Book Review: Will They Sing Like Raindrops or Leave Me Thirsty

Text by Shilpa Vijayakrishnan.
First published in Tasveer Journal, India, July 2014.

The idea of love – in its myriad shapes and with its many meanings – has long inspired and provoked the human imagination. A central preoccupation of art, and life, it has been explored by countless artists in numerous forms and through several mediums.It is also the focus of Max Pincker’s latest photobook Will They Sing Like Raindrops or Leave Me Thirsty (2014) that attempts to document and capture, stage and bring to life, the multiple facets of romance and marriage within a contemporary Indian context.

This book is a result of the work produced by Pinckers (a Belgian born artist, raised predominantly in Asia) during his four month travels in India, accompanied by his partner Victoria Gonzalez-Figueras.  Inspired and influenced by the paradigms of Bollywood, India’s Hindi cinema industry, the photographs in this book offer a spectrum of scenarios that combine humour, pathos, allegory and drama to produce an elegiac and nuanced representation of the conception of love, with all its paradoxes and ironies, in India today. In a country that is constantly attempting to balance tradition and modernity, religious and secular values, the institution of marriage and the possibilities of romantic engagements are strongly bound to socio-cultural realities that are caught up in the push-and-pull of a nostalgic past and an imagined future. Pinckers’ remarkable sensitivity to the complexities of this diverse context is displayed not only through his treatment of the subject that never presumes or dictates, but also his use of kitsch as form to subtly evoke the ways in which Bollywood and related media industries inform and produce the idea of ‘love’ and what it means for a large section of young people. Pincker’s chosen visual strategies and language creates dreamed landscapes that probe at the ways in which love is learnt and lived in India, where as Pantall points out “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.”[i].

The book, through its use of varied elements, whether text or images, reflects both Pinckers’ thorough documentation of such a broad subject area, and his poetic vision that pushes the limits of what photography as a medium can accomplish. In his essay, first published as a sort of epilogue to the book, Hans Theys compares “Pinckers’ photographs to poetry (and his books with poetry books): precise; concise; interlinked with rhythms, lines and colours; critical towards cliché’s, but nonetheless recognising 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.”[ii] It is important to remark on the layout of the book that defies any linear reading and straightforward narrative; designed instead as a multifaceted heterogeneous archive which includes a range of images and textual references or sourced documents that challenge the reader to reflect on the validity of complete indexicality or visual accuracy, and the objectivity of the photographer. Commenting on this Pinckers’ observes “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… 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.”[iii]

Firmly ensconced with contemporary photographic practices and theory, Pinckers’ approach to his own artistic subjectivity is well thought out and articulated. In talking of this project, his second in Bombay, he says, “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.”[iv].

This universal story is achieved through the interplay of multiple registers and that encourages a reflective and meditative spirit while viewing. Pinckers notes that for him. “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…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…”[v].

With a subject as abstract as love, Pinckers is provided the opportunity to experiment and develop a deliberate ambiguity. Playing with composition, colour and light, he interweaves and juxtaposes material – classified advertisements, reconstructed images of courtship rituals, graffiti on walls and engraved initials on trees, wedding decorations and rituals, honeymooning couples, street shots, views of construction sites, copulating sculptural forms at Khajuraho – to produce unexpected connections and links. Pinckers builds an entire world in his book that is anchored by the real life studies of the couples who are sheltered by the love commandos in their blue-walled Delhi headquarters, and branches out into metaphorical and allusive imagery to talk of the violence inflicted by honour killings in a caste-ridden social reality that these young lovers must contend with.

The book contains numerous memorable and evocative images, such as a photograph of an old man posing in front of a concrete replica of the Taj Mahal he has constructed for himself and his wife which is comic, and yet weighed with an almost spiritual emotive gravity; two dead love birds on a white towel mildly imbued with the same colours that is juxtaposed with a newspaper cutting on the production of a film on the myth of a local tale of two birds – Tota and Maina – in love; a page long matrimonial advert that is a call for walk in meetings in Mumbai, combined with a photograph of the subsequently engaged couple; or studio photographs of couples with their faces digitally erased.

The negative spaces integrated into the design of the book emphasise the importance of the absent, invisible and intangible within the universe it reproduces, and points to the inability of photography to fully express the complicated nature of relationships between objects, people and their surroundings in an instant, or a single image with a “decisive moment”. At all times, Pinckers remains untiringly sensitive to his subjects and their environments, consciously refraining from any judgements or political statements.

With a refreshing approach to a subject so commonly explored, Will They Sing Like Raindrops or Leave Me Thirsty leaves much room for interpretation, signifying that there is always more to the story than meets the eye, and that fiction and fact aren’t so far apart, after all.

Will They Sing Like Raindrops or Leave Me Thirsty was commissioned by the Europalia International Arts Festival and exhibited at Bozar – Centre of Fine Arts, Brussels, 2013. Winner of the first prize of the Photographic Museum of Humanity Grant 2014 and runner up for the 2014 Aperture Portfolio Prize, New York, the 1000 edition photo-book designed by Jurgen Maelfeyt and self published by Max Pinckers is available for sale at €50 a copy.  

End notes:
[i] Pantall, Collin. Love, Honour & Disobey. British Journal of Photography Magazine, UK, Oct. 2013.
[ii] Theys, Hans. Photographs as Poems. Will They Sing Like Raindrops or Leave Me Thirsty, Brussels, Belgium, May 2014.
[iii] Qtd. In Snoekx, Kurt. Wunderkammer: Max Pinckers. Agenda Magazine, Brussels, Belgium, May 2014.
[iv] Ibid.
[v] Ibid.