Bebe Blanco Agterberg: developing a photographic style

The acclaimed Dutch documentary photographer and recent graduate explains how she found her professional voice and why fitting into a box is no longer on her agenda.
A large group of people stand near a graffitied concrete wall, shot in black and white.

This image is taken from Dutch documentary photographer Bebe Blanco Agterberg's project A Mal Tiempo, Buena Cara (In Bad Weather, A Good Face). Bebe's work focuses on blending art with documentary photography in a way designed to question our idea of truth. "I like to play with presenting work in a very classical way, while asking the viewer to question whether what they see is real or not," she says. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III (now succeeded by the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV) with a Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 STM lens at 1/125 sec, f/3.5 and ISO640. © Bebe Blanco Agterberg

When documentary photographer Bebe Blanco Agterberg was 12, her mother, who was born in Spain during the dictatorship of General Francisco Franco but was later adopted and raised in the Netherlands, appeared on a Dutch TV show that helps reunite people with their biological families. Bebe's mother had never been able to discuss her past, simply because, until she was reunited with her relatives, she had never known what had happened to her – or why.

Bebe was clearly deeply affected by her mother's experience. The absence that we try to fill with information and the process of reconstruction would later become a recurring theme in Bebe's work, perhaps most prominently in A Mal Tiempo, Buena Cara (In Bad Weather, A Good Face). The documentary project, shot in black and white, reflected on the transition period in Spain following Franco's death in 1975 and explored how "forgetting" was used as a political tool during the country's shift to democracy.

Finding a distinct look

Bebe's journey from student to documentary photographer was not straightforward. She studied applied photography and communications in the Netherlands for two years before realising she wanted to focus on creating stories, at which point she switched to the Royal Academy of Art in The Hague. "I had to change everything I'd learned before," she explains. "The focus was less on the final image, and more on the process and what you need to tell your story."

Bebe began to hone her style during her studies, most notably on a field trip to Serbia when she was tasked with creating a project in just one week. "We had time to do research, but we had to shoot it in four days. It was a really intense assignment," she says.

The result was Herocity, a series exploring how the Serbian city of Novi Sad was faring 43 years after being awarded the title "City of Heroes" by the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in 1975. "I was doubting whether to really go for it in a photojournalistic way or if I could bend the rules a little," says Bebe. "I was a bit afraid of doing that – I felt like I needed to fit a box. The leading theme became atrophy, using the city as a metaphor. It was the first time I stepped away from the more classical documentary approach."

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Taking part in the Canon Student Development Programme was also invaluable in helping Bebe to push her photography to the next level. "What was really nice was to meet other students from different schools – I met a lot of people from Belgium who I'm still in contact with," she says. "We talked about work, but we also talked about how to deal with certain topics, and the different strategies that you can use. The programme also has a professional side to it, so you are introduced to curators. It was a big help in giving me that first push into the professional field."

A black and white photo of photographer Bebe Blanco Agterberg, dressed in black, sitting on a stool and staring at the camera.

A recent self-portrait of Bebe, taken in signature black and white. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with a Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 STM lens at 1/125 sec, f/6.3 and ISO100. © Bebe Blanco Agterberg

An arm in a herringbone jacket dangles out of the window of a car door, shot in black and white.

Bebe cites photographers Weegee, Piero Martinello, Dylan Hausthor, Paul Guilmoth and Sohrab Hura as role models, but says she also draws inspiration from other mediums. "I studied filmmakers as well, so I wasn't just in that photography bubble," she says. This image is from Bebe's Actors Rule the World collection. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with a Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 STM lens at 1/125 sec, f/10 and ISO100. © Bebe Blanco Agterberg

Power struggle: politics, media and people

Bebe has always been fascinated by the relationship between politics, the media and the people – how the three opposing forces feed off each other but are also involved in a constant power struggle. Her self-directed projects are often inspired by something in the media that acts as a kind of trigger.

