• November 1, 2013

Artifacts: Photographer Tomas van Houtryve

Artifacts is a series about physical items that have meaning to photographers in the field. The items are styled, shot, and described by the photographers themselves.

Tomas van Houtryve started out as a philosophy student but quickly discovered he had a passion for photography and visual storytelling.

His longest project to date, which spanned seven years, took him to the world’s last remaining communist countries. Depicting how people live in these often overlooked places, van Houtryve’s work was published last year in a book entitled Behind the Curtains of 21st Century Communism.

Currently based in Paris, he’s now working on a story for National Geographic magazine about mining in Peru.

Van Houtryve’s Artifacts

Van Houtryve took our strange request in stride and dumped out his camera bag, removed a bit of gear to balance out his knick-knacks, then laid them all on sheet in his Parisian apartment.


Photographer Tomas van Houtryve's artifacts.
Photographer Tomas van Houtryve’s artifacts

1. International vaccination certificate. I’ve been vaccinated against everything imaginable, but I still managed to catch typhoid fever on a trip to Nepal.

2. Memory aid booklet from a hostile environments training class. I spent a week in the English countryside with retired British special forces soldiers learning how to deal with minefields, negotiate through armed checkpoints, and keep cool in a hostage situation.

3. Toy camera hand-made out of cans of Cuban Bucanero beer by a street vendor in Havana who dresses like Santa Claus all year long. When you hit the shutter the lid pops off and a smiley face springs out.

4. Polaroid PoGo printer. Great for making tiny prints in the field directly from the camera. I’ll use the prints to thank subjects or add them into my journal.

5. White khata scarf given to me by a Rinpoche in Nepal. It symbolizes purity and compassion. This one kept me safe while covering the civil war in Nepal, so I’ve continued to travel with it.

6. Black leather passport cover from the Republic of Kalmykia.

7. Gandhi figurine for inspiration, and a toy string doll which reminds me of my son.

8. Porcelain figurine of a French peasant woman from a galette des rois, or king cake. (In a French Epiphany tradition, if by chance you get the slice of pie with a trinket inside, you are crowned king of the party.)

9. Cloth figurine of a Peruvian mother and child.

10. Ricoh GXR digital camera mounted with a 50mm Leica lens from the 1950s.

11. In-flight safety cards from a few dodgy airlines, including North Korea’s Air Koryo, Nepal’s ill-fated Cosmic Air, and a Cubana card for an aging Soviet Yak-42 airliner.

12. Leica M digital camera with a 35mm lens. Probably 85 percent of the photos in my portfolio were taken with a fixed 35mm lens.

13. NGM press card and a business card with the name of my photo agency.

14. A Mao Zedong lighter. I don’t smoke, but I found this so kitschy and odd that I started collecting other unlikely lighters during my travels. The camouflage one is from the U.S. military base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

15. Wooden prayer beads given to me by one of my workshop students in China.

16. Silver bracelet from Nepal.

17. Red-and-white beaded Santeria bracelet from Cuba.

18. Two Moleskin notebooks. One is for captions and interviews, the other is a personal journal.



Van Houtryve’s Work

Picture of nurse pushing a bicycle
A nurse pushes her son’s bicycle as he walks alongside in Cienfuegos, Cuba, on March 17, 2009.
Picture of man walking through snow in North Korea
A man is illuminated by the headlights of a car while he walks through the snow at night in Pyongyang, North Korea (DPRK) on February 25, 2008.
Picture of young women in Chinese communist league uniforms
An all girls group of Young Communist League members walks past a statue of Chairman Mao Zedong in front of the Yan’an Revolutionary Memorial Hall on November 7, 2009, in Yan’an, China. Yan’an is promoted as the “revolutionary holy land” and offers a number of museums, monuments, and other “red tourism” sites supported by the Chinese government.

Find more of Tomas van Houtryve’s work on his website.

Follow Kate LaRue and Jody Sugrue on Instagram.

There are 28 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. David
    February 19, 2014

    Photos in the article is taken with a 5D Mark I and II though. 35mm, 100mm & 50mm. Nice article, great shots 🙂

  2. Sajjad akbar
    December 28, 2013

    Nice cemra good photto giraphi

  3. sralman308
    December 24, 2013

    Loved the way you managed your colors in the shots.

  4. amadali
    November 8, 2013

    beutyfull so nice of you….

