Horst & Keytrade Bank

Their Way: In conversation with 254Forest

With ‘Their Way' Keytrade Bank and Horst inspire their shared philosophy of entrepreneurship and innovation through an interview series.

254Forest

Keytrade and Horst share DIY entrepreneurship as a common denominator. With ‘Their Way’ they inspire their shared philosophy through a new content series. ‘Their Way’ offers the stories of DIY entrepreneurs at the forefront of art, architecture and music. We delve into the messy, yet inspiring and insightful process of entrepreneurship. We celebrate and feature compelling stories, challenging initiatives and examples of integrity from around the world.

This month, we sat down for a chat with Pierre Debusschere. A world-renowned photographer, cinematographer and art director whose style has persuaded the likes of Beyoncé, Raf Simons, Alicia Keys and major fashion brands such as Chanel, Dior and Hugo Boss. In between, he stays true to his Brussels scène, and recently opened up an art hub in the South of Brussels, 254Forest.

Horst: A lot of fancy names.. perhaps we can trace all of that back to the beginning: what is your background? How did you end up in this profession? 

Pierre: I’m born in Kortrijk, though unfortunately I don’t speak Dutch anymore - it got defeated by other languages I learnt along the way. I started out with art school in Tournai, and then came to Brussels to continue my studies at L’Erg. At the time, I was already very much into video, though I was also making pictures, paintings… a little bit of everything actually. Some friends of mine were in the fashion department at La Cambre. I shot their graduation, which ended up on Raf Simons’ desk thanks to my friend Matthieu Blazy who was working for him. He hired me to do the art direction for the website in 2010, and I also photographed several of his campaigns. This got picked up by Dazed & Confused in London, where I started out one year later as an in-house photographer.

Horst: In creative industries like art, music and fashion, there is a big pressure to work a lot for free, before you can start setting your worth. How did this turn out for you? 

Pierre: In magazines yes, there is a lot of editorial work that you’re expected to do for free. Luckily, I started my career before the crisis, so at that time they still budgeted at least a few hundred pounds per page. But I’ve also done a lot of projects unremunerated. Sometimes you just feel it in your guts that you should go for it, put your energy or even money in, and just hope it will pay back over time.

After a while, I was approached by the renowned agency Art + Commerce. Being on their roster helped me to evolve professionally, as they took care of the financial and administrative aspects of my work (which I’m pretty bad at), and also defended a certain price range. Overall, it’s just really, really important to have the right people around you when you start a business. Thank God I did. Both with the agency, but also here in Brussels. People that challenge you, and who you can trust, you know? Especially if you’re on the creative side, you tend to forget about the paperwork, or lose track of the overview and spend all your money in one go because you’re overly excited. So it’s absolutely crucial to have a good team.

254Forest

Horst: What is the history of this building? How did you end up here, and what does 254Forest mean to you? 

Pierre: At 22, I inherited some money from my family, which allowed me to purchase this building in Forest (South-Brussels). The prices of real estate in Brussels weren’t yet anywhere near where they are now. At first, I just lived here with 6 more students from L’Erg, we were all sleeping next to our paintings, and had a makeshift exhibition space. 254Forest grew from that. There has always been a relationship between my individual practice, creating a team around that, and facilitating talent-development, sharing and exchanging with other creatives. Over the years, we gradually renovated, evolved and shaped the building. Today we have a gallery downstairs (the Room), a sound studio; a film and photo studio; our co-working space; and the new venture which we call 254Now - a flexible and free platform where we try things out, exchange, and facilitate visibility for like minded creatives. That’s very important for us, and actually the core mindset out of which the entire project 254Forest grew.

Horst: Why Brussels? How does the city trickle into your work?  

Pierre: I love the idea of a family, so this space and the people I work with are really important. 254Forest is literally my house. I could have gone to Paris, New York, London, but I’m too attached to my country. I was always sad to see Belgians emigrating as soon as their work is booming, so I wanted to create a space that got me staying in Brussels and share this energy with everyone. I love how you can go to a party, and end up at the opera here. There is so much culture, I don’t see why I would move. This also translates into the people I work with.

