KT: How did you get into photography? When/what was your first encounter with Photography & Activism together?
JV: I started photography at an early age. My father gave me a Kodak Brownie camera when I was 10 years old, and after a short period of time, I discovered the magic of how images appear in the red light of an improvised lab where I used to process my film and make prints.
As to the encounter with activism and photography, that started during my photography studies at La Cambre; a fine arts school based on the teaching principles of the Bauhaus. It was September 1968 and a rather tumultuous time at universities and art schools in France and Belgium. Many aspects of society were radically questioned, and demonstrations were organized against the Colonel regime in Greece. Left-wing activists happily challenged the Belgian immigration laws or other topics. For a time La Cambre was occupied day and night, and the capacity of the school and its artists were put to use to produce propaganda posters and flyers which were distributed to the universities. Together with other students of the photography department, we documented these activities. However, critical thinking, a sense of justice, the independence of mind, all needed in the context of activism, were trademarks of the education I received from my parents; although it was not their intension to make me a somewhat rebellious son. I must stress that if some can perceive me as an activist, I do not feel I am one. I was merely providing information to those who were getting their shirts wet in their activists’ approach.
KT: Your projects are based on subjects which have political, social and cultural relevance ranging from your old work – Niger, Mali, Kashmir, Mexico, Iraq, Pakistan, Africa to documenting modern-day conflict in Cambodia which explores the history, growth, and landscape of the region. How do you select your subject for your projects?
JV: Subjects with political, social and cultural relevance abound in this world. It may be hard for some to distinguish between the glitter and superficiality of the ongoing consumerism, but they are all around if one takes some distance from the frenzied market economy.
Most of the time I don’t make a selection, it is more of a growth process which happens within the development of another story. Stories overlap during their realization: one still ongoing leads to the next one and it slowly takes shape; I kind of slide from one story into another. The ‘Water in Sahel’ story had a lot to do with forced migration caused by the lack of water, and that gave me the impulse to start the Refugees’ story. Besides the forced migration aspect, the Refugees’s story had a lot to do with a sense of belonging to a piece of land and cultural identity or the loss thereof. So, it made sense to move on towards the people of the mountains which deals with just that. Were these communities pushed to the mountains because of their cultural differences? Or was their cultural identity preserved because the outside did not contaminate it in the haven of their valleys? The traveling fatigue and all those previously covered topics together made me focus on Cambodia for an extended period to dig deeper and less superficially in them.
The 17 years I spent in Cambodia continued to deal with land, with development, with being uprooted culturally. There is that thread throughout my work which has to do with identity, with the sense of belonging, with disruptions in ordinary lives, and with imposed change. My next book, which will be an overview of my work for the last 30 years, is called ‘The Thread.’
KT: Most of your projects are converted into powerful books like ‘Poids Mouche’, ‘Avoir 20 ans a Phnom Penh’ and many others. What do you like about photography in a book format (print and digital both)? You have also published many e-books like ‘Quest for Land’ which was a comprehensive photo reportage about land issues in Cambodia over a span of 10 years, ‘Same Same,’ ’30 years For A Trial’ and the last one being ‘A Fine Thread.’ What is your fascination for e-books?
JV: The book format with images has been around for quite a few centuries. It is a well-conceived and practical object with a very long lifespan which contains a condensed version of someone’s thoughts or visions on the world. The photo book offers nothing really new. It just perpetuates that centuries-old concept under the motto that you don’t change a winning formula. When it is well done. It is extremely effective in conveying complex thinking patterns. And the reader, who for centuries has apprehended the book in the same way, responds perfectly to that linear development of a story or thought. Some authors are of course challenging that linear approach in putting together their books. But it remains a sequence of images, etched in the book.
I have tried, way back in 1994 and together with Yves Bernard, by producing one of the very first CD-ROM (who remembers the existence of that technology?) to break that linear approach of the narrative. The material of the refugees’ story was put together with a multi-pronged approach. The CD-ROM we made, offered different ways to apprehend the story like for example a geographical or a topical one. The little disc with its multimedia possibilities also contained video interviews, music related to the countries, vocal comments, the possibility to have slide shows or a manual progression with the choice of having the captions or not. All these things are readily available today on the Internet and with much better quality. An emulated version of that CD-ROM is available for the Internet archaeologists at http://www.imal.org/resurrection/Camps-de-refugies.
CD-ROM now being an obsolete technology; few years ago, I took advantage of the possibilities offered by Apple to produce ‘The Quest,’ an app about the land issues in Cambodia. It was based on the same principle of a multi-pronged approach to a story as the CD-Rom, but the viewer experience was greatly enhanced when viewed on an iPad. Unfortunately, the necessary maintenance to keep up with the technology improvements imposed by Apple is costly, and I had to retrieve the app from the store.
I, therefore, turned to the e-books (http://www.4riversebooks.com/Mono/). The multiple entrance possibilities the CD-ROM was offering having disappeared I was brought back to the classical book proposal: a straight line between the beginning and the end. Advantages of the e-book are its ease of production, the multimedia possibilities, and the distribution. The usual price of a classical book integrates nearly 50% of its sales price in distribution costs. In short, that means you are paying for the petrol of the truck to carry the books from one place to another. Apple offers the basic production software for free, distributes in 51 countries through its iTunes Store, takes 30%, and their e-books can be read both on iPads and on Apple computers. But maybe the biggest advantage of the e-book is the fact that it can be put together with very little technological knowledge. There is no more money spent on the development, and if I have total control over the content, I have almost total control over how it is presented. The amount of content which can be crammed into one e-book allows for a very comprehensive proposal on a story, digging into details and ramifications a book can’t provide. The overload of information is, of course, a danger to be avoided, and I fall into that trap all too easily. I only hope that the satisfaction I have of having told as much as possible about a story will find an echo with the buyer.
