Meet René van Bakel, a passionate storytelling photographer and book author with 20 years of experience behind him. He has visited more than 70 countries and has learned how to work under most diverse circumstances and with all kinds of people. From photographing camouflaged marines underground with the light of a single candle or seals on the Adriatic, taking over a ship and check it for smuggling guns to Bosnia, to photographing Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands, Andrea Bocelli, and Italian vineyards. Specialised in multiple fields of photography, René also has a passion for books, and he combines his storytelling photography and writing skills to creates high-quality corporate books.
Production Paradise: You have 20 years of experience in photography and you have worked in more than 70 countries. Tell us how did it all start and how did this intense traveling influence your career?
René: At the age of four I used to steal my dad’s Agfa analog photo camera and shoot the whole roll of film. My dad wasn’t very happy, of course. At the age of eight I got my first Kodak, which I was able to take to the test on a school trip to the Belgian Ardennes. From then on I kept filling album after album and when I was called for military duty, they gave me the opportunity to sign for a work/study contract meaning they paid the study and I got a reasonable wage at the same time. After finishing the study I was sent all around the world for the next 5 years, to war zones like Kuwait, Bosnia (including Srebrenica 2 years before the massacre), Ruanda, etc. Not the average tourist locations… However, it was not only hardship for me, as they also sent me to locations like Curacao, Italy, France, El Paso, San Diego, Alaska, Iceland, Norway, Brazil etc. – in total around 55 countries in those years.
It was the best training you can imagine. I learned to work under all circumstances and with all kinds of people. One day I photographed camouflaged marines underground with the light of a single candle during the liberation of Sarajevo, and the next I was photographing Queen Beatrix. Some days I was dangling harnessed under a helicopter to photograph Dutch navy seals (BBE) taking over a ship on its way to Bosnia to check it for smuggled guns, the next I was shooting a free fall exercise in the pyrenees in France, or Apache helicopters shooting rockets on a live firing range in Germany. Often I was on the road together with a journalist, always working out ways to create spellbinding stories which were published not only in our own media, but also worldwide in magazines, newspapers and books. A photo-story I created on the USS America guarding the „no fly zone“ over Bosnia, was published in the US Air Force magazine which was pretty special. Images of Apaches flying into the sunset and F16’s on the snow became billboard campaigns to attract new youngsters as the Dutch military service meanwhile had changed into a professional army. Most of the time I photographed with the layout in mind already. „This will be a double spread, this will be a cover so it has to be vertical with a bit of air to insert text … „ and so on.
I have worked with all kinds of cameras, such as 35 mm (both Nikon and Canon), 6×6 Hasselblad, 18 x 24 Linhof Technica camera. I worked in both stationary studios as well as with portable ones out there in the field. In the beginning, I processed my images in the darkroom and, already in 1994, also digitally. A nice anecdote: In Ruanda, we had to develop our black and whites at 6 in the morning because after that it was too hot. I dried my films protected from dust by a construction I created of mesh wire and plastic garbage bags. The negatives I scanned with a 35mm Nikon scanner and I processed the final images in Photoshop on an Apple MacBook with a hard disk of in total 32 Megabytes! We worked with jpgs (72 dpi, 2048 pixel longest side, quality 7). It took me eight hours to send four black and white images by satellite as there was no steady connection yet. But it was still faster than flying as that would have taken almost 20 hours. Two weeks later an airplane arrived, carrying newspapers in which those images I sent were printed. Back then this was a near miracle, and the entire troops were gathered around me to get a glimpse of it when I held it in my hands. It is quite a contrast to nowadays, where I can send more than 10 Gigabytes of images in around 7 minutes on the fast line through WLAN!
Production Paradise: What are you working on currently?
René: Currently I am working on a combined storytelling product campaign for Curtice Brothers Ketchup, which is quite nice as it is a very tasty, biological, vegan ketchup, cooked with the best ingredients in Italy. On top of that, since I was in Tuscany, I photographed Salvatore Ferragamo Jr. and Dario Cecchini for a book project which I have been working on for almost 15 years now but which is coming into the final stages now. I also created storytelling images for a villa near Arezzo, and last but not least I was in Milan and Lake Como, covering an exclusive event for a Ukrainian fashion designer – A very busy week!
