Inside Willy Vanderperre’s Naked Heartland

The Fashion Photographer's First Film Draws a Youth Universe that Reverberates with Sexual Tension and Suburban Isolation

Antwerp-based photographer and longtime Raf Simons collaborator Willy Vanderperre is an oracle of adolescent energy. Through his massive output of campaigns, as well as editorials for magazines such as AnOther, i-D, and W, he has shaped fashion’s outlook on youth. Vanderperre’s work turns the fleeting state of coming of age into something seductively monumental. His photographic world reverberates with sexual tension, death metal, and suburban isolation. More than 20 years into his career, it has become clear that for Vanderperre “youth” is not an age. It is an emotional state. It is a sexuality. It is a creative mode. Together with stylist Olivier Rizzo, he has molded youth into an aesthetic force that resonates across pre- and post-Internet generations.

In his first short film, Naked Heartland, Vanderperre tells the story of three adolescents growing up in the Bible Belt of Flanders, struggling with the questions and troubles of their age. In conversation with writer Jina Khayyer, Vanderperre gets existential and explains why the themes of his film—identity, sexuality, loneliness—have no expiration date.

Naked Heartland is a dark vision of youth. Why did you choose for your first film to be sad and disturbing?

For me, it’s not only sad. It’s about acceptance and loss. Saying goodbye to your childhood, losing your innocence. But yes, it is disturbing. Being young is disturbing. Growing up is disturbing. I am from the south part of Belgium, a little border town, on the border to France. When I grew up Europe still had borders. My town, Menen, was a weird place. It was bleak and dark, but at the same time it was poetic. There was a strip with non-shops, like butchers (my father was one of them), bakeries, and florists. There was a lot of violence. Gangs would drive with cars into shops to mug them. You would not go out on a Friday or Saturday night. After eight, you would lock yourself in at home. The shops would barricade their windows. It was quite intense to grow up there. Also, it was a religious region. I was brought up Catholic and I had to go to church every Sunday. But ironically enough, I came to terms with my sexuality at a very young age. I was 12, 13, and I never had problems with that. But I had problems expressing myself. I was a loner. Not weak, but a loner. This film portrays similar youngsters in a similar environment.

You have been documenting youth ever since?

Since I was a teen, so since the 1980s. First time I picked up the camera, I was 17.

What is fascinating about youth?

For me, it’s not the youth that I am fascinated by, it’s the breaking point: coming of age, puberty, adolescence. That’s when you start to explore. That’s when you start questioning everything you’ve learned. That’s when you have your first sexual experience. It might be joyful, but it can also be very depressing. Coming of age is a violent time. Losing your virginity and your innocence is a violent mode.

Have the values and morals of young people in the past two or three decades shifted?

No. That’s the thing, it’s exactly the same. The basics never change: All want to be loved, all want to belong. All are insecure loners in their own world—this is the base of my film. It zooms in when you are about to graduate and about to lose your bonds. When you are in school, you see the same people every day for years. It’s a special connection and relationship. Then you finish school, and you lose your bond—a brutal rupture that is mostly followed by your first identity crisis.

The topics of your film have no expiration date. In my book, Älter als Jesus (Older than Jesus), I compare coming of age with mid-life (becoming an adult), and show how we continue to struggle, especially with our identity.

I think we have more than just one identity. Identity grows and changes.

Who are you today?

I am a person, as you, somewhere in the middle of his life, reflecting, exploring. I am quiet and sensitive. But I can be very rational and pragmatic as well. I am always going for the emotion. I think everything has to be about emotion. I am very stubborn. And shy.

Are you happy?

Yes.

What does happiness mean?

Being content with yourself. Feeling at ease in your body. Happiness comes when you wake up and and you don’t regret too much.

What is now most important to you?

Introspection. This film is a result of my introspection. I am now working on finding a balance between my personal desires and society's expectations.

Are you where you want to be?

I am in a good place, yes. I love living in Antwerp. In the fashion industry, everything seems greater and bigger. Antwerp is a calm city, it keeps me grounded.

How do you deal with fear and anxiety?

You have to give it a place. Just place it. And sometimes it’s even good to explore that fear.

Do you ever dream of running away?

Every day. Don’t we all want to?

How do you imagine your escape?

I wonder how it would feel to turn my back against society. It’s a route that hasn’t been very much explored yet. If you do it, you become an outcast. But what if you turn your back on society to create a new society? A parallel system.

Are you an adult?

I always refused to say yes. But maybe I am. But what does it mean? Nobody taught us what becoming an adult means.

Naked Heartland starts with the phrase, “I know I must be patient. I just need to wait.” Wait for what?

That’s the thing, isn’t it—we always wait, and we are never really sure what we are waiting for. I address these phrases, that intercut the movie, to the viewer. They trigger universal emotions.

Then there’s the second dramatic demand. “I just want you to understand me.” Who is this addressed to? The lover, the mother, the father, or the universe?

The universe. I think at the end of the day we speak to ourselves. The girl in my film for example is videotaping herself as a sort of diary. But also as a sort of mirror. So her actions are addressed to herself. When you are a teenager you easily feel misunderstood. To express yourself can be really difficult.

“I just want to belong.”

That’s the most human need. We all want to belong to something or someone.

In one shot we can see an anarchy poster. Are you an anarchist?

No.

Do you still believe in God?

Of course. In a God.

Images and Film: Willy Vanderperre
Interview: Jina Khayyer