Dutch photographer Lotte van Raalte has always been fascinated by people: how we act, what we look like and how we make decisions. But it has been only after working on her book Body that she’s found a clear path for her career: the research towards women and what it means to be a woman.
Why did you choose fashion photography?
It was a bit of a struggle to decide between fashion and documentary. But I knew that I didn’t want to focus on the negative things that are happening in the world, because I’m someone who thinks a lot, and feels a lot, and I was afraid that it would make me too depressed. So in the end I chose fashion photography to show more of the beautiful things in life, if that makes sense.
I always had this love/hate relationship with the commercial fashion industry, because it can be very superficial, empty and unrealistic. But at the same time there are huge opportunities to tell honest stories, if you work with the right people and reach a broad audience as well. .
How are you feeling, creatively, now that lockdowns have ended?
I had just published my book Body, I was about to travel to Mexico for my first film, and then all of a sudden I was stuck at home. But it was very interesting. I never had that feeling of three months without anyone expecting something from me, or me expecting something from myself. The early morning walks became the highlight of my days and I focused even more on nature. I started to pay more attention to spring, and how nature slowly changes. It made a lot of sense, because my book Body is about the nature of the female body. Its cycles, its impermanence. Right now I feel very calm, creative and excited about this time and near future.
Why did you decide that you wanted to publish a book on female bodies?
It started very spontaneously. I was working for a natural beauty brand in Morocco and on the last day, I was editing images by the pool when I looked at my producer and I started to photograph her skin - she has really nice freckles. By the end of the shoot, she was completely naked in the pool and then I awed ('what does that mean?'). I have always liked getting very close to people, preferably skin-deep, but I never once thought that I would enjoy nude photography. However, it made so much sense, looking at her, knowing she had never been in front of the camera and being so incredibly liberated, intimate, vulnerable and strong at the same time.
Right after that experience I posted on Instagram and Facebook that I was looking for people to pose nude for a personal project, and I got so many replies. The result is a document of 46 women, that shows a them in all sorts of ways, in body types and ages, in characters, in colours, in shapes and textures. But I also captured each of them as individuals, and I interviewed each of them, and I think that’s actually what makes it strong.
You’ve mentioned that for most of these women, posing naked was kind of a liberating experience. Could you explain a bit further?
I’m happy with the final results and the images, but exactly this point was actually the most important one for me. Especially with the women that I photographed in nature. Once they took their clothes off, these women just opened up and they just were. It made so much sense, because we are part of nature. So being in your complete most vulnerable, strong, and natural way, without any layers, without any masks, it was just beautiful to see. Actually, a few months after I published Body I was photographed myself by a really good friend of mine just because I wanted to experience what those women had experienced myself. I then understood even better why this was so important to have experienced – it made me feel very free, happy and love my body even more.
What do you find fascinating about the skin?
It’s the biggest organ of our bodies, and separates the inside world from the outside world, it’s a doorway. If you look at it, it has all these pores. We breathe through it, we age through it, there are scars, little hairs, birthmarks. Everyone has skin, but everyone’s is different, with all their individual shapes, colours and textures. Also, we sense through our skin. So if someone touches or hurts us, the skin feels so many things, which is fascinating to me.
Stretch marks, wrinkles, freckles, scars, we all have ours, but there’s a cultural obsession with perfection that too often leaves them out of focus. How do you feel about this ideal?
It’s a shame that people have such a difficult relationship with death, they don’t see things in a cyclic way but more in a linear, perfect line that abruptly stops. I see things in waves, and cycles; everything is impermanent, that’s the only constant thing.
We as people want everything to be perfect all the time, be happy all the time, and look perfect all the time, and that’s not natural. It’s very important that we celebrate and embrace our bodies as the vehicles that make us do everything. Without our bodies we are nothing, just floating energy. I would like to contribute to a different way of looking at our bodies and create more contentment and happiness.
How would you define beauty?
Maybe within my work, both my photographs and my films, I’ve learned that it’s a moment that you can’t describe in words. It’s just when everything comes together. I know that everything always changes but in a brief moment you capture something that is there in that particular place and time. Beauty for me is also something very pure and honest, without any of the layers or masks that people think they need to put up. Nature doesn’t put them up, it just is.
You’ve said before that if we paid more attention to nature, we would understand the human body much better. What have you learned when photographing nature?
Everything is always changing, very slowly, but it’s always changing. Even though we maybe don’t see things move when we look at a plant for example, it is changing. And it happens the same with the human body. It’s so easy to criticize others and especially your own body, but when would you ever say: ‘Oh, my god! That’s such an ugly tree, I don’t understand why that root is going that way, or that branch?’ No, that’s just how it is, that’s how nature is. And it is exactly the same with our bodies, perfect in all the imperfections. We need to take care of nature just as we need to take care of our bodies.
What personal projects are you working on at the moment?
Right now I’m at the start of the edit process of my first short documentary, a film about Mexican women in a ‘macho’ culture, shot in Oaxaca. I went to Mexico right after my graduation and immediately fell in love, it felt like home from the first day. Years later I went on an artist residency to Oaxaca. The plan was to start writing a film, but that didn’t happen at all. I did a lot of workshops from working with clay to natural dyeing and I met so many inspiring women. Two months after I got back, it suddenly hit me: ‘I need to make a film about them.’ I started to write down why I wanted to make this film. The starting point was all these claims about female empowerment and the future is female that are often used in commercial campaigns. It’s good that we focus on gender equality and empowerment, but what exactly does it mean to be a (strong) woman? (I always ask a lot of questions all the time.) And to me, the women that I met in Mexico were so connected to their roots, their spirituality, their bodies, their arts. Aligned and pure.
Of course - as I did more and more research - there’s always next layers to be found. Behind all the strength there is also a lot of pain; a lot of (sexual) abuse and inequality, which is still happening all over the world. There are wounds between our masculine and feminine sides in society, but also in our inner worlds. So it’s also about the feminine and the masculine sides that are out of balance within ourselves. Last but not least, it’s about our relationship with mother earth, how we as people are part of nature but we treat our nature in a horrible way. We should all get more in touch with the deepest part of ourselves; our spirit, which is the masculine and feminine as a whole, that’s what we are in essence. Only then we can start to heal all of the above.
Photography by Lotte van Raalte