Here’s a new and deftly beautiful documentary on Dutch-born photographer Chantal Heijnen by an Amsterdam-based filmmaking duo. In it, Heijnen details her life as a teenager in the Netherlands with dreams of being a professional photographer, getting sidetracked by working with refugees as a social worker, losing that job after more than a decade, and deciding to pick up where she’d left off at age 15. She moved to the Bronx and has since been blending her love of photos with her compassion toward the underprivileged:
Heijnen’s photos are wonderful because of their starkness and sincerity. They’re portraits, but they have a street-style documentary feel about them, with almost unprepared naturalism. That’s her goal: to document what life in this district of New York City is like.
Importantly, the video shows her approaching and shooting portraits of a few locals, even being invited into a few homes, which really breaks down the myth that it’s difficult to approach someone for a photograph. This is a problem that she herself dissects:
“The thing that was most difficult for me is finding my new identity as a photographer. In the beginning, when I would introduce myself to somebody, I would say, ‘I’m a photographer–but I’m also a social worker.’ And it was very difficult for me to accept that I was a photographer.”
She also discusses the big ethical question of who benefits more: the subject or the artist. It is a touchy subject, especially when it’s a western European woman asking to document the lives of poor black families in the Bronx.
“After five years, and after creating a lot of new work, you grow into that new identity, but there was also a bit of feeling guilty, that being a photographer gave me the feeling of being a little bit selfish. Even though it is about people, it’s still also your body of work.”
What she doesn’t say, humbly, is that her photos speak for themselves. You’ll notice her sharing her results with children and with a man in his hallway, probably seeking their approval and understanding. At one point she takes a shot of two girls with her iPhone and, immediately afterward, a group of children rush up, smiling, wanting to see their friends on the small screen. If that’s how she works, then everybody wins.