Meet Leander Varekamp, our Portrait of Humanity People’s Choice Winner

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Portrait of Humanity provides photographers with the chance to share portraits of everyday life around the world, with the world. The aim is to explore and celebrate the many faces of humanity.

That’s also the aim of Holland-based documentary photographer Leander Varekamp, whose image was selected by The Guardian editors as one of their favourite Portrait of Humanity entries so far, and voted by our followers as their favourite of the picks. The image, a crisp black & white portrait, is part of a series on Burrneshas – Albanian women who have chosen to live their lives as men. With only a few dozen Burrneshas left, the tradition is quickly dying out, and Varekamp is using portraiture to ensure that this little-known phenomenon is not forgotten completely.

Since Varekamp discovered a talent for photography at the age of 17, he has used his camera as a means of investigating communities – such as Burrneshas – that intrigue him. As he puts it, ‘the camera opens doors that would otherwise remain closed’. We spoke to Varekamp about the fascinating people he’s encountered through his work, and why he wants to tell the world about them through Portrait of Humanity.

© Leander Varekamp, Portrait of Humanity Entry 2019

What are your key interests as a photographer?

Photography, for me, is surprise and wonder. I use my camera as an interview tool, searching for the inner personality of the people I portray. My approach is often simple. I use few resources. I look for the facial expressions and body posture that best reflect our encounter. As a photographer, I look at the context in which I want to make the portrait, a context that will strengthen the shot. I’m looking at what emotions I can reflect.

Can you tell me about the photograph you entered into Portrait of Humanity? What is the story behind it?

Burrneshas, better known as ‘Sworn Virgins’, are Albanian women who, often at a young age, have made the choice to go through life as a man. Sometimes it is a free choice, driven by the desire to have independence or to avoid an arranged marriage, but often it is a necessary choice to save the family honour when a man is missing in the family.

The women swear celibate lives and dress and behave like men. In return, they get the rights of men and they receive respect in society. They live mainly in the North of Albania, Kosovo and Macedonia. Exactly how many Burrneshas are left is not known, but it is no more than a couple of dozen. It is a dying phenomenon. For my portrait series, I have photographed nine Burrneshas, eight from Albania and one from Kosovo.

© Leander Varekamp, Portrait of Humanity Entry 2019

Why did you decide to enter the Portrait of Humanity award?

Portrait of Humanity is an initiative that suits my documentary work very well. Burrneshas deserve a spotlight, particularly because they are a dying phenomenon, and Portrait of Humanity seems like the perfect place to give them one. 

What do you think makes a compelling portrait?

A portrait is so much more than a photo of a human being. A compelling portrait tells a story; a story about the subject and also a story about the photographer. For me, making a portrait is the result of my research, the conversation between myself and the subject, the environment around us, and our connection.

© Leander Varekamp, Portrait of Humanity Entry 2019

Do you have any advice for other entrants about selecting a portrait to submit and, more generally, about getting into portrait photography to begin with?

My advice for getting started as a portrait photographer is, first of all, to think about why you’re interested in your subject. Why do you want to make portraits of these people? What is the story you want to tell? What does it say about you? You always have to ask yourself these questions before making a professional photo.

And then, if you have made a really nice portrait of a human being that reflects the true meaning of that person, show it to the world.

Do you want to be part of the movement? Together, we will create a Portrait of Humanity

© Leander Varekamp, Portrait of Humanity Entry 2019
© Leander Varekamp, Portrait of Humanity Entry 2019