Children begin to absorb the beauty of nature from the moment they are born, and often they take this sensitivity with them through life. In the case of Kathleen Vanoppen, a love of nature awakened a special gift for photography. Come and read her endearing story!
Kathleen, where in the world did you grow up?
I grew up in a tiny town, Schaffen, in the Hageland, in the North East of the Belgian province of Flemish Brabant. Our street was, and till this day is, surrounded by farmland, tree-plantations and forests. I understand only now that it is an enormous privilege to grow up seeing the seasons change all around you, the blossoms in spring, seeing the wheat grow and ripen on the fields in summer, dotted with the red of the poppies and the glorious blue of the cornflowers, the scent of wet leaves and mushrooms in autumn and the dark, almost sinister, atmosphere of the short winter days.
What are some of your favorite memories from childhood?
Walking with my grandfather, hearing the awe in his voice when he pointed out a red kite soaring high above us. His endless patience with my "treasure" collecting along the way, always having something interesting to tell me about whatever it was that I picked up. I remember him telling me to be very quiet and listen to the different sounds of the forest, teaching me to differentiate the birds by their song.
I distinctly remember the smell of the yellowed sepia photographs his brother had sent from Congo. He was a priest there and decided to stay when Mobutu seized power and renamed it Zaire. And I remember wanting to go visit him there, I couldn't wait to grow up and start travelling.
I had such an idyllic childhood, there are so many memories... making "acorn soup" or "mud pudding" with my cousin (and making him eat it), driving a BMX, full tilt, through the forests with the neighbours, building a tree-house...
Do you remember one special place with particular fondness?
The "Steenkot", it was a ironstone quarry until it was closed down in 1950. I'm not sure why it held such fascination, but to me it was a fantasy forest. Maybe it had something to do with it having steep slopes I could climb in an otherwise very flat countryside.
How has nature inspired you to live the life you are currently living?
Since our mid-twenties my husband and I have been moving on average every three years, we've lived in 5 different countries on 4 continents, and while this kind of life offers a lot of perks, it can leave one rather rootless. But I found that even in mega-cities like Sao Paulo, peace can be found in nature, if you are willing to look for it. A fascination for the natural world made me pick up a camera in the first place and if there is anything that I would like to achieve by sharing my photographs, it is that people start looking at the precious little nature that is still left around them, to fall in love with it, to protect it. I'm well aware that I am very privileged to be able to travel to the world's most beautiful places, but the spiky fly zipping around the garden holds just as much value as the elephants in Africa. Nature is the greatest teacher there is and I would like to think it showed me the importance of an open mind and a loving heart.
Can you recommend a special book, or books, from your childhood?
The "Martine" series (in Dutch they are called "Tiny" pronounced TEEny) written by Gilbert Delahaye and illustrated by Marcel Marlier. Whatever "Tiny" did I had to do too, I started ballet lessons at 4 because of one of the books, I went horseback riding because of "Tiny", bike riding, gardening... it all started because of "Tiny". I would always ask my mum for one more story at bedtime, it drove her nuts, I'm sure, but she usually gave in. Once I started reading on my own, I couldn't get enough of children's encyclopedias.
Kathleen received her first camera to photograph a journey through Yemen some years ago, but remembers a time spent in South Africa as being significant in developing her interest in photography, thanks to the encouragement of an acquaintance at the University of Cape Town. She and her husband embarked on an adventure of exploration in what she calls “an ugly, boxy, baby blue Ford Meteor.” Kathleen ( a self-described amateur) has been documenting wildlife through photography for twenty five years, and is interested in many wildlife conservation projects, especially The Little Trunks Project, which raises money for the Game Rangers International elephant orphanage project in Zambia. You can learn more about them at @thelittletrunksproject . Kathleen has also donated some of her photos to The Little Tusks Project, which supports the efforts of The David Shepherd Foundation www.davidshepherd.org in working to save endangered species across Africa and Asia.
Make sure to check out some more of Kathleen’s images on Instagram at @kathleen.vanoppen and be prepared to be amazed at what you find there! Thank you so much, Kathleen, for taking time out to speak with Phonetic Planet about your special hobby, and we look forward to admiring many more of your photographs in the future!