Nick van Tiem – Combining documentary and fashion - Bubblegum Club

Nick van Tiem – Combining documentary and fashion

Growing up in a small village in the Netherlands, photographer Nick van Tiem developed his eye as a documentary photographer at the Royal Academy of Arts after leaving home. Upon graduation, Nick predominantly worked for newspapers but a need for change arose from inside. This change for Nick meant breaking away from the discipline he had been nurtured in and starting afresh with a different approach. This shift was accomplished by purchasing a medium format camera and starting to document his peers. “This resulted in a new and my current visual identity, where I combine fashion elements with documentary stories,” he states.

Having practised photography for 10 years, he expresses that it is important to reflect on your work and yourself as a creative continuously. Some of the questions he asks in relation to his practice include “Is this story relevant for more people than just me? Can I work with a retoucher to improve my grading? What social themes are important now and how does this relate to me as a creative? Who can I meet and from whom can I learn?”

‘High Viz’

Drawing from the fashion and advertising industries, Nick intends to visualise narratives accessible to as large an audience as possible. “Whether it’s a young man trying to fulfil his dreams of becoming a streetwear designer – modelling and styling the shoot himself – or a struggling generation of youngsters in Puerto Rico with the burden to rebuild their broken Island. When my peers here in Amsterdam or elsewhere look at the work, it allows them to relate to stories that otherwise might stay abstract.”

His 2017 project ‘Maria’ became a scopic visualisation of the young creative generation of Puerto Rico who have remained to rebuild their country after hurricane Maria. With no running water, electricity or infrastructure and a lack of support from the US, many young people decided to leave the island due to the unfortunate economic outlook. Puerto Rico now has the oldest population in Latin America.


“In the weeks before going to Puerto Rico, I got in contact with my peers – boys who could have been my friends, girls I could have fallen in love with. The Puerto Ricans I spoke to were more than willing to share their experiences of this chaotic year. To best represent their story, those portrayed decided on the shooting location, their styling and wrote their personal stories – the quotes included are their own unedited, hand written accounts.”

Nick’s method of working begins with the fundamental step of brainstorming that is usually done together with a stylist. Unpacking it further he states, “I’m not fond of just picking a good-looking location, but rather [to] find beauty in the unexpected. The grocery section of a Turkish supermarket, the world’s biggest dog convention or an abandoned waterpark. After finding a story; a clear visual style, potential poses, light references and styling is determined and visualised. This helps guiding the shooting process…”

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Harnessing natural light in his depictions there is a soft haze that lingers over some of his images. Images that are acutely constructed feature soft delicate use of shadow. What I find interesting to Nick’s approach is his use of location which traverses between more natural settings to more rigid built-up spaces. Working rather intuitively there is not immense planning that goes into choosing locations and instead he lets his gut guide him to backdrops for his refined execution.

Shooting predominantly with a Mamiya RZ67 medium format camera Nick explains that this mode of working “forces both the model and me to focus fully”. “Budgets are limited so every shot counts”. Choosing to shoot chiefly with natural light, Nick similarly prefers working with a small team consisting of a stylist, his models and an assistant. On the selection of his models, he elaborates, “I’m more interested in interesting characters then a pretty face. People that I feel related to.”

I would say that as a portraitist, his work stands out most with models’ likenesses becoming near hypnotic. It is difficult to believe that Nick is from a documentary background as he wears the sleeve of fashion photographer with ease.

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