My personal work seeks to render conspicuous certain themes which normally elude the mind’s eye. My preferred subjects include aspects of contemporary warfare and those activities of the modern State which are notable for their near invisibility, such as drones, electronic surveillance, nuclear testing, and Cold War ideology.
Photography—with it’s intuitive presumption of veracity—is the common medium of my projects, though I also use video and writing to deepen my engagement. My background in photojournalism informs my ethical values, but I no longer focus on news gathering. Rather, my projects often start with a nagging curiosity about a subject, and occasionally I am seized by an obsession to understand, document, and reveal that subject to a wider audience.
Underpinning my work is a belief that human activity becomes increasingly absurd and dangerous when it loses empathy. I agree with Albert Camus when he said,
“By definition, a government has no conscience. Sometimes it has a policy, but nothing more.”
Tomas van Houtryve is a photographer, artist and author who engages critical contemporary issues around the world.
Initially a student in philosophy, Tomas developed a passion for photography while enrolled in an overseas university program in Nepal. Immediately after graduation in 1999, he devoted himself fully to photojournalism, starting out with the Associated Press in Latin America. He was the first AP photographer to cover the military prison in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and in 2002 he traveled to Kandahar to photograph families of the Guantánamo inmates.
Tomas left AP in 2003 to concentrate on large-scale personal projects, starting with the Maoist rebellion in Nepal. The resulting photos of the rebels’ rise to power earned wide recognition including the Visa pour l’Image-Perpignan Young Photographer Award and the Bayeux Prize for War Correspondents.
In 2006 Tomas was named one of PDN’s 30 Emerging Photographers. He was awarded an Alicia Patterson Journalism Fellowship in 2008, and in 2010 he was named the POYi Photographer of the Year.
Tomas’ first monograph book, Behind the Curtains of 21st Century Communism, was published in Spring 2012. The seven-year-long project documents life in the last countries where the Communist Party remains in power: North Korea, Cuba, China, Nepal, Vietnam, and Laos. The series won the 2012 POYi World Understanding Award.
In 2013 Tomas began working on Blue Sky Days, a drone’s-eye view of America. Images from the project were first published in Harper’s as the largest photo portfolio in the magazine’s 164-year history. The series was awarded the 2015 ICP Infinity Award and honors from POYi, World Press Photo, the Photographic Museum of Humanity, and the White House News Photographer’s Association.
Tomas has had solo exhibitions of his work in Paris, New York City, Spain and Italy. His work is included in multiple private collections in Europe, Asia and the United States and in the permanent collections of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art and the Open Society Foundations. Many of his photographs of intense political actions are distinguished by their intimacy.
Tomas is frequently interviewed on radio and television and has appeared on the BBC, CNN, MSNBC, NPR, ARTE and France 5. He is a member of VII Photo since 2010.