Pieter Henket

Pieter Henket

Based in New York, Dutch photographer Pieter Henket is famed for his portraits of actors and celebrities, including Lady Gaga's album cover for her debut The Fame. Here he tells us about Congo Tales, an ambitious retelling of myths and fairytales told by (and made with) the people of Mbomo, a village in the Congo Basin. Congo Tales will be exhibited exclusively in Australia for PHOTO 2021 at the Peter O'Callaghan QC Gallery.

Hello Pieter, please start by telling us something about yourself that is not in your bio.

I grew up in the south of Holland in an old family house in the middle of a forrest. My parents are both creatives. My youth was filled with fantasy. For example every year my parents would organise a halloween party with treasure hunts for the kids.

No one in the Netherlands even knew what Halloween was. My mom would dress up like a witch in her own designed dresses and run through the fields in front of my house.

I loved theatre more than sports so while my friends were in football teams I was in theatre companies. Acting is my passion, I love observing people and how they move and talk to try to copy it later. I think the combination of the fantasy I grew up with and the curiosity to discover human behaviours is what I let lead my work.

Image: Pieter Henket, [Bird of Paradise], from the series Stars to the Sun, 2014

Pieter Henket, Bird of Paradise, from the series Stars to the Sun, 2014

Pieter Henket, [Fire Spitters], from the series Stars to the Sun, 2014

Pieter Henket, Fire Spitters, from the series Stars to the Sun, 2014

What will you be exhibiting at PHOTO 2021?

I will be exhibiting a series called Congo Tales. It is a series of photos about the local myths and fairytales told by the people of Mbomo, a village in the Congo Basin.

What inspired this project?

I was asked to come to Congo by the organisation Tales of Us. Together we looked for ways to bring awareness to the deforestation of the Congo Basin and the people that call it their home. Someone had told us that “when an old person dies it’s like a library of stories burning down.” So Eva Vonk, the initiator of the project, spend 3 years traveling back and forth to try to collect as many stories as possible. Being that my work is mostly based on fantasy combined with my love for fairytales, we decided to focus on on their myths and fairytales.

How does it relate to the theme for PHOTO 2021: ‘The Truth’?

In fairy tales there is a incredible amount of truth. Sometimes very hard truths.

For example the story of ‘The Fish and the Crocodile’. The fish and the crocodile become best friends, one night the fish invites the crocodile to stay over. They have the best night, the next morning the fish finds out that they crocodile ate all the eggs of the fish.

The fish says, “why did you do that, I thought we were friends?”

The crocodile answers: “I am a crocodile. I eat fish.”

The truth here is that nature rules and we cannot change that.

Can you tell us about the process of making Congo Tales?

First we collected the stories, then we edited them down. Together with Kovo Nsonde, a Congolese philosopher specialised in the tales, and Said Abitar, a Belgium art director, we sat down with locals to find out what moments of each story were important.

Then came the technical part, which is hard because for this work we needed a complex light setup and we were shooting very remote, deep in the rainforest without electricity to power the lights. So we used a generator over night to charge the equipment.

Working with the people of Mbomo—the town where it was all shot—was very interesting because they have not had many encounters with storytelling in front of a camera. For them it was all very new and exciting.

That is why it was important to discuss with them how they saw themselves in the story. What I noticed is that the less people try to act and the more they are aware of their character, it will come out natural and the whole story can be told just by the eyes of the person.

What do you hope audiences take from your work?

I hope it will make people think of Congo about a place where there are incredible people with incredible stories. Often we think of Congo as a place of war and plagues. This project is intended to shine a light on the people and their stories and for people to think of the environmental importance of the Congo basin, the second largest rainforest in the world.

Pieter Henket, Riverbed, from the series Congo Tales, 2017. Courtesy Kahmann Gallery © the artist. Produced by Tales of Us.

If your work at PHOTO 2021 was a song, what would it be?

Myriam Makeba recorded this popular song connected to the riverbed picture from the twin sister series.

Nkeenge is singing from the riverbed to a mother to take care of her baby. Milele miani in kikongo means “my fabrics”, as in the fabrics that mothers’ transport their babies.

Which other artists or exhibitions are you looking forward to seeing at PHOTO 2021?

And finally, what advice would you give to your 15 year old self?

Come out of the closet, love is love. Being gay is a blessing. Follow your intuition, believe in the process.

Enjoy the journey, the end result is not the main prize.

Founding Partners
  • Bowness Family Foundation
  • Naomi Milgrom Foundation
Major Government Partners
  • City of Melbourne Arts Grants Program
  • Creative Victoria
Major Partners
  • Maddocks

PHOTO Australia respectfully acknowledges the traditional custodians of the lands upon which we work and live, and the rich and diverse Indigenous cultures across what is now called Australia. For over 60,000 years, Indigenous arts and culture have thrived on this sacred land, and we honour Elders and cultural leaders past and present. This was, and always will be, Aboriginal land.

01–24 March