The Weight of Photographs
About all the photo series of Max Pinckers
Text by Hans Theys
First published in Max Pinckers, Hannibal Books, Belgium, 2021
Translated by Helen Simpson
Max Pinckers has been making poetic, political, discursive photo documentaries that have been translated into photo books and exhibitions for nearly a decade. This book contains photographs from all these documentaries and an introduction to his specific contribution to (documentary) photography.
First of all, it is worth noting that Pinckers was thirteen in 2001, the year of 9/11. He must have been affected by the incident because he decided, in 2016, to make a photographic portrait of the U.S. that took some of the implications of 9/11 as a starting point. Indeed, his approach to documentary photography seems to have been determined by the bizarre circumstance that this atrocity was probably planned like a film scene, in the hope of creating an iconic image: pious troglodytes striking at the heart of capitalism. At the time, Pinckers was staying at a boarding school in Singapore, where his father was working as an advertising photographer. His mother lived in India.
The efficient, visual nature of the attack runs counter to the intellectual doubts that have been raised with regard to the impact of photography, as expressed by figures such as Susan Sontag, Allan Sekula and Martha Rosler. When Pinckers became acquainted with these theories as a photography student, their impact was reinforced by his discovery that famous photographs almost always resemble well-known paintings or other famous photographs. This made him desperate to be able to actually penetrate an ‘objective’ reality as a photographer, or to take photographs that would really reach potential viewers rather than remind them of a familiar aesthetic.
The iconoclastic and iconic aspects of 9/11, which were immediately identified, prompted numerous publications, two of which I would like to mention here. In 2002, Slavoj Žižek published Welcome to the Desert of the Real, in which he argues that even an event with a cinematic impact such as 9/11 will never succeed in exposing the real, precisely because of its spectacular nature. On 9 December of that same year, The New Yorker printed ‘Looking at War. Photography’s view of devastation and death’, an extended essay by Susan Sontag that, slightly modified, was published as a book in 2003.
In 2017, when Pinckers received his first assignment from The New Yorker, he used the opening line of Welcome to the Desert of the Real as a starting point of an attempt to reveal the hidden reality of North Korea, despite all restrictions. In the words of Pinckers: ‘… as a double negative approach, to show that reality cannot be revealed.’
Childhood and youth
Never, in all these thirty-five years, have I written at length about an artist’s private life. And certainly never more than was strictly necessary to show how his, her or their work was created. Yet this is precisely what I am going to do here. Because it explains why I find this artist’s work so exceptional: what is so specific and new about it, and why it moves me so deeply.
Pinckers was born in Brussels in 1988. His parents were not married. His father was a photographer, his mother a journalist. When they split-up in 1990, his father emigrated to Singapore where he is still working as a photographer three decades later.
In 1993, Pinckers’ mother decided to quit the rat race and moved to Bali (Seminyak and Kerobokan), where she lived with her son for three years. From 1996 to 1998 they lived in Brussels. From 1998 to 2000, they lived in Australia (Byron Bay). Pinckers’ mother never takes pictures. Hardly any photos have survived from this period.
From 2000 to 2007, Pinckers lived with his father in Singapore. While studying at the Chatsworth International School in 2002, he met his future wife and collaborator, Victoria Gonzalez-Figueras. Gonzalez-Figueras is of Argentinian descent and was born in Canada. Her parents are veterinarians who create nutritional supplements for animals. During this six-year period, Pinckers would often visit his mother, who was by then living in India.
From 2003 to 2008, Pinckers practiced Han Mu Do, a Korean martial art devised by grand master Dr He-Young Kimm. Pinckers obtained a black belt under the master Dr Denis Chua in Singapore.
Pinckers was given a Nikon FM2 35mm camera by his father, whom he would periodically accompany on shoots from around the age of seventeen. Watching his father at work, he understood the profession demanded a high level of organisation and discipline; the strict work ethic appealed to him.
In 2017, he returned to Belgium to study. After failing his entrance exam to the photography department at the School of Arts in Ghent, Pinckers decided to study Sinology at Ghent University. He also took his first photographs: black-and-white images of a Han Mu Do training session led by Dr He-Young Kimm in the Dutch town of Uden.
This was also the year in which Pinckers realised, for the first time, that he had talent as a photographer. When his close friend Gerard-Jan Claes asked him to take on-set photos during a film production, the cameraman, director and several of the crew all commented that Pinckers’ stills were sometimes better than the filmed images.
He began experimenting with Lomography and photography became a passion. ‘In those days, Lomography was a kind of online community,’ he told me, ‘of people who experimented with plastic cameras and analogue photography. We’d send exposed film rolls to each other and have them randomly re-exposed, for example. I won several awards and was fairly well known in the community, but I stepped aside when I started to feel that, in the end, it was all about selling cameras.’
In 2008, Pinckers enrolled in the photography department at the School of Arts in Ghent. From 2008 to 2011, he lived in Ghent and maintained a long-distance relationship with Gonzalez-Figueras, who was then living in Barcelona. In 2011, they began living together in Brussels. His first photo book, Lotus, was published in the same year, a collaborative work with the photographer Quinten De Bruyn (b.1984), who is now a painter. The book also contains my first text on the work of this artist.
