It was early in 2020, and like many of us, I felt lost… We all have endured every little aspect of the pandemic and it had an impact on all of us… And so it had on me. To be honest, it was the best thing that happened to me and my photographic dream. It made me reinvent myself.

At the end of 2019 I was still a documentary photographer who was traveling the world and working on multiple long-term projects i.e. about the Kayah and Kayen in Myanmar, and Israel and the Palestinian territories. And then suddenly I was stuck in the Netherlands and could not work on my heart’s desire anymore.


The death of my father

Not only the pandemic made me reinvent myself, but it also made me address a big loss I had to endure at a young age. And that is the death of my father.

He didn’t die of Covid, he has been away from the earthly plane for a long time. He passed away when I was three years old from cancer. So that is 35 years ago by now.

Mentally, I had given it a place a long time ago. Spiritually as well, but sometimes you need to do also something to honour that person. And despite I am a firm believer that everything happens for a reason, and I love the man I have become, and there might even have been a chance I didn’t even like him, or my life would have been completely different if he would still be here. It still leaves a gap… And after a conversation with someone that is very close to me, she said: “This is it. This is what you need to do right now”.

And so I did…

Doing what you love and honouring someone at the same time seems like a perfect fit. And sometimes you need to do things that are not the things that you are used to. Just so you can free yourself.


Letting go

In my case that was letting go of everything that I knew about being a photographer. I didn’t want it to be a documentary but more of an art project. Suddenly all boundaries disappear and that means you can do whatever you want… The limits you normally have if you want to work by the rules of the World Press Photo don’t apply anymore.

That meant re-educating myself in a lot of other aspects of photography. Which would have been a good thing anyway because from my athletic endeavours I knew that playing other sports than just my own made me a better athlete in general. And somehow I have found a way to apply that to life as well… Seemed like a good rule…

Suddenly I had to become a creative…

I had to learn about Todd Hido and Duane Michals. Robert Mapplethorpe and Vanessa Winship

I think I can name another thousand photographers because all of these names don’t cover the lot. But since I never went to art school I had to make up for lost time and binged and deep dived on poetry, painters, musicians as well. The list of subject matter is too long…

In the end all that mattered what that I would have had a proper concept for the project. Because a concept that stand like a house is all that counts…


The project itself: “Memories of a man once there…”

The official project description is:

These photographs are part of Cristian his upcoming series: “Memories of a man once there….” The project is about his father who died when he was three years old. His father was an adventurer like himself and his grandfathers, and this will be their last adventure together. To create the memories they have never had…

Intertwining the autobiographical and fictional this project seeks to capture the great “what ifs” of life, and threading imaginary narratives about Cristian and his father adventuring through the world together. The series is fundamentally about loss and existential loneliness, as well as Cristian his own mortality.

Memories of a man once there…

Initially I reserved about two years for the project to be finished, but most likely it will take longer. Of course at you cannot work on a project forever. And imaginary stories can be done endlessly. But I stop when it is finished, not when I am out of time.

Dad, I don't trust this parking lot...
Dad, I don’t trust this parking lot…

That will be a super difficult decision to make when the time comes. But soon there will be an evolution moment where I will be making small prints of all the photographs I have made so far to see what is out of balance and what is missing.

That means that most of my living room floor will be covered in small prints. But hey; you’ve got to do what you have got to do.


The creative process…

So how does one start? In this case me… How do you try to capture a feeling in an image? And is the end product of project just images, or will it be accompanied by text as well? Do I want it to be in a book? Or is the main focus gallery walls?

Those are questions I asked myself and like always those questions were answered along the way. As long as I started. Of course you have to start somewhere, and in my case I started with an envelope I retrieved with belongings from him.

The envelope contained all that was left from him. Some photographs, a Visa from Egypt, and a random amount of other papers like report cards from school. All of his other belongings are gone and lost forever…

I edited it like I would edited a story or a series of photographs. And eventually I ended up with the things that inspired me and I wanted to work with.

I am a roamer so every moment that I have and inspiration strikes I go out and photograph. But even with all the inspiration photography is 99% failure, so every time you just have to go out and not give up until fate gives you the image you want to end up with.

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After a while inspiration comes not from photography though. Most of the time it comes from listening to a song, a conversation, or a random thought one has when you take a shower.

