Petra Mingneau

Belgium

Petra Mingneau's portrait
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“Moving here and standing on my own two feet kinda always seemed really daunting to me. Now I realise that if you have to do it, you have no choice; you just do it.”

If there is a piece of advice that Petra would like to give to her younger self, it is to be more independent and not to give up on herself for the sake of someone else. She has gone through her share of hardship in the last year. Things weren’t always easy, especially without the support of her strong family network back in Belgium. She tells us that nevertheless, she would not let these setbacks determine her life and her emotional state of being. Petra practices what she preaches. She sat for her interview shortly after reports from the March 22nd Brussels bombings had begun seeping through local media. She remembers clearly walking through Brussels airport, one of the sites targeted in the attacks. At the same time she feels so far away from all that is happening back home that the news of the bombings almost felt surreal. She knew of cousins and friends living in Brussels and was relieved to find out that they were safe. For Petra, this feeling of disconnectedness and to a certain extent; powerlessness, is part of the deal that comes with moving away from home. Yes, it is hard and it never stops being hard. She talks about having certain moments in the past when she would feel a sudden and extreme yearning for home. These moments still occur today, but she chose to be here and she has chosen since to stay here… for now at least.

Petra is a photographer. She is also one of the driving forces behind Crossing the Bridge and captured the portraits of the 22 people featured in this project. Growing up in Europe, she could go anywhere and everywhere very easily, and it is this freedom which allowed her to cultivate her curiosity for people, which she further explored through her photography. It became a way for Petra to interact and connect with the world and the people in it. Things in Europe are different on a community level though, and Petra explains that in spite of the openness of Europeans as people, there has always been social tension in regards to migrants and refugees settling across Europe. Like many other countries in the European Union and around the world, Belgium seems to have an ambivalent relationship to its foreign citizens. New Zealand on the other hand she says, seems to have remained more open, as they haven’t experienced this massive influx of migrants.

To Petra, kiwis seem very welcoming and accepting of different cultures, therefore settling in New Zealand was fairly easy. She noticed they were very welcoming and open to her, or at least the people she was fortunate enough to meet early on. She remembers that they were curious about where she was from and wanted to get to know her and help her. Almost immediately after moving to NZ she met a family here whom she now calls her ‘kiwi family’. They have been there for her since the beginning; caring for her when she needed support and making her feel at home; which for Petra is a special feeling since she misses her family a lot. She says that from her experience, kiwis are generally curious people, even though small local communities seem to still be figuring out how to connect with the different cultures and communities settling in. This is also the case in Belgium, and Petra tells us that it is a lot easier for foreigners to settle in the bigger cities, as in small towns, they seem to remain a curious thing.

Back home in Belgium, she says a lot of people do have a certain degree of curiosity but that many refrain from truly trying to make a connection with outsiders. It can be daunting indeed walking through certain areas in a city like Brussels without even once hearing your own language. Petra always found this very intriguing but understands it can be very daunting and frightening to others. It is only once she started travelling that she realised that her family was more of an exception to the rule, with their wide open hearts and, whilst always remaining cautious, their desire to embrace differences. Petra talks of her family often and always fondly. In that context, happiness to her has always been a big chaotic family get together, with cousins fighting for meatball soup and a table full of food and delicious home made desserts. She remembers riding her bicycle from one house to the other and being able to catch up with relatives over a tea and a few laughs, some cake and a biscuit. These are memories she cherishes.

While it is can never be the same, her ‘kiwi family’ has blessed her with the chance to experience this closeness and this sense of safety right here in New Zealand. Petra knows she can call her family at any time, both in Belgium and New Zealand, and she knows she is very fortunate to have them all in her life.

You cannot separate Petra, the astute young traveler from Petra the photographer. She says that she has always been attracted to people who are different; albeit to photograph them but mostly to satisfy this sense of curiosity and also empathy that she has cultivated through her formative years. Beyond obvious differences, she has this profound idea that people are all “kinda the same” and that we all “want to be accepted for who we are”. She feels that most people have “that basic need to be accepted”; yet, she wonders whether settling into New Zealand was easy for her because she doesn’t look visually different. She finds human differences interesting and can empathise with it, but on the other hand, she is very much aware of the fact that she will never know what it feels like to be visually different in her country of adoption. She speaks about human experience with a lot of clarity. She believes that “people just want to be able to be themselves, and function in the society that they chose to live in, just as any other individual would, without being judged on where they come from or on the way they look.” Yet, capturing the entirety of our participants’ physical and personal individuality is what she has done through her work with Crossing the Bridge.

When Petra was asked to share with us what she had hoped to achieve through creating the portraits of our participants, she confided that she would like to invite the public to open themselves up to the images, to allow themselves to be uncomfortable and connect with them. Petra herself loves to stand in front of a photograph and feel uncomfortable. For her, it is through cultivating this openness that people can allow themselves to be touched by them, to connect with them.

She explains that photos exist because of the viewer. If no one is there to look at the portraits, they do not have the power they can have when they are being looked at. Every single person looking at the photo will bring with them their own history and experience. Therefore, every single person will connect with the same image in a very unique and personal way.

Similarly, our sense of self, our individuality, our communities and our culture exist in relation to others. So let us open ourselves up to others so that we can truly see these differences, but also allow for their experiences to become ours. For we might look different and feel different, in the end, we sure do have a lot in common.