The downside of it is that the hegemony of Apple is tricky of course, and no one can guarantee a few years from now that they will support what we eagerly bought today. The proven permanence of a classical book is therefore unbeatable. Books are here to stay.
KT: In the context of your exit from Magnum after 23 years, Martin Parr, ex-president of Magnum Photos quoted, “Given he was one of the photographers that voted for this investment scheme, at the last AGM [held in London, June 2016], somewhat surprised that he decided to leave. We are also disappointed at the rather mean-spirited way he announced this in his Instagram and Twitter accounts, while not communicating at all to members of Magnum.” Please comment.
JV: Mr. Martin Parr seems to be missing a few things. I also posted the same content on Twitter, Instagram, and my Facebook account, and it only after the official announcement of the deal with the investors was made, on June 13th, 2017. Most importantly, before that, on March 27th, 2017, ahead of the imposed deadline of March 30th to sign the new contract binding Magnum members, I already had sent an email to all the Magnum members. Mr.Parr included, clearly stating my intention not to sign the new contract, explaining the reasons why and announcing my resignation from membership. A few members reacted by email, so there was indeed communication. Most of these emails showed regret of my leaving and some of them showed comprehension for my motives. I can only hope that Mr. Parr’s rather offensive words were written because this specific email slipped his attention as he was too busy with the final stretch of concluding the deal with the investors. And yes indeed, I voted in favor of the deal with the investors. It may seem paradoxical given my resignation, but it is a clever deal which will allow Magnum to grow, to remain a reference and allow many photographers there to continue the stimulating work they do. As for me, there were a few things which didn’t suit me in the contract like having an obligation to produce a certain amount of work or the equivalent of a sum of money each year. I was also getting increasingly uncomfortable with the size of Magnum.
KT: In one of your recent interviews, you quoted, “I did not sign the contract because I would not have been able to fulfill it, but mostly because I would have had to forsake a few things I crave. I do not give workshops, as a journalist I cannot do corporate assignments (and I don’t feel like doing these anyhow). I sell very few prints; I only very occasionally get selected by curators for exhibitions (try and find pictures of mine in the 70th events), and I did never make the required amount of money.”
It is unbelievable and shocking to hear about your state of financial affairs. What do you think are the reasons for the struggling economy of photography these days?
JV: There is a lot of literature on this topic. Tightened budgets at the newspapers, availability of ridiculously cheap photography through image banks, the ever bigger presence of photography in everyday life, the fierce competition within a pool of photojournalists which keeps growing despite the hardship. The lack of anticipation by the media industry regarding digitization, the erosion of the concept of copyright through the gratuity found on the internet. The fact that not much is done regarding educating high school students about what photography is, its history, its economic environment, its power, are just a few reasons. Was it André Kertesz who said: “The illiterate of the future will be the one who cannot read a photograph.”
This is only the beginning of the digital age. It will eventually build and stabilize its economic structure. Photography is part of it. Photography is here to stay as well… Stay calm and keep photographing…
The struggle is not so much with the economics. I rather believe that the biggest issue for photography these days is to maintain its credibility in certainty of its domains, and in particular with photojournalism. I am all for creativity; I have nothing much against photoshopping. People are free to do as they like. But the ubiquity of photography, the fierce competition in the photography market because of the dire economic situation, the lack of photographic education in the general public is blurring the lines; we can’t ‘trust’ a photograph today the same way as we did 10 years ago. People don’t really know what they are looking at anymore. It threatens a whole sector of the industry and its players better be extremely thorough on the application of strong ethics. The imminent widespread of virtual reality of technology which for example allows altering the words of what has been said in video footage to remain undetected. We have seen nothing yet, I am afraid of being a bit old-fashioned here, but I strongly believe that at some point, a solid reference to reality has to be maintained unless we will lose ourselves in indifference.
KT:”Photography cannot do much. It provides some level of information, yet it has no pretensions about changing the world”. Yet you have always worked on stories of the people from the developing world who were crushed by those in power. Do you always like to work on subjects which have a social impact on the society? What do you do you want to achieve with your photography in the end?
JV: What I want to achieve is quite simple: I try to explain or reveal a few things which interest me to others. My scope of interest as described above; It is reasonably narrow-minded and hasn’t evolved much over the years. For the last 30 years, I have been following a thread running along or near the news, rarely at the right time but still part of the time. It is about lost valleys, of the space just before or after a war, about sidetracks, about unspectacular lives. It is about lives next to us which are merely there. They move ahead despite obstacles and dramas, sometimes limping, mostly invisible, unheard of, not considered worthy and therefore denied an existence. It is about making their absence appear in the open and about the way to achieve that slowly, repeatedly, insistently, without blinking an eye, as honestly as possible. Stopping to see them is making them disappear again. Playing with light and time to guarantee their presence, so as not to forget about what is insignificant to give them a space.
John Vink Portrait©Sita Vink