Max Pinckers - 2015 - Images for a History [EN, interview],
Images for a History
In conversation with Max Pinckers and Michiel Burger
En route to the studio in Brussels which the photographers Max Pinckers (1988) and Michiel Burger (1983) share with several other artists, I hear on the radio that the burgomaster of Charleroi has made an official protest against an award going to a photograph of his city which in his view is wrongly considered a documentary because it was taken in another city using artificial light and actors. Pinckers and Burger have also heard the news item and smile. “World Press Photo is the bastion of conservative, short-sighted, documentary photography”, says Pinckers. “Of course it is not true to say that a staged photograph using actors and artificial lighting doesn’t give a true picture of reality, whereas a photograph that is deliberately based on the aesthetic of paintings (a landscape or a Madonna and Child) does.” “Photographs are part of a set of language games which stand between us and reality”, adds Burger. “You can take those language games by surprise, expose them, record, reconstruct or manipulate them, but these days you can no longer pretend they don’t exist.”
So here you have the two artists’ starting point, even if they take a different approach. Burger, for example, made the moving series Perverse Translations: “An archive or a collection of index cards describing a series of pictures in which I tried to photograph exteriors. Not with a view to those images saying something, but with a view to them saying nothing. How can a spoilt boy from the Netherlands, who doesn’t really try as hard as he might, become a photographer and end up in the craziest places on the other side of the world taking photographs of quite normal or trivial things? With this archive I wanted to show what happens when I add images from my private life. When you arrive on the other side of the world and try to capture normality there, I believe you also have to show your own normality, because the differences between the existing language games make documentary photography impossible. This seemed to me the most honest way of making a documentary. It produced an interesting, fragmented collection of images, albeit of lesser quality. But I am less interested in the so-called quality of the resulting images than in exploring an issue and respecting a number of explicit rules of my own.
In terms of theme, Max Pinckers’ already impressive oeuvre has an affinity with Michiel Burger’s work (as a reflection on the limitations of doctrinal documentary photography), but it takes a different form. For example, Pinckers’ most recent published ‘documentary’ Will They Sing Like Raindrops or Leave Me Thirsty consists of regular documentary photographs, staged photographs lit with artificial light, found photographs, newspaper cuttings, prints from a blog and photographs of objects he commissioned from craftsmen. All these elements were brought together in a beautifully designed book whose layout underlines the status of the different elements.
Their current adventure began when Max Pinckers was invited by the Archive of Modern Conflict (AMC) in London to visit the archive with a view to making a work based on that first visit. Knowing that this sort of archive would appeal to Michiel Burger, Pinckers invited him along. Together they discovered a file containing propaganda material from the Ministry of Information of British Kenya, which painted an unsavoury picture of the Kenyan rebels from the 1950s known as the Mau Mau. They then came up with the idea of juxtaposing their own pictures with pictures of the colonial government of the day and modern-day representations in Kenya of the Mau Mau as freedom fighters.
“The images will be divided into three parts”, Pinckers explains. “Firstly, there is the British propaganda which presents the Mau Mau as beasts. Secondly, there is the way the Mau Mau have been presented in Kenya of late. It’s no longer taboo to talk about them but, interestingly, the people today who want to make them out to be freedom fighters use a visual language based on Western iconography. For example, they have a statue of liberty depicting men raising a flag, just like the famous staged photograph of Iwo Jima. There is also a famous statue of Jomo Kenyatta sitting on a throne like a British king. Thirdly, there is the scientific approach of Harvard researcher Caroline Elkins, who is trying to find out from witnesses what really happened in the 1950s and 60s. We want to try and produce images for an oral history that has never been visualized.”
Burger: That sounds good, but we don’t know if it will work.
Pinckers: That’s how I picture it in my head.
Burger: Yes, you have a pitch, and it sounds good. Just so long as it doesn’t restrict us when we’re on the ground.
Pinckers: Tell me how you see it then.
Burger: I believe we should collect as many images, texts and other forms of language about the conflict as possible, including songs, and lay them out side by side to see if patterns develop and to show how visual language is used to write history.
Pinckers: What we want to reveal or show is a structure, a language, a way of constructing something.
Burger: A language game. But also the language game that gets under way when we go to Kenya to build on our knowledge and create images. All the exchanges involved in that. That way we can juxtapose a dozen different games.
Pinckers: We’ll do the actual making of the images together. I’d like us to use just one camera for each image and I’d like us to decide together which camera with what lighting, framing, staging and so on.
Burger: That is not so important to me. I am less interested in the image per se than in the way the story is told. I don’t need to be the creator of the images.
Pinckers: I think it’s great that we both have a different idea of what something could look like. It opens up the possibilities and it may prevent us unwittingly lapsing into patterns ourselves. For example, I heard a story about people who had their feet rubbed with honey. I could just picture it: feet rubbed with honey against a background of red earth. Last week I even tried to take a photograph like that in Nepal using beeswax, but it didn’t look that good. And when I arrived here this morning, it turned out that Michiel had found a photograph taken by Bruce Nauman of clay-besmeared feet which is very similar to the image I had in my head. I think that’s fantastic. That’s how we arrive at images together.
Burger: Best of all, I think, is the way we don’t hesitate to reject each other’s daft ideas. That is far more productive than quietly muddling along on your own… The question is: what type of images do we need? How can we unravel the prevailing codes and how can we tell a story ourselves?
Pinckers: I wonder.
Montagne de Miel, March 5th 2015