Wunderkammer: Max Pinckers

Text by Kurt Snoekx
First published in Agenda Magazine, Brussels, Belgium, May 2014

The decisive moment, Henri Cartier-Bresson’s idea of the photographer’s “creative fraction of a second”, is lost on Max Pinckers. The Brussels-based photographer prefers to stretch that split second to a compelling reflection on the wondrous hybrid world where reality and fiction collide. “Why do we always have to look at pretty pictures?”

“A photo will always show something. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it is a shame to let it stop there. Things only get interesting when you start thinking about the way the images are shown.” Or if you immerse this reflection in refreshing photographic projects that challenge the reader to question the ground beneath their feet and the iconoclasm in their head. You cannot show the complexity of the relationship between the world and its multiform reflections in an ingenious split second, it can only be done in the long-term protracted churning up of the earth on which your own practice is based. And Max Pinckers has plenty burrowed away. The young native of Brussels was born in 1988 but left the city at the age of five for a journey that took him to Bali, Australia, India, and Singapore before bringing him back to the KASK in Ghent for his studies and ultimately back to Brussels itself. “It is important that wherever you might travel or grow up, you always remember your roots. If you don’t have roots, you’re lost.”

His young nomadic existence may perhaps have made it easier for Max Pinckers to move through photographic practices with a certain detachment. What is clear, is that his work calls into doubt presuppositions and certainties in the service of a playful and stimulating exploration of the boundaries of the medium. Just like the incredible Holy Bible by Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin, and the stupefying New Ways of Photographing the New Masai by Jan Hoek that populate his bookcases: “Photograph books are doing well, better than ever in fact. The thing itself, as an object, is becoming very popular. And if you want to do it yourself and have the energy for it, I think self-publishing is a great choice. It is a lot of work, of course, but in return you have much more freedom than you would otherwise.”

Max Pinckers uses this freedom to create a virtuoso interplay with registers, types of images, gradations of reality, and story lines – hailed by masters like Martin Parr and Alec Soth. “I never really took documentary photos. Starting with Lotus, my first photobook that I made with Quinten De Bruyn, it was very clear that I wanted to do something different. We were fascinated by classical documentary photography and by the position of the photographer as someone who takes that one visual record that captures that one moment. We thought that was nonsense. Why wait for that moment if you can create it yourself? By staging and manipulating everything, we wanted to undermine the whole premise of the photographer who goes somewhere, stays in the background, and straightforwardly records what happens. What makes a photographer who records terrible atrocities decide to depict them in an aesthetic way? Why do we always have to look at pretty pictures? Those are the things that made us over-aestheticise everything in Lotus, to show the constant manipulation.”

The photographer is a creator. “Precisely. You’re still a photographer, you’re still present, you’re still manipulating. You always turn what you see and photograph into something else. All photography obviously involves observation, and all photographers have their own particular intentions. We also need press photographers who get sent to the frontlines of wars. That is their job, and that job is important. But I prefer to talk about a kind of visual language, about the way we look at images, and their inherent interplay; the way the medium fits together. And that is why I keep working in documentary photography: the attachment to reality is clear there; it automatically involves that idea of truth and truthfulness. If you lack that context, the staging doesn’t work. It is important for the reader to have doubts, and question the picture’s authenticity.”

In Lotus, which is being reprinted soon, the documentary core consisted of the subject of transgender people in Thailand. For The Fourth Wall, Max Pinckers presented a more poetic exploration – on newspaper! – of the influence of film in Bombay, by sprinkling his photos with text, symbols, found objects, and more abstract elements. Will They Sing Like Raindrops or Leave Me Thirsty, his new book that will be launched at Tipi Bookshop very soon, will combine the two sides: “It contains a documentary core – in this case the Indian Love Commandos, an organisation that helps couples to escape from the threat of family honour violence – as well as the poetic, suggestive approach that allows me to tell a universal story in complete freedom.”

This universal story transcends the subjects. Central to this book is the way in which those (combinations of) images in various registers make people reflect on the image and on the reality in which they live, think, and experience. “Yes, absolutely! The subject doesn’t really matter all that much. It is important to choose a good subject, and you have to treat it with great respect, but to me it is actually just the skeleton onto which I build the rest of my work. The Love Commandos determine the context and offer a documentary support to which I provide a counterbalance. It is something I struggle with constantly: the relationship between the subject and the story I want to tell. The subject has a tendency of taking the upper hand: Lotus as a book about transgender people in Thailand, The Fourth Wall as a book about Bollywood, and Will They Sing Like Raindrops or Leave Me Thirsty as a book about the Love Commandos... That is not what I’m aiming at: Will They Sing is actually more about a hierarchy of various types of images, modes of representation: still lives against black backdrops, texts from online blog posts, cinematic sequences, tableaux, found images, newspaper articles, photos of photos, digitally constructed landscapes...” An interplay that brings the story to life: “The more things you bring together, the greater the chance that unexpected connections emerge. That’s when the photos, the collected material, and the complex whole start telling a story, and something happens that is beyond your control; something that transcends you.”