Illusory Narratives

Interview with Sarah Allen (assistant curator Tate Modern)
First published on Aesthetica Magazine, September 2019

Margins of Excess exists at the intersection between accepted truth and subjective realities, between fact and fiction. The series focuses on the stories of six characters based in North America all of whom momentarily received nationwide attention in the US press.

Sarah Allen: Your work speaks to the 'post-truth era', what's interesting is that you were actually already on the road in the US when the dialogue around fake news and alternative facts was really reaching a climax, did this impact your approach to the series?

Max Pinckers: When I began with the project in July 2016 together with my wife Victoria Gonzalez-Figueras, the term ‘fake news’ wasn’t around yet, and the idea of post-truth wasn’t so common as it is today. Although Margins of Excess wasn't conceived of as project about ‘fake news’ during the production I did photograph some of the ‘fake news’ sites but I chose not to keep these threads in the work as I felt it would undermine the emotional power of the protagonist's personal stories, which are in no way related to the idea of ‘fake news’, but rather express extreme idiosyncratic versions of reality. The intention was not to make a documentary that was accusatory of either the mainstream US media or the people that I interviewed, but rather point out that personal truths are sometimes in conflict with general shared truths, and that when attempting to tell these stories in the form of images, we may come closer to a representation in which both are plausible.

In relation to fake news, it does seem that today political power lies in the transformation of politics into a strange theater where nobody knows what is true or fake, keeping any opposition constantly confused. This has ushered in an age of hyper-individualism, where peoples personal and subjective beliefs are more important to them than facts that may refute them. Yet it's important not to forget that truth of course does exist. We just seem disconnected and confused about the form in which we receive this information. It is especially now that documentarians must take up their responsibility to find a way to convey and communicate that there are truths worth fighting for; truths that touch us, convince us, and move us. That we can reflect on how images direct our perception of certain truths. How are they used to push ideological agendas? What are the roles that conventions and beliefs play when it comes to images? How can we take our responsibility for mechanisms that determine what can or may be observed, seen, heard, said, thought, made or done?

SA: Many of the images in the series are self-aware of their own reality both as entities that exist between fact and fiction and as symbols, tropes or cliches. Could you speak a little more about this?

MP: The book is constructed in such a way that the protagonists are visually represented in the form of a portrait, sometimes accompanied by photographs of their personal living spaces or details of interiors, archival photographs, and news footage. They are embedded in various registers of text; a headline and an entire press article from a newspaper source (on grey paper), a first-person quote overlaid onto an image, and a four-page interview in the form of a monologue (on cream paper). Entwined within this structure are image sequences that do not directly relate to the life of the protagonists in a documentary sense, but rather contribute to the narrative as imaginary associations. Because the stories brought together in the book deal with how people attempt to materialize their intimate dreams and desires, it provided the space for me to use my own imagination in visualizing these fantastic narratives with symbolic photographs made by myself while on the road in between the various visits. These symbolic images are not illustrations of the texts or histories of the protagonists, but add another dimension to the narrative in which my interpretation of these stories manifest themselves in ambiguous photographs that freely associate to them, creating a documentary about the imagination, rather than the facts.

One such example, in connection to Herman Rosenblat, is a photograph of an orange being thrown over a fence, whereas according to Rosenblat’s account, his future spouse threw him apples while he was held in a German death camp. I was able to do this with an orange instead of an apple because I have the freedom to manipulate the representation of these stories since they are rooted in imagination anyway. The choice of an orange instead of an apple is simply because an orange is more beautiful against the bright blue background of the sky (and also references John Baldessari’s Throwing Three Balls in the Air to Get a Straight Line [1973], amongst others). This narrative strategy is key to understanding the intention behind the work and my approach to documentary photography where there doesn’t need to be a binary opposition between fact and fiction. The book is a continuous fluctuation between different hierarchies of truths and their relativity towards each other, while at the same time reflects on the status of documentary photography as a way of coming to terms with reality rather than attempting to rationalize and objectify it.

I deliberately chose not to focus on a single narrative or subject, which would have been the conventional documentary approach, but intertwined six stories together. In documentary photography especially, the subject tends to dominate the photographer’s intentions and creative approach, overshadowing the reflexive nature of the work (especially when dealing with sensational subjects or stories). By combining different layers into the book, the reader is required to reflect on the connections between them, instead of being absorbed in the individual stories themselves. The narratives of six protagonists are not divided into clearly defined chapters, but flow over into each other as if zapping on television or flipping through a magazine, interrupted by sensational mini-news tales that deal with different visual interpretations of authenticity. For example, Jay J. Armes’ section is preceded by a television news report of a Virgin Mary statue at Saint Mary’s Church in Indiana reportedly crying with tears running down the statues’ cheek. The Heene family sequence flows over into an early UFO hoax from 1953 in which a monkey is mistaken for an alien. Ali Alqaisi’s narrative skips from the US military accidentally dropping an atomic bomb on US soil, to the first cloned military dog ‘Specter’.

