Monday, January 13, 2014

Artist Focus: An Interview with Teake Zuidema, photographer

In the past 25 years, Teake Zuidema has photographed and written about cultural and religious traditions and environmental topics around the world, from Mexico to Bhutan. A Dutch photographer/journalist living in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, his specialties—and passions—are travel photography and travel writing. Additionally, he writes in Dutch and English about science, technology, cultural and environmental issues. Most of his work is published in travel and science magazines and newspapers in the United States, the Netherlands, Belgium and France.

Following is Blast Furnace’s recent interview with Teake. 

Where were you born? What languages do you speak?

I’m from the Netherlands, was born 1953. My country flooded the same week. I was sort of bilingual to begin with. At home we spoke Frisian, not Dutch. I spoke Frisian with my family and Dutch in school. And another dialect when I played in a soccer club in the city. So, three different languages, almost. When you learn more than one language it makes it easier to learn even more languages. I speak English, French, German and Spanish now. 

When did you begin to take pictures and what was your first camera? What cameras do you utilize currently? Do you still utilize film or do you do all digital? A darkroom?

My first was a Lubitel Russian camera you can get for $39 in the Netherlands. I don’t know where the lenses were from, they seemed just pieces of glass. I currently use a Nikon D600. I used a darkroom, everything I did in the first ten-to-twelve years there was always a darkroom because everything was black-and-white. I kind of miss it, would like to have that control back. Mostly the photography was for newspapers so the photography was social documentary in places like the Netherlands and in Nicaragua. But there was a war going on, and at some point I decided it was not for me. I met some war photographers. They had that drive to go to places where bullets are flying. That was not really my thing. I also had to deal with my fear in approaching people. That’s been a forty-year process. In the beginning I took pictures from behind things. Now, I’m the complete opposite. I don’t give a shit unless people look very dangerous. But I have become very courageous. I think you can do that because at some point you need to have a reason to take a picture. If you don’t, it is unusual or even unnatural for one person to just stick [the camera lens] in someone’s face and take pictures, uninvited. In order to get over that, you have to have a good reason to do that for yourself. I guess it’s different for everybody. For my part, it’s because I make a living from it. But there’s a little predatory kind of thing about it.

All good photography of people is voyeuristic. You have to show in your photos something people do not already see themselves. Otherwise, why take the picture? You have to justify for yourself why you do it. Somehow it’s important to the picture. For me, it’s just a gut feeling, because when I was at a tribal dance in a New Mexican village near Albuquerque [in the past year], there must have been 400 dancers. I saw this one dancer [Lauren Grayhawk] and I said I need to have him. There was something about him that was different than anybody else, something in how he looked, I’m not even sure. If you are in fashion photography, you work with models. They are specially selected for their looks. If you are a documentary photographer you almost do the same thing, you just don’t have the option to pay people. And certain people just have it. You take pictures of them and the pictures tell stories. The story is in their face, in their body, in the way they look. If you took [a photo of] another person for the same story, it would not be same.

At dances in the pueblos in New Mexico, because they are kind of religious, you are not allowed to take pictures. In many ways the whole thing about photography is preparation. You show up at a place where you’re not wanted. I was in touch with a contact from the New Mexican Department of Tourism. Most events you can’t photograph. But I learned about a Commanche dance in a specific village. You get a permit, you take pictures. It doesn’t necessarily mean people appreciate you took the pictures. The dancer was ten years old, there was so much drama in his eyes. His mom asked me to take pictures of him. I took pictures of him in his full regalia, and asked her permission to use it in a magazine. I am in the comfortable situation of taking pictures in the U.S. and getting them published in Europe. There is much more sensitivity in the U.S. about permissions to take pictures. In Europe, magazines often don’t ask if you have written permission from your subjects to use their pictures.

Lauren Grayhawk, ten-year-old dancer from Ohkay Owingeh pueblo, NM (c) Teake Zuidema
What inspires your work, and who are the photographers you admire? 

[Among the] people who influenced why I started to like photography are Henri Cartier-Bresson; there’s a kind of dreamlike quality to his pictures. The thing about good photography is it’s always a few steps away from reality. If it’s too real, it’s not interesting. Also, William Klein; completely the opposite of Bresson. He did street photography and was an artist, did a lot of wide-angle stuff and was very much in people’s faces. And W. Eugene Smith; motion-picture photography.