Going by my own experience (which is obviously limited), Pinckers comes across as an intelligent, open, constructive and, at the same time, gentle person.
I was profoundly moved (both emotionally and intellectually) when I first encountered his debut series of photographs, Lotus. Not just because of the intelligent and new photographic approach, nor because I had discovered the work of a person much younger than myself, but also, and above all else, because of the tenderness that Pinckers showed towards the people in his photographs. That tenderness touched me deeply and will remain with me forever.
There was something in these photographs that I had never seen before, and for which I had always longed: an artistic awareness of light, colour, rhythm and space that was coupled with an attentive, aesthetic, political and human approach to the subject, never at the expense of the individual dignity of the people being filmed or photographed.
At first, I noticed this respectful tenderness in how the faces and bodies of the central figures were lit, something that was common to most images. I then realised how vulnerable some of these people were, without being in the slightest bit insulted, humiliated or exploited. Finally, I saw how their entire worlds – their imaginary worlds, their loves, dreams and habits – had been shaped, in the most complex yet clear way, into a beautiful series of images.
The respectful manner in which Pinckers treats the people he is allowed to photograph is repeated in his collaborations with other photographers, writers, designers, printers and artists. Open conversations strengthen his search for a multifaceted approach to things, one that is as precise as it is poetic.
Specificity of this work
Dreaming all night long about this essay, I cast around for a way to express the feelings and thoughts that his work elicits in me. And towards morning the same words kept returning: ‘He brings weight to the images, he makes weighty photographs, he has created a new photographic weightiness.’ Could this be true? And could this mean more than simply liking his photographs? Why do they touch me? What distinguishes them from other photographs? Why would they weigh?
During a conversation in late 2018, Pinckers explained to me what had happened during the making of Lotus. He and Quinten De Bruyn had looked at a vast array of classic photojournalism that meets all the conventional criteria: an attempt to capture ‘le moment décisif’, ideal light, perfect framing. In other words: photos that can only be taken if everything falls neatly into place and which always look, as a result, somewhat picturesque. For example, when a person touches an object at precisely the right moment, and the lighting is as perfect as the composition. Pinckers and De Bruyn were intrigued by the fact that those rules or conventions are completely independent of the subject. They have more to do with making pictures and profiling yourself as a photographer than with the subject you actually want to depict. The desire to make an aesthetic object always seems to prevail.
For this reason, they wanted to try and make a photographic documentary in which they would parody these clichés or exaggerate them to such an extent that viewers would immediately recognise that they had been used intentionally. ‘Quinten and I really found each other in this,’ says Pinckers, ‘because it was a game: golden hour lighting! Double flash as well! Look! He touches her at just the right moment!’
As a starting point, Pinckers juxtaposed the working methods of two photographers. On one side of the spectrum he placed Jeff Wall, who stages photographs in a studio-like setting, based upon his own observations. The core is real, therefore, but the photograph is totally orchestrated. Everything is staged, but the image resembles a documentary photo. On the other side, he placed Philip-Lorca diCorcia who appears to do the exact opposite: he photographs real-life situations, actual street scenes. Although nothing is staged, the use of flash lighting makes his photographs seem orchestrated and theatrical.
Both photographers fascinated Pinckers and he wanted to do something with this contrast. ‘The moment when everything came together’, he told me, ‘is easy to remember. We’d just returned to Belgium after working in Thailand for four or five days. We went back some months later. In the meantime, I couldn’t stop thinking about potential solutions. One day, I attended a lecture by Erik Eelbode on the work of the photographer Dirk Braeckman. When Eelbode explained that Braeckman uses the reflection of his strobe light in order to symbolically position himself in his photographs, Quinten and I realised that we had to find a way of becoming visible in our own documentary images, so that their and our subjectivity would be perceptible or readable.’
De Bruyn and Pinckers thus found a completely new middle ground between Wall and diCorcia: working on location with real people, using extra artificial lighting, employing techniques such as staging, re-enactment or direction, and trying to capture spontaneous moments in controlled situations.
At the same time, they didn’t want to limit themselves to separate images, but to make a complete and coherent documentary, one big story around a single subject. They also wanted to capture movement. ‘Because most of the things and people you see in Wall’s or diCorcia’s works are static. There’s a lack of dynamism, probably because the staging and the weight of their cameras make movement impossible.’
Pinckers does not take ‘snapshots’. He is not interested in the fast and supposedly faithful capture of a momentary event. Nor does he make tableaux vivants. What we see are staged scenes, partially lit artificially, that function as ‘mousetraps’ for open, unexpected events. Thanks to his slowed-down approach, he is able to register fleeting moments in a dignified manner. The ephemeral is given weight through a respectful, slowed-down attention span, which acquires the status of a tribute, or of a poem in which a moment is solidified forever so that it can be experienced by others.
At the same time, the ‘deceptive’ mechanisms of photography are exposed and revealed, thus creating a new form that transcends the supposed powerlessness and superficiality of the medium. There is no direct claim to truth or objectivity, and there is no relapse into cynical or hopeless subjectivity. Instead, we see a hopeful, manifest subjectivity and an approach to reality that is complex, narrative and even discursive. Sontag and Žižek believe that these qualities can only be found in texts. Perhaps these writer-thinkers are right. Perhaps not, because they have the wrong expectations of photography. And because they can’t take pictures.
