Four years ago, Bart Heynen started work on his project Dads. In fact, his first research meeting for the book took place on the day that Hillary Clinton gave her concession speech, during which she told her supporters to accept that Donald Trump would become the president. This date has prominence for many reasons, but notably for the fact that the rise of the Trump presidency gave way to many hateful attacks on the LGBTQIA+ community. So to then see a compilation of more than 40 US families come together as a comprehensive depiction of gay fatherhood is more than impactful; it denotes a sense of pride and joy. Its pages are now published in hardcover by powerHouse Books, printed and bound by Editorial Bortolazzi Stei (EBS).
“I am a gay dad myself,” Bart tells It’s Nice That of his reasons for focusing on this subject. “I was very interested in getting to know other gay dads. We all come from straight parents and have very few role models. So I wanted to see what other families with gay dads were like. Also, for my kids, it was important to meet other dads and kids. They were the only ones with two gay dads in their school.”
Currently based in New York City, the Belgian photographer and his and husband have two ten year old sons named Ethan and Noah. Bart’s background is in cinematography, which he studied at Sint Lucas in Brussels before pursuing a masters in art history. Post-graduation he launched into a career as a TV producer for a few years, before realising how he wasn’t much a fan of working in large teams. That’s the moment that he decided to become a freelance photographer, steering his career towards working on editorials in Belgium and The Netherlands, all the while publishing two monographs which arose alongside his commercial jobs. The first was a monograph named Waterlanders (2011), “a bundle of portraits of well-known people who are crying,” he notes, while the second, Slapers (2016), sees well-known people sleeping in their beds.
Dads, on the other hand, is his first book published in the US. It was created over a number of years, meaning that while photographing his subjects, Bart became particularly close to them: “they became my extended family,” he says. This grew to such lengths that he’d often visit on several occasions, taking their familial picture with a touch of warmth and respect. “Sometimes I took the kids,” he adds, which only added to the natural aura of working with these families – they who also have their own children. “The more at ease everybody is with each other, the better the results. Most of the time during the first hour of the shoot you end up with an empty basket. After this initial phase, things become more interesting and you as a photographer become less visible. While photographing these families I wanted to show that they are just like any other family, but at the same time have their own unique characteristics.”
Take Txema and Pablo, for instance, who Bart documented with their newborn son on the morning of his birth. During this highly intimate and transformative moment, Bart had photographed the couple in the hospital room, with their surrogate next door. Cropped and zoomed, the resultant image warmly places the child in the centre frame. “The photograph included their heads but I decided to crop it and focus on the chest, hands and the baby,” says Bart. “No distractions; an in-your-face kind of photograph. No change of misinterpreting the content. The touching of the hands and hair on the chest confirm it. These are two dads holding their baby.” Bart never typically crops his imagery, so this was certainly an off-chance for him. But, a necessary and welcomed move no less, considering the gentle juxtaposition between old and new, with emphasis placed on their new familial bond.
In another photo, you’ll stumble across Eli and David who had invited Bart to a party in their house, “with nothing but gay men,” he recalls. The group are huddled amongst each other, comfortably sitting on chairs or the floor, and enjoying each other’s company as they embrace and play with their children. “For them,” he continues, “it is important to keep on living the same social life as before they became gay fathers. All these men have taken care of their babies at one point – it takes ‘the’ village to raise a child.”
Then there’s Dimitry and Robert with their children, Maxim and Mila. The picture itself has won several awards, and Martin Parr has even commented on its success as being “a mixture of pride and curiosity”. The composition is powerful but relaxed, with all four subjects sat topless on the sofa; “love” and “dream” are ornamentally displayed in the background. It’s the first image that Bart edited for the book, with the rest following suit in its diverse depiction of parenting. “I hope they see love and commitment,” Bart concludes of the book’s impact. “I hope they realise that everybody has the right to create a family, regardless of their sexual orientation.”
Me and Rob with Ethan and Noah at 630 AM. Antwerp, Belgium © Bart Heynen from 'Dads' published by powerHouse Books
About the Author
Ayla is a London-based freelance writer, editor and consultant specialising in art, photography, design and culture. After joining It’s Nice That in 2017 as editorial assistant, she was interim online editor in 2022/2023 and continues to work with us on a freelance basis. She has written for i-D, Dazed, AnOther, WePresent, Port, Elephant and more, and she is also the managing editor of design magazine Anima.