I started out doing a lot of social photography and documentary. I was studying cultural anthropology and there was possibility in Netherlands to do one subject: ethno-cinematography. I had to pass a photography exam. Why I started doing photography was I was able to get into a film/video course. So I went to Mexico and did field work in 1978 and lived half of that year in a Maya community [Saban]. I made film there in Super 8 with sound. After that, it took two years to finish the whole project. I learned that you needed all kinds of organization skills and relational skills with people that I didn’t have. Making films is like…doing a hundred things at the same time…money, technology, organization, people. I’m too much of a one-man band for that. When you’re working in photography, you have immediate results.
A place called Eden, along the highway in Wyoming (c) Teake Zuidema
How did you get into freelance photojournalism, and what did it look like at its start?

It was complicated because at first, I went into the film business and didn’t have patience. I started doing more photography, but it was very hard to make a living. So then a big chance came when I was like 31, 32. I got offered a job as photo editor at a magazine, and also as a photographer for the magazine; a monthly in the Netherlands like National Geographic. I worked there for five years, when I was able to send myself on assignments. So I created a project about Nepal, Bhutan, Laos, Brazil and Turkey. I also began to write stories with my photographs. My parents were both journalists, my sister went to school for journalism. My mother was also a poet. I come from a family of writers. I always knew I could write, but I wanted to prove myself as a photographer. Financially speaking, writing and photography really have supported each other. Sometimes, after one or two photos or a nice [photo] series, I can get published if I have a story with them. So I offer a story with the photos to a [specific] magazine to see if they’d like to have them.

In my early twenties my photos weren’t very good. I really had to learn it by looking at a lot at pictures, doing courses, developing. I had a feeling of design and aestheticism, but I wasn’t sure what I should photograph and was kind of too shy to begin with. I had to learn how to become bold. Because I came from a family of writers I didn’t have anything to prove by being a good writer. I wanted to do something else. I was going to be good at something my family could not do. It was hard work, it didn’t come naturally.

If you’re a photographer, there’s a space you have to get into to take good pictures…There’s a certain honesty to being in people’s faces. Strangely enough, people completely forget you’re there. Not always, it can go wrong. But they usually accept the fact that you do that. But if you kind of move around like a spy, you create this tension, and then you’re really disturbing. If you try to hide yourself, make yourself invisible, that never works. You don’t get good pictures and you don’t get a good response from people.

Young woman from Tehuantepec, Mexico (c) Teake Zuidema
How do you keep busy with projects?

Apart from being a photographer I’m a journalist. I write a lot. As I write I bump into a lot of things that interest me as great stories to do photography. A certain event or a party or celebration or whatever. It has to be visual somehow, like the Mardi Gras Indians in New Orleans [a story and photography opportunity I’m currently pursuing]. After I photographed Lauren Grayhawk, for example, it was for a Dutch travel magazine. I [decided soon after] I was going to do a whole series of people with their faces painted. I have all these beautiful pictures of people with painted faces. I wrote an anthropological story of the meaning of painting the faces [to accompany the photos]. 

How do you approach journals/publishers, and how are your projects funded?

I’ve been working for thirty years as a freelance writer-photographer, so I have a lot of contacts, nearly all of them with magazines in Europe. I’ve done some work in the U.S., but I already have contacts over[seas]. I like New Mexico, wanted to do a travel story, [recently] suggested a travel story for New Mexico to a Europe magazine and they accepted it. I got from them a letter of assignment. With letters of assignment, I mail local tourism boards and chambers of commerce to get complimentary rooms because the publications alone don’t typically pay enough to make it a profitable business. So I suggest to other magazines to do other projects [while I’m on location]. I went for two weeks, did a travel story on New Mexico, did a story of low level storage of nuclear waste in New Mexico, on Spaceport America, on a Dutch farmer’s family who immigrated to New Mexico, on Los Alamos about the national lab there. It was a good trip for me, financially speaking.

I’ll go somewhere and I’ll do a lot of different things in order to make it profitable. I’ve stayed in really nice hotels, gotten a lot of free, really good food. In one hotel I photographed their chef and his food in exchange for staying there. For me, it’s the only way that it really works. Sometimes, when I’m on a trip, the trip itself—the stuff I‘m doing—gives me ideas for new stories.

The earlier you begin with planning, the better it is. There are five or six destinations I still would like to go to, and these are still in my head. I have archives on Iceland because I want to go there. Every time I read something [about it] I print it out and put it in a file. I’ve never been there yet, one day I will get there. When I get an assignment to go [to Iceland], I will have five or six things I could possibly do there [based on] those files.

Visitors crossing by the Grand Prismatic, Yellowstone National Park (c) Teake Zuidema
What equipment do you take with you on travel projects?