Patty...
Patty…

Especially when everything was locked down it was super difficult because you could just not go to a place you had in your head. And for example I found a Visa from Egypt, so that meant me traveling to Egypt. But that moment finally came after a long wait at the beginning of September 2021. I could finally make that trip…

Another big creative decision to make was to share work before the entire project is done or not. And that was a tough one. Because the end product does not necessarily will look like the things that one is showing at the moment. And a lot can change during the editing process. I even asked advice from same of my own personal heroes during talks I joined. But everyone said something different. So eventually I did decide to show and share some of the photographs.

Eventually I am glad I did because that decision made me part of ten shows and a book this year already.


The technical process…

I realize this is an article for EMULSIVE and that means that a lot of gear heads will read this as well. And whoever knows me know I don’t like talking about gear. I mean gear is fun but for me the only thing that matters is the print. And I forgot who said this once: “A photograph is not a photograph until it is printed…” so forgive me, but that person is right.

At one point in my life we, as a family had to leave everything behind. And that meant also leaving a lot of photographs behind. And that feeling you have when you turn the pages of a photo album is priceless… That experience and feeling can never be replaced.

That is why I would like to encourage people to print as much as possible. It doesn’t have to be a professional print. I mean, a print can be made for ~€0.15 cents at your local photo store. Otherwise all those photographs on your phone in a couple of years will disappear in the Abyss of the internet never to be seen again…

That being said. The gear I mainly use is a Nikon FM2n, a Hasselblad 500CM, and a intrepid 4×5. Lenses mainly Carl Zeiss or old Nikons… No new lenses… Those are way too clinical in my opinion. Although I did buy a brand new Carl Zeiss Milvus recently.

I bless the day camera manufacturers would make cameras again with the quality and soul of the old days.

The film I use is mainly ILFORD and I try not to switch too much between types. A film type is like a language that will take a long time to master, and if you do, you can make it do whatever you want. So most of the time I use HP5 PLUS, in certain situations FP4 PLUS, and sometimes Delta.

Still a long walk home...
Still a long walk home…

As far as the developing goes, I let that depend on the mood I am in and what kind of Image I want to create. So sometimes Rodinal, sometimes, XTol, sometimes Ilfotec-HC. Although recently I replaced XTol for the more environmental friendly Bellini Eco.

The rest is done in the darkroom. The real one, or the digital one. I try to print as much as possible. But digital version are needed as well, so the prints I made myself go into my archive. And the digital version will go to curators and editors.


Even some digital gear…

I am blessed that I am able to have traveled a big part of this globe already. All the time I have traveled with film went smoothly, but I knew the day would come my luck would run out. And that moment was the moment I went to Egypt…

I had a transit in Jordan and during the customs check I asked for a hand check, but after an intense staredown with security, I had to throw my bag of film through the X-Ray machine.

If that was the only time, most likely I still have made the gamble to use the film I brought. But the four or five X-Ray machines after this encounter, and later when I arrived in Egypt made me grab my digital camera and considered the bag of film as compromised.

We really need to talk about shadows...
We really need to talk about shadows…

Despite digital not being my favourite way to work, it does has its function and is super practical. It will save you a lot of energy worrying if everything is still good or not. You can back things up. See if you are on the right track or not… Super helpful.

The digital camera I use is a Nikon D810 and the main lens right now on it is the aforementioned Carl Zeiss Milvus. Of course, I would love to have a Leica medium format camera as a main travel camera, but unfortunately, that isn’t in the budget. It must be nice…


To wrap things up…

I have seen myself change since the pandemic started. While at the end of 2019 I still had the heart of just a documentary photographer and did a lot of fast-paced shooting. Right now I don’t mind sitting six hours on the same location until everything is right. That gave me a little struggle in Egypt because I lost some valuable time due to food poisoning. Having photographed fast-paced in the past as well as slow in the right now made me have a broader skill set so I could focus more on what I am actually doing.

Also, the person I have become and the artist I have become who is freer is even more important to me. I can finally be myself…

I never thought a sheep could talk to aliens...
I never thought a sheep could talk to aliens…

The project is still ongoing. If you are interested in following the progress of my or me as an artist I have my own website which I write a lot for as well (check my bio link below). Or otherwise don’t hesitate to follow me somewhere on Instagram or any other socials. It actually helps a lot… The more the gods of the algorithm are satisfied the bigger the chance is my work is going to be seen by curators and editors. And then in its turn will make the photographic dream possible. Counts for potential sponsors as well…

Hopefully, when the project is all set and done and I will start with working on the next one I have honoured my father in a way that would make him proud.

~ Cristian

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About the author

Cristian Geelen

A traveller that always somehow ends up in strange adventures all over the world. Because of that and a book of Sebastiao Salgado decided to pick up to camera himself and felt it was the perfect way for...

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