Susan Sontag (War and weight)
Susan Sontag’s On Photography, a series of essays published between 1973 and 1977 (and turned into a book in 1977), consists of an astonishing series of remarkable thoughts and insights, which are hard to summarise because they are part of a book in which the author continues to think. It is the best, most concrete book on photography that I have ever read.
Twenty-five years later, Sontag published an essay in The New Yorker in which she recapitulated some of the intellectual impasses that arise from the compromised marriage between war and photography. She writes, for instance, that photographs leave behind more haunting memories than ‘non-stop imagery’ (so-called ‘moving’ images), but are nevertheless inferior to texts, the latter of which she supposes to be intrinsically more thoughtful, more complex, richer and deeper (literally, she uses the words ‘complexity of thought, references, and vocabulary’).
But what if a photographer could create a thoughtful, complex, rich and deep form that results in images that cannot be grasped in a single glance and can ‘affect’ or even ‘think’ on different levels? Would this be possible?
Writing about Robert Capa’s famous photograph of a falling soldier, Sontag quotes the slogan of the French illustrated weekly Paris Match, founded in 1949: ‘Le poids des mots, le choc des photos.’ [The weight of words, the shock of photos]
What if it were possible to give weight to photographs? What if someone were to use photos in the way a philosopher, writer or painter might?
Strangely enough, Sontag’s pessimistic essay ends on a hopeful passage, which solely consists of the description of a 1992 photograph by Jeff Wall: Dead Troops Talk (A vision after an ambush of a Red Army patrol, near Moqor, Afghanistan, winter 1986). ‘This photograph,’ she writes, ‘is exemplary in its thoughtfulness, coherence and passion’. And she admires the eloquence of a photograph that was manifestly staged in a studio and which, according to the artist, was inspired by Goya’s The Disasters of War.
(The marvellous thing about getting older, in my view, is that you witness how things are able to renew themselves. And how certain people can sometimes find a new way to experience or approach reality. It is rare, but it happens. And it happens in Pinckers’ oeuvre.)
Pinckers graduated with photographs in light boxes of people improvising and directing typical film scenes on the streets of India, while his final dissertation examined the inability of photographers to create affecting images that do not resemble well-known paintings. One of Wall’s responses to this impasse has been to create photographs that are explicitly based on paintings. Pinckers’ reaction was to push through that attitude by photographing slowed-down, manifestly staged and partially artificially lit scenes, and attempt to capture the tragic yet poetic ephemerality of our lives and make it present by allocating it a new weight.
I can feel this. I can see it, I can read it from the photographs (via the tripods, bulbs, reflections and the uneven shadows), which not only visibly reflect upon photography but also upon our image-driven approach to reality. This photographer thinks in and through his photographs, and his thoughts are readable, logical, clear. I have rarely experienced this.
Photos and identity
Sontag’s essay draws upon a text by a fellow writer and thinker, Virginia Woolf, who invites the reader to discover whether men and women look differently at photographs of dead soldiers. As an example, Woolf uses images that were distributed during the Spanish Civil War by the beleaguered Republican government. Sontag thinks that Woolf is somewhat naive, since by rejecting war in general, she seems to undermine the Republican cause in Spain. Without reaching a definitive conclusion, as is typical for her, Sontag criticises Woolf for her lack of political awareness. (On this, opinions may differ. Every position has political significance, even abstention or the reluctance to use standardised terms to refer to people or political aims.)
Moreover, Sontag writes that wars or crimes almost always seem justified to the parties involved, which is why a photograph can never be a legitimate indictment of war in general. I disagree. Because even an allegedly justifiable act of violence (which Albert Camus also believed in) creates suffering, which is always undesirable.
At the same time, Sontag rightly notes that the memory of war is invariably local. For an outsider, the identity of the victim in a photograph is a secondary concern. For a population group affected by war or genocide, however, that identity is not an incidental issue, because the testimonial content of the photograph can contribute to the formation of a collective identity.
Ascertaining the identity of a victim in a photograph is a complicated task, which is a problem for Sontag. To her, it points to a weakness within photography. But this weakness applies to all historiography and, by extension, to almost everything we know. There are no absolute foundations to knowledge. The most incomprehensible thing of all, however, is not that our generally hypothetical knowledge has enabled us to develop a rather effective way of dealing with reality, but why people find it so hard to adopt a permanent attitude of scepticism towards their so-called knowledge and beliefs. Or, in other words, why people need such constructions as a ‘national’, ‘political’, ‘cultural’ or ‘sexual’ identity.
In the last book published by Sontag during her lifetime, Regarding the Pain of Others (2003), and which is almost identical to the essay that appeared in The New Yorker the previous year, she briefly mentions Walt Whitman, who is not mentioned in the essay.
One understands why Whitman eventually makes an appearance. Leaves of Grass is a milestone in artistic terms and often springs to mind in the presence of another great artwork. Artistic, but also political and spiritual. For Whitman’s polymorphic, tolerant, sensory, sensual, invariably faltering and circling, ever different approach to humanity and the world involved an incredibly courageous plea for a non-racist society and for fluid rather than compulsively categorised approach of sexuality. Sontag was not merely discussing his generosity, complexity and eroticism, but also his multifaceted approach.
