A New Visual Language
Conversation with Max Pinckers
Max Pinckers (b. 1988): Red Ink, my photo-reportage on North Korea for The New Yorker, is based on the premise that it is impossible to divulge anything about the political reality of this country. All you can do is think of a form by which to show the concealment, to show that everything has been staged by the government and by the people themselves.
HT: Through the recurrence of the colour pink, for example. Sentimentality, kitsch and dictatorship go hand in hand. Everyone always seems to be dressed in their Sunday best.
MP: The creepiest thing is the uniformity. Last week, I visited Ali Alqaisi in Berlin. He looked at the pictures and remarked that no one smiled.
HT: Milan Kundera wrote that you could always recognise an informer in Czechoslovakia because they lacked a sense of humour.
MP: During a visit to a dolphinarium, I was plucked from the audience in order to be ridiculed. I was up against a girl who knew how to handle a hula hoop, whereas I was a complete novice. At first, I was laughed at by the entire audience, but once I’d got the hang of things, they all started clapping their hands in unison by way of encouragement. That is what I mean by a sinister uniformity.
HT: Could you tell me something about the development of your work, from ‘Lotus’ (2011) until today?
MP: I’ve increasingly come to realise that I’m always looking for ways of creating images in complete freedom within the world of documentary photography. I think the reportage aspect is important because it creates a context, a kind of concrete interpretation or reading direction for the viewer. This also allows me to make abstract images, which might acquire a certain meaning due to the context. That’s what I want to do, I think. The subjects lead me to people and to their unique imaginary spaces, which I try to flesh out with photographs that are not purely documentary. I make documentaries about real people, but on the basis of images that are independent of them and by giving an account of a world that is plausible but only exists in the imagination. That is what fascinates me today.
In Margins of Excess, for example, I wanted to do something around the American idea of freedom. I travelled around the whole country with Victoria Gonzalez Figueras, looking for images that would transcend the usual clichés. I often took pictures without knowing what purpose they might serve. But during the design of the book, which took a year, dozens of these photographs acquired a function or meaning within the context of the six life stories that we documented.
Perhaps it’s also down to my own uncertainty, since I initially look for a subject of general interest before taking my personal photographs within that framework. At the same time, I don’t like elusive, hermetic abstraction. I prefer to make images that work on multiple levels, that are both abstract and serve a story, for example.
MP: The original idea of Lotus was as follows: Quinten De Bruyn and I often looked at classic photojournalism that complies with all the rules: an attempt to capture the decisive moment (le moment decisif), perfect light, perfect framing. In other words: photographs that you are only allowed to take once everything has fallen into place and which, as a result, always look slightly picturesque. For example, when someone touches something at just the right moment, with the right incidence of light and a beautiful composition. We were intrigued by the fact that these rules or conventions were completely independent of the subject. They have more to do with taking pictures and profiling yourself as a photographer than with what you actually wish to portray. The desire to make an aesthetic object always seemed to take precedence.
We wanted to try and make a photographic documentary, therefore, in which we would parody these clichés or exaggerate them in such a way that the viewer could see that it was intentional, that it had been sought. Quinten and I really found each other in that, because it was a game. The ‘golden hour’, fire the flash twice: ‘Look! Someone touches something at just the right moment!’ At the same time, we gave cameras to a few ladyboys in order to see what kind of photographs would be taken by people who aren’t driven by aesthetics, who don’t care whether there is a finger in front of the lens or whether the framing is crooked. The intention was to show our over-aestheticized photographs alongside the banal snapshots taken by the people themselves.
A NEW VISUAL LANGUAGE
Through this setup and the resulting experiments, however, a whole new visual language was created that offered far more possibilities than we had originally expected. I subsequently developed and refined this language, for example by making photography books in which parallel visual stories are distinguished from each other in a graphic way (email traffic, newspaper clippings, abstract photos, found footage).
As a starting point, I contrasted the methodologies of two photographers. On one side of the spectrum I placed Jeff Wall, who takes fully staged photos in a studio-like setting, based on things he has observed. The core is real, but the photo is completely directed. Everything is staged, but it resembles a documentary photograph.
On the other side, I placed Philip-Lorca diCorcia who, I think, does the opposite: he photographs real situations, actual street scenes. He doesn’t stage anything, but because he uses a flash, his photos come across as staged and theatrical. I admire the work of both photographers and I wanted to do something with this contradiction.
I will never forget the moment when everything coalesced. First of all, we’d been working in Thailand for four or five days and had returned to Belgium. Two months later, we returned. In the meantime, I’d been constantly thinking about possible solutions. I happened to attend a lecture by Erik Eelbode on the work of Dirk Braeckman. When Erik told us that Braeckman uses a reflected circle of light to symbolically position himself in his photographs, Quinten and I understood that we had to find a way to make ourselves visible in our documentary images and thus make their subjectivity visible or readable.
