Photographs as Poems

Text by Hans Theys, Montagne de Miel, 25 February 2014 (reviewed in November 2014)
First published in Will They Sing Like Raindrops or Leave Me Thirsty, self-published by Max Pinckers, Brussels, Belgium, May 2014

For his most recent work, Max Pinckers (born in Belgium in 1988, but raised in Asia), travelled to India for four months, accompanied by his partner Victoria Gonzalez-Figueras. There he has attempted to document, capture, stage and bring to life various specific aspects of love and marriage. Searching through newspapers and magazines, watching films and roaming through cities, he has been looking for subjects that suited his theme, such as couples on their honeymoon at the foot of the Himalayas, men on white horses, Victoria’s (carts on which newlyweds strut around), photo studios where couples have their portraits taken, strange decors for marriage ceremonies, a stranded photograph of a married couple (which is offered to a river, lake or sea after their death), a set of discarded photos from a studio next to the Taj Mahal and many 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 organization that protects and supports these young runaway couples and helps them get married and start anew).

Again we see beautiful images of people; some staged, some not. The shelter of the Love Commandos, for instance, which we recognize by the blue walled spaces: a confined space that is an ode to freedom. Often the beautifully lit photographs contain an extra, unneeded reflecting flash, as a footnote, a signature, but also as a spatial photographic intervention. Despite his thorough documentation (that largely exists out of photos, be it found or made by amateurs, such as in the series Lotus), Pinckers searches for images that are devoid of recognizable elements. It is not the folklore that interests him, nor the differences between our cultures, but this universal search for the perfect image, for our understanding of beauty and kitsch, for our constricted forms of style, and for the emotions that all these images evoke nonetheless. Young couples that dream of a Bollywood elopement or a tradition that is degenerating into cookie-cutter romances… The way life and death disguise and reveal themselves in our relationship with images.

Fact and fiction
In an interview with Colin Pantall, Pinckers states that he “had heard of the Love Commandos and approached them to make a story. They are based in New Delhi and they are a small team of four men. They have one main headquarters, a website and a telephone hotline. They provide assistance to couples who are in love but cannot be together due to family opposition – mainly due to caste or religious issues. In India, most people still have arranged marriages, but young people do fall in love and run away to be together. The main function of the Love Commandos is to allow people to do this in safety and in accordance with the laws of India and to prevent honor killings happening to the young couples. So they take in young couples and provide protection, sometimes they send in people to rescue couples at risk. They have at least eight different shelters in New Delhi, amongst many more across the country. They also claim to have 50,000 volunteers, many of whom have been helped by the Love Commandos, who give advice and help to people in their area. It’s a traditional documentary subject in other words, featuring people who face a very real danger of violence or murder. There are an estimated 1,000 honor killings in India every year, but it’s also a problem that extends across much of Asia, Africa, Europe and the UK.

“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 emphasizing 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 is 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.”[1]

A beautifully constructed book with different elements
This book consists of several elements (text or images), each treated differently on the level of the layout. One kind of images always consists of a sequence of photographs made inside the headquarters of the Love Commandos. They can be recognized through the smallness of the photographed spaces, the presence of the blue walls and a more simple use of lighting. These sequences create horizontal lines that weave through the book. The irony of this graphic approach resides in the fact that these photographs are the most documentary ones, whereas being organized in sequences contradicts the myth of the decisive moment or the “moment of truth” the photographer is supposed to capture. Thus the use of sequences seems to stress the consistent, but seemingly vain attempt of the photographer to capture the reality in front of him, but it also emphasizes the limited space these people have to hide and live in.

Another series of “images” consist of vertically arranged, bleeding texts, extracted from the weblog of the Love Commandos. Together with the documentary sequences, they seem to weave a basic grid for the book.

There is also a set of “images” consisting of found material. These can be found documents or newspaper articles, but also found photographs or ‘found footage’ such as inscriptions in bamboo trees or posters on walls.

Another category seems to be added for abstract reasons. They are not easily explained. They deviate the most from the photographs Pinckers used to make until today. They open his work to the future, e.g. by documenting sculptural integrations made on location in collaboration with the artist Gauthier Oushoorn.

Yet another series of images mainly consists of staged photographs or photographs that seem to be staged and documentary at the same time. They are characterized by very intricate lighting, using different light sources and flashes. In this book they have a kind of visually narrative function. They recount (visual) stories, related to the general subject of the book. They are also the result of instant improvisation with found situations and randomly encountered people. They demand a quick way of reacting from the photographer and try to touch upon the subject matter through invention. Some of these photographs also have a purely documentary character, e.g. when they show us parts of ceremonies or settings or photographer’s studios related to arranged marriages.

A quite distinct set of images consists of five photographs of still lives against a black background. They attain a symbolic function and are linked to the main theme through a narrative approach. For instance, we see a bottle with a perfume of True Love made by a professional perfume maker 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 consist of idealized digital landscapes retrieved from a photo studio, where they are used as backdrops for portraits.

To Max Pinckers the status of each image and the hierarchy between the different series of images is of great importance. This is translated in the way they function or are presented in the book. Found images are printed full bleed, larger than his own photographs. The digital landscapes have no direct documentary value, because they show places that don’t exist, but as purely fictive images they might refer to contemporary internet-esthetics. The still lives made against a black background are straightforward objective registrations of objects that refer to actions that have been executed or provoked by the artist. Together with the text from the weblog all these images create a context or narrative structure for his own photographs. The photographs of the sculptures made in collaboration with the sculptor Gauthier Oushoorn, on the other hand, are situated in the ambiguous domain of objective registration en pure staging. “Perhaps an opening to the future,” the artist says, “related to the early registrations of land art.” In general the book is about how different types of photographs can function through the context they appear in, without any restrictions dictated by a one-dimensional esthetic viewpoint. Having these different ways of representation intermingle reveals the politic aspect of the way we treat images and use esthetic elements in our lives.

