this photographer shoots intimate moments in the lives of total strangers

Desiré van den Berg followed strangers from all over the world and took amazing pictures of their lives.

by Olga Kortz
14 October 2015, 2:10pm

Dutch photographer Desiré van den Berg is fascinated by people she doesn't know. Travelers, passersby, total strangers: she's always wondering who those people are, where they're going and why she runs into them. Sometimes she even talks to them. Last year, she shot portraits of Japanese B-Stylers in Tokyo boutiques, and she has an eye for capturing outlandish street style. Her most recent project is Do Disturb, a book which documents trips through her hometown, Amsterdam -- as well as London, New York and Paris -- on which she asked strangers to spend the day with her. Often, she discovered, a simple smile or a few words is all it takes for someone to open up. Published earlier this month, the book is a beautiful travel diary made up of intimate snapshots from the lives of strangers, which are often even stranger than you'd think.

How did people react when you asked them to spend the day with you?
It depended on how I approached them. I always tried to observe the person before talking to them. Some of them already made eye contact or smiled at me first, which made it a lot easier. Sometimes I really wanted someone, because I was sure he or she had a nationality I hadn't photographed yet. I really wanted a diverse group of people in the book. It wasn't always easy. One day I saw a Saudi Arabian couple walking into a hotel lobby. It took me a while to come up with a plan. The woman wore a beautiful black hijab, but I was worried that they might not appreciate it when I asked her to pose for me. The last thing I wanted was to make people feel uncomfortable. At first, the couple didn't want to be involved, but eventually they liked the idea and thanked me for approaching them. That's how it went most of the time: people were reserved at first, but it wasn't unusual if we ended up in a cocktail bar at the end of the day.

What surprised you most?
I had no idea what to expect. Before I started I had a conversation with my publisher, Mendo, about where this idea could lead to. We actually didn't think the people I'd meet would have such special stories to tell. But everyone was so unique: the Japanese nun on her way to her community in Benin, Africa; the American businesswoman who detailed her life as a pole dancer and showed me videos of her in sexy outfits dancing around a pole in her house. You don't know what's going on behind all the faces of the strangers you meet. I met a German couple on the New York subway on the way to their own wedding. There was a heavy metal girl from Andorra, with lots of tattoos and color lenses, who worked as a pharmacist during the week.

Which person inspired you the most?
Everyone in the book moved me in some way. But the walker from Japan who still makes pilgrimages at 73 really stole my heart! He was such a special and sweet man. I hope to grow old like that, and stay full of energy. I was also moved by how some men spoke about their loved ones - like the backpacker from Sweden whose girlfriend lived in Venezuela, or the guy from Detroit who could marry the love of his life, because gay marriage had finally been legalized.

Was it hard to say goodbye and move on, after you spent time with someone?
Absolutely. Sometimes I spent all night chatting with someone, even if I had to get up at 5am for another shoot. I'm still in touch with one girl from Cameroon; she sent me such a special email after I took her picture in Amsterdam. She explained that she had been following me on social media for a while, and that she finally had the courage to contact me. A few years ago, she was diagnosed with cancer and she's had an incredibly hard time. In the email, she asked if I wanted to shoot her scars from the treatment. She had finally reached a point where she could accept how the cancer has affected her body and mind. That email really touched my soul. Who would have thought that my book could do such wonderful things?

The book also contains intimate settings - you show one couple in their bedroom. How does it feel to be part of a moment like that?Stephanie and Josh were an incredibly cute couple I met in London. You could tell in an instant that they were madly, deeply in love with each other. It didn't take long before they told me about how they met and how Josh proposed last Christmas. I took their first picture at sunset, right after I met them. We really hit it off and they were so excited to share their stories with me, and that I could join them in their bed and take pictures of them having breakfast.

There was also a ballroom dancer from Greece who I photographed while she was lying in bed in her pyjamas. And I met a girl with a huge tattoo on her back in Paris who took off her bra so that I could capture the entire thing. These moments were all very intimate, but I felt really at ease. It's amazing how you can bond with a person you've just met.

I'm fascinated by the picture of the two sisters, LylaGrace and AnnaKate. Who are they?
I met them walking into a hotel in New York. They were carrying gigantic suitcases and their mom was the proudest mom I had ever seen. The girls are talented dancers and have performed at Disney World, so I didn't have to ask them twice whether they would model for me. They were so flexible - you should have seen what they could do with their legs! Their mom is like their tour manager, and they travel through America to perform and train. They were in New York for a training session at the Broadway Dance Center, and to watch The Rockettes. When I asked if I could take their picture, they ran off and came back all dolled up. That was so cute. Their mom always carried a gigantic makeup case with her.

Which picture are you most proud of?
I fell in love with the picture of the girl with the back tattoo. Who would have thought that I would get such chance like that? It's not every day that you get to photograph a stranger in such a private setting. I'm also very proud of the picture of the Indonesian girl surrounded by bubbles. I gave the man who was blowing the bubbles a few dollars, and he made sure they would float around her. There's no way you could capture the exact shapes and motion of the image again, which makes it really special. Another personal favorite is the picture of the Saudi Arabian man and the little dog. The man struck such a serious, tough pose, but the second that dog ran past, his soft side appeared. Those moments are the most precious ones to me.


Text Olga Kortz
Photography Desiré van den Berg

Desiré van den Berg
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