Laurence Cuelenaere: Observing cultures through an artistic lens


For Laurence Cuelenaere, childhood holidays were framed by a 700-kilometer border—that was as far as her father was willing to drive for vacation. Her father took one end of a string and placed it on a map over her hometown of Ghent, Belgium. With the other end, he circumscribed a circle around Ghent, restricting their travel destinations to 700 kilometers in any direction. Laurence said they usually ended up on the French Atlantic coast. “It was nice to have family holidays in France every summer. We never wanted to go to the Netherlands or Germany because we wanted the sun and the beach.”


Laurence is the daughter of parents who were born, raised, schooled, and lived their entire lives in Ghent. She is bilingual, speaking French at home and Dutch while in school. “My father was happy in his home and never felt the need to travel,” she explained.


With little exposure to other cultures during childhood, it is difficult for Laurence to pinpoint who or what influenced her passion for cultural anthropology and indigenous cultures. She began her training in sociology, earning a Licentiaat from Vrije Universiteit Brussel with a concentration in quantitative data and social sciences. After graduation, she took the money she had saved working odd jobs and set off on a trek to South America, a trip that would redirect her career as a researcher, anthropologist, photographer and conceptual artist.


Trying to blend into a different culture

“I felt like I wanted to take a different approach to social science, to be closer to people, like in ethnography. I had never traveled anywhere before, and I took off on this adventure all alone” Laurence explained. “It’s really life changing when you are in your early 20s and can do that.” Some of her first stops were in Chile and Peru, but she did not speak any Spanish at the time. “I remember the frustrating feeling of linguistic barriers,” she recalled.


“The best traveling really happened when I took my backpack and got on buses to different places.” Laurence stayed in hostels, shared rooms with other travelers, and often just ate bread she bought from street vendors, “because at that point no one gave me money to do these travels.”


Laurence said locals instantly noticed her appearance. “The way people were looking at me—I could see surprise and incomprehensibility at the sight of me—tall and white. They would look at me like they couldn’t grasp where I had come from. The only way for me to understand their reaction was to switch my perspective of myself. We have to see ourselves the way they see us, as well as understand how they see themselves. It’s all part of what an anthropologist tries to do.”


When asked if she had any favorite moments from that trip, Laurence answered, “All of it. It wasn’t like a movie—what’s your favorite part. I liked it all. I was solitary and alone and I could just disappear without telling people. I wasn’t accountable for other people like I am now with my children.”


Laurence did not take photos on her first trip to South America. “I don’t need photos to remember. I didn’t take a camera with me, and we didn’t have cell phones like we do now. I didn’t even write anything down.” Her interest in photography, and of street imagery in particular, developed later, when she was working on her Ph.D. “I don’t remember why I got interested in street photography, but I find it fascinating because it opens a window through which I can see further, beyond what I think I know, beyond my comfort zone and assumed realities. It gives me the sense of fresh air entering the room.”

Keeping safe when traveling alone Laurence explained that, “As an enthnographer, I love to just go with the flow. I could go on the Altiplano (the Andean Plateau in west-central South America) and stay with communities in the mountains. I never felt unsafe. Nothing bad ever happened to me on all of those trips.” She said she built in mechanisms to protect herself from robbery and kidnapping and other crimes that befall tourists. She noted that, “walking around with a camera on your belly and wearing name brand travel clothing” are obvious signs of tourists. “I would dress down and carry plastic bags from the supermarket. I wouldn’t carry my backpack to give the impression that I had something to steal.”

If she stays in one location for a longer period of time, as she did on another trip to the border of Guatemala, Laurence uses a different strategy to stay safe. “I would never walk back the same way to the place I was staying. I would change my route every day so no one could pick up my routine or know where I was living.” In effect, she tries to make herself invisible. “Photographers need to be invisible to a certain extent in the street. Depending on the type of photographs I take, I am always in movement. Sometimes people see me taking an image and they don’t want me to take it, but I am gone before they can do anything about it.”

When Laurence was on assignment in Reynosa, a border city in northern Mexico, several weeks ago, she said she met many people who had been kidnapped. She said kidnappers often pull their cars up to the side of the road and drag victims into their cars. “One of the things I did when walking around was always go on the opposite side of cars. If they stopped, I would run and they could not drag me in. I had to build in lots of mechanisms to keep myself safe.”

Expanding her reach with new methodologies After several months of traveling in South America after graduation, Laurence returned to Belgium to accept a job with an organization that gathered data for the European Values Study, a large survey research program in Europe that tracks basic human values. Her job involved collecting and analyzing data from the surveys, work that Laurence realized left her unfulfilled. “It was important for me to do that job,” she said, “because it was important to know that I didn’t want to do that kind of work.”


Laurence was subsequently accepted to a one-year program in anthropology, essentially a fifth year of higher education or Diplôme d’Études Approfondies, at Université Libre de Bruxelles. “I wasn’t sure what I had in mind at the time, but I knew I wanted to be closer to people than to numbers,” she said. “Anthropology is a different methodology, and it reminded me of what I had experienced in Latin America.” After completing the program, Laurence decided to continue her studies and applied to Ph.D. programs in anthropology in the United States.