Two industries, based on love and fear
In an unpublished interview with Pinckers, the founder of the Love Commandos, Sanjoy Sachdev, blames the persistence of arranged marriages in India on the marriage industry. On the other hand, young people who aspire to a love marriage seem to be inspired by the Bollywood film industry, where love marriages are a frequently used subject. Not knowing the real situation, of course, it seems improbable to me that marriages between people from different castes or religions remain a taboo in India because of the marriage industry.

In his interview with Sanjoy Sachdev, Pinckers asks him how he can recognize true love and distinguish it, for instance, from mere infatuation. The answer is clear. If lovers are so fond of each other that they want to leave behind everything and face the greatest dangers, the founder says, then we are facing a commitment that can only be love. In this way, love as acceptance and love as commitment meet each other in a struggle for freedom. [2]

A changing method
When he made the photo series Lotus, Pinckers took a distance from the approach of documentary photographers by confronting photographs people made of themselves with aesthetic, idealized and at the same time improvised, “unreal” photographs. When he made The Fourth Wall, he restricted himself to directing fictive scenes, without directly addressing the dogmas of documentary photography. This series was more about the influence of fiction on reality and a confusion between film sets and settings found in the city: a questioning of what is real and what isn’t. In opposition to Lotus, the series The Fourth Wall was not determined by one visual subject, but by a thematic concept. Now, in Will They Sing Like Raindrops or Leave Me Thirsty, those two methods are combined: a documentary subject (the Love Commandos) is shaped through the encounter of texts, documentary images, found footage and fictitious or even abstract elements.

Pinckers’s poetic approach
The beauty of Pinckers’s approach is that he takes no stance. He tries to show us things from as many angles as possible. Every aspect of the situation seems to be captured or touched upon. Painful material (the newspaper clippings and the weblog of the Love Commandos) is combined with the most poetic approach, stained by flirtations with different kinds of kitsch. Hence we meet in this book an older person who spent his fortune having constructed a concrete copy of the Taj Mahal as a last resting place for his deceased wife and himself. We feel Pinckers’s bewilderment in front of the spiritual beauty of this devotion, but we also feel his sensitivity to kitsch as a way of communicating unsaid things. In an essay about the superiority of poetry over prose Joseph Brodsky writes that “the resistance to cliché is what distinguishes art from life” [3]. In concordance with the rest of his essay I would like to compare Pinckers’s photographs with poems (and his books with poetry books): precise; concise; interlinked with rhythms, lines and colors; critical towards cliché’s, but nonetheless recognizing their existence; resisting photographical conventions as much as possible, trying to create a language of his own without becoming a prisoner of a personally created style or a one dimensional approach. For instance it might be mentioned that this new book doesn’t contain classical landscapes or portraits, nor close ups. The only portrait shows us the founder of the Love Commandos, with bare feet and an unstable looking shelf with files above his head.

“The more one reads poetry, the less tolerant one becomes of any sort of verbosity, be it in a political or philosophical discourse,” writes Brodsky, “in history, social studies, or the art of fiction. (…) A child of epitaph and epigram, it (poetry) appears as a shortcut to any possible subject matter, poetry is a great disciplinarian to prose. It teaches the latter not only the value of each word but also the mercurial mental patterns of the species, alternatives to linear composition, the knack of omitting the self-evident, emphasis on detail, the technique of anticlimax.” [4]

The poetry of Pinckers’s work comes from the fact that it reflects the complexity and incongruity of reality and touches upon “the mercurial mental patterns” of humankind through photographs in which “linear composition” is replaced by a multifaceted approach, condensed into lively, but decisive images. No decisive moments, but decisive images, that’s what we find here. Images with a straightforward appearance, but complex nature, mixed with relevant pieces of text and documents that end up in a minutely composed book of poetry.

In his masterpiece Tristes Tropics, Claude Lévi-Strauss, flying over India, compares the landscape of this vast country to “some very old tapestry” [5]. Leafing through Pinckers’s book I cannot help but compare it to such a tapestry, and wonder how the bottom side of it might look. So many hidden relations between the things we read and see! We think of the suggestive methods of Douglas Sirk and Fassbinder’s remark that Sirk never made movies about the main characters, but about, for instance, their servants. We admire Pinckers’s intelligence and poetic mastery, but we also ask ourselves what might thrive him, which complicated, interwoven stories and experiences have made him into the curious, socially committed and entrepreneur-like photographer who studies a subject so deeply and brings it to us in such a beautiful, poetic form. Happily, we leave it at that. We don’t want to know. We are just curious to see what will follow.

End notes:
[1] Love, Honour & Disobey by Colin Pantall, published in the British Journal of Photography, October 2013.
[2] More information on the Love Commandos can be found on their website:
[3] Joseph Brodsky, On Grief and Reason. Essays, Penguin Modern Classics, 2011, p. 86.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Claude Lévi-Strauss, Tristes Tropiques, Atheneum, New York, 1973, p. 131.

Hans Theys, Montagne de Miel, February 25th 2014