We found a completely new middle ground between Jeff Wall and Philip-Lorca diCorcia: working on location with real people, theatrically lit, staged, sometimes re-enacted, sometimes directed, trying to capture spontaneous moments in a theatrical setting. The biggest difference was that we wanted to make a complete documentary, one expansive story, not separate images. It was a beautiful plan.
We also felt it was important to try and capture movement. Because you usually see very static people and objects in the work of Jeff Wall and Philip-Lorca diCorcia. There is very little dynamism, probably because their staging techniques and heavy cameras preclude any kind of movement.
HT: Like the nurse walking out of an infirmary in ‘Lotus’ and the beautiful view through the door?
MP: Yes, those were things that we repeated time and time again, until it worked. The best thing about it was the tremendous sense of fun. It was about being able to create the unadulterated ‘joy’ of a marvellous image and working together in total freedom on the invention of a new visual language.
I subsequently realised, however, that we could have gone much further in terms of looking for abstraction, that it wasn’t perhaps necessary to have a ladyboy in every photo. Although it’s true that the series is very consistently structured around the subject and, as a result, is all the more powerful. Initially, we also wanted to build sets, but we abandoned that plan as soon as we arrived back in Thailand and realised that there were plenty of existing places that already resembled them.
We established a series of formal rules for ourselves: everything had to be as sharp as possible, both in the foreground and background. Every image had to be taken with flashlight. All the lines needed to be straight. The setting always had to have a context so that things could happen in relation to the given situation. Working together, we considered, discussed and scrutinised every single image. This methodology ensured the optimum level of coherence.
Another key image is the illuminated manhole in the series entitled The Fourth Wall. This photograph was a turning point, because it was my first abstract work. I simply placed a lamp inside the pit and took the picture. That was a completely different approach to the one I’d taken previously, and it paved the way for a lot of new things.
HT: Another turning point was the making of the book Margins of Excess, which was born of your desire to report on certain aspects of the media culture in the United States: idolatry, fake news, the visual gestalt given to contemporary history, war propaganda and the impossibility of distinguishing between truth and fiction, for example. As a result of this project, you started using images with various origins, found or self-created, which are all mixed up, thereby giving shape to your subject by evoking an extremely coherent-looking visual confusion. In this book, the documentary narrative structure has liberated you, because almost every image became usable, for example a photo of circular tyre marks at an intersection (traces of a joyrider as an allusion to a kind of James Dean culture), which you use in a context of crop circles, alien visitations and the manipulation of perception by the military government.
MP: The structure of Margins is different to that of Will They Sing Like Raindrops or Leave Me Thirsty. In the latter book, you still have many images that are anchored in the attempt to tell a story and evoke a context. Pictures of honeymoon destinations, white horses, carriages, sets for weddings, washed up pictures of sweethearts, a reconstruction of the Taj Mahal as a tribute to a deceased loved one, and so on. The flower seller and the bottle of ‘love perfume’ were made for me. The photographs serve the story in an illustrative way.
I turned that around in Margins. The only photographs that refer directly to the documentary story are the portraits of the six people who, for various reasons, had come to the attention of the media. Ninety percent of the images have nothing to do with the subject in documentary terms. Yet you would think the opposite: that the main characters are fictional and the other images documentary, because those people have such insane stories. The real seems to be invented, the fictitious comes across as completely normal.
THE FOURTH WALL
The Fourth Wall has the most abstract subject of all my photography books, by which I mean that you can’t photograph the subject directly (the way the film industry affects people’s imagination). In the end, I tried to capture it by improvising film scenes with people I met on the street. All of the pictures were taken on the street using ordinary people, not actors. We went looking for places that resembled studio film sets. You don’t have to look far in India, because nearly everything looks universal or ordinary due to the fact that they don’t add any ‘modern’ objects or inscriptions. You can find many corners that look like a film set. Everything you see in the photographs is real: real people, real places, real improvisations. Many of the scenes were also directed by the people who feature in them. Whenever you set up a little spotlight somewhere in India and place a camera on a tripod, people automatically gravitate towards you. They want to help.
One day, we were at The Gate of India, which is a tourist spot in Mumbai. We wanted to take pictures of the photographers who make portraits of tourists. While we were setting up our equipment some fifty people joined us and a fifteen-year-old boy, Pankaj Choudhary, asked me, ‘Excuse me, Sir, are you the director? Do you need an assistant?’ So, we invited him to direct. The people who’d congregated around us spontaneously joined in. Someone came and stood next to me with a parasol, in order to shade me from the sun.
