The Portland wanderer goes missing – Bieke Depoorter’s best photograph | Photography | The Guardian

2023-03-23 15:11:03 By : Ms. kity yang

‘I met Michael on the streets of Portland, Oregon, and we would wander together. A year later, he wrote asking for cucumber, pancake mix and toilet rolls. When I went to his house, a stranger was living there’

B ack when I was studying photography, it made me uncomfortable to take shots of strangers in the street. Without their permission, it seemed like I was stealing images of them. It’s important for me to build up relationships with those I photograph, and the first time it felt right for me was when I went to Russia for my graduation project. I didn’t speak the language so I carried a note in Russian that I showed people, asking if I could spend a night in their homes. I would be treated like part of the family which made it OK for me to take pictures. I later used a similar approach in the US and in Egypt, while a chance encounter with a woman called Agata in a Parisian strip bar led to a collaboration that lasted five years.

This shot is of Michael, whom I met randomly on the streets of Portland, Oregon, in 2015. We started to talk and, when I asked where he lived, he invited me to his house. Inside, the walls were covered with images: photos, clippings from magazines, things he had written. It was a scene I couldn’t have invented or predicted.

Michael lived on his own and spent hours just walking. He let me join him one day and this is one of about 200 pictures I took as we wandered around. I found it very interesting how he held his body as he walked, and how he would try to form connections with people we met. I think most of them he hadn’t encountered before, but he was always very friendly with them.

I met Michael three times in the space of a week, and before I went back to Belgium he gave me two suitcases packed with journals, essays and collages. There was one particularly beautiful book he’d made with a picture of a local beauty spot called Mount Hood on the front. It was full of paired images that didn’t seem to make much sense, but Michael said that if people paid attention they would understand that nothing in the book was random. I now understand many of the links.

Michael didn’t have a phone or use email so I would send him postcards and letters, but never received a reply. A year or so after I last saw him, I returned from my travels to find he had sent me another suitcase. It was full of similar things as before, but also contained a letter asking for help: he wanted me to bring him various items like cucumbers, pancake mix and toilet rolls. I decided to go and see how he was. But when I reached his house, I found a stranger living there. Michael had disappeared soon after our last meeting, she said.

In the intervening years I’ve spent a lot of time sifting through the items in Michael’s suitcases, trying to see the world the way he does and looking for clues. I’ve visited and photographed places he was familiar with and spoken to people he went to school with. One of the suitcases included an annotated yearbook, and Michael wrote that he’d found it difficult to make connections with his peers. For most of his childhood he was home-schooled, which he believed had prevented him from developing social skills.

I often go back to Mount Hood and nearby Lost Lake, which also featured on the front of Michael’s book. It seems a place that attracts those who feel they don’t fit in, and people who want to hide. There, at the exact spot where the photograph on the front of the book was taken, I spotted someone who looked just like Michael sitting in a chair reading. I thought I’d found him, but he turned out to be someone called Bob. We talked for a while and he advised me to photograph the scene through the leaves of the surrounding trees, then he went on his way.

Born: Kortrijk, Belgium, 1986. Trained: Royal Academy of Fine Arts, Ghent. Influences: ‘Being out in the world, living life. And seeing how people creatively deal with challenges.’ High point: ‘Being able to self publish my book Agata; my first big solo show at FOMU in Antwerp; and being nominated for the Deutsche Börse photography prize.’ Low point: ‘I think it’s normal to have ups and downs. Sometimes you doubt yourself, and that’s always difficult to come out from.’ Top tip: ‘It’s important to try to stay close to oneself. A small story can tell a lot about something bigger.’

Bieke Depoorter is shortlisted for the Deutsche Börse photography foundation prize 2023; a selection of work from the Michael project is on display at the accompanying exhibition at the Photographers’ Gallery, London, until 11 June