Cedric Van Turtlebloom’s contemporary documentary style centres around everyday life – but not as we know it. Currently editing his second photobook, in which he takes a quizzical look at China’s burgeoning middle class and its penchant for artificial ski slopes, his visual stories are anything but conventional.
Noroc received considerable attention when it was released in November 2015, not least for the photographer’s curious depiction of everyday life in an Eastern European nation. Noroc is Belgian photographer Cedric Van Turtlebloom’s first photobook, in which he documents the extraordinary lives of ordinary people in Romania.
“I wanted to discover an Eastern European country,” says Van Turtlebloom, “but I hadn’t decided which one.” His only stipulation was finding a host family willing to open their lives to the scrutiny of his lens. He wanted to immerse himself in a local culture, and as chance would have it a Romanian family he met agreed to host him, affording him a perspective on Romania he might not otherwise have experienced.
Over the course of five years, Van Turtlebloom travelled to Romania for several weeks at a time, capturing the idiosyncrasies of life in the newly sanctioned member state. He used a digital Nikon D700 with a small flash to shoot the series because he “needed to travel light”, he says.
“My goal was to become as transparent as possible in order to follow my host family and capture them going about their everyday lives. I wanted to give the viewer a visual story that is different from the typical depiction of Romania – barren rural countryside and grey Communist blocks,” he says. Noroc is a quizzical observation, forcing the viewer to interrogate what are unmistakeable traces of reality against an often incongruous, disconnected backdrop.
Now 32, Van Turtlebloom discovered photography a decade ago, in October 2007, while lying in bed in his flat in Brussels, flicking through the book his cousin had given him as a birthday gift, La solitude heureuse du voyageur précédé de Notes, in which photographer Raymond Depardon chronicles his personal travels. “It was late, and I couldn’t fall asleep. I wasn’t really happy with my life at that time. I don’t know why, but I started reading it. I didn’t know anything about photography, except that I always enjoyed taking pictures. I was so fascinated by the images and, moreover, the stories behind them that I decided to study photography.”
Van Turtlebloom is drawn to “strangeness” in photography. “I really appreciate that thin line between reality and pure fiction while documenting something. I enjoy the new contemporary documentary scene and the work of Cristina de Middel and Max Pinckers. I’m a big fan of colour photography and the work of Lars Tunbjörk, Carl de Keyzer, Martin Parr, William Eggleston and Ricardo Cases, and the black-and-white work of Lee Friedlander and Roger Ballen.
His latest project, in which he offers a curious take on China’s burgeoning middle class, is equally eccentric. “I first visited China as part of a photography course and immediately liked the country. The group should have stayed for two weeks but ash clouds from the eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano in Iceland caused many airports in China to shut.
Our flights were cancelled and some of us ended up staying there a month and a half. I travelled to a Beijing suburb and met some really ‘funky’ entrepreneurs. I stayed with them one week, even though nobody could speak English, and knew immediately that I wanted to shoot a project there.”
He returned to Belgium and started researching as much as he could about China, searching for a subject to document that would enable him to plan a return trip. “Then one day I told myself, damn I’ve never seen a picture of a ski slope in China, or even a picture of someone skiing. So I carried on researching and found ski resorts all around Beijing.
“Most have artificial snow because, despite the cold winter, it doesn’t really snow in Beijing. I was a bit anxious going there for the first time because I didn’t know what to expect, but then I saw a big hill full of snow surrounded by dry ones and knew I wanted to make a project there. Since then I have visited many ski resorts around Beijing and even in the north, where I discovered natural snow too,” he says.
“I would generally buy a one-day trip to a resort; they are often very far from Beijing and away from everything, so I spent a long time on public transport. Taking the subway wearing ski clothes is a bit weird, but I didn’t have a choice. You often end up having to take a small local bus as well, so you get to see rural China. And then suddenly you’ll see a ski resort, right in the middle of nowhere!”
Van Turtlebloom used the same trusted digital Nikon D700 to shoot the China series that he’d used in Romania. “For the China project, I started with the same camera but I noticed that 12 megapixel isn’t enough for those kinds of landscape pictures, so now I’m working with more pixels offered by the Nikon D800E. I tried to use a tripod but I missed the spontaneity. Most of the pictures are taken in natural light, or using a small flash.
“In Beijing I have a consistent subject to document, so in a way there’s not much ambiguity in the images, even though the subject itself is a bit awkward. I really want to publish the series as a photobook. I have already taken a lot of pictures; now I just need to edit them with a book form in mind. I’m planning to title it, My Winter Holiday in Beijing.
To see more of Cedric Van Turtlebloom’s work, visit his website
Noroc is available to buy here