It was by accident that Mo Swillens discovered that bedrooms tell stories which other rooms can’t, when photographing a friend for a series on artists. Thus was born the idea for 99 Beds, a collection of intriguing candid portraits, where each protagonist opened the door to their intimacy for the photographer.
Free to pose as they like, some remain still and formal as statues; others, uninhibited by the comfort of their private space, roll around the unmade sheets. All are revealing something of themselves, told by a movement or expression, but mostly by the objects strewn about the room. It’s interesting that Swillens sometimes focuses on the space rather than its occupant; it is almost like their surroundings disclose more about them than their eyes ever could. There is so much a personal territory can say; how this little girl, with her effortless poise and ballet slippers, is passionate about dance; how much that straight-backed middle-aged man loves his kids, whose portraits throughout the years adorn the wall above his headboard.
The book awakens the voyeur in each of us. Every detail is an anecdote in waiting. Every glimpse into their privacy also opens a million questions about each subject. The fact that there are no texts, and that their names are displayed under the fold-out cover, only illuminates our curiosity. Whatever the reader thinks he understands, the photo makes him wish he knew more. Who gave him that stuffed animal; what is she reading; what is hiding in the box beneath that bed?
The dense, black and white photos are laid on a thick matte paper that intensifies the feeling of preciousness. Even the most formal portraits are endearing, not only from the vulnerable aspect of the location, but also from the constant presence of an item that brings the person back to their most basic, common humanity : socks, hairsprays and family photos; alarm clocks, pets, and dirty clothes. Swillens’ book is a fascinating peep into how the universal becomes intensely personal. We all have a bed; but we all have a different bedroom, our last place of refuge, the nest that holds our most intimate secrets.