Artifacts: Photographer Tomas van Houtryve

Artifacts is a series about physical items that have meaning to photographers in the field. The items are styled, shot, and described by the photographers themselves.

Tomas van Houtryve started out as a philosophy student but quickly discovered he had a passion for photography and visual storytelling.

His longest project to date, which spanned seven years, took him to the world’s last remaining communist countries. Depicting how people live in these often overlooked places, van Houtryve’s work was published last year in a book entitled Behind the Curtains of 21st Century Communism.

Currently based in Paris, he’s now working on a story for National Geographic magazine about mining in Peru.

Van Houtryve’s Artifacts

Van Houtryve took our strange request in stride and dumped out his camera bag, removed a bit of gear to balance out his knick-knacks, then laid them all on sheet in his Parisian apartment.

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Photographer Tomas van Houtryve’s artifacts

1. International vaccination certificate. I’ve been vaccinated against everything imaginable, but I still managed to catch typhoid fever on a trip to Nepal.

2. Memory aid booklet from a hostile environments training class. I spent a week in the English countryside with retired British special forces soldiers learning how to deal with minefields, negotiate through armed checkpoints, and keep cool in a hostage situation.

3. Toy camera hand-made out of cans of Cuban Bucanero beer by a street vendor in Havana who dresses like Santa Claus all year long. When you hit the shutter the lid pops off and a smiley face springs out.

4. Polaroid PoGo printer. Great for making tiny prints in the field directly from the camera. I’ll use the prints to thank subjects or add them into my journal.

5. White khata scarf given to me by a Rinpoche in Nepal. It symbolizes purity and compassion. This one kept me safe while covering the civil war in Nepal, so I’ve continued to travel with it.

6. Black leather passport cover from the Republic of Kalmykia.

7. Gandhi figurine for inspiration, and a toy string doll which reminds me of my son.

8. Porcelain figurine of a French peasant woman from a galette des rois, or king cake. (In a French Epiphany tradition, if by chance you get the slice of pie with a trinket inside, you are crowned king of the party.)

9. Cloth figurine of a Peruvian mother and child.

10. Ricoh GXR digital camera mounted with a 50mm Leica lens from the 1950s.

11. In-flight safety cards from a few dodgy airlines, including North Korea’s Air Koryo, Nepal’s ill-fated Cosmic Air, and a Cubana card for an aging Soviet Yak-42 airliner.

12. Leica M digital camera with a 35mm lens. Probably 85 percent of the photos in my portfolio were taken with a fixed 35mm lens.

13. NGM press card and a business card with the name of my photo agency.

14. A Mao Zedong lighter. I don’t smoke, but I found this so kitschy and odd that I started collecting other unlikely lighters during my travels. The camouflage one is from the U.S. military base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

15. Wooden prayer beads given to me by one of my workshop students in China.

16. Silver bracelet from Nepal.

17. Red-and-white beaded Santeria bracelet from Cuba.

18. Two Moleskin notebooks. One is for captions and interviews, the other is a personal journal.

Van Houtryve’s Work

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A nurse pushes her son’s bicycle as he walks alongside in Cienfuegos, Cuba, on March 17, 2009.
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A man is illuminated by the headlights of a car while he walks through the snow at night in Pyongyang, North Korea (DPRK) on February 25, 2008.
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An all girls group of Young Communist League members walks past a statue of Chairman Mao Zedong in front of the Yan’an Revolutionary Memorial Hall on November 7, 2009, in Yan’an, China. Yan’an is promoted as the “revolutionary holy land” and offers a number of museums, monuments, and other “red tourism” sites supported by the Chinese government.

Find more of Tomas van Houtryve’s work on his website.

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