I first came up with the idea of a feature on North Brabant artists during my several travels to the Dutch region to attend some of the best festivals and concerts I have experienced in recent years. Beside Aurora Infernalis, which holds a superb yearly festival and several selected concerts in Arnhem (Gelderland), this southern area of The Netherlands boasts, between Eindhoven and Tilburg, a plethora of excellent events such as Roadburn, Eindhoven Metal Meeting, Incubate and Neurotic Deathfest. It wasn’t until December 2013 that I finally found the right triad of artists to kick off the project with, so all I needed was more time in my hands in a period when I have a lot on my plate. And then something terrible happened… I found out about Selim Lemouchi’s death a week late, and I simply went into shock for a few days. His farewell hit me especially hard because when we spoke back in July he was bursting with creativity and excitement about his new project. I gave vent to my thoughts by writing several pages which will never be made public, but it slowly became clear that this Brabant Special was going to be dedicated to him, since it features two close friends and colleagues of his, JEROME SIEGELAER (videodesign, photography & art) and MANUEL TINNEMANS ("manual art" & music). There will be plenty on Selim in Part 2 and 3, but the first installment of this feature is dedicated to Eindhoven photographer PAUL VERHAGEN, who captured Selim on camera many times, the last of which during the presentation of his debut EP as SELIM LEMOUCHI & HIS ENEMIES at Eindhoven's Temporary Art Centre, and whose photographic art will be on show at this year’s Roadburn festival.
AN INTERIVIEW WITH PAUL VERHAGEN
I met Paul while both standing in front of a stage holding a camera, of course, at the 013 in Tilburg: there he was, with his two nice professional Canons, and me, with the smallest reflex in the world, my Sony NEX-3... I had just traveled into North Brabant from a superb Aurora Infernalis fest in Arnhem, especially to catch Wolves in the Throne Room: I was elated for the exceptional amount of quality music I had been able to enjoy during that long Dutch weekend, and his friendly, somewhat cheeky, face invited me immediately to share a few words. We have been good friends since, sharing photo-pits, nice Dutch beers and (bless him) high-teas at Roadburn, EMM, Incubate and Aurora Infernalis.
Paul is a great music photographer who offers so much more than the glossy, perfect shot of a metal-god brandishing his axe: he is able to take us into far deeper layers steeped in mystery and poignancy. You will read about my own take on his shots during the interview, and hopefully you will be able to feel the same when admiring his exhibition at this year's Roadburn. What I need to stress here is his uniqueness as a person: not because he is “the colorblind photographer” but because he is simply one of the nicest, most candid and modest guys I have ever met. Dutch people in general have a reputation for being very straight-forward and practical, which is perhaps is the secret of their directness and honesty, and for this reason I feel completely at ease, daresay happy, when I am with and amongst them. With Paul and I, there is of course the “Roadburn effect” to factor in: this is a festival that becomes an intimate part of you, a festival that – once experienced - burns within you forever, and we do share this sentiment from the bottom of our hearts…
Ultimately, how rare is it to meet someone kind, friendly, genuine and just NICE, these days? During a sadly too rare face-to-face interivew his great sense of humour allowed me to ask him light-hearted but direct questions that, as a fellow child-like and curious creature, surged spontaneously within me in discussing his extremely rare condition, achromatopsia. I feel grateful to him for letting me fumble in his fascinating world made of different shades of grey over piles of cakes, chocolates and dark Dutch beer: many years ago I met another colorblind artist who inspired me greatly, and the legacy continues to this day.
How did you start your journey as a photographer?
Photography had always been a hobby but it kind of developed about 17 years ago I went for a 6-month long journey after I got married. We started with Russia because of my wife’s grandfather legacy: he was a Dutchman with a keen interest in that huge country and had always told her many interesting and intriguing stories about, for instance, Rasputin and so on, so we decided to kick off our honeymoon there. Unfortunately we only spent 2 or 3 weeks there so I feel we should go back again. Well, when you experience new countries you cannot help wanting to record everything on camera!
Did you have already a decent equipment back then?
No, not really, I only had a normal holiday camera. But during the journey we visited such amazing places and I could not stop shooting, so when we ended up in Thailand I bought my first DSLR camera.
Did you realize back then you had a talent for photography?
Nope… The thing is, music aside, I felt I needed another window to be creative and during my travels I had the chance to act upon it. While in Thailand, lounging on the beach, I had all the time in the world to read all the manuals and practiced a lot: that’s how it all developed. In my head I already knew I wanted to combine music and photography, and this gave me an incentive to push my self-thought skills further.