Production Paradise: You mentioned working on a book project. What kind of a book is this?
René: In short it is about the concept of “La Dolce Vita”, traced back all the way to the Etruscans, and back to the present showing the parallels of their craftsmanship, agriculture, art, and cooking, still being practiced in modern-day Etruria (now roughly in Tuscany, Umbria and Latium). I believe the Etruscans were never destroyed but simply submerged into the Roman Empire, which they at least partially instated. The first Roman Kings were Etruscans. To underline my theories there will be interviews with archeologists, and world famous celebrities from the region, who all work in one of the fields that can be traced back to their Etruscan forebears. I try to get to the bottom of things, and I will also be able to reveal some new discoveries regarding the Etruscans along the way. It will be a combined historical, documentary book but also an entertaining one with lots of room for state of the art images that will give my audience a deep insight into La Dolce Vita way beyond the normal tourist roads. There is a brief preview of the book on my website.
It will be an opulent coffee table book and it’s not the first in my portfolio: I also created “450 years Spanish riding school”, with similar characteristics, which second edition is almost sold out.
Production Paradise: How can corporate clients take advantage of your experience and skills?
René: Well, the beauty of it is that I can use my experience in both storytelling and bookmaking also to create corporate books in all formats, but with one main characteristic: high quality. With a book like this, I can help a company or business visualise their entire story in a way that has been used by society to record stories of historical importance for thousands of years. That brings me to the big difference between a book and an article or even a billboard ad: an advertisement or an article is only briefly visible. If you are lucky for as long as one month. A book, on the other hand, is for eternity. If I look into my book shelves I only add books but I never throw them away. I still have books that I got more than 40 years ago and I still look into them, as they inspire me. It is a very positive way to present your company. It is an ideal business gift and on the other hand, it can even be sold to your fanbase. It is an ideal addition to your usual ads and advertorials as you have much more room to show your audience what your company is about. The passions behind it, the services you will bring, the personal stories and the fun your people have while at work, and so on and so forth.
In the process of creating the book, we also create tons of content for clients’ social media channels. Furthermore, the publication of the book (peak previews, the making of images and videos, book presentations etc.) leaves behind a huge social footprint, and it gives you a status too, as people are awed by the fact you have created something as important as a book.
Production Paradise: You also shoot video content. Tell us more about it.
René: I am capable of creating both smaller projects as well as huge commercials. For example, if we need equipment for a commercial of a huge truck driving on a desert road, I have a whole range of special equipment, as well as the people operating these available.
Production Paradise: Apart from being a professional photographer, you are also a writer and a visual storyteller. How does being a writer influence your style as a photographer and could you share with us an interesting story that you told through your photography?
René: It comes naturally. Because as a storytelling photographer I have to think about the story in front of me first before being able to create the image depicting it. I first have to grasp the story anyway, gather all the necessary information about my subject, conduct interviews and so on. All in order to understand what it is that has to be conveyed through my images. First I take in the general picture, the background, the surroundings, the smell of a place is also very important, to grasp the right emotion and all other details that might influence what I have to translate into images. But then I have to dig deeper, search for unique selling points and for the psychological drive behind it. So from there, it is just a small step to write things down. It’s helpful to first put things into words before turning them into visuals. An example of a nice visual story is that of the San Polino Vineyards. It differs from the normal vineyard stories because of the way they go about growing their wine using biodynamics and permaculture in a sustainable way. Gigi and Katia of San Polino do not use any chemicals to fight the diseases of their vines. Instead, they have planted trees around them and they constantly check their vineyards and remove the leaves that show mold. On top of that, it is a great story, they are great characters themselves. Almost as if I casted perfect models for the job.
Production Paradise: You have multiple photography specialties and a very diverse portfolio. Which one is your favorite specialty and why?
