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I usually come after the paroxysm, the crisis, when things are in suspension or settle down, when things are being rebuilt, reconstructed.


John Vink

Cambodia-based photojournalist John Vink is a native of Belgium. He has won the Eugene Smith Award for his work on Water in Sahel. A former member of Agence Vu, he joined Magnum Photos in 1993.

Wayne: You have said that your father was a very good amateur photographer. What memories do you have of his photography?

John: Did I say very good amateur photographer or good amateur photographer? Anyhow, he knew very well about all the technicalities, exposure, filters, depth of field, lenses… He had a Leica, I think a 3F or a 3G. (I bought one later on and took pictures with it of the psychiatric ward I managed to get sent to to avoid doing military service.) But the things my father photographed were the family, cherry blossoms, mountain ranges and the occasional chamois, small as a dot against a big mountain slope when we spent our summer and winter holidays in Switzerland.

Wayne: You have also attributed your photographic interests in part to the copies of Life magazine that were kept around the house. What was it about the magazines that captivated you? What other books and magazines did your parents keep around the house?

John: The Life issues were hidden in the cellar (there was no attic in our house). There was a small storage room opposite the garage with piles of magazines. I spent hours in there. The first pile of magazines I came across was National Geographic. Old issues from back in the '30s as well. Must have given me a hint about going to other places.

Behind that there was a pile of Life magazine. This was in the late '50s and early '60s, and my parents who had gone through World War II did not want their children to be confronted with the war. [David Douglas] Duncan’s pictures of the war in Korea (muddy soldiers sloshing through rice fields, shell shocked troopers in the cold…) probably motivated my parents to hide those issues. It was at the height of the Cold War, and I had bad dreams of Russian planes dropping their atomic bombs on my head, yet I took the Life issues with Duncan’s pictures up to my room and looked at them at night with a torchlight. I also had copies of Popular Science explaining how to build an atomic shelter…

Even better tucked away was a pile of photography magazines with articles about how to compose a picture, how to take pictures of fireworks and the like. All topics I wasn’t interested in at all. But surges of hormones kept me flipping through these photography magazines anyway, because there was also a chapter on lighting nude models. I learned a lot about how not to light a subject and about human (well mostly female) anatomy this way, although the absence of pubic hair, and in fact the absence of everything (the pictures were strategically retouched) kept certain questions alive…

Wayne: What kind of influence did Duncan have on you? Which other photographers influenced you when you were a young, up and coming photographer?

John: I can’t say if Duncan or any other photographer had any direct influence on me. I think it is more a combination of feelings, encounters with certain images at a certain moment which molded me over time. I mean, growing up is a slow process and needs a lot of input from many different origins. It is never like a thunderbolt hitting me and making me change direction. The Duncan pictures and the atmosphere surrounding it at the time, the digestion of all this, maybe partly explain why years later I never really photographed the paroxysm of conflict. I am not a war photographer. I am a post-war photographer and sometimes a pre-war photographer.

I also think it is a bit reducing to mention only photographers as an influence just because you’re a photographer yourself. My artistic stimulations are varied and relate to music (Arno, Lou Reed, Bob Dylan, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Swirling Dervishes, J.S. Bach…), painting (Permeke, Saverys, Alechinsky, Ensor…), and yes, photography (Larry Clark, [Diane] Arbus, [Robert] Frank, Sergio Larrain, Graciela Iturbide …), literature (I was devouring Jack London as a kid) and certainly comic books with the one and only Hergé, creator of Tintin (maybe this will explain why I try to have everything in focus)…

There is one photographer, though, who at least triggered my desire to become a photographer. I was 15 or so and probably quite stupid and stubborn when the “Ye-Ye” period hit France and Belgium. There was a very popular radio program (no TV at home!) called “Salut Les Copains”, featuring a new trend of singers: Johnny Halliday, Sylvie Vartan, Françoise Hardy. It was in fact the first successful attempt to drag the baby-boomers into consumerism. The success was such that a magazine, appropriately called “Salut Les Copains," came on the market, with pictures of all these stars and starlets of the new showbiz in France. Most of them were done by a Jean-Marie Perier. In each issue of the magazine there was an article about “The job you dream of.” The first issue told you exactly what you should do if you wanted to become an air hostess. The second issue explained what it takes to become a photographer. And there was Jean-Marie Periertele-lenses telling the world and credulous me (happy possessor of a Voïgtlander Vito CD) in particular how much fun it was to be a photographer and to approach all those stars. My decision was taken: I wanted to quit college and become a photographer sitting amid all his cameras.