I experienced the United States of America as one big cliché of itself, an exaggeration of its own stereotype. I experienced it as a place of pure superficiality derived of its substance (like coffee without caffeine, alcohol free beer or butter without fat), like a photograph. I began working with young actors in New York City and Hollywood to produce photographs that could be used as empty templates, or a kind of ‘stock photojournalism’; empty containers of the perfect trope, employable in whichever context for whichever tragic event. A classic example that the news media applies after terrible events are closeups of people embracing each other, or portraits of spectators crying, and hugging, which are published over and over again. These images have a maximum emotional impact on the readers that can easily identify with them, much more so than images of the actual transgressive event itself. These photographs made with actors are woven throughout the book, and so becoming professional mourners, they seem to weep in our stead as an ancient Greek choir. The cover of the book bears one such image, made on Trump’s inauguration day.

SA: Explanatory text is by in large excluded from the book and installation. It means that the significance of some images remains hidden...

MP: Text is mostly used directly in relation to an image where it is necessary to move the narrative forward. I like to embrace the multitude of meanings inherent to photographs, which continually changes depending on the context and time they appear in, and who looks at them. 

Many of the sequences and images in the book have distinct references and reasons for being constructed, although I prefer not to disclose this within the work itself. Much of the pleasure of delving into a complex body of work lies in the reward of noticing and understanding its meaning, even though it may not be the only meaning there is to them. Much of this is in the details. There are clues and references in the various texts throughout the book that relate to certain images, but that are harder to find. For example, Ali Alqaisi describes in his interview that he had his bathtub removed because it gives him anxiety, having been waterboarded seventeen times during his time at Abu Ghraib prison. Sixteen pages prior there is an photograph of a void in Alqaisi’s bathroom where his bathtub used to stand, next to which a second photograph depicts a Middle Eastern themed diorama exhibit from a US military museum that displays plastic water bottle containers under a flatscreen displaying the sentence “in war, nothing is as it should be”.

It strikes me that this approach, and the layers of information - is the exact opposite to today's instant gratification mode of image consumption - it demands, and in a way, tries to produce a different type of critical reader…

MP: I’m interested in how there’s a necessity for the documentary approach to be reflexive about it’s own constructions. That we as documentarians should try to communicate to our readers that they should not just take for granted the (visual) information that they consume, but critically reflect on what currency this may have in our visual economy. In an age of endless newsfeeds, clickbait, narcissism, bite-sized infotainment, personalized advertising, confusion, and simplistic good versus evil narratives, the documentary should embrace the complexity and ambivalence of the reality it tries to deal with. But I also find it important that my work expresses itself in an aesthetic form that is accessible to anyone, and functions on different levels of interpretation, without being too hermetic or self-referential. Images should be able to be appreciated independently, not necessarily needing a contextual framework to interpret them. Although when understood within the fabric of the book they may take on certain meanings that create narratives to a more concrete extent. In terms of theme in Margins of Excess, I think it’s important to note that it may not be so easy to define truth in a simple fact/fiction dualism when it comes to storytelling and representation, but to approach the documentary gesture as a volatile, contemplative and above all critical method of trying to understand the world.

SA: And the series was conceived from the first moment as a self-published photobook - so the book is itself the artwork. Can you speak a little about the process of translating the series onto the gallery wall.

MP: Having conceived the work as a book, the exhibition installation always takes on different forms. The book encompasses the work in its entirety, with the images in a particular sequence, embedded in text, accompanied by found footage, with specific associations that are made in order to suggest a narrative. This never changes in the book, and will always remain set, with every decision being permanent (even to the extent of subtle design elements such as the color of the binding threads or the weight of different paper types). Although when translating the book into an exhibition, there are other dimensions to take into account, such as the scale of images and the way they relate to the space. Since the space is always different, I like to mould the installation towards the character of the exhibition space. In doing so, I like to focus more on the formal and aesthetic qualities of individual images or groupings, rather than to create narratives as in the book. Looking at images in an exhibition seems to be a more aesthetical, emotional and bodily experience rather than an informative one. The way in which images are associated and bound to each other in the book is often remixed and changed when the work is exhibited, where new image and text combinations are made. For example, when exhibiting the book as an object within the exhibition space, I rearrange the original page sequences by overlapping pages from different copies of the book to onto each other.

SA: Tell me about the series you're working on now.

MP: In 2014 the Archive of Modern Conflict in London invited me into their archives, where I encountered a collection of original documents and photographs from the British Ministry of Information relating to the Mau Mau emergency crisis in Kenya from the 1950s, in which Kenyan freedom fighters took up arms agains the colonial administration. The events leading up to Britain's exit from Kenya have become part of a carefully curated history, which has established a skewed representation of the Kenyan fight for independence through the well-oiled propaganda machine of imperial rule (according to the Kenya Human Rights Commission an estimated 160.000 Kikuyu were placed in concentration camps and deprived of their land and 90.000 people were executed, tortured or subject to violence). For the past four years, as part of an artistic PhD project at the School of Arts / KASK in Ghent, I have been collaborating with Mau Mau veterans who are now over eighty years of age, on creating reenactments in which they claim their roles as victims instead of perpetrators. The reenactments are largely motivated by the veterans’ ideological intentions in the optic of claiming compensation in ongoing lawsuits against the British government, a form of heroic victimhood as the nations freedom fighters, the acknowledgement of abuse by their oppressors and the reconciliation with a painful and unresolved past that lead up to the country’s independence. This implicit approach of expressing a sensitive narrative in the form of images leaves room for ambiguity, which seems to be the necessary approach in order to confront the specters of colonial oppression.