In this series, the magic also lies in the fact that none of these people hesitated when asked to play a role. Everything you see is ‘real’, but at the same time they are performing a part: they are acting. I made this series with Victoria. At first, we spent days hanging around on film sets in Bollywood, but we didn’t see how we could escape all the clichéd film industry approaches, how we could make a documentary without photographing film sets, sound engineers, directors, the extras milling around and so on. Because what we actually wanted to photograph was the influence of the film industry on everyday life, not the industry itself. We wanted to show how film influences people’s behaviour and thoughts.
While designing the book, we decided to jettison all photographs taken on film sets. We retained photos of the film sets themselves, of course, to create confusion, but everything else was simply photographed on the street. In terms of involvement, this series was the most enjoyable. Everyone wanted to participate and experience the ‘joy’ of making images. They liked the action and fight scenes the most. I think you can sense that in the photographs.
HT: Actually, they are endearing portraits of unknown people… We also understand the contrast with the photos you took at Jay J. Armes’ home where everything, including the man himself, looks artificial. He resembles a wax figure, his tigers are stuffed, his office resembles a set from a seventies television soap opera. With the father of the boy who had supposedly flown away in a balloon, it remains impossible to tell whether he staged the whole thing or not. And also like the lady who supposedly pretended to be a ‘black’ person, we are dealing with a reality that literally cannot be photographed or established: that someone’s identity is not determined by his or her skin colour, but by their education, experiences or, to use James Baldwin’s phrase, by the ‘price of the ticket’.
MP: These kinds of ideas were present in The Fourth Wall, but less elaborated. Throughout the book you will find newspaper quotes that you can freely associate with the images. At the end of the volume you will find the complete articles, so you can read the actual story. Subjects that come up for discussion are a little boy who has hanged himself, because he thought he would come back to life in the ‘next episode’, or people who watch real-life ‘high-speed’ car chases as though scenes from a film.
RELATING TO A SUBJECT
MP: I’ve come to realise, more and more, that I’m primarily interested in the way a photographer relates to the subject. If you begin with a documentary approach, then you always need a subject. The danger, however, is that the subject will dominate the narrative. In which case, for example, Lotus would only be a work about transgenders and Margins of Excess a book about crazy people in America. I always try to find a balance, which makes it clear that the photographs not only serve a subject, but also create some kind of additional space in which I can freely speak about the way you can approach and shape a documentary subject. I want my books to say something about the status of the photographer.
When I look back, I can see a very clear line through everything. Lotus has a very tangible subject: Thai transgender people, whom you can recognise and photograph on the street. Most pictures also show a ladyboy.
The Fourth Wall has no concrete subject (it’s not about Bollywood). It’s about people who experience reality as if it were a film; it’s not about a particular place, person or ‘event’. It is about something intangible. You can’t aim the camera at it, it has to be created.
I unite the two approaches in Will They Sing Like Raindrops or Leave Me Thirsty. On the one hand, you have the Love Commandos with their secret ‘shelters’ and the runaway couples. That’s the documentary subject, just as the ladyboys were the subject in Lotus. But there is also the abstract fact of love in general and its cultural dimension: on the one hand, the cast-iron rules in connection with arranged marriages and, on the other hand, the romanticised approach to love in Bollywood films. For example, I allow images that are rooted in the imagination to collide with the documentary approach taken towards, say, the reality of couples who have to flee in order to survive.
For Margins of Excess I decided to work with six different people, so that I could make it clear that it was not about their personal stories, but about the abstract theme that connects their narratives and about the ways in which you can shape such an abstract theme in a photography book. At the same time, I created a space in which I could be myself, because the freest photos are able to function within the larger, more abstract whole.
HT: Actually, you try to create a space in which you can be yourself, in which you can photograph as freely as possible.
MP: I think so. In the end, the most important thing is not that I’ve found a new form by which to make documentaries, but to be myself and to give shape to a certain desire or dream, one that only becomes tangible through the making of these works.
An abstract personal dream, one that is impossible to photograph, that you try to make concrete…
pinckers: Undoubtedly comparable to the ladyboys who want to create a certain self-image and to the young people in India who let Bollywood influence their love lives.
HT: Or with your desire to give form to the history of the Mau Mau in Kenya, of which no images existed other than those made by the British, which gave you the idea to ask elderly former soldiers to reenact certain scenes?
