Robert van Koesveld: Through the Lens of Image Making

An Interview with the Travel & Culture Photographer

Path in Woods, Photography by Robert van Koesveld

Through his travel and culture photography, Robert van Koesveld united two of his biggest passions – travelling to distant places and telling a visual story. Still, photography remained largely a hobby for him until recently.

About four years ago, he took a break from his full-time profession as a psychotherapist and educator. As usual, he enjoyed his journey across the globe and relished the opportunities of photographing the known and unknown facets of the land and the people living there.

But this time he did not go back to his work, instead, he devoted time to exploring the world even more. He even started to maintain a visual diary with photographs captured by him. While many locales unmasked themselves in front of the camera lenses of this photographer, Bhutan — a tiny nation nestled into the Himalayas, enthralled him most.

While erstwhile travellers like Marco Polo resorted to cartography to let the viewers retrace the places he visited, modern technology has given us a camera for capturing tiny moments of this rapidly flowing time. And while people like Robert van Koesveld are striving to hold the glimmering gems in the palm before their sparkles are lost forever in the annals of time, let us not dither any longer in retracing the steps of his photographic journey.

Share with us your childhood memories and the influences that helped in the development of the artist and human being in you.

My best friend in high school was an artist (and still is) and so while he painted, I spent many, many hours looking at art books in his studio. I also started visiting galleries. As a result, my critical eye developed, while my skill in the drawing did not. Photography became my way of making art that did not require skills in drawing and painting. My older brother had a Pentax Spotmatic that I started using and was able to get black and white prints done. So I started off with black and white photography and a reflex camera.

When and how did you fall in love with photography?

I am very involved in making photographs, though not sure if I am in love with photography per se. I am passionate about imagery and storytelling. I guess I leave myself room to use some other approach to image making in the future when I say that. I do love how seeing and noticing and experiencing are greatly enriched for me by looking through the ‘lens’ of image making.

Have you always been a curious traveller?

I read a lot of adventure books and National Geographic’s as a child and that set me up to be a traveller. My parents had lived in numerous countries throughout Europe and Asia before we arrived in Australia so at some level I always saw the world as my ‘country’.

When I left school I hitched around much of Australia and New Zealand, then travelled through Papua New Guinea shortly before independence. In the ‘children and mortgage’ stage of life, international travel is problematic but we did do a lot of camping in Australia. Now I am free to travel as much as I like, so I am away around four months of the year.

In China, Photography by Robert van Koesveld
In China

In your capacity as a psychotherapist, you dealt intensively with the functioning of human mind. As a photographer now you have become a chronicler of many moods of human being and nature. Do you feel your past experience aided in this process in any way?

For quite a while I resisted the idea that my psychotherapy informed my photography, although many people made that connection.

Now I think that the celebration of the beauty of the human spirit is important in both professions. I also think that as a therapist I learned to see subtle shifts in people’s expressions and so that helps me see the ‘emotional moment’ in photography. I guess as well, my shutter finger is sometimes linked to my emotional experience and that seems a good thing.

How much travelling, for you, is knowing about a place and its people as opposed to gaining knowledge about your own self? How do you approach each one of your explorations, be it in central Asia, Africa or elsewhere?

Of course travel ‘broadens the mind’ but one is never an expert on another culture or even one’s own really. If you have a capacity for reflection at least some of the time, then you keep meeting new or old aspects of yourself as you travel. I have a concept of ‘warm curiosity’, which is not a technical or forensic type of enquiring, but a warm-hearted, almost naïve curiosity that I think is very helpful in travelling.

I do research, often more after than before a trip. Now, having travelled a lot, I am more interested in looking deeper as a photographer and working longer on photo essays or other projects, rather than just adding to a list of countries visited.

I also always carry a small notebook and have learnt to talk to people I meet and make small interviews. At the very least I jot down some personal details. You have to make a judgement about how much time they can spare. Some people have all the time in the world while others have a business to run. However most folk like to tell more about their life, especially in a conversational style of interview.

In Bhutan, Photography by Robert van Koesveld
In Bhutan

Tell us how you developed a reverence for Bhutan. If you are asked about a single element that strikes you most about this country, what would that be?

Bhutan is a special place. A small country with a people for whom loving kindness is not just a Buddhist ideal. There is a commitment to preserving the culture and that means that the buildings, for example, have a perfect way to fit into the landscape. Add to that, there is the way the country sits along the beauteous Himalayas and the fact that I have Bhutanese friends. You can see why I expect to keep visiting there, leading photo tours or just on my own, well into the future. There is a reverence that I see in the faces of many Bhutanese and documenting that is one of my ongoing photo projects.

You have also been to Africa. What is your experience of being privy to the natural treasures of Tanzania?

I really love unfenced landscapes where man is not dominant. Often deserts are the only places left where you can experience that sort of landscape, although Antarctica and parts of Africa are still ‘wild’ in some sense.

Nature Photography by Robert van Koesveld

Observing nature closely, as you have done from behind the camera lenses, what has been your greatest learning?

As a photographer, I have realised just how hard wildlife photography is. I don’t think of myself as a nature photographer but I do enjoy photographing nature when possible. The lens helps you engage and if you have a naturalist next to you describing what you are glimpsing, then it is a very rich and often moving experience.

How did India with her cultural and geographical diversity present herself to you?

I think you could visit a different part of India every year for a lifetime and still keep seeing something fresh and complex and rich in texture. It is very much a result of her long and complex history, as well as the numerous diverse cultures, that together form the whole. I would like to keep visiting India as long as possible.

You also seem to be an avid art enthusiast appreciating works of great masters from Jan van Eyck to Vincent van Gogh. How has art helped in enriching your life? What are the inspirations you tend to gather from closely observing such masterpieces?

I do think art has much to offer photographers. Probably our creativity can be better supported through viewing art than looking at other people’s photographs. The film is also a rich source of stimulation as well. The hazard in photography is just making more photographs.

Looking at other peoples’ photographs can help us learn the craft but also can lead to making photographs that are somehow ‘photographs of photographs’. Apart from the unoriginality of copying other photographs, I am concerned that copying others’ photographs gets in the way of us experiencing and then making images that communicate something of that experience and its emotional impact.

That’s what some artists have been so good at because that transformative quality is intrinsic to their process. With photography, there can be the illusion of magically capturing something ‘real’, although that is really nonsense. Art helps us understand we are image-makers.

I do also think it is important to keep reviewing your own work. I am always asking myself why take photographs? Reviewing my own work helps me separate out the more technical images from the ones that still move me. A few years back I reviewed my complete ‘back catalogue’ and considering what work I valued.

That helped me formulate the idea that I am primarily concerned with ‘people of presence’ and ‘spirit of place’. It is probably a slightly cryptic mission statement from other’s perspective but very useful to me personally.

How would you like to summarise your journey thus far?

I am very lucky to be in a time in life when I am free to focus on developing my art and skill as a photographer, without the pressures of making a career or a living. I try to think of myself as studying photography and of my goal being to make quality work for which I am the first audience.

I have developed some competence and even proficiency but I see that mastery will take more time and reflection so I just hope my health holds up long enough. In any case, I really enjoy the challenge.

Cartier Bresson said ‘Your first 10,000 photographs are your worst’, but really in the digital era it’s more like the first million or so. Meanwhile I hope for a few good images from each trip.

Portrait of Robert van Koesveld

Robert prefers…

I travel a lot with my wife, Libby Lloyd, who has a great eye and who wrote the text for our book ‘Bhutan Heartland’. We have adult children and now grandchildren who have claims as well on our hearts and our time.

Find more of his work at his website.

Image Courtesy: Robert van Koesveld