Where does Pinckers’ work stand in this regard? Well now, I see it as formulating a new and convincing answer to the problem, as identified by Sontag, of never being able to identify the victim in a photograph, and it does so by manifestly creating a framework in which you never know what is true or real and what is not. You know you are looking at Thai lady-boys, but at the same time, you cannot be certain. You could also be looking at someone who was born a girl or who only behaves or dresses like a woman. The evocation of doubt reinforces the veracity of the documentary.
Furthermore, the probing of the photographer-artist is mirrored in the quest of the people being photographed, who are searching for a feminine identity. You know you are looking at former Mau Mau soldiers when it comes to the photographs of men, but the portrait of Field Marshall Muthoni Wa Kirima might suggest otherwise. You think you see Bollywood extras performing on deserted film sets, but these are actually people who approached Pinckers in the street, at locations where he’d set up his camera because of their resemblance to film sets. You believe you are looking at a distraught young woman taking leave of an American soldier, but it’s actually an actress being directed by Pinckers, who was trying to imitate a World Press Photo.
In the book you are currently holding, do you genuinely know who you’ve met? An American blues musician or a former Mau Mau general in his Sunday best? A mannequin or a waitress in a theme restaurant inspired by Twin Peaks? An ordinary parking lot or a former prison camp? The Spanish landscape in the background of Falling Soldier or an overgrown mass grave in Kenya?
The debate about the authenticity of Falling Soldier flares up every few years. Is the photo staged or not? Conspiracy theories mingle with urban legends and overzealous, so-called scientific research into the sun’s position and the length of shadows. Furthermore, the photograph may not have been taken by Endre Ernö Friedmann, as Robert Capa was actually called, but by his colleague Gerda Taro, who was born Gerta Pohorylle and who also invented the common pseudonym ‘Robert Capa’.
In Pinckers’ oeuvre, this kind of punctilious problem is avoided because doubt becomes the actual theme of the photographs. This does not mean that he is indifferent to ‘truth’ or ‘authenticity’, but rather that he strives to give form to their elusiveness in such a way that we are constantly reminded of our ignorance as to whether a photograph is ‘authentic’. His photographs thus give shape to a ‘not-knowing’, to a sceptical approach to reality, one in which the verdict is postponed for as long as possible (as with Sontag, who always goes on thinking), and the widest range of viewpoints are retained and contemplated for the maximum amount of time (not forgetting that we will never see the entirety of the Zen garden at the Ryoan-ji temple in Kyoto, see further).
One of my favourite passages in On Photography argues that innovative artists always seem naive when they first present their work, whereas their contemporaries are later shown to have been naive for not having recognised the possibilities of their time. Walt Whitman, Virginia Woolf, Ghandi and the Dalai Lama: all naive.
Do I also reject Sontag’s Real-thinking? Under no circumstances. Sontag is rarely wrong. But I do not want to resign myself to her sad findings. And I want to continue to believe in the slow but ultimately broadening effect of artworks. I see that Jeff Wall gave her hope. And I also see that Wall is followed by a new generation of promising photographers.
Elsewhere in her essay, Sontag points out that everyday language makes a distinction between the heavy weight of a painting, engraving or drawing and the perennially threatening superficiality of a photograph: we speak about ‘making’ a painting and ‘taking’ photographs. She does not realise that Wall makes photographs, nor could she imagine that a fresh kind of photography could emerge from this, one that would lend new weight to documentary images.
Sontag died in 2004, alas, which means she will never be able to write about Pinckers.
Pinckers and identity
Thinking about identity has changed a lot in recent years. In the past, freedom-loving people did not wish to see their personality, sexuality or ‘identity’ labelled. It was about what you did, not what you were. Today the reverse is happening. More and more people experience a sense of freedom when they can name themselves and thus become a recognisable part of a group. Pinckers occupies a unique position in this debate, which consists of weaving or depicting complex identity narratives.
We know that Pinckers, who grew up in very different countries, has a less stereotypical outlook than most people, whose thoughts and fantasies are largely guided by unconscious but well-defined patterns and models. But perhaps it would be more accurate to state that his thoughts, dreams and behaviour also respond to well-defined patterns, just that these happen to be more complicated and less based on exclusion?
‘Ultimately, the most important thing isn’t that I’ve found a new form by which to make documentaries,’ he told me in October 2018, ‘but that I can be myself and give form to a certain desire or dream, one that only acquires shape through the making of these images.’
Here, we meet someone who is trying to be himself, with no defined end goal in mind, who makes work about people with whom he feels, for various reasons, an affinity.
About all the photo series
I argued above that Pinckers’ oeuvre is shaped by a sceptical and ambiguous approach to reality. He does this, in the first place, by taking photographs that reveal their supposedly subjective, staged nature. But he also does it by making unique books that weave together documents, press texts, his own interviews, found footage and other such things. This interlacing is also made visible, for example, by using different layouts, different types of paper and different typographies. Below, I consider each of the documentary series in turn.
