In search for urban narratives, a visual inquiry for the film “Etangs Noirs”

These images are rooted in a film project and although I see the resulting photographical work as a separate project to the film, it is impossible to talk about one without the other.

In 2013 I started working on the feature film “Etangs Noirs”, in collaboration with Timeau De Keyser. We intended to make a fiction film, but nonetheless we were highly inspired and influenced by the world in which we wanted to shoot the movie, namely Brussels. Our goal was to incorporate Brussels as a subject and a character, instead of simply as a background to provide texture and orientation. We started exploring and observing the streets of Brussels. Certain scenes that we encountered were added to the screenplay and some interesting places that we came across were used as inspiration for new scenes. It became a process of exchange. We searched for ways to let our fiction interact with the world that we encountered. The people that actually lived there became part of our film, not just as extras but as main actors. The obstacles of this world became the obstacles of our main character. Brussels became a dominant factor in shaping our film.

As part of this process I started taking pictures. When walking in the city I reacted to everything that surrounded me, visually and sonically. The images were the result of the effect the city has on me. Sometimes overwhelming, sometimes stripped down. I tried to work without a predetermined position or intention. I framed my images never intending to capture the overall complexity of the city; just capturing textures and shapes, fragments of my observations as a photographer.

A major part of “Etangs Noirs” occurs in the metro, which is where I spent most of my time photographing. It is a place that always attracts me, as all places of transport and flows in a city, always dynamic, constantly pumping and breathing. Going from Merode, through Arts-Loi to Etangs Noirs is a continuous shifting rhythm in the span of a very short distance. Here, more than in the streets, I feel a heightened tension in my own concentration. These are places where everything is almost always unexpected. The metro of Brussels is a very eclectic mix of color and architectural styles. This station is blue, that station is bright yellow, another one dense and all metal. There is no coherence or signature form, a stark contrast to, for example, Paris. The metro it is not just pure infrastructure, it is in itself a unique urban landscape. Beyond the formal monuments and urban spaces the infrastructural landscape of the metro is part of the collective identity of Brussels with its own codes and narratives.

The fictional narrative of “Etangs Noirs” is the vehicle to look at the world, but at the same time a way to stay away from (romanticized, empathic) documentary patterns. More and more in all media, and also – very dangerously – in art forms such as film and photography, there is a prejudiced and therefore restricted way of looking at our world: there is a documentary template, a fiction template, a street photography template … it is a way of seeing without really looking; imposing clichés, through which we want to see our presupposed ideas confirmed. In my images as well as our film we try not to assume such a template but to search for an identity, proper to place and specific to a cultural context. Choosing a fictional narrative gave us the necessary consistency to work, but at the same time it gave us the right push to keep on exploring.


(Photos and text: Pieter Dumoulin)