So you were kind of slowly weaning yourself off being in a band, so to speak, making sure that you’d still be able to closely interact with your big passion, music…
In a way, yes! I started photography in 1997 and I stopped playing in 2007. I already knew the scene well and I was always going to attend concerts anyway, so it all made a lot of sense!
I immediately noticed your photographic work concerning live concerts: it is very distinctive, not only because it’s in black and white, but because it has a depth and dynamism that makes it quite special. When I look at one of your stills I see the physicality and expressiveness of the artist come through in a particularly intense way: I almost see movement it them! As a completely amateur fellow photographer I’d like to know if you have a secret, a technique to achieve these stunning results.
Well your perception of my work is very flattering and interesting, but the truth is that I did not actively seek to achieve these particular features. I did think about how I could be different from the photographers who use the b/w mode as a feature, but in reality I simply think that what you see in my work is due perhaps to a combination of two things: the photo-processing and the fact that I am color-blind. When you are shooting, you cannot disassociate yourself from the colors you see and the effect they have on the image coming through your lens. With me this does not happen. I pay attention to other things and probably this affects the moment when I decide to click, which could be different from my fellow photographer standing beside me who might be waiting for a certain ambience that I cannot relate to. Fundamentally, although I cannot imagine color, I know there is a lot of difference between a color-infused scene and a b/w one and the differences you perceive in my photos might be consequential to that.
Do you touch up your photos much?
Yes, I do, I play with the intensity and the depth of the image as I see fit; sometimes brush up some lights and so on… It’s all done with Lightroom and it’s a big part of the creative process.
Some of your shots have such a beautiful, rich depth where the artist almost seems in 3-D… And sometimes your shots can make me feel dizzy, as if an infinitesimal breath of space-time was jumping out of the image… This makes me guess the artist’s next move, stimulating my imagination in a very active way. Just staggering! I frankly have not experienced this with any other photographer’s work: as skillful and beautiful as they can be, normally I just see “stills”.
It’s a nice way to perceive things! You know, sometimes people ask me if I could teach them how to process their photos using the color channel tools. But in reality, since I do not have a notion of colors – and I do shoot everything in color as it makes no difference to me, all I do afterwards is hitting the b/w button and that’s it. Professional photographers would be horrified, but I have no other options, and it seems to work for me.
PH PVerhagen -White Hills
Have you ever asked your wife or a friend to compare the same original color photo with the final processed b/w one to see if there is a major difference?
Yes, of course, and it appears that the b/w is always better! In the moment I shoot, as well strong emotions or a striking pose, I look for the right contrast, as this is what I can judge. But I think you should look for another colorblind photographer and see if you are getting the same impressions: that could be very interesting.
It is always a bonus when there are great stage performers in front of you… We were once commenting on how pleasurable it was to shoot Solstafir, for example.
Well yes, they look totally cool! I have shot singer-songwriters a couple of times and it is obviously not as exciting as a hardcore band jumping all over the place… Their music might be beautiful but, as a photographer, let’s say it’s not my thing. You have to remember that I am not just colorblind: I am almost blind, I can only see about 12 to 20%, depending on which eye…
Wow, I was not aware of that… So basically you are working a lot with your instinct too!
Haha, I guess… and autofocus!!! My eyes are not just blind to color but they also react very badly to strong light, so outside I have to use shades or I’ll be completely blind. I am like a bat, basically!
Ah, a fellow bat! My eyesight is alright but I am quite sensitive to bright light too, I get headaches and tired eyes without my shades, so I feel very comfortable, like in a protective cocoon, when I am at concerts because of the dim lights... Were you born with this condition?
Yes, I was. My mother realized pretty quickly that that there was something wrong. But in those times this condition was not easy to spot so when I was 7 years old they diagnosed me with some sort of strange “illness”. In the end it came clear that I have a very rare condition called achromatopsia. Achrome means lack of color, hence the name I chose for my enterprise: Achrome Moments Photography. I have a section on my website explaining my situation, as I am sure some people might be surprised that an almost blind person would take on photography of all things: strangely, everybody is so taken by the fact that I don’t see colors that they seem to forget that I hardly see at all!...
Damn, I am just as guilty here: I guess that associating someone holding a large professional camera with blindness is something that our brain tends to block out! I truly thought you could see pretty well!