"I was always sad to see Belgians emigrating as soon as their work is booming, so I wanted to create a space that got me staying in Brussels and share this energy with everyone."

Horst: How are you organised professionally? Who is on your team and who does what? 

Pierre: Rebecca Cuglietta and I go way back. 

Rebecca: We met in 2011, and we started working together in 2013. Pierre needed a last-minute producer for a shoot at Dazed magazine, and from then on I started producing more and more of his photoshoots. I was in Paris at the time, collaborating with his agent at Art + Commerce. By the end of 2015, I moved to Brussels as Pierre hired me to join 254Forest. The team has expanded since, though we mostly work with freelancers. Let’s say that we are around 15 people in total, so if you add up all those networks, we have a huge database of people with various skill sets on different levels whom we can collaborate with. 

Pierre: When we first set up the co-working, it was Rebecca who brought in all these people though, I’m too shy for that kind of thing. Recently, photographer Gretar (Gunnlaugsson) also joined 254Forest as a producer-assistant-collaborator-partner. He, Rebecca and I are at the core, like a family unit. Our other collaborators operate independently in an orbit around that, as an extended family. We work together whenever we can, but we don’t push collaboration as an obligation throughout the people affiliated with 254. It’s very hybrid. We try to create the framework where people can be free to meet and collaborate, but it has to be natural and grow organically.

254Forest

Horst: How do you put together your artistic programme for The Room? 

Rebecca: It happens very organically. There always needs to be a link to visual art, sound art, or digital art, because that is our core business. Most of the people exhibiting here have never shown in Brussels before; they’re from our network; or people working in the co-working. 

Pierre: The Room is probably our most fun project. But you shouldn’t underestimate the work that steeps into it of course, especially for Rebecca, with all the funding, production, artist follow-up, promo etc.. It’s crucial that we don’t force ourselves to be something that we don’t want to be: it should remain open-ended and spontaneous. 

Rebecca: For example in May we will exhibit Somos, a collaboration between Laura Krsmanovic (who did the podcast Isola),  Lydie Nesvadba (a photographer) and Fabien Leclerq (Le Motel). They met here at 254Forest, developed the project here together, so it became evident that they could display it here. It’s very beautiful to see these projects take shape.

Horst: Who are the clients that rent out the studio’s at 254Forest? How do they find you? 

Rebecca: Photographers, brands, companies. Delvaux and Arte for example, but also businesses from the Netherlands or France. It’s a lot of word to mouth. We make a distinction between these clients for whom we apply a fixed price range on the one hand, and young talent we want to help grow and give cheaper access on the other hand. The revenue of the rent namely allows us to be generous and keep the spirit of collaboration and exchange healthy and alive at 254Forest. For instance, we have a longstanding collaboration with La Cambre’s fashion department. They come here every year to shoot their graduation lookbook. 

Horst: What were the pitfalls in professionalizing yourself? What risks did you take? 

Pierre: Of course I got lucky with the inheritance, but I did have major investments. My parents helped out a bit, but honestly, I’m still paying off my debt. I find that normal though: you take a risk and put a lot at stake, which is also why I was so motivated to make it work. Overall, this became how I do things, from a spirit of “let’s do it and find funds afterwards”. This is especially true for 254Now, our new digital platform. I feel that it’s better to not let our activities or work be guided by the rhythm of funding mechanisms, deadlines and policies. We would lose the spontaneity if we did so.

"Gretar, Rebecca and I are at the core, like a family unit. Our other collaborators operate independently in an orbit around that, a bit like an extended family."
254Forest

Horst: Back to your artistic work, where the human body seems to occupy you the most. In a disembodied era of digital hegemony, what is your approach? 

