like a researcher, examining the space between him and the model. This approach implies more freedom. “When I stage my photographs, however, I want to be in full control,” he continues. “Since I’m looking for the perfect image, I want to have all the details right. I am fully prepared, with an action plan at hand.”
Regardless of the process, there is always room for the unexpected. Coincidences can make an image more interesting, he says, like the black-and-white photo of protective gear lying on the ground in an abandoned room. Photographed at night, it could well be a spacesuit, but it is likely just firefighting gear.
“I am fascinated by the protective clothing, because it isolates you from the world,” he says. “For this one, I first took some pictures of a fire brigade, but the session turned into a fashion show. Later that evening I saw this one suit lying on the ground. I put a spotlight on it, and the tension was just right.”
It’s a good example of leaving things unsaid. “A lot of people ask me where a certain picture was taken or what the model is actually doing,” Callemin says. “I’d rather not answer that.”
Even more uncanny is his portrait of the half-naked boy who’s looking downward (detail pictured above). “I told him to look at the light on his belly,” Callemin explains. “The idea was that he would be examining his own body while being photographed. But he got a bit tired during the session. After a long period of standing still on a hot day, he almost fainted. It helped to shape the intensity of the image.”
Though he gave up the idea of being one himself, Callemin says he is more inspired by writers than by other photographers. He mentions the Argentinian Jorge Luis Borges, who used to create ideas rather than stories, which he then handed over to his readers.
While Callemin realises that his photography lacks innovation, people do appreciate his skills as a craftsman. “I’m more old school,” he says. “I put a lot of time into making a good print, and I still believe in the power of a single image.”
Once the exhibition in Antwerp comes to an end, Callemin will display his work in the Flemish arts centre De Brakke Grond in Amsterdam. He has also accepted the challenge to fill up the space of the Amsterdam art gallery tegenboschvanvreden in 2017.
“There was a time when I preferred showing my photographs in an isolated context,” he says, “but in the near future I’d like to work on an idea that cannot be expressed in just a single image.”
Until 2 October, FoMu, Antwerp