Pinckers’ first large series of photos (made in collaboration with Quinten De Bruyn) offers a glimpse into the world of Thai lady-boys. We see images of their apartments, their bodies, their clothes, their nightlife, their leisure activities, their livelihoods. We understand that their lives, just like our own, are steered by images. We know that they want a dream to become a reality, just as a photographer wants to give shape to his, her or their own desire. As a counterpoint to the staged, artificially lit documentary images, Pinckers and De Bruyn gave the people they followed disposable cameras, thereby enabling them to depict their own worlds. All of their photos are included in the book in the form of contact sheets, printed on a different type of paper.
In the photographs we see here, perspective is used to create a diverse range of folded, concertina-like spaces. Sometimes, the middle of a photograph shows us the corner of a room (but never without at least one possibility of escape on the border). On other occasions, the effect is reinforced by elements in the foreground (doors, curtains, armchairs etc.). There are times when a corner or another protruding element comes towards us in the middle of the photograph, and yet others when two advancing elements on the side divide the surface of the photograph into three vertical sections. As a result, the photographs seem to depict a space that is alive, like a forest, but also one that functions as a stage set or like a photo studio. The effect of these compositions is twofold: they reinforce the impression of an artificially arranged space, but at the same time they intensify our appreciation of the poor-quality housing and the sense of entrapment. In both cases, they seem to reveal the mechanics behind the decoration of lobbies, hotel rooms, hospital wards, doctors’ consulting rooms, night clubs and, finally, nearly every kind of public and private space: they are sets, theatre stages, decorated with useless, meaningless and ugly props, places where people are told what they must or must not do. On the other hand, the repetition of similar compositions in different situations creates new relationships between the various photographs and the scenes depicted.
Through working slowly and diligently, the photographers created a situation in which unexpected things could happen: birds scatter, a cat appears, someone plucks something from their eyelashes.
The photos thus acquire a playful tension that is comparable to the remarkable qualities of John Cassavetes’ films, who rehearsed intensively with his actors until his cameramen were completely apprised of their movements. He then invited the cameramen to move about freely and shoot whatever they wanted. As a result, the cameras circulate freely and move in extraordinary ways, while often capturing the most exquisite moments of acting because their operators knew exactly when they would happen.
The pictures that touch me most are the one of the hospital room, with the composition reminiscent of spread legs; the image of Yoyo picking a fibre from her eyelashes; and that of the blind couple with the obscene, exposed, swollen belly of the sex tourist in the background.
The Fourth Wall (2012)
This book mainly contains scenes that were improvised on the streets of Mumbai. Pinckers and Gonzalez-Figueras selected sites that resembled film sets, set up their equipment and waited until random passers-by offered to act out improvised scenes. Some of the images were directed by a young man who asked to be Pinckers’ assistant. The publication also includes still lifes and scenes based on newspaper articles, the latter of which are also reproduced. It is printed on newsprint and covered in an Indian newspaper. The starting point of the series was to make a portrait of Bollywood and the influence of films on society. Instead of tackling this in a literal or illustrative way, Pinckers invited passers-by to propose scenes, which were automatically influenced by their ideas about film.
‘The Fourth Wall,’ Pinckers told me, ‘has the most abstract subject of all my photo books, by which I mean that you can’t photograph directly how the film industry influences the imagination. In the end, I tried to convey the theme by asking people I met on the street to improvise film scenes. All the photos were made on the street and feature ordinary people, not actors. We searched for places that looked like film sets. It’s not hard to find them in India, because so many things are universal or ordinary, and also because ugly, “modern” objects and lettering are less common. You come across all these nooks and crannies that resemble film sets. So everything you see is real: real people, real places, real improvisations. Many of the scenes were also directed by the participants. No matter where you are in India, all you have to do is set up a lamp, place a camera on a tripod, and people will immediately start to congregate. They are keen to help.’
‘One day, we were at the Gateway of India, a tourist spot in Mumbai. We wanted to take pictures of photographers making portraits of tourists. We set up our equipment. Suddenly, we found ourselves surrounded by fifty people and a fifteen-year-old boy, Pankaj Choudhary, asked: “Excuse me sir, are you the director? Do you need help directing?” So we let him direct. Other bystanders spontaneously joined in. Someone stood next to me with a parasol, to protect me from the sun.
In this series, the magic is also derived from the fact that these passers-by could instantly inhabit a role. Everything you see is “real” but, at the same time, they are obviously playing a part: they are acting. I made this series with Victoria [Gonzalez-Figueras]. At first, we spent days hanging around film sets in Bollywood, but we just didn’t see how we could escape all the clichéd film industry approaches, or how we could make a documentary without photographing film sets, sound engineers, directors, all the extras milling around and so on. Because what we really 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.
When we were designing the book, we decided to take out all the photos that were made on film sets. There are still a few that show the sets themselves, of course, to create confusion, but apart from that, everything else was simply photographed on the street. In terms of participation, this series was the most enjoyable of all. Everyone wanted to join in and they all felt the joy of making images. They liked the action and fight scenes the most. I think you can sense that in the pictures.’
The solitary figures touch me the most, such as the man jumping up to feed a flying eagle, and the resting acrobats in a strange, dusty, loam-coloured world.
