Tony Cearns caught up with Magnum Associate Max Pinckers, ahead of his exhibition as part of LOOK/15 Liverpool International Festival of Photography.
In your study of love and marriage in India, “Will They Sing Like Raindrops or Leave Me Thirsty”, rather than using a traditional documentary way of story telling, you chose a veritable “Bombay Mix” of methods: – documentary sequences, texts, found images from newspapers, discarded images from a wedding photographer’s studio as well as staged scenes influenced by Bollywood movies.
This gives your photographs an allegorical character in which, as in Plato’s “Allegory of the Caves”, I am challenged as a viewer to seek meaning beyond the subjects of your book, further than the senses of my immediate experience. Does this make sense or am I reading too much into your photographs?
Yes, that makes sense. Behind every image there is a meaning or intention, which is hinted at in the book’s sequence and edit. Not only on a narrative or subject oriented level, but also in the aesthetics used within the image that often references the formalism of Western classical painting or other photographs and photographers.
Accepting that there is no such thing as “objectivity” in documentary photography, what is it that you are trying to achieve through this hybrid approach?
I think documentary photography is slowly distancing itself from its journalistic counterpart by expanding its boundaries and implementing a more subjective and personal approach.
There’s an important difference to note between journalistic photography, which is produced quickly and for news purposes and therefore attempts to portray the truth or ‘reality’ as straightforward as possible; and documentary photography, which is a long term and subjective approach towards a particular subject matter with the intention of telling a deeper and broader story about not only the subject matter, but to call into question the position of the photographer and the paradoxes of the medium itself.
The strategy I have chosen to work with up to now is based on the implementation of fiction, staged scenes, found footage, narratives based on stories that are visualised or re-enacted, poetics and didactic sequencing. The more complex a story becomes and the more freely it is told, the closer it will get to showing the real truth or ‘reality’. Fiction often teaches us more about reality than reality itself. This is only because photography inherently cannot represent reality in such a direct and straightforward manner as initially perceived many years ago. It has set itself as a manipulative and subjective medium which pivots on its indexical relationship with reality, making it an extremely interesting and almost philosophical storytelling medium.
In 2013 you self-published a crowd-funded photobook exploring Bollywood’s relationship to the cultural psyche of India, “The Fourth Wall”, which was shortlisted for the Paris Photo–Aperture Foundation First PhotoBook Award, and won The City of Levallois Photography Award, as well as being nominated for Best Photo Book of the Year at the 6th International Fotobookfestival in Kassel by Martin Parr.
I understand that the book is of newsprint paper. Tell us how you went about deciding on the look and feel of the dummy and the final photobook.
The Fourth Wall was designed by Christof Nüssli, who was studying at Werkplaats Typografie in Arnhem, The Netherlands at the time. We worked together on the initial concept of the book, the different possibilities of text placement and image structure. Nüssli suggested to print the entire book on newspaper paper, to which I was reluctant at first because of the enormous loss in printing quality of the photographs, but later agreed to go ahead with it because of its radical and strong conceptual approach. Not only does the newspaper work as a reference to the source of the text in the book (quotes from various Indian newspapers), but also gives the images a factual character because of the paper it’s printed on. All the images in the book seem to flow into each other better through the dimmed color palette. The dummy was very different to the final book because it was not possible to print on newspaper for small quantities, and was therefore more than twice as thick.
What is your advice, borne from your experience, for anyone wanting to set up a crowd-funding photographic project?
Be honest and give enough background information about yourself and your work. Don’t underestimate your public’s trust. Most importantly, make sure the project you propose is introduced well and go into details. Don’t aim too high with your goal budget, and make sure the deadline is realistic. Be transparent about what exactly the funds will be used for and why. When thinking about rewards, remember to be generous!
I am very taken with your portraits in “Transitions” . They are emotionally expressive, almost painting-like.
In the accompanying text to this work, you say that you tried to “ ‘catch’ people as they are dissociated from the encompassing world”, so that they can be depicted in an “honest” way, unaware of the photographer.
And yet, in a strange way, I feel that these people knew they were being photographed, but that they acted like they were not. Am I correct? Could you tell us a little about how you approached these portraits?
The people portrayed in the Transitions series are not aware that they are being photographed, that was the intention behind the work – to attempt to capture peoples expressions as they are deeply submerged in thought, or an absorptive mode. I placed a flash high up in a tree by a busy bicycle path, and hid behind another tree a little further with a long lens, waiting for cyclers to glide past. They never spotted me as they approached, although I did get some inquisitive reactions after a strong flash burst in their faces. Later, when the series had been exhibited and published, some people recognised themselves in the portraits and approached me with positive reactions.
Max, whose work do you currently admire and why? Aside from the influences in your formative years, which photographers most influence you now? What is it about their work that you find so powerful?
There aren’t so many photographers who’s work I find really strong and much prefer artists like Francis Alÿs or Renzo Martens who use photography in their work as a tool, but aren’t tied down by one particular medium. Although within the photography landscape, I think Adam Broomberg & Oliver Chanarin make some of the most interesting work right now. They are always critical about the characteristics of the medium itself and have a very conceptual approach towards their politically charged subject matters. The simplicity in which the work is executed, together with the subtle sensitivity towards aesthetics makes it work with a photographic foundation that goes beyond the somewhat narrow confines of the medium and into that of conceptual art.
You have enjoyed great success at a young age, challenging the boundaries of the documentary field and testing the constraints of the photographic medium. How do you see your approach developing in the future? What’s next for you?
I hope to continue my research into the language and storytelling power of the photographic medium, with specific attention to documentary photography. Hopefully my work will continue to develop, and gradually distance itself from a particular subject matter and become entirely focussed around the political function and structure of the medium itself.
Max Pinckers Biography
Max Pinckers (1988) grew up in Asia and then moved to his native country of Belgium where he attained an MFA in photography with greatest honours at the School of Arts (KASK), in Ghent.
Pinckers’s work is largely oriented around long-term subjective documentary projects presented as photobooks and installations such as ‘The Fourth Wall’ and ‘Will They Sing Like Raindrops or Leave Me Thirsty’. With its carefully constructed interplay of reality and artifice, his work channels this hazy nature of photography, and uses it to its advantage.
His work has been exhibited internationally, including Bozar – Centre for Fine Arts, Brussels, Belgium; Fotomuseum (FoMu), Antwerp, Belgium or Flanders Center, Osaka, Japan, amongst others. Recent publications include Time Magazine; The Guardian; De Morgen Magazine, British Journal of Photography.
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Tony Cearns is a writer and photographer based in Liverpool. The views contained in this interview are his and not necessarily those of LOOK/15.
Tony’s social media channels are:
- TW: @SidewayEye
- Blog: http://weblog.sidewayseye.net/wp/
All images are courtesy of Max Pinckers. Tony Cearns thanks Max Pinckers for generously giving his time and insights