Max Pinckers: Margins of Excess

Text by Lisa Stein
First published in 1000 Words - 10 Year anniversary print edition, UK, November 2018

In his introduction to Pandora’s Camera, a collection of essays on the technological transformation of photography, the artist Joan Fontcuberta emphasises the ‘constructed and therefore intentional’ nature of the image, insisting that it is ‘not reduced to its visibility: visibility is neither the only nor the determinant criterion; also involved are the processes that produce the image and the thoughts that sustain it […]’. By acknowledging the creative intervention of both the photographer, whose biography, education, values and beliefs necessarily determine the content and composition of the photograph, and the viewer, who interprets the image according to an equally subjective point of view, Fontcuberta highlights the importance of context, the very act of constructing, or fabricating, in determining how we understand a photograph. A frame of reference created to interpret and constitute an image, context can alter its meaning: depending on the milieu in which it was produced and the environment in which it is received a photograph can invite multiple interpretations and create different experiences. 

The digital-born image in particular exemplifies the viewer’s role in what Fontcuberta refers to as ‘sustaining’ the photograph; highly susceptible to manipulation and appropriation the digital image, shared across multiple platforms and accompanied by various captions, is often imbued with purposes and desires far removed from those intended or expressed by its author. Social media accounts posting historical photographs that are accompanied by misleading captions are a good example of the viewer turned user who places more importance on the narratives that can be created with photographs, not to mention the recognition they might receive for sharing them, than the stories behind these images. While discerning individuals are working to expose these viral feeds and raise awareness among other users, so-called “fauxtographs” continue to be shared between vast numbers of unsuspecting viewers who consider them to be an objective recount of true events. Moreover, the use of photography to impart inaccurate or fake content is not limited to a few harmless hoaxers hoping to gain likes or followers. Fontcuberta observes that ‘the ability of the image […] to construct what is essentially another plane of reality’ is also employed by those who ‘monopolise the production of discourses’, such as governments and the mainstream media, who stand to benefit from the lax data security of social networking services.

The shift in the relationship between context and photography – from understanding the former as the master frameworks that relate an image to the viewer, to conceiving of photography itself as a frame of reference created to give meaning to ourselves, and the image as a building block of individual and collective identity – is intrinsic to a new body of work by the Belgian photographer Max Pinckers. Margins of Excess (Self-published, 2018) has construction at its core; published as a photobook that comprises staged photographs, archival footage, press articles and personal interviews, it is a performance of the uses of photography in an era in which ‘truths, half-truths, lies, fiction or entertainment are easily interchanged’. Drawing on a quote by the anthropologist and art historian Christopher Pinney, in which he identifies a ‘subversive code present in every photographic image that makes it open and available to other readings and uses’, Pinckers skillfully combines a wide range of photographic imagery interlaced with different types of text, encouraging the reader to weave together unrelated tales of ‘cloned military dogs, religious apparitions, suspect vehicles, fake terrorist plots, accidental bombings and fictional presidents’.

Margins of Excess itself is constructed around the narratives of six individuals who were accused by the US media of having deceived the general public by fabricating false identities. Considering the way photography is used to construct the self on social media, a portrayal that can be misleading precisely because of what is omitted, whereby every image is shared with a view to eliciting a specific reaction or maintaining a specific connection, the inclusion of these alleged frauds raises the question of how their (self-)deception differs from the kind we practice online. Arguably, Pinckers’ main protagonists are less deceptive insofar as their conceptions of self are based on genuine beliefs, as evidenced by a series of quotes and interviews included in the book. By juxtaposing personal testimonies with exposés published by various news outlets, Pinckers highlights both the ‘mass media’s apparent incapacity to deal with idiosyncratic versions of reality’ and the inherent irony of the accusations made against these individuals. Indeed, it is the mainstream media, highly influenced by public opinion and deeply partisan, that stands accused of being the principal fabricator of false realities, or “fake news”. Pinckers’ use of stills from news footage interwoven with staged photographs depicting human suffering and other recognisable visual tropes foregrounds the role of the photograph, which is at the basis of the images delivered by the media, in constructing and maintaining collective identity in the era of post- or alternate truth.

As Fontcuberta observes, the image ‘makes no secret of being an extension of politics’, and it is often governments that benefit from its ability to create ‘a world where there is no longer a generally accepted frame of realism’, for if the vast majority of the population believes that there are no truths, that no fact is certain, the very basis for criticising these governments is no longer given. However, the ability of the image to construct false realities can be used for the better. The meme, which benefits from both the ambiguity of the digital image and the speed at which it is disseminated, has largely replaced the political cartoon as a vehicle for social criticism. And then, of course, there is photography itself, a medium that is becoming increasingly self-exploratory in an attempt to answer questions of wider epistemological significance. Margins of Excess, Pinckers’ highly accomplished performance of the reciprocal relationship between context and the photographic image, is one such example.

End notes:
[1] Joan Fontcuberta, Pandora’s Camera, translation Graham Thomson, London: MACK, 2014, p. 10.
[2] The root of the Latin contexere, made up of com, ‘with, together’ and texere, ‘to weave, to make’, originates from the Proto-Indo-European teks-, which can mean ‘to weave’ or ‘to fabricate’. Teks- is also the source of the Sanskrit taksati, ‘to fashion, to construct’ and the more familiar Greek tekhne, ‘art’.
[3] Joan Fontcuberta, Pandora’s Camera, translation Graham Thomson, London: MACK, 2014, p. 8.
[4] Max Pinckers, Margins of Excess,,, accessed June 23rd, 2018.
[5] Christopher Pinney, Photography’s Other Histories, editors Christopher Pinney, Nicolas Peterson and Nicholas Thomas, Durham: Duke University Press, 2003, p. 6.
[6] Max Pinckers, Margins of Excess,,, accessed June 23rd, 2018.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Ibid.