Noooo way! When I shoot at concerts, it’s my zoom lens that allows me to see: it’s an extension of my eyesight if you like. But right now, if you stood a few meters away from me and I did not have my glasses on, maybe I could see you waving at me, but I would not be able to recognize you. At this distance I am ok though...
Oh, that means you can see I am an old bag then…
Haha, that’s what my wife says all the time… When we first met she was very careful about how she presented herself, but after a while she said “Oh why bother?! You can’t see me anyway!”
Please do not take this as a shallow or sexist remark but, you know, us women often love to use colors to express our mood, personality and sexuality, so we might chose to put red lipstick on, die our hair in hundreds of different colors and so on. But to you it makes no difference: you always see a woman as she naturally is - no gimmicks!
I guess… If you consider color as an enhancement of a woman’s personality, or as another layer of it, maybe no, I do not see this particular layer. Or at least I’d see that lips are darker, blacker, when wearing lipstick… so it’s no big deal for me!
They say that you cannot regret what you do not know but is, or has it ever been, a burden not being able to experience colors, grasping what they are and relate to the behaviors of those who can?
Well, I’d really like to know and experience what color is... It is something truly alien to me: I also dream without color of course… Once I thought of trying some psychedelic drugs to see if that would induce a colorful trip, but to no avail.
I have obviously always taken my ability to see in color by granted; moreover, I am one of those artists who does relate to color in a strongly mystical way… So, what do you think when people mention the color “red”, for example?
I think that red is a very difficult color to work with as a photographer: this is what I hear my colleagues complain all the time about and I’m intrigued to know what they mean exactly! But when you adapt your photos to b/w the red issue is simply gone…
So for you colors are somewhat “practicalities” linked to a different shade of grey.
Yes, like for example I know that “red” is what people call the top light in a traffic light, and I have to react to it accordingly. That’s what red is to me. And “green” is the other one: it means I can go haha!
You must be used to hear people around you commenting on how blue the sky is and so forth… When you go on holiday, do you ever ask your wife whether the sea is blue or green?
Yes I do, out of curiosity, but to me it boils down to whether the water is crystal clear and I can see the fish swimming through it or not. I notice how people react to color, and it makes me wonder if it is the color, like indeed a beautiful “blue sky” that makes you feel happy and vital, or it is your own mood that makes you relate to the color that way: which comes first? Personally, I think it is the mood because, in spite of not being able to see the blueness of the sky, I am in fact feeling the same as you!
That’s so interesting! There is a strong subconscious connection between color and mood, and modern science is skeptical about things like chromotherapy for being rooted in magic and mysticism rather than experimental facts, so you might be right here.
In my case this example is flawed anyway, as a bright sunny day with the proverbial “blue sky” might make my mood happy but, on the other hand, if the light is too strong I’d feel really uncomfortable! My problem is quite complex… If one can call it a “problem”…
Oh it is most definitely a gift! And I do appreciate you are ok with this conversation because I love to learn from those who have an alternative perspective from mine, especially when it touches issues that I tend to take for granted... Besides, I am convinced that your photographic art stems from this singular way to perceive the world and, as a result, it brims with an extra layer of emotion, depth, atmosphere and, for me, even movement!
Well, this is perhaps the biggest compliment that anybody has even made to me, but the question is: what does this say about you? Not everybody will see and feel about my photos the way you do…
Well, people react in a different way when exposed to music too… Talking of which, I am sure that for you a photo shoot stays longer in the memory when you really love the band involved. It can be distracting to shoot a band when one wants to focus on the live music, but at the same time it is also very interesting to try and catch the feelings, the vibes coming from the artist and, in my case, the human being too.
Definitely, it can be quite addictive, especially if you love the band. It is not necessarily true that a good photo shoot is related to a favorite band, but most of the time the two things are definitely linked.
PH PVerhagen - Hail of Bullets
This particular area of the Netherlands is thriving with both concerts and bands. Why do you think there is such a strong underground metal scene here, are the big festivals like Roadburn helping?
North Brabant, together with the eastern and northern parts of Holland, were always very metal-minded. It was already there before Roadburn became a big thing. I have already mentioned one of our 'good old glories', the Dynamo Open Air festival: crazy, huge things happened here in the 90s! Events like Roadburn and Incubate do extremely well in setting new standards with their open minded approach in genre crossing and breaking boundaries. In a way they guide the crowd to a new level. It's great to see how the crowd reacts to for ex. to acoustic sets played by Scott Kelly or Wino: that means that the crowd matured without losing their identity. Festivals like these are real treasures!
