My personal work seeks to render conspicuous certain themes that elude the mind’s eye. Reoccurring themes include borders, memory, surveillance, identity and the relationship between the individual and the State.
In my practice, I find resonance in these words of James Baldwin:
“Societies never know it, but the war of an artist with his society is a lover's war, and he does, at his best, what lovers do, which is to reveal the beloved to himself and, with that revelation, to make freedom real.”
Photography—with it’s intuitive presumption of veracity—is the starting point for most of my works. Many of my projects begin with a nagging curiosity about a subject, and occasionally I am seized by an obsession to understand, document, and reveal that subject.
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 Paris based artist, photographer and filmmaker whose major works interweave investigative journalism, philosophy and metaphor. Van Houtryve makes images using a wide range of processes, ranging from 19th-century wet plate collodion to thermal imaging and Augmented Reality. His projects challenge our notions of identity, memory and power, often by highlighting the slippage of wartime structures into everyday life.
Van Houtryve’s works are widely exhibited including at C/O Berlin (2021), Baudoin Lebon gallery, Paris (2019), BOZAR Centre for Fine Arts, Brussels (2018), International Center for Photography Museum, New York (2017), Museum für Fotografie, Berlin (2017), Galerija Vartai, Vilnius (2017), Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art, Winston-Salem (2016-2017), Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City (2016-2017), British Museum, London (2016), Anastasia Photo Gallery, New York (2016), Fotografisk Center, Copenhagen (2016), Nikola Rukaj Gallery, Toronto (2016), Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum, St. Louis (2016), East Wing Gallery, Dubai (2015), Museum of Contemporary Photography, Chicago (2015), Drents Museum, Assen (2015), Arts Santa Monica, Barcelona (2015) and other venues.
Van Houtryve’s projects have gained significant attention among cultural institutions and the press. In 2016, the International Center of Photography broke with decades of tradition and acquired Van Houtryve’s Traces of Exile video installation, making it the first video added to the ICP’s permanent collection of over 200,000 prints. In 2014, van Houtryve’s Blue Sky Days series was published in Harper’s as the largest photo portfolio in the magazine’s 164-year history. James Estrin of the New York Times stated that “Blue Sky Days is one of the most important photo essays done in the last few years. It tackles issues that are very difficult to photograph but central to modern existence—privacy, government intrusion and modern antiseptic warfare.”
A selection of van Houtryve’s formal honors include the Roger Pic Award (2019), CENTER Producer’s Choice Award (2018), CatchLight / Pulitzer Fellowship (2017), Hasselblad Foundation Research and Development Award (2017), ICP Infinity Award (2015), World Press Photo, Second Prize (2015), Aaron Siskind Fellowship (2014), POY World Understanding Award (2012), POY Photographer of the Year (2010), Bayeux Prize for War Correspondents (2006), Visa pour l’Image Young Photographer Award (2006) and numerous others.
Van Houtryve was selected to document the Notre-Dame cathedral of Paris after it was devastated by fire in 2019. With rare access to the rebuilding of the Paris icon, he made images using a wide range of techniques: 19th-century wet plate collodion, traditional photo reportage, and aerial drone videography. His resulting photos were published as the cover story for the February 2022 issue of National Geographic magazine.
Van Houtryve’s 2019 monograph, Lines + Lineage, was published by Radius Books. The work takes aim at America’s collective amnesia of history, addressing the missing photographic record of the period when Mexico ruled what we now know as the American West. A documentary film adaptation of the book, co-directed with Mathilde Damoisel, avant-premiered in November 2021 under the title Far West, The Hidden History.
His first book, Behind the Curtains of 21st Century Communism, was published in 2012. The seven-year photographic project documents life in the last countries where the Communist Party remains in power: North Korea, Cuba, China, Nepal, Vietnam, and Laos.
Van Houtryve regularly devotes time to educational outreach. In partnership with the Pulitzer Center, he has given high school and college presentations in California, Colorado, District of Colombia, Maryland, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Virginia and France. Van Houtryve is also regularly invited for paid speaking engagements. In 2015, at a private event where he spoke before chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov, van Houtryve revealed how he infiltrated a delegation to North Korea.
Van Houtryve has also made television appearances on the BBC, CNN, NBC’s Today Show, ARTE and France 24. He is an Emeritus Member of the VII Agency.