I’d rather wait 10 more years to take on dream projects. I want to give myself the time to grow
We visit Cultuurcentrum Scharpoord in Knokke on an exceptionally sunny autumn day. It’s one of those days that undeniably holds the promise of autumn: crisp air and a clear blue sky. When Damon De Backer, a 24-year-old photographer from Maldegem, arrives, we quickly find out we are both from the same small area in the Belgian countryside. He tells me he goes back there a lot. 'It’s the peace out there that I can’t seem to find anywhere else.'
He talks about his career with impressive determination and decisiveness. The same decisiveness you can see in the many images he makes for De Morgen, Knack Weekend, and many others. He tells me he doubts his work a lot, though I can’t find any reason why. A conversation about Anton Corbijn, about working with clients and about making work.
You are here as a ‘new master’, but I feel like you have been around for a while. You have been making work for big clients for several years now.
It is funny that you think that. It makes me feel old. I started working for Ancienne Belgique as their official photographer when I was 18 years old. I was studying photography in Brussels back then and working for AB allowed me to shoot lots of concerts. When I started taking photos of musicians backstage, I realized that I loved taking portraits. Working for Ancienne Belgique opened up a lot of doors and it all went very quickly from there on. I’m now at the point where I have the luxury of turning jobs down. I don’t want it to go too fast though: I’d rather wait 10 more years to take on dream projects. I want to give myself time to grow.
Anton Corbijn works impulsively, fast and without any assistants. How do you work usually? Is there a certain methodology you stick to?
It depends on whether I work on my own projects or whether I work on assignments, though they tend to overlap. I pitch a lot of my own ideas to the clients I’m working with. During the first days of the COVID-19 crisis, I suggested photographing the people on the front lines for example. The nurses, the doctors and so on. The client agreed and it turned out into a really interesting series.
Working for clients is sometimes frowned upon, but I think it is a really interesting way of working
Working for clients is sometimes frowned upon, but I think it is a really interesting way of working. I get to execute my own ideas, have financial stability and get to show my work on a big platform. Anton Corbijn worked that way as well, as you can see in this exhibition.
Is there a specific image here that draws your attention?
There is one portrait of Donatella Versace that blew my mind. It shows how good of a photographer Corbijn actually is. He’s a master in working with locations and positions his model in a smart way. There is a really incredible play here with light and dark areas. But also Donatella. She must be an incredibly interesting model to work with.
Who would you love to shoot one day?
I actually keep a list on my phone with names! Harry Styles and Patti Smith are on there, for sure. But honestly, I like taking portraits of someone who has never been photographed as much as portraits of famous people.
Do you consider yourself to be an extrovert? I remember a quote by Michaël Borremans who, when he was younger, felt that he had to choose between painting or photography. He chose painting because he was rather shy and wanted to make work alone.
I wouldn’t call myself an extrovert. Maybe a social introvert. I do feel comfortable once I know I have the other person’s consent to take their picture. It all comes down to that interaction, to both feelings comfortable.
It is not always easy when you’re on set. I learnt that you have to think fast. And if an idea doesn’t work out, you have to be able to let go of that idea. I remember this one portrait I made of Brandon Flowers (The Killers). We emailed for 3 months to have 5 minutes before the concert. I have never had that much stress in my life, but it worked out. Looking back on it I don’t think that’s the best photo I’ve ever made but I learned an awful lot from it. Something always arises on a shoot that you can work with.
Anton Corbijn has had a diverse career so far. He also worked on music videos and directed a movie. Are you sticking to photography for now?
I have always been interested in writing. Before I discovered photography, I thought I would become a journalist.
I think that makes sense. The narrative seems to be important in your work.
I think so. I would not call myself a documentary photographer. I like to work with current topics and add a conceptual angle. The series of photographs I made for De Morgen about the Black Lives Matter movement is an example of that. I did not just photograph what was happening at the demonstrations but we staged a shoot that powerfully represented the topic and the message.
Have you noticed an evolution in your work?
I have, especially during the last two years. I’m trying to work towards a signature visual style. I want to reach a point where two completely different images, say a portrait and a still life, go seamlessly together. You have to be able to see that both those images are 100% Damon. There is nothing as finding a certain formula for that, but sometimes it just all works out. I feel like I am getting there. Slowly but surely.