  5. Isaac Hernandez
    November 7, 2013

    Thank you for sharing the North Korea portfolio. The image of the woman with the flowers in the subway stairway is engraved in my mind. And thank you for sharing your artifacts. I have a Bucanero camera from Cuba as well; I’ve used it to break the ice when photographing some assignments.

  6. Gus Lim
    November 6, 2013

    I read your article 21st Century Communism. It was very impressive.
    Can you assist me with some tips becomming a photojournalist in 3rd world countries and what sort of features/stories to look for once you are there. Thank you.

  7. Tomas VH
    November 6, 2013

    @Nius You can see more of my photos from North Korea here: http://newdev.viiphoto.com/articles/north-korea-workers-paradise/

    @Jorge All photojournalists use Photoshop to process most images, but ethically we aren’t allowed to alter the content or manipulate the reality of the scene. We are allowed to do minor color and contrast corrections. I personally try to get the image as perfect as possible in the camera at the moment I take the shot, so I don’t have to waste time doing color corrections on a computer screen.

  8. Jeremy Chivas
    November 6, 2013

    What an amazing collection of objects! I’ve been to Cuba too and I loved the culture so much. I have a toy camera just like that Cuban one, only its made of Fanta cans.

  9. Gail
    November 5, 2013

    Nice touch adding the toy camera for smiles.

  10. Isaac Hernandez
    November 5, 2013

    Really fun piece. It makes me want to do an artifacts blog post with my mementos. I happen to have a Bucaneros beer can camera from Cuba. I have used it before to break the ice on some photo assignments. And I own an old Leica 50mm lens. I may have to get a Ricoh GXR digital camera to mount the lens to. What else would I add to my artifacts? A hat, a book by Julio Cortazar, a sketch book, oil pastels…
    Thank you very much for sharing.

  11. Alfonso Bresciani
    November 5, 2013

    Looks sweet ! 35 prime and 50 prime would do it!

  12. Peter
    November 5, 2013

    Your bag shows exactly why it is one doesn’t need the best and most expensive gear to shoot amazing photos!

  13. Zappfactor6
    November 4, 2013

    Most impressive. It’s time for a documentary using your photography.

  14. Siobhan
    November 4, 2013

    I enjoyed the look into your camera bag. Though, I feel bad for the person that sits in the seat in which you removed the safety card.

  15. Stephen
    November 4, 2013

    Amazing pics. the mountain shot is as incredible as the korean. Love the others too, but not as much

  16. nius
    November 3, 2013

    Great picture!
    How can I see your complete pictures about North Korea?

  17. Kate
    November 3, 2013

    I love the picture with the guy in the tree- it really makes you wonder what was happening before the picture was taken and how he got up that high! It is a real gift to be able to tell stories with just a picture- I wish it was one I had.

  18. jorge c cruz r
    November 3, 2013

    two great pictures,are they shown as taken? or are they photo shop proceesed?

  19. Mike
    November 3, 2013

    Interesting! I hope that everyone’s Sunday is going both great and safe, plus I also hope that they had a happy Halloween!

  20. David Highers
    November 3, 2013

    The North Korea pictures are a treasure. i would like to see all of them for sure.

  21. Mary Beth
    November 3, 2013

    As another former student of philosophy with an interest in photography, I am struck by the degree to which at least 2 of these images suggest the core existential condition of being alone.

  22. giorgio scorbi
    November 3, 2013

    Tomas, congratulations, your photos are beautiful, no need to comment on them speak for themselves.

  23. K.
    November 3, 2013

    This is really cool! I want to do that when I grow up- photography and biology. My favorite picture is the second one. 🙂

  24. Giorgio Taverniti
    November 3, 2013

    Thanks for your very interesting work

  25. Wave Dancer
    November 3, 2013

    “..the man in the snow” and “.. the nurse..” 2 mastershots.. congratulation!

  26. Dmitri Poukhlov
    November 3, 2013

    Gentle correction, Republic of Kalmykia is not a separate sovereign entity, being a subject in the Russian Federation. Hence it cannot have its separate passport and black passport cover is one of the many varieties of covers offered in local kiosks and small stores.

  27. Melanie Ann Honneysett
    November 3, 2013

    I am interested on anything to do with North Korea as I have just read 2 books and really feel for these people.

  28. Tho Huynh
    November 3, 2013

    If you can tell and show Capitalism world to stop Starvation North Korean Chldren in the Name of Kim Young Un

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