Will They Sing Like Raindrops or Leave Me Thirsty (2014)
For this discursive photo documentary on love and marriage, Max Pinckers travelled to India for four months, accompanied by Gonzalez-Figueras. While there, he attempted to document, capture, stage and bring to life various and specific aspects of love and marriage. Searching through newspapers and magazines, watching films and roaming through cities, he went in search of subjects that suited his theme, such as couples on their honeymoon at the foot of the Himalayas, men on white horses, victorias (carriages in which newlyweds parade), photo studios where couples have their portraits taken, strange decors for marriage ceremonies, a photo of a married couple that had washed ashore (having been offered to a river, lake or sea after their death), a set of discarded photos from a studio next to the Taj Mahal and countless other things. He also made pictures of ‘lovebirds’ (young lovers on the run from their disapproving families due to caste or religious differences) and the Love Commandos (an organisation that protects and supports these young runaway couples and helps them get married and start anew).
Again, we see beautiful pictures of people: some staged, others not. For example, we see the Love Commandos’ hiding place, with its distinctive blue walls: cramped spaces as an ode to freedom. The beautifully lit photographs often contain an additional, unnecessary reflection of a strobe light, as a footnote or signature, but also as a spatial-photographic intervention. Despite his thorough documentation (which largely consists of photographs taken by amateurs or otherwise), Pinckers strives for photographs that are devoid of recognisable elements. He is not interested in folklore or the alleged differences between cultures, but rather in the universal search for the ideal image, in our conceptions of beauty and kitsch, in our limited stylistic forms and in the emotions that all these images evoke in spite of everything. Pinckers is fascinated by young couples who dream of a Bollywood-style elopement with their beloved, by a tradition that degenerates into a cooky cutter romance or by how life and death conceal and reveal themselves in our dealings with images.
In an interview with Colin Pantall, Pinckers states that he ‘had heard of the Love Commandos and approached them to make a story.’ Based in New Delhi, this four-man team has a single office, a website and a telephone hotline. They provide assistance to couples who are in love but whose family oppose their union, mainly on the grounds of caste or religion.
‘Pinckers could have gone with a straightforward editorial strategy of photographing the Love Commandos and the people they have helped,’ writes Pantall. ‘But instead of emphasising the documentary side of the story, he began pulling in a fictional direction, using a visual language that borrows from Hindi Cinema (aka Bollywood) and its depiction of relationships and love. (…) The irony is that though the staging, lighting and symbolism add a fictionalized layer to the story, it also points to the way that love is learned and lived in India. For all its economic progress over the years, it remains a deeply conservative and contradictory country where sex and love are rarely discussed openly. Instead, the convoluted plotlines and high drama of 100 years of Hindi cinema serve as a proxy form of education in how to fall in love and how to be in love.’
This book consists of several elements (text or images), each of which is given a different graphic design. One distinct category of photographs is the sequence taken inside the Love Commandos’ headquarters, which can be identified by the confined nature of the spaces, the blue walls and the simpler lighting. These sequences create a horizontal strand which is woven through the book. The irony of this graphic approach lies in the fact that these particular photographs are the most documentary ones, whereas their sequential organisation contradicts the myth of the decisive moment, or the ‘moment of truth’, that a photographer is supposed to capture. The seriality seems to stress the photographer’s consistent but seemingly futile attempts to capture the reality before him, while also emphasising the confined space in which these people hide out and attempt to live.
Another series of ‘images’ consists of vertically arranged texts from the weblog of the Love Commandos that have been bled to the edge of the pages. Together with the documentary sequences, they seem to weave the basic pattern of the book.
An additional set of ‘images’ is comprised of found material, such as documents or newspaper articles, but also photographs or ‘found footage’ such as inscriptions in bamboo trees or posters on walls.
Another category seems to have been included for poetic reasons. Not easily explained, they are substantially different to the photographs Pinckers has made to date. They seem to open a new, more free and abstract path.
Yet another series of images mainly consists of staged photographs or those that appear to be both staged and documentary in equal measure. These are characterised by extremely intricate lighting using different light sources and flashes from different angles. Within this book, they acquire a narrative function and convey (visual) stories connected to its overall theme. They are also the result of spontaneous improvisation with randomly encountered people in given situations. The photographer has to react quickly while also endeavouring, through invention, to touch upon the subject matter. Some of these images also have a purely documentary character, such as when they show us fragments of ceremonies, decors or studios specialising in photographs of arranged marriages.
A completely different group consists of five photographs of still lives against a black background. They have a symbolic function and are linked to the principal theme through a narrative approach. For instance, we see a bottle of True Love fragrance that was blended by a professional perfumier or a marble statue of a rose seller made by a sculptor of religious statues, both commissioned by the photographer.
A last series of images consists of idealised digital landscapes retrieved from a photographic studio, where they were used as backdrops for portraits.
One of my favourite photos shows two young lovers on corrugated iron rooftops, throwing a love letter in the shape of an airplane to one another. Not because of the image itself, but because you feel that these people are genuinely standing on the roofs of these simple houses and that they have given Pinckers permission to join them.