You played in a death metal band for years and are still keeping in close contact with the local scene: anybody up and coming we should keep an eye on?
For a fresh approach in doom/black/sludge you should keep an eye out for Tilburg's Ggu:ll (https://www.facebook.com/pages/Ggull/343468262357429?fref=ts) and Eindhoven's Kaligoh (https://www.facebook.com/kaligoh?fref=ts) And, it goes without saying, for occult death metal band Bladel's Lucifericon (https://www.facebook.com/lucifericon?fref=ts, whose logo was designed by Manuel Tinnemans.
How did you fall into extreme metal?
Partially because of the people I knew, of course. But I grew up in a very small village and as a teenager you always seek out exciting, dangerous things: you just want to rebel. I came across Death’s Leprosy and that was it for me. My first festival ever was Dynamo Open Air in 1989, with Forbidden, Sacred Reich and the Bay Area thrash bands which were so popular back then.
And now you passion for music carries on through photography: would you ever consider becoming a professional photographer?
Well no, it is something I like to do as an unpaid hobby. I am not the kind of person that seeks fame for my pictures; I am too… what’s the word… humble for that, if you know what I mean. I wouldn’t know how to sell myself anyway!
This way you will always look at your photos as art and not the mere documentation of an event.
Exactly. Sometimes I take on assignments for magazines who want me to document a certain concert and I can deliver that, but it’s not what I look for: I want more than that, as I am considering my photos as my personal way to be creative. But ultimately, I feel that the real art comes not from my photos but from the people I am shooting!
A lot of people will look at one of your shots as a piece of art and not even know the band portrayed in it: so they might be encouraged to listen to that band after being captivated by the depth and mystery in your image.
Ah, that would be just perfect if I could achieve that!!!
PH PVerhagen - Royal Thunder
Which magazines have published your photos recently?
To name just a few amongst the larger ones: Feast and Iron Fist (UK), Rockerilla (IT) and well known Dutch mags such as Rocktribune, Oor and Up Magazine.
Last year Roadburn did a nice online feature of your coverage, while this year you will have an exhibition with some of your photos up for viewing in the main venue: how will the photos be selected and will the only cover previous Roadburn editions?
I have been a house-photographer for years at Roadburn. I'm very proud that Walter and Jurgen gave me the opportunity to do an expo. It's my very first exhibition so it means the world, especially because it is part of this massive festival. Walter asked me to select only portrait-mode pictures of previous Roadburn gigs: it was difficult to leave behind many nice shots but it was more than fine to limit my choices. I guess I chose a mixture of interesting moments, gigs and monumental icons.
Which bands in particular are you looking forward to this year’s Roadburn, and which bands made the greatest impression on you in previous editions?
Every year my Roadburn is a cacophony of (parts of) shows, as I try to capture as many gigs as I possibly can. I must admit that after 4 days, I'm not even able to recollect al what I saw and heard! It’s hard work to keep up with the program and it's simply impossible to capture all bands. Every year though there are certain acts that I need to see the entire show of, and those are the moments I treasure the most. I saw monumental shows of for example of Neurosis (2009), Triptykon (2010) and Swans (2011). Concerning last year, Amenra, Nihill and The Black-Heart Rebellion impressed me the most. To name a few sets I’m looking forward to this year: Comus, Conan, Indian, Obelyskkh, Old Man Gloom and Triptykon again. But, as usual, I will be blown off my socks by the relatively unknown bands to me: the surprise-factor is one of Roadburn's precious things!
How would you describe the Roadburn experience to someone who has never tried it, thinking that it is “just another festival”?
It's almost impossible to explain to an outsider what the Roadburn spirit is all about. For me personally it's 4 days of hard labour, but it's the spiritual relationship between the “Burners” that makes the festival what it is. It's like a universe on its own. Maybe one day I shall be kind enough to myself to allow myself to experience the fest as a normal visitor, but I guess that day is far away: the need to capture its moments is in my veins. And besides, it makes me just too proud that I'm a (humble and small) part of the Roadburn crew!
Finally, a word on Selim Lemouchi, to whom this first installment of my “Brabant Special” is dedicated…
Much has been said about the departure of Selim. I think it's a big loss for music in general. His creativity and ideas were huge and unique. I was shocked finding out about his death and, as a matter of fact, I am still shocked. On the other hand, maybe it was inevitable? This puzzles me. But any more words from me on this one would be irrelevant: just gibberish from an outsider... May his soul R.I.P.!
PH PVerhagen - Selim Lemouchi & His Enemies