René: That is a hard one. The bottom line is that I NEED all those specialties to tell my stories. That is what it takes. If for example, I come to a luxury hotel and I can only take portraits, then how am I going to tell the story of that hotel? They will want to show off their beautiful architecture and unique location (architecture/landscape) just as well as what it would feel like if you visit the wellness area (environmental portraits) or the restaurant (food/product photography). Nowadays even if you have a product like coffee, you have to tell the entire story, convey the emotions that appeal to the coffee-drinking public and even to reassure them that this is not just coffee but that it is produced in a sustainable way. Of course, when producing books (at least the high-quality ones), we are talking about the “Champions League” of storytelling, as every single image in there should be a tear-dropper and has to function in the entire story. Twenty years of experience in working under all (and extreme) circumstances in more than 70 countries, high-quality equipment and the knowledge of how to use it, is what I have in my luggage and need to achieve that. I always try to further improve myself.
Production Paradise: You have shot portraits of many celebrities, from music and movie stars to presidents and monarchs, including Andrea Bocelli, Queen Beatrix, Bill Clinton, Sharon Stone, and Pope Benedict XVI. Could you share an interesting story on one of these assignments?
René: Like with all other portraits, there is a story behind each and every one of them. But if I have to choose, I’d say the interview I had with Andrea Bocelli. He is a great guy, has good humor and a great love and respect for living creatures. I photographed him in the pool area with his pet ara, which he simply calls Ara. His caressing of this bird shows his great sensitivity and simple love for life and living creatures. During the interview, which I conducted in Italian, I asked him about courage and after a couple of examples he came up with a funny anecdote, he said: “I was pretty restless as a boy, I developed a taste for challenges, basically doing (and if possible doing it better than others, even at the cost of great sacrifices) exactly those things, my parents and others who loved me tried to discourage me or prevent me from doing, which of course caused them many concerns. Later, being a young man, still having little responsibilities, I did not miss out on gathering strong emotional experiences by going skydiving and waterskiing and to experience the thrill of speed. Now I try to be a bit wiser, a little more prudent. But surely I still have curiosity, passion and maybe even a tiny bit of that recklessness in me.” This was only the prelude to a little bomb he was going to drop, because after he briefly paused he said: “I still vividly remember that together with my friend Adriano – as one of the many hopeless pranks we pulled – we went for a ride on a Vespa, downhill on two wheels, along the winding road towards Lajatico. I was driving and Adriano, sitting behind me, was my navigator.” Normally that is not a statement I would grade as worrying, but knowing that he is blind…
Production Paradise: How much freedom and space to bring your own ideas to life are left working on commissioned projects? Is it always easy to find a balance between your own idea and the client’s brief?
René: Some clients have already an entirely outlined storyboard and in that case, it is up to me to create the story they have in their head as perfectly as possible (or better), and on some occasions, I am free to create it as I feel. Being an extremely flexible person I have no problem with that. If a client has its own idea, I can conform to that, and for compensation, I create my own free projects.
Production Paradise: What do you consider your greatest accomplishment as a professional photographer?
René: There are several projects I am proud of, but it is hard to pick one single out of them as for every period there are special moments, special projects and great accomplishments. Like everyone else I have my ups and downs but also from the downs you learn, most of the time even more than from the ups. It is the journey I am making, the people I get to know and to be part and contribute to their stories. That is what gives me the most satisfaction of all. For example, I created the book “450 years Spanish Riding School”, I got international acknowledgments from Paris to India for it. That is a nice reward but it is the stories out there to be told that keep me going! The book I am working on right now is such a great adventure and it makes me feel privileged. Probably there will be moments when I am able to feel proud of when it is finished, but then again, I will probably already be working hard on my next project.
We would like to take this opportunity to thank René for this inspiring talk and the time he took for making it happen! If René’s photography caught your attention, we invite you to visit his portfolio page on Production Paradise and his website.
Check out more Portraiture and Celebrity Spotlight magazines and Interior, Architecture & Aerial Spotlight magazines, as well as the best creatives in Showcase Austria.