Two Kinds of Memory and Memory Itself (2015)
Two Kinds of Memory and Memory Itself was created during a residency in Japan that came with one, albeit challenging, condition: the recipient was not allowed to leave the prefecture of Saitama. While Pinckers was delighted to be able to finally visit Japan, he was amazed that the commuter city of Saitama possessed none of the Japanese cultural symbols that are presented in the West and which had also, therefore, determined his own perceptions of the country: kimonos and bonsais were nowhere to be found. Research seemed to indicate that Japan owes this image to its post-war attempts to become a global economic power, a feat that was achieved, amongst other things, via the ‘promotion’ of its national culture.
Pinckers wanted to make images based on the existing stereotypes, but by staging them with performers. The idea was to give shape to a clichéd Western perception of Japan as part of a residency granted in the form of Japanese cultural promotion towards Europe. Part of this process also involved references to other Western artists that were inspired by Japanese art (Jeff Wall and Richard Tuttle).
The key image in this series is a remake of Jeff Wall’s photo A Sudden Gust of Wind (after Hokusai) from 1993, while the title, Two Kinds of Memory and Memory Itself, is borrowed from a work by Richard Tuttle: a reconstruction of the zen garden at the Ryoan-ji temple in Kyoto, which he created from memory and laid out in string. For Pinckers, the unique thing about this garden is that you cannot see all fifteen boulders (which are surrounded by raked pebbles) from any one vantage point, which makes our need for perspective all the more tangible.
What strikes me most about this series is the seemingly unreal, grey-blue light.
Red Ink (2017)
Red Ink was commissioned by The New Yorker. It involved Pinckers accompanying one of their staff-writers, Evan Osnos, an authority on China, on a visit to North Korea. At the time of the assignment, tensions were running high between North Korea and the United States. The American president had just called the North Korean dictator a ‘rocket man’. Pinckers was intrigued by North Korea, just as he is curious about all Asian countries, but he also viewed it as a unique example of a country whose image is determined by both domestic and foreign propaganda. Here, the traditional photojournalist is completely powerless. Not only are you prevented from looking behind the scenes, but you also know that any of your images can be used and manipulated by just about everyone.
The editors of The New Yorker had commissioned Pinckers because they believed his characteristic use of staging and artificial lighting could expose the unnatural and staged quality of public life in North Korea. Pinckers decided to take his photographs with a ring flash, which is used in the advertising world to produce shadowless photographs (the circular device emits light from around the lens in all directions, thus eliminating shadows). Furthermore, he wanted to correct an undesirable side effect of the apparatus when used to take photos with a pronounced depth of field, namely halo-like tonal changes in the background, by using an additional flash on this specific area. When the battery for the ring flash was confiscated at the airport, however, Pinckers and Gonzalez-Figueras improvised a device by taping two separate flashes together, only for it to unexpectedly cast two shadows. They instantly realised that they could use these ‘unwanted’ double shadows to reinforce the artificial nature of public life in North Korea.
In order to prevent them from witnessing undesirable things or meeting people, Osnos and Pinckers were constantly obliged to attend guided tours of institutions such as museums and schools. Initially, these visits seemed to yield only the most irrelevant images, until Pinckers understood that he could use their meaninglessness to indicate that there was a reality he could not show.
The title of this publication is borrowed from Žižek’s book Welcome to the Desert of the Real (2002), which begins with a joke about a man departing for Siberia who agrees with his friends to write letters to them in blue ink when he is telling the truth and in red when he is lying. His first letter is written in blue ink and states that life is fantastic in Siberia except for the fact that red ink is not available.
‘According to Žižek,’ says Pinckers, ‘Westerners lack the vocabulary that would allow them to articulate their own lack of freedom. Terms such as “democracy” or “war on terror” are empty. They only seem to be able to discuss something via concealment or by refusing to give it a name.’
One of Pinckers’ favourite images from this series is a photograph of the shoes and trouser legs of three anonymous people, on an otherwise indifferent floor.
Margins of Excess (2018)
Margins of Excess is dedicated to a question that has always fascinated Pinckers, namely how people sculpt their own identity, starting from collective dreams and desires that are partially fed and shaped by the tropes of mass media. This question is linked to the news media’s apparent inability to transmit intimate or idiosyncratic views of reality.
The research for this extensively documented book was mainly conducted by Gonzalez-Figueras. Together they travelled around the United States for six months.
Margins of Excess revolves around the stories of six people who momentarily received nationwide attention in the US press because of their attempts to realise a dream or passion, but who were branded as liars. In general, Pinckers is attracted to subjects that evoke the magic of the imagination but simultaneously reveal the impossibility of an untainted personal dream: time and again we discover that the words and images we use to define ourselves have been unconsciously borrowed from others, from the past, from books, paintings, the internet or the media.
Herman Rosenblat became known through a self-invented love story set in a concentration camp during the Second World War; the private detective Jay J. Armes appeared to be a real-life superhero; Darius McCollum garnered media attention by compulsively hijacking trains; Richard Heene was thought to have staged a television hoax; Rachel Dolezal attempted to be ‘black’; and Ali Alqaisi supposedly tried to make people believe that he was the ‘hooded man’ in the iconic photo from Abu Ghraib prison. Pinckers met them all (except for Rosenblat, who had passed away in 2015), listened to their version of the events and documented these interviews with found footage, press clippings and artificially lit and staged photographs.
