Interview with Elisabeth van Aalderen, the photographer behind Vitiligo photo project

Elisabeth van Aalderen is a photographer whose series called Shades of Pale recently went viral. In it she captures amazing images of women suffering from vitiligo, a skin condition that causes patches of the skin to lose their pigment.

Having had vitiligo herself for the past 8 years, Elisabeth decided to use photography to “celebrate our uniqueness and embracing the vitiligo body and its aesthetic”. Read Elisabeth’s story in our interview.

Can you introduce yourself to our readers?

My name is Elisabeth van Aalderen. I’m a 33-year-old photographer. After moving around quite a lot, I have now ended up in Haarlem, a beautiful city between Amsterdam and the seaside. One year ago I married my guy, Bernard Hering, who is a musician.

How did you first get into photography?

My mother used to have an old Nikon A1 35mm camera lying around when I was little. Every time she wasn’t using it, I stole it from her. Many years later, after graduating from art school, I applied for the photography department of the Fotovakschool in Amsterdam. After one year I decided to develop myself further as an autodidact. From that point, driven by imagination, curiosity and intuition, I got started in an organic way.

After graduation I worked in the fashion industry for many years, as a stylist and an art director. About 3 years ago I decided to follow my passion in photography and quit my job and pursue my photography career.

What does photography represent to you?

Photography is a part of me because it’s my passion, my work. I want to make a connection that is meaningful; not only to me, but also to the viewer. It’s a place where you don’t get judged, a place full of your own creativity and free spirit. For me it’s also a way for expressing myself and daring to stand out. That’s my biggest goal. 

How did you get the idea to start your Shades of Pale Vitiligo photo project?

I live with the skin condition since eight years ago. This experience inspired me to launch the project. During my day-to-day job as a photographer people asked me a lot of questions about my skin. This made me wonder: why not use these two experiences, photography and my skin condition? Photography has given me a platform to document and celebrate the vitiligo body. It is an ode to its beauty and uniqueness.

How did having vitiligo shape you personally?

Having vitiligo is a big part of my life. I believe that I have vitiligo for a reason. It’s my biggest and most difficult journey of self-acceptance. So this project is also for telling my story. It okay to struggle, but when you overcome it and accept your uniqueness it makes you such a powerful woman. And what’s not to love about that?

Your photos are so intimate and raw. It seems like you really connect with your models. Do things often get emotional on set when you photograph women with vitiligo?

Wow, this is such an amazing question. It’s my goal to capture the women’s vulnerability and their strengt at the same time. They really stepped out of their comfort zone and I want to capture that in the images. Because I’m also living with vitiligo it immediately creates this little bond. For many women I have portrayed it was a process of healing and acceptance. It has been incredibly therapeutic, also for me.

What is the biggest lesson you learned from shooting these amazing women?

To love and embrace our super power: Be your unique self. When it comes to beauty I believe there is no box. All types of beauty need to be inclusive. Beauty can be whatever you want it to be.

If you could photograph any person, dead or alive, who would you choose and why?

My friends. I never photographed any of them (in a professional way). It would be such a great way to connect on another level.

Do you have a favourite photographer and why do you find her/his work to be so special?

Anton Corbijn for his compositions and portraits and William Eggleston for his eye. They  both have this pureness in their photographs. Most of their photographs aren’t staged to reveal another aspect of the subject’s personality. Although the images of Annie Leibovitz to me are the “champions league” of portrait photography. Her images reflect intimate or staged moments that reveal the expressive aspects of her subjects in such a profound way.

Do you have a favourite piece of equipment you can’t live without?

I cannot live without my 50mm f/1.2 lens. 

Moment in your career so far that you are most proud of?

The Shades of Pale project going viral. It shows how many people appreciate my work, which is still so surreal to me.

What’s your advice to someone thinking of pursuing photography as a career?

Keep an open mind – and see first before you shoot. Always enjoy the moment and go out there as much as possible to train your eye. And keep it simple, don’t be afraid to leave something out to make the picture more interesting.

What inspires you, both in work and in life?

Mostly music. The sounds and melodies create images in my head. Also just the simpleness of everyday life. Like an empty parking lot, a worn out apartments and an empty bench in a train painted by the sunlight. 

If you could have any super-power what would it be and why?

I’m not sure. Maybe flying? I love traveling and wish I could see the whole world in just one life, but that’s quite ambitious. Also, I love the shapes on Earth when looking down from the sky. 

Where do you see yourself in five years from now?

Somewhere abroad with the love of my live, making new adventures. Maybe in New York, working on an exhibition with the help of Annie Leibovitz? Just dreaming out loud… 😉


For updates about upcoming projects make sure to visit Elisabeth van Aalderen’s website and to follow her on Instagram.

Ivona Josipovic

Ivona Josipovic is a co-founder of The Smoke Detector, writer, fashion stylist, social media manager, curious creature, chocolate lover.

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