Elles x Paris Photo - Bertien van Manen

in camera galerie

“It is easier for a woman to approach people and win their trust.”  

How did you become a photographer? Would you define yourself as a one?

As a model working in the fashion industry, I thought it was time to reverse the roles. I wanted to stand behind the camera rather than in front – which I found rather boring.

So I went over the line and became a photographer. Before that, I was already taking pictures of my children. Some of them were published in 2016, in a book called Easter and Oak Trees, published by MACK in London.

What drives you as a photographer?

I started working in fashion. Then, my friend and colleague Kenneth Hope gave me the book The Americans by Robert Frank. I was blown away. The rawness, the honesty and the complete lack of vanity were what I loved in his pictures. I gave up fashion and started to work for magazines and newspapers. After some time, I started longing for more depth in my work and worked on larger subjects: among them, a book on migrant women in Holland, Vrouwen te Gast, in which I documented women coming mostly from a North African, agrarian country-side, who were completely isolated in our western cities. I went on making books, about the ex-Soviet Union, a Hundred Summers a Hundred Winters, which won many prizes, China (East WindWest Wind), the Appalachian Mountains (Moonshine) and others.

In 2020 I had a big overall exhibition in the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. A retrospective album will be published in 2021 by MACK in London.

Do you think there is such a thing as a ‘woman’s gaze’ in photography? Is this something you can relate to?

Yes. However, many men are also able to photograph in a subtle way, with much empathy and concern. It is easier for a woman in general to approach people and win their trust, to go deeper and to feel and understand the unsaid. This way of working is usually more a need felt by women – I feel that need.

Has being a woman influenced your work as an artist in any way? 

For me, it has been quite easy. I personally have never felt any outcomes of being a woman. Once, though, as I started working as a documentary photographer, for a magazine, I was overwhelmed by all the men, with their impressive collection of cameras and lenses around their necks. I was the only woman in the room and I had just one Nikon with a 50-mil lens. We were all waiting to be allowed one by one into another room to make a portrait of the famous writer Doris Lessing. Each person had only two minutes to do so. I was terribly nervous, but when it was my turn, Doris Lessing started to talk to me, and ask me questions to ease my stress. I got all the time I needed to make her portrait.

Do you live off your art?


Which authors have inspired you? Are there any women photographers among them?

My favourite authors are Russian writers. I also greatly admire a woman photographer of Russian and Tatar origin: Ljalja Kuznetsova.

I like the French writer Kamel Daoud for his sensitive, subtle, and in the meantime realistic and strong descriptions of the desert, the heat, the tension, the thoughts and feelings of his subjects. Perhaps you could say in this way he sometimes has a female photographic view.

Bertien van Manen


Born in the Netherlands in 1942, Bertien van Manen currently lives in Amsterdam. Initially a fashion model, she stepped behind the camera to become a fashion photographer. In 1976, she discovered the Robert Frank book, The Americans, which drew her to documentary photography. Working in depth and with great sensitivity on her subjects, she began documenting Eastern European countries (A Hundred Summers, A Hundred Winters, 1991), China (East Wind, West Wind, 2001) and the Appalachians (Moonshine, 2014). Exhibited for the first time in 1977 in the Photographer’s Gallery in London, her works today form a part of numerous collections, among others the MoMA in New York, the Swiss Foundation for Photography, the Metropolitan Museum of Photography of Tokyo, or the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.

> En savoir plus sur l’artiste