A little bag with two cameras—my main camera, a backup camera—a laptop to download pictures, a light tripod to shoot with low light, landscapes and portraits. Little lens cloths, a couple of filters. I travel as light as possible. 

Do you have an interpreter when you go on trips to areas where you do not speak the language?

Not really. I’ve been in countries where I didn’t speak the language. There are not many places in the world where there’s not a little Spanish, English or French [being spoken]. I’ve had meetings with people where I didn’t know any of their language. Such as once, in a sort of spontaneous event in Laos, I was invited to tea. It was cups of tea and smiles. 

What has been your favorite photography or photojournalism gig, and what has been your favorite location?

I always travel for my photography, and that’s been an important part of my identity. I use photography because I like to travel. The two best things I ever did were in Pittsburgh. I very much relate to my subject in Pittsburgh. As a freelancer, I have no [regular] gigs in the city. The first year I came to the U.S. I did a story for Pittsburgh Magazine about different religions in the city. That’s how I got to know a lot of people and got to know the region. And another story about the U.S. for a Dutch magazine featured my photos of Pittsburgh. What I would love to do is have an assignment to photograph [more of] Pittsburgh. The other location is Mexico. I have Maya friends that I consider to be family. The third is the American West, especially the deserts. I come from a place that is wet and green, so I don’t know why that is. I love places that are barren, as long as they’re flat. I think mountains are extremely hard to photograph. 

What have been some of the challenges youve encountered?

It’s all about planning. You need to know where you have to go to take pictures if you do travel photography. You have to plan your trip so you’re there at the right time, not in the middle of the day when the light is horrible, although I sometimes shoot in the middle of the day. There are places that are beautiful but it’s hard to take good pictures of them. What I do now if I have an assignment, ahead of time I look at where I want to go, then Google it. Let’s say I want to have a nice shot of a motel in New Mexico. That’s how I found the Blue Swallow. A thousand other photographers have been there too, but for the magazine I’m working for at this point, that’s what they wanted. It’s up to me to photograph it and make it interesting.

Blue Swallow Motel est. 1941, on Route 66 in Tucumcari, NM (c) Teake Zuidema
Is there any kind of photojournalism assignment that would be a dream for you—specific to the subjects youre shooting or topic?

People I visit in Mexico travel back and forth between their village and the big beach resorts: Cancun/Playa del Carmen. They’re originally campesinos—they’re farmers. In order to survive, they have to travel to the resorts to work from time to time—males and females. This splits up their families. The parents live in the city there, they don’t have money to bring their kids to city, which is expensive and also dangerous. They live in [poor conditions]. They balance on the edge of survival. They’re not ‘dirt poor,’ but if someone in the family gets sick, it’s a total disaster. They don’t have the means to compensate for that. Some of these people who work in a hotel see tourists that come there. [The tourists] spend in one evening what they have to live on with their family for one month. It’s very hard to get that into images, and I’m not sure if I’m the right person to do it. But, you can image how strange it is from their perspective, how they live, when they have to struggle in getting $100 a month and they see teens on spring break blowing that amount in one evening.

One of the [most unexpected] pictures I ever took was in India, while walking through an old part of New Dehli. All of a sudden there was a square of about 300 beggars. They looked as if on the edge of starving, and there was going to be a distribution of food for them. I took a picture. All of them were looking and waving! What you think, sometimes, is completely wrong. Everybody in India likes to have their picture taken. If you take their picture they will still smile [despite their circumstances]. The picture didn’t come out at all as I’d intended: the drama of poverty. It’s not easy to get a picture [in India] of someone not waving.

Golden Temple of the Sikh Religion in Amritsar, India (c) Teake Zuidema
Where do you print your digital photography and what photo paper do you use, if you print your own photos?

For me, my pictures are mostly finished when they are published in a magazine. I had a couple of exhibitions. A friend who is a photographer has a huge printing machine, I sometimes use that. 

What photo editing software do you use most frequently?

[Adobe] Lightroom and Photoshop. I try to keep it simple.

EDITOR's NOTE: Teake Zuidema’s articles and photographs have been published in Reizen; NU, de tijd van je leven; EOS; ELLE; The World & I; Onze Wereld; Grasduinen; Technisch Weekblad; Eos-sciences; Psyche & Brein; Pittsburgh Magazine; Grandes Reportages; and DeMorgen. He has also completed assignments for the Royal Dutch KLM, Oxfam, the ANWB and the City of Amsterdam. His work is also available through the photo agencies Hollandse Hoogte: and The Image Works: To purchase pictures, contact Teake at Visit his website at