MP: Everyone needs images of their past. We’re going to Nairobi again at the end of next year. On a merely visual level, I’m looking for a form that makes it clear that my images are re-enactments. I want the viewer to understand that it’s all staged, but that it’s also a reconstruction of authentic events. This duplicity must be preserved. I would like to find a form that is less theatrical, less reminiscent of a tableau vivant, like the photographs that I’ve already taken with Michiel Burger. I think those pictures are too static, too stiff.
HT: I’m particularly touched by the fact that the men’s suits are too big, thereby revealing their age and fragility and intensifying the contrast with the scenes depicted. You also sense that they want to look good, that they want to be in the picture, that they want you to take a photograph of which they can be proud.
MP: Yes, but that’s why the photos seem unworthy. It seems like I want to make those elderly people replay scenes from their past in a clumsy way. But that wasn’t the intention. The aesthetics that you achieve via artificial light is an additional problem. Without light and with a disposable camera it would be easy, but I don’t want to work in such a way. I think it engenders a false sense of ‘truthfulness’. But how do I make my intentions seem credible when everything looks so artificial?
HT: You mean that you don’t want to ridicule them, that you really want to make images of their history?
MP: Yes. I want to give these people a place where they can introduce themselves in the best possible way.
HT: Perhaps you could allow the old Mau Maus to direct younger men within the image, thereby giving you an additional, unpredictable movement and a new layer of ‘reality’ that refers to today?
MP: That’s not a bad idea, but I’d prefer to depict those older men as warriors. Perhaps it’s related to the fact that I’d like everyone who sees the work to be able to identify with the people portrayed, rather than just people who know something about art.
HT: The older men can enact the scenes while two lads in sneakers stand and watch?
MP: I worked with a Mamiya last time, which is an analogue camera. But things move so fast that, this time, I’ve decided to work with a digital camera. In the beginning, I also wanted to weave several layers together, starting with the historical photographs that I’d found in the Archive of Modern Conflict (AMC) in London and which set everything in motion. I wanted to supplement them with my own photographs, historical and military reports, news articles and so on. But I’ve now decided to exclude the broader context and just make a series of nine images that represent certain scenes from the lives of the Mau Mau freedom fighters, and which together can form a kind of monument, one that could be much stronger than recreating the context.
In all my work, I have been looking for a kind of poetry, for metaphorical images. But I don’t feel that there is room for that here. In any case, I don’t feel the urge to add anything poetic.
HT: Nothing prevents you from making a supplementary publication in which you outline the context through found footage, documents and more personal photos.
MP: That’s true. On the other hand, I still have my doubts. For Margins of Excess I took a picture of the missing bathtub in Ali Alqaisi’s bathroom, because he gets panic attacks when he sees a bathtub (because of the waterboarding). Sometimes you also need to be able to show the absence of things in order to tell the full story.
After reading Margins of Excess my mother remarked that you can easily empathise with the stories of the first five people, but the torture of Ali Alqaisi transcends our imagination. The picture of the missing bathtub seems to lend it a form.
There’s also the fact that the Kenyans I’m dealing with do all they can to fit me into their narrative. As you know, I gave them money to build a replica fort. This was only allowed to be built on a campus belonging to the Kikuyu tribe, because the tribe is trying to appropriate the entire history of the Mau Mau, partly because they think they can claim more compensation from the British. They hope that my photos might help them to substantiate their court case and victimhood. I would have to find a visual solution for that too.
Montagne de Miel, 19 October 2018
Postscript, Friday 1 February 2019
Today, I met Max Pinckers again. He has just returned from Kenya, where he did not make pictures, but films. Together we look at the beautiful, touching images in which an elderly lady shows how, more than half a century ago, she had covered her dead child (who had died in the sling on her back while she was working) with branches at the side of the road, because the British guards had made her leave the tiny body behind. We also see elegantly dressed, former freedom fighters show how they’d followed someone through a forest. One of them demonstrates how to make a homemade rifle (with a slide lock and an elastic band). Three men imitate a ritual slaughter with a living goat, which they’ve pinned down on its back. Two older men, who have never been in a boat before, slowly sail in a small motorboat on a lake they dug themselves seventy years ago. The eldest man, now a hundred years old, constantly points to birds, perhaps the same birds that spoke to him of freedom when he was still a slave. We also see people dancing in a parade, holding each other’s hands. Time and again we are moved by the tenderness and respectful attention with which Pinckers portrays people. For the first time, we see women appear in this story. They radiate strength and determination. You can see how much they have endured.
They are poignant images, simply shot with an iPhone. Pinckers didn’t take any photographs, because this demands a different sort of time, he says. He wants to return later to make a series of analogue, monumental photographs, based on some of the images that he has just filmed. But first he has to go to Vanuatu, to make 3D-scans around the local veneration of aeroplanes. I’m curious.