Interview: Chantal Heijnen

Conducted May 2015
Issue No. 8 – June 2015

Chantal Heijnen is a portrait and documentary photographer based in New York. In 2000 she received a B.A. in social work, and worked for 10 years as a refugee counsellor in the Netherlands. In 2008 she graduated with honors with a B.A. in photography from the Photo Academy in Amsterdam. Her love for photography is what brought her to New York City. She has worked as an editorial photographer for international newspapers and magazines, including the New York Times, Stern Magazine and Vrij Nederland.

She’s passionate about her long-term personal projects, creating portraits – through people and landscapes – of rarely seen communities. Chantal carefully uses color and light. Using Rembrandt-like ochre and lustrous crimson lighting, her portraits breath the ambiance of the old Dutch Masters.

Chantal is an educator and is part of the Faculty Team of the International Center of Photography (ICP) in New York.

Photo by Marije Kuiper.

Click to view additional photos.

BUFFALO ALMANACK: How do you feel about artist collaboration? What are some collaborations you have undertaken in your career, and how have they impacted your work as a whole?

CHANTAL HEIJNEN: I really appreciate artist collaborations. My last collaboration was with artist Bami Adedoyin. She hand-painted my “Legacy of Fela Kuti” portraits and made an animation for one the video installations. Her American-Nigerian background contributed an extra layer to this project that I could never have done myself.

The collaboration not only has an impact on the final product but also on the process. As a former social worker I love to work with and for people. The biggest challenge for me as a photographer is working in solitude. Collaborations, with other artist, writers/journalists or designers are a welcoming change!


BA: New York City, and in particular the Bronx, has a long and detailed photographic history. Which New York City documentarians/photographers have most informed your current efforts?

CH: My biggest inspiration for my Bronxites project is Bruce Davidson. I love his ‘East 100 street’ and ‘Subway’ work. It breathes NYC to me. Diane Arbus is another photographer who inspired me. Here portraits of the less fortunate NY-ers have a big impact on me. And Mary Ellen Mark, who sadly passed away this week. I appreciate her early documentary work and the people she focused on.


BA: Can you tell our readers a bit about your background in social work? How did your passion for helping others lead you to the United States?

CH: I worked for 10 years as a social worker before I moved to NY in 2008. I was a case manager for refugees and immigrants. I loved working with a divers population. It inspired me and I felt grateful for the opportunity to work closely with people.

When the refugee policy changed drastically in the Netherlands I lost my job as social worker. It was an easy choice to pick up my teenager’s dream of becoming a photographer. Ever since my first darkroom experience in the early nineties I wanted to be a photographer. But after high school I had the opportunity to be part an amazing exchange program to Kenya that changed me as a person. While in Kenya I worked with refugees. This experience let me to change my mind of wanting to be a photographer and study social work instead. But photography has always been a huge part of my life. I see the world in ‘frames’ and always have the urge to document special people and places.

In 1999 a Kenyan friend invited us to come and celebrate the millennium with him in NYC. At that time he was living in the Bronx with Gilbert, a gentleman originally from South Carolina. My husband and I became close friends with Gilbert – he became our NY family. In 2008 we took the leap of faith to move to NYC. We lived with Gilbert for 6 years so I could continue to work on my ’Bronxites’ project. This way I was able to map my new community in the South Bronx through Gilbert’s life. He’s an introvert person and a bit camera shy. The fact the he let me photograph his life and introduce me to his neighbors is a true blessing. His life story as an African-American man was an extraordinary introduction into the complexity of the American society.


BA: One of the most remarkable qualities of your images are their luminosity. The color and light in your photographs provides such a vivid window into place and time. How have you achieved this, on a technical level?

CH: Photography is writing with light. And during the magic hours at night the light becomes radiant. Therefore I love to work when it is dark. It brings an almost magic atmosphere to images. I make a lot of effort to create a beautiful setting. My ‘Bronxites’ work is shot on a tripod, combined with an off camera flashlight. By using a tripod I slow down in my process and it allows my subjects to relax. We both pause and wait for a beautiful moment to unfold. My video portraits are done in the exact same way – creating a photographic portrait by using minimal movement of the body or the surrounding. For example focusing on the breath of a sleeping child or blinking of the eyes. The still portraits come to ‘life’. Because of the low light condition and the use of video I choose to work with a digital camera.


BA: What advice do you have for photographers who worry about the potentially selfish or exploitative aspects of documentary photography? How do you cope with the aestheticization of people’s lives that the art form requires?

CH: I think this was my biggest struggle while I started to work as a photographer. I missed my role as a social worker, which slowed me down in my process of ‘being’ a photographer. In the beginning it felt selfish to ‘only’ photograph. Especially since almost everything has already been photographed. So what was the use of my images in this world? My biggest blessing when I moved to NY was that, visa wise, I was only allowed to work as a photographer. This ‘forced’ me to focus on my art and immerse myself in it. Now I AM a photographer and I know that sharing stories of other people can make a difference in this world! Making aesthetic images allows me to communicate best with my viewers. Besides this I know that the people whom I photograph, appreciate a beautiful image of themselves. They are proud to see how beautiful they and their surroundings look. Being able to create portraits for people who normally are not being photographed is a beautiful thing to do.

I love my new identity, as a photographer and my social work background is still part of it, just in a different way!


BA: In 2013, The New York Times published your “Salsa Veterans in the Bronx” series. How enormous was that??

CH: It was fantastic! It all started with a publication in 2011. The New York Times published my Bronxites project on their LENS Blog. It was my very first American publication. In 2013 they published “Salsa Veterans” a co-production with writer Susan Hartman. Not only did they publish my images in the paper they also showed my video portraits with the online publication. Being published in the The New York Times is a huge honor and it gives your work a lot credibility and exposure, which helps in getting assignments and invitations to for example give guest lectures about my work.


BA: What do you think is special about the United States? What makes it unique to you?

CH: This is a hard question. Because from a Dutch perspective the United States is huge! It feels more like a continent than a country. So I guess I can only speak about NYC. What I love most about this ‘crazy’ city is its diversity of people. As a former refugee counselor I’m interested in migration and identity. With so many different groups, communities and individuals in NY the inspiration is endless.

What I didn’t realize before I moved here, is that I’m actually an immigrant myself. I thought the differences wouldn’t be that big. But the opposite is true. Especially after my son Lou was born I felt that the society is so completely different than where I grew up in. This experience made me a richer person and allows me to understand immigrants and even refugees a bit more.


BA: Can you tell our readers about any future projects you are developing?

CH: Our son Lou was born in 2014. That was a beautiful life changing experience. I noticed that I wanted to spend as much time with him as possible. So I decided to move with a slower pace in my assignment work. Besides working on editorial assignments, I’m teaching at the International Center of Photography and I continue to work on my personal projects. Together with Alex Webb and Rebecca Norris Webb I am working on the edit of my Bronxites book. Hopefully this book will see the light of day next year.

This fall the Fela Kuti Legacy project will be exhibited in Lagos, Nigeria, which is also the birthplace of this project.

And my latest personal project arose with Lou in my arms looking at Harlem out of my window. The people passing by our window mesmerize me. The many cultural vibes of both the old and the new Harlem are very tangible. It reminds of Jane Jacobs’ Sidewalk Ballet – which is the working title of this project.

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