"I'm really keen on what truth means in modern times, but I don't believe the facts are the only way to get to a truth," she says. "I think there's also a very big power in oral history and opening up in conversation.

"I'm intrigued by systems that are presented as truth," she adds. "I am not an academic, I am a maker, so I use photography as a research tool. I often also collaborate with scientists and writers. After the research, I need to physically see what is there, and that's also where my camera comes in."

Bebe shoots all her projects on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III (now succeeded by the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV) but switches between different lenses. "I use the Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM, the Canon EF 35mm F1.4L USM [now succeeded by the Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L II USM] and I always have a zoom lens with me – the Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM – and a reportage flash, the Canon Speedlite 430EX III-RT."

Bebe says the light weight of her gear is crucial for enabling her to work quickly and efficiently. "They're also made with very strong materials, and I'm not the most careful person in the world, so that's really important for me," she says. "The kit can also handle different light and bad weather. I often still work at night, so it's also great for that."

A top-down shot showing several rows of white helmeted police officers blocking the path of a group of protesters carrying purple and pink banners.

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Experimenting with artificial light

Artificial light is a strong characteristic of Bebe's photography, imbuing her work with a cinematic quality. It was a technique she employed for Actors Rule the World, a project focusing on Seventeen Moments of Spring, a Soviet TV show which was made as part of a drive to glorify the work of KGB agents and attract new recruits.

It took a while, though, for Bebe to warm to artificial lighting. "When I was younger, I hated flash. I thought the images always looked harsh and bleached," she says. As she got older, she started experimenting with night photography, for which she bought her first flash. But it wasn't until her father gave her a photobook of his own work that she really became obsessed with artificial light.

"It was a different way of working with your camera," she says. "I really liked his pictures and wanted to create that feeling in my imagery. By studying light, and really looking at images used within TV and movies, I got better."

An old-fashioned TV and vase of flowers on a corner table, against patterned wallpaper and curtains. Photographed in black and white.

Bebe's study of classical photography helped her learn effective artificial lighting techniques, which, despite initial misgivings, she now regularly incorporates in her work. "For two years I went to a very technical school. We had to do a lot of light assignments and study classical photographers. They gave you all the tools and then it was up to you to make it your own," she says. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with a Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 STM lens at 1/100 sec, f/8 and ISO250. © Bebe Blanco Agterberg

Two topless men lie on their backs on the floor, their arms around each other's chest and neck. Photographed in black and white.

An image from Bebe's Actors Rule the World project. "When I work with actors I like observing what's happening in front of me when I'm not taking photos," she says. "I often keep on shooting, so that's why I work with light materials and light gear." Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with a Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 STM lens at 1/125 sec, f/5.6 and ISO500. © Bebe Blanco Agterberg

Breaking free of boundaries

Despite the recognition she has received so far – in 2021, DuPho, the Dutch Photographers association, awarded her its Student SO Documentary prize – Bebe says her distinctive style hasn't always worked in her favour. "My work is very specific and quite political, so maybe sometimes I'm a bit hard to define for someone who is commissioning. What I do gain from my specific style is that a lot of people who come to me want to work on long-term projects. And not only from the photography field, but also from outside. They find it fascinating to work with a medium that is somewhere in between documentary and fiction."

Bebe has made a concerted effort not to worry too much about how her work is defined. "I'm still always struggling to figure out what box I belong in – which I'm trying to give up on now, because I don't think it's that important for me," she says. "I'm now working on a project not only with photography, but also with sound and video. It's going to be mixed media and it's also going to be presented much more as a set of experiments instead of a full, finished series."

As for advising other student photographers who want to follow in her footsteps, Bebe recommends honing your style but also ensuring that you don't become constrained by it. "Experiment in school, but don't think that what you're doing now is the only thing you could do afterwards," she says. "Having a style is great, but you have to match that with the work you're making. You need to look at a story and think, is the style you're working in now going to fit that story or should you adjust it a little? Some elements will always stay, but it doesn't need to be set in stone."

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