“Anthropology is connected to the colonial history of a country. If I did my Ph.D. in Belgium, I most likely would have ended up in African studies since the Congo was a colony of Belgium and research was needed for their museums and collections.” Since Laurence wanted to expand her study of South America, she felt that universities in the U.S. offered more opportunities to pursue her interests there.


While she applied to graduate programs, Laurence worked for a year at Flagey, an international cultural center in Brussels. “After work I would stay late and use their computers to work on my applications for graduate school.” Laurence said she loved working at Flagey and could have stayed there indefinitely, but when she was accepted to UC Berkeley with a full scholarship, she could not pass up the opportunity. “I never went back to Belgium,” she added.


As a graduate assistant at UC Berkeley, Laurence taught introductory classes in anthropology, including a class on Mayan archaeology. She spent two years living in the Andes studying linguistics of the Aymara as part of her doctoral research, which led to her publishing a number of papers including ethnographic case studies of the relationship between language and movement in the Bolivian Altiplano. She also began to discover the merits of the camera as a way to record her research.


Overall her Ph.D. took seven years to complete, and Laurence graduated in 2009 at a time when the economy was in decline and jobs were scarce. When her husband was invited to teach at Harvard, it was a good opportunity for the family to leave California and move to Cambridge.


A focus on photography

While on a trip to Chiapas, a state in southern Mexico, Laurence met photographer José Ángel Rodríguez. Rodríguez was a student of Manuel Álvarez Bravo, the self-taught photographer who became one of the most influential Latin American photographers of the 20th century. As her mentor, Rodríguez inspired Laurence’s passion for photography, examining her work and helping her edit her own photos.

Asylum Seeker at the Reynosa Encampment, U.S.-Mexico Border, 2021 (Photo by Laurence Culenaere) “Someone had told me to keep one foot in the field of anthropology by publishing,” Laurence explained, “but in the end I got sidetracked by photography completely. It was a methodological choice I made, that photography would allow me to get even closer to the people. It really does.”

After about a year doing research in Chiapas, and with a young son now in tow, the family decided to return to the U.S. “It was complicated to live in rural Mexico with a young boy, so we moved back.” Laurence said that, after living in Ghent and seeing other rural parts of Europe, she did not want to live in an urban setting. “I knew I needed to live outside the city if we were going to stay in this country,” so the couple chose a home in Carlisle. She has returned to South America and Mexico several times, including trips to Tapachula, also known as Prison City, where migrants from Africa, Haiti, Cuba, and South and Central America have been stranded on their way to the United States, as well as her recent trip to Reynosa.

Managing work and motherhood Since Laurence has been unable to travel extensively since having a family, she has found other outlets for her work, completing an MFA at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts University (SMFA) in 2018 while continuing to pursue new projects. “I have to take short, intense trips instead of long ones where I can live there.” She has also established a studio photography practice at home.

“Documentary work can be sometimes difficult, dealing with people with conflicts, living on the streets. It’s different than studio work. Studio practice is a bit more decorative, more fine art,” Laurence explained. “I use a lot of images that surround me to make art. In some of my new work, other people’s images form much of my context and my pieces are a reflection on the media advertising world.” She alters some of the images with stitches, veils, and paint to affect the relationship between the viewer and the photograph. In her 2018 SMFA thesis exhibition, Laurence explained some of the inspiration behind her most recent work in her thesis statement: “This thesis seeks to interrupt the universal language of product photography while provoking a re-examination of how corporate media invades our lives through consumption. With a hint of sardonic humor and intentional simplicity, the images underscore the ironies, longings, and incongruences implied in the production of the material wealth surrounding us.”

Laurence has received a number of awards for her work, including receiving a 2021 Mass Cultural Council Artist Fellowship and winning first place in the 2018 Karsh Prize, an annual photography prize for students at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. She has exhibited extensively and her publications have appeared in a variety of peer-reviewed journals including Cultural Anthropology, Ethnohistory, Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Studies, Critique of Anthropology and Language Sciences. Life and work in the U.S.

Laurence laughed at the thought of how life would be different if she had remained in Belgium. “I would not be doing anything that I am doing now,” she replied. “Maybe I would be working in chocolate, or in beer, or maybe both!” She did become a U.S. citizen during the pandemic, explaining that her green card was due to expire in 2022 so the timing was right.

Working with street populations in the U.S. has turned out to be more complicated than with similar populations in South America. “I’m artist in residence at a gallery in Lowell and I’ve tried to do some work for a Jack Kerouac 100th anniversary project in 2022. It has been hard, very different. I am not having the photos I want yet, but people are friendly and present so I will continue.” Laurence said she has a new project in the wings and eventually would like to publish a print anthology of her work.

Enjoying a slower pace in Carlisle Laurence enjoys the rural landscape in Carlisle, and takes advantage of the conservation land to run on the trails. She often bikes with her boys, and laughed that she nearly lost her bicycle one day when they stopped in at the Swap Shed to search for treasures. “I parked my bike outside the shed while we went in, and when I came out, someone was loading it into the back of their car!”

Looking forward, Laurence thinks she may someday have a home base in Europe, and she hopes to spend more extended time in South America. “At one point when the boys are bigger, I hope I will be back with a backpack and that side of life.” For now, her focus is home.


Published December 8, 2021 in the Carlisle Mosquito.

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