Embedding the six main stories into a clustering tale of cloned military dogs, religious apparitions, suspect vehicles, fake terrorist plots, accidental bombings and fictional presidents, Margins of Excess follows an associative logic akin to the indiscriminate way in which a paranoid mind connects unrelated events. As such, it mimics the hysteria of the 24-second news cycle and the one-dimensional formats of media that are primarily focused on selling ‘news’.
Ultimately, this photographic essay reveals itself to be Pinckers’ personal attempt to give shape to his world view, and he appears as the seventh character in the book. In a letter addressed to me, he notes that in Margins of Excess in particular, he recognises himself in the people he visits and interviews, and that their attempts to shape their lives according to their dreams mirror his own vision of the photographic documentary as an attempt to grasp the world through his imagination. ‘In the end,’ he writes, ‘it seems to be a search for freedom, in a way that is abstract and detached from the banal reality of our surroundings. I can’t quite find the right words, but maybe we should talk about it again? It’s not urgent, just a thought.’
Margins of Excess represents the first complete unfolding of Pinckers’ world. In this series, the ‘not-knowing’ and doubt are thought in a visual way. A synergy exists between the documentation, the photos and the graphic design. Photography turns into an act of thinking, one that is as contemplative, complex, rich and weighted as the discursive reasoning of figures such as Claude Lévi-Strauss, Walter Benjamin, Virginia Woolf, Hannah Arendt and Susan Sontag.
What touches me most about this series is the fascinating coherence between the array of photographs and the conviction with which they seem to articulate, in unison, that you don’t have to know precisely what a photograph represents, as long as you keep thinking in an open way.
Unhistories (2015 - ongoing)
For this documentary, Pinckers visited former Mau Mau soldiers in Kenya out of a desire to create images that could represent their recent past. For a long time, this past was only chronicled via the propaganda produced by the British government, which portrays them as animals. Pinckers worked with the former soldiers on re-enactments of various events. Different approaches were tested. The encounters were photographed, using a range of cameras, but also filmed. A prison camp was reconstructed. Some of the militiamen presented their old weapons, describing not just how they fashioned them but also the covert manner in which they were carried. Others revealed their scars. The veterans nearly always wore their Sunday best. Pinckers’ images are touching and seem to transcend the local Kenyan situation.
Of course, this historical-poetic documentary raises multiple questions about exoticism and post-colonialism. Pinckers did not evade these issues and discussed them with the Mau Mau representatives, who could not agree amongst themselves. It became a thorny tangle, one that will be unravelled or exposed in a new book (still in the making).
What moves me the most in this series are the people’s faces.
With regard to the joke about the man who moves to Siberia but cannot purchase red ink, Žižek writes that the man’s friends can still correctly interpret his letter, even if it is written in blue ink, because in the letter he refers to the agreed secret code.
In my view, this is exactly what Pinckers does when he makes images that reference the ‘language’ of photography and indicate that they were ‘made by someone’, and this via the use of double or contradictory shadows, different uses of lighting within a single image, reflections, presumably staged scenes and visible tripods or other props. By simultaneously using both daylight and artificial lighting, and by combining planning and improvisation, control and coincidence, realistic and fictional elements, actual situations and staging, he makes the potential unreliability of photography explicit, thereby lending it a new veracity. He does this by giving form to doubt and ambiguity, just as Rogier Van der Weyden did via a playful use of perspective, or the Master of Flémalle, who let Christ’s face hover in front of the sharply ironed creases of Veronica’s cloth. Is any great artwork ever unambiguous? And I don’t just mean in terms of vagueness or uncertainty, but as a representation of the ambiguity or plurality of reality itself (doesn’t death only enter our lives when our first child is born?).
Almost forty years ago, I read in Sontag’s introduction to her collection of essays entitled Against Interpretation that we should focus less on what artworks supposedly mean and more on what they actually are. Those words have defined my professional life. For thirty-five years, I have been trying to look at what works of art actually are, without losing myself in chatter about their supposed meaning. But when Sontag looks at photographs, they suddenly need to possess everything: the complexity of a text, the veracity of a falsifiable assertion, the lyricism of the most beautiful poem. And at the same time, they should also be everything: song, objective registration, moral compass and political instrument. Being a good photograph doesn’t seem to be enough. But why? Because we regard them as vehicles of meaning? As textures that (must) report on reality or the real? But isn’t that asking too much? And isn’t this a typical wish of writers, who are always disappointed when artworks turn out not to be texts?
We should look at Pinckers’ photographs and allow them to speak for themselves. Because that is the ultimate aim. It is why they were made. There is something human in these images. Something human that transcends all reasoning. And that you need to have felt to speak of it in photographs.
And thus Pinckers’ oeuvre not only accords with the photographic ‘citizenship’ of Ariella Azoulay (b. 1962), who argues that anyone can make a politically relevant photograph and thus contribute something valuable to the world, but is also in keeping with the great tradition of artists who succeed in making old things visible in a new way, thus granting us an occasional meeting with reality or the real (Lacan’s ‘le réel’) before sleep without end closes our eyes forever.
Montagne de Miel, 1 May 2020