Pierre: Indeed, I’m very fascinated with identity as such. The notion of understanding what you bring out of yourself. This has become more complex with social media - to be honest I find it dreadful to see how we represent ourselves these days. Though I don’t mean to provoke or moralise in my work. In general, I want to portray varied bodies: a lot of people in different shapes, genders, skin tones. In all of that, I try to find a universal language that doesn’t exclude anyone. Currently, I work a lot with covering bodies, which allows me to be more subtle and ambiguous. Obviously my work is a reflection of how I look at the world, so it’s perpetually in motion, such as identity is in constant evolution. I really navigate my reality through images, not through words.

254Forest

One example that stands out is the campaign I did for La Monnaie (Brussels’ Opera House), which I’m still very proud of. Done in collaboration with Base Design, I conceived a campaign about the seven deadly sins. I only shot people from Brussels, stemming from different backgrounds, different ages, abilities etc. A lot of ‘everything’, which is what Brussels is about for me. Body positivity wasn’t yet that much engrained at the time, though it’s always been somewhat of a mission, or an evidence for me. 

Aesthetically, I have moved from doing a lot of creative retouching in the post-production, to now focussing more on getting everything right on set. Also to make people feel at ease and accept themselves who they are on set, rather than beautifying them afterwards. 
But I remain intrigued with the concept of layering: adding layers to mediate levels of understanding in an image. For me this is like remixing music: you can always add, adapt, and thereby influence the meaning of something, open it up to new associations.

Horst: What is the distinction between your independent work as an artist, and commissioned assignments in the fashion industry? Can you uphold your ideals? 

Pierre: Whenever I can, I try to diversify the people I’m shooting, to have different types of bodies. The notion of representation is very close to my heart. For people in the arts that might seem evident, but for many people who see advertisements in public space, it can still be a bit surprising. So yeah, of course I don’t go as far as to refuse working with archetypal models, but it feels restricting to be limited to that only. On the other hand, I have to admit that I’m also a people pleaser, so I generally tend to go along with demands and prerequisites of clients. By now, I sort of have made a name for myself though, so clients with traditional expectations don’t end up with me. If they reach out, it often means that they work from similar ethics.

I do still really prefer to work with people that I know, or whose vibe I can understand. I want to show them as they are, without changing them, or forcing them into my universe. I’m more free to do that in my artistic work. 
Overall, fashion wasn’t my first love, but when I fell into it, it was with the right people. Raf Simons for example gave me the freedom and a stimulating framework to evolve artistically. So I’m thankful to be able to work in this sector, but as fashion is becoming exceedingly product-driven, I’m even more thankful that I have my artistic work to turn back to.

"In general, I want to portray varied bodies: a lot of people in different shapes, genders, skin tones. In all of that, I try to find a universal language that doesn’t exclude anyone."

Horst: Thanks to the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter protests, Stop AAPI-hate, the body positivity movement, and the growing public discourse around representation, big brands are more often called out on their ethics and morals. Choices for collaborators in visual campaigns become politically charged and are there to make a statement. How do you experience this evolution? 

Pierre: It’s tricky, in the sense that it is becoming a superficial selling point. A lot of companies just go with it because it’s a trend, but it doesn’t automatically trigger systemic change. 

254Forest

Horst: What fuels your work? Who or what continues to inspire you? 

Pierre: I don’t have a fandom-issue. I don’t easily get intimidated or star-struck, so despite the fact that I’m working with some of the so-called biggest celebrities, my main love remains music. This is what inspires me the most. Already in art school, I was drawn to video because of its connection with music. For instance I would be experimenting with projecting video on mirrors and trying to break them with sound waves. At 14, I attended my first music festival, which was Rock Werchter. Seeing nine inch nails, Green Velvet.. I was blown away. In the early days of my career, I would drive around myself to go to all of my shoots, and I would blast music and sing along on my way over there to get in the mood. Nowadays, I curate playlists for each photo shoot, to invite everyone on set into the same energy. This allows me to not ‘direct’ people with abstract instructions, empty movements or lifeless poses, but rather let everyone be guided by the music to feel the shared atmosphere. 

"Obviously my work is a reflection of how I look at the world, so it’s perpetually in motion, such as identity is in constant evolution. I really navigate my reality through images, not through words."