About ‘State of Emergency’

Text by Hans Theys
First published in State of Emergency, self-published by Max Pinckers, Belgium, 2024

Swahili version

Max Pinckers was born in Brussels in 1988. The greater part of his childhood and adolescence took place in India, Australia, Bali and Singapore. Spending his early childhood in Indian ashram-like environments with his mother as a single parent has left a strong impression on him.

For his first book Lotus (Thailand, 2009-10) Pinckers developed a personal approach to documentary photography, revealing its subjective nature by implementing partial staging and artificial lighting in a demonstrative way. This approach was further developed and diversified to make the documentaries The Fourth Wall (India, 2011-12), Will They Sing Like Raindrops or Leave Me Thirsty (India, 2013), Two Kinds of Memory and Memory Itself (Japan, 2014-15), Margins of Excess (United States, 2016-18) and Red Ink (North Korea, 2017).

Thus far, State of Emergency (Kenya and UK, 2014-2024) has been his longest, deepest and most challenging documentary.

The starting point was an invitation extended in 2014 by The Archive of Modern Conflict in London to consult their collection. Struck by the one-sided military documentation of the war leading to the independence of Kenya, Pinckers met with Mau Mau veterans and asked them whether they would be interested in visualizing their side of the events. Most of them agreed. Together they proposed
to organize ‘demonstrations’ of past events.

The following years Pinckers’ research into this matter expanded. He repeatedly interviewed dozens of survivors in Kenya, organized meetings with them, visited important Mau Mau sites, had part of a so-called ‘Emergency Village’ reconstructed, met with historians, consulted several archives and museums in Kenya and elsewhere, read and photographed thousands of sensitive documents and tried out several visual approaches including analogue and digital photo camera’s, filming, handing out cameras to local photographers and collecting archival material, press clippings and found footage. He also brought back reproductions of thousands of archival documents from the UK to Kenya.

Finally, the resulting findings, texts and images were bundled into this book, which does not want to present a final truth about the events but wants to make them visible for outsiders, as is the explicit wish of all the Kenyan participants. The book tries to encompass the probing research of somebody who wants to know and see, not forgetting that absolute truth is always beyond our reach.

Apart from photographs and interviews made by Pinckers, the book contains short essays by historians and a selection of documents and photographs made by the British Colonial Office Information Service that has documented the events with bureaucratic (but prejudiced) precision.

The photographs made for propaganda purposes by anonymous photographers often meet high esthetic standards. Many of the photographs are staged and beautifully lit. In this book, sometimes they are reproduced as they were found in the archives, wrapped
in transparent sheets, sometimes they are singled out and presented as autonomous photographs, thus turning this book in an essay on the role of the photographer as well, revealing Pinckers’ continuing doubts with regard to his own position.

The most gruesome photographs have been omitted. The aim of the book is not to judge, but to make visible. Ultimately, the underlying subject not being the Kenyan situation, but our human condition and the necessity of every man to deal with his, her or their past and to strive for a dignified future for all of us.

As a book, State of Emergency unintentionally became the mirror image of Pinckers’ earlier publication Margins of Excess (2018), dedicated to the impossibility of distinguishing truth from fiction in the 24-hour news cycle in the United States. Both books show the strength and powerlessness of photographic imagery. Margins of Excess, however, evokes a world wherein truth and justice have become hard to track down, whereas State of Emergency tells a tale of a gradual unveiling at the service of dignity. The first book might leave an impression of hopelessness, the second celebrates hope and empowerment. As such, this book is also a portrait of the photographer himself, a new development of his approach to documentary photography, the fruit of a vague but persistent motivation that made him chose to become a photographer.

Critics might object that a person of European descent has no right dealing with such an important aspect of African history. They are right. For this reason, Pinckers returned to Kenya in November 2022 to ask all the participants whether he should make this book or not. They all urged him to do so.

With Emmanuel Levinas, I would like to plead for a personal responsibility for the Other, in the broadest sense of the word (every living being, all things we cannot grasp without effort). We are responsible. If we have a talent, we must put it at service. Some become warriors, others become poets or photographers. If Pinckers would not have developed his personal approach to documentary photography, partly staging scenes and using additional artificial light in an ostensible way, he could never have proposed the veterans to demonstrate events from their past.

– Montagne de Miel, 4 February 2023