Private detectives and helium balloons: photographer Max Pinckers steps into five imagined realities
Text by Ruby Boddington
First published on It's Nice That, online, June 2018
When he was just 12, Polish-born Herman Rosenblat was rounded up by the Nazi government, along with his three elder brothers, into a series of ghettos and camps, eventually finding himself in Buchenwald concentration camp, Weimar. During his time here, Rosenblat was kept alive by the grace of a young girl, a stranger who came to the camp’s perimeter every day to throw him an apple.
Luckily, the siblings – whose father had died of typhus before the war began and whose mother was separated from them and killed during the “processing” – managed to survive, and were eventually liberated from Theresienstadt concentration camp by the allied forces in 1945.
Five years later Rosenblat moved to New York City and, in 1957, a friend set him up on a blind date. Low-and-behold, when the mystery girl turned up, it was Roma Radzicki, his fruit-throwing saviour from all those years ago. As twists of fate this monumental are few and far between, Rosenblat proposed on the spot and the two were happily married until his death aged 85.
Throughout their marriage, Rosenblat would recount the tale to friends and family – an unbeatable anecdote at any dinner party – until in 1995, he submitted the story to a newspaper searching for the best Valentines-themed testimony. The story was featured on the front page of the New York Post and, naturally, celebrity status including appearances on the Oprah Winfrey Show, a book deal, and interest in making a film ensued.
Unfortunately, the film never hit cinema screens as in the late 2000s, it was revealed that Rosenblat fabricated the romantic tale which had garnered him so much attention. Rosenblat did, however, survive the encampment and the horrors of the Nazi regime. He did, also, move to New York City where he met his wife on a blind date. So does his embellishment of the truth really matter? And why was the public so ready to shun Rosenblat’s real experience after hearing that one facet wasn’t true? Margins of Excess by Belgian photographer Max Pinckers explores the stories of those who found fame in the media (including Rosenblat), only to be outed as other than what they claimed to be, in an examination of contradictory truths.
The project began in 2015 when Pinckers was awarded the Edward Steichen Award in Luxembourg, which afforded him and his wife, Victoria Gonzalez-Figueras, the chance to undertake a residency in New York City for six months. After a period of research, the duo stumbled upon the story of Richard Jewell. In the space of a week, Jewell, a security guard, plummeted from national hero to prime suspect in the Centennial Olympic Park bombing at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia, undergoing a “trial by media”. “We found a lot of cases where the media had accused someone of being the perpetrator without having evidence but because they needed to drive the news cycle,” Pinckers tells It’s Nice That. “The longer we spent researching these stories, we realised that we didn’t want to focus on the wrongly accused but rather on those who chose to shape their own world and then received media attention because of this.”
Alongside Rosenblat, Margins of Excess tells the stories of five sculpted identities including Rachel Doležal a prominent figure in the civil rights movement who claimed to be African American but was later exposed as being Caucasian. Private detective Jay J. Armes, a double amputee with prosthetic hands, who lives as a real-life superhero who’s never lost a case and who has action figures made in his image. Darius MoCollum who posed as a bus and subway train driver, commandeering hundreds of vehicles (the first at the age of 15), despite having no formal training. Richard Heene who allowed a homemade helium balloon shaped like a spaceship to float away, claiming his son was inside it, only to reveal days – and a huge search operation – later that it was a hoax. And, lastly, Ali Alqaisi who claimed he was the “hooded man” in the iconic photo from Abu Ghraib prison. Through a series of interviews, press articles, archival imagery and staged photographs, the book weaves together each individual’s story with the next, presenting a reality which aligns with the idiosyncrasies of each person’s perceived truth.
“We deliberately didn’t use chapters because we didn’t want to create a dissociation between the characters,” Pinckers responds when asked about the structure of the book, which was designed by Rudy Latoir. Instead of explicitly signposting when one ends and another begins, the stories of each character cascade and flow through a formulaic design. Beginning with a quote from a newspaper, each character’s portrait then appears (this is true of everyone except Herman Rosenblat, who died in 2015 and who is represented by a stand-in). Next comes a quote from the person themselves, taken from the press, which is followed by a sequence of images that portray how Pinckers interprets the individual’s story.
It’s here that the heart of the project lies, in a challenge of what documentary photography is and can be. “What attracted me the most to these stories and individuals was not their portrayal, or choosing a side, or how I would portray them, but how I was able to step into somebody’s imaginary space,” Pinckers explains. By choosing subjects who have intensely crafted a version of reality that they believe to be true, Pinckers, who is a documentary photographer, verifies these realities. By using a medium which is rooted in investigating the truth, or facts, his lens renders anything it captures as just that. “I like to fantasise, stage and construct images and then have them function in a documentary context,” he adds. “It’s not about trying to reveal if Jay. J Armes is really a detective or not, or if he really did fabricate a hoax – that doesn’t interest me. It’s much more about going along with these stories.”
Woven in-between the imagery and archival texts are the transcribed interviews conducted by Pinckers and Gonzalez-Figueras. Edited down, as some were over two hours long, these interviews are more akin to monologues, with each character simply asked to tell their story. “I didn’t ask any questions,” Pinckers explains, “I did that on purpose – I told them to just tell their story, say what you want to say. It went surprisingly well because there was no interviewer or interviewee, it was just very straightforward.” These monologues represent the first time – for many of these individuals – that they have been allowed to do this, free from interrogation. They are intimate and personal, held in their homes or, in Darius MoCollum’s case, at Rikers Island Correctional Center in Manhattan, New York where he is currently incarcerated.
By exploring this space between deemed “universal truths” and individual ones, Pinckers confronts our media’s inability to understand complex and intricate fictions. Can we claim that one thing is as true for one person as it is another? Is there such thing as an agreed reality? “My work tries to find a space where images can find themselves and not be true but also not be false and where the subject resonates with those ideas,” he muses. As opposed to championing individuals who may, in fact, be liars, Margins of Excess reveals the subjective nature of truth itself, a world in which narratives are interchangeable, depending on where you’re stood. To believe each character’s story, you need only to see Pinckers’ photographic depiction of them.