Wayne: How did you decide to study at La Cambre? What was you parents’ reaction to your interest in the visual arts?

John: My parents weren’t too happy with my decision to quit college and put heavy pressure (fair enough) on me to finish what I started. It took a while longer than expected, of course, because after my decision, my motivation to do that was gone, my mind being focused on becoming a photographer. But I managed to get through the ordeal. I guess that by then my parents expected me to have dropped the foolish idea. It turns out I didn’t, so they thought I might as well get the best weapons to achieve my goal, and I went to the fine arts university of La Cambre. The concept of La Cambre was in fact copied from the Bauhaus: a collection of several interacting visual arts disciplines, ranging from graphic arts to etching and from sculpture to animated film. Now this was September 1968! Not the right time if you wanted to study at a high school or a university, but fantastic if you wanted to fool around and spend time finding out what you wanted the world to look like. The guru we had to deal with in the photography department obviously lacked substance and stature, and basically we were left on our own. I picked up a lot in other departments, so finally it was a good experience, even though in the field of photography as a profession I was left quite helpless. But we had been following a very good class on the history of photography, and that certainly was where I became aware of the different worlds photography can take you to and that finally telling people’s lives, like Dorothea Lange or Gene Smith did, was something I could relate to.

Wayne: How did you end up initially photographing theater?

John: In fact, right after La cambre I started my “career” as a fine arts photographer with these pictures, got them published in the [Swiss] Camera, and they were exhibited left and right in an emerging fine art market, and namely at the Jürgen Wilde Galerie in Köln (Germany). They were the discoverers of Bernd and Hilla Becher a little later.






But after a couple of years I thought I would be running into a dead end soon, and the desire of being a photojournalist, which popped up at La Cambre, came back. In those years I also took these photographs, comforting me somehow in that direction:








But there were no decent magazines in Belgium at the time. Only dailies who would pay ridiculous copyrights (if they even knew what that was). And I really didn’t know how to move ahead. My former wife, who I met at La Cambre, was a stage designer and that is how I got in contact with the more progressive theaters in Brussels. I started taking pictures for them and soon ended up doing things a bit differently than what they expected. I was more taking pictures of the process of creation than of the play as such, and very often I was on stage with the actors during the repetitions, showing a totally different perspective than what the spectator would ever see. The great thing with theater photography is that you can anticipate the events: you know that when X says “blablabla," that Y will be staying there, looking in that direction. It really has helped me tremendously in the all-important issue of finding the right position, the right distance.

Wayne: How, in particular then, has music influenced your aesthetic? How has it influenced your methodology? In the way it affects the way you structure your coverage and themes?

John: Music has more of a ‘getting into the mood’ function than a direct influence on the aesthetics. So it is not directly related to photography, but it helps me apprehend situations before starting to photograph or to digest the situations afterwards. Reed to pep me up and for when I know I’ll have to rock; Waits or “Vier Letzte Lieder” from Strauss by Jessye Norman for when I want to isolate on a plane; Swirling Dervishes to cool down but stay concentrated; Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan (the real Sufi stuff, not the “world music” thing) for when I have to go beyond the real world. I never listen to music while photographing, of course. I mean, you have to photograph with your ears as well, so there is no time to listen to music.

Wayne: When you were at Liberation, you learned to work in a method the photojournalists there called “décalé.” How much does that method still influence your work?

John: I worked a lot for Libération, but never was “at” Libération, even if Vu agency [Agence Vu] was a daughter company of Libération at its beginning and had its offices in the same building for quite a while. The initiator of the whole idea was Christian Caujolle, former picture editor at Libération whom I had worked for a couple of years before he put together Vu agency. Christian, during his years as a picture editor at Libération indeed managed to use photojournalism in a way which had rarely been seen before. It was a matter of looking beyond, to search the edges, to visually scratch beneath the surface of what’s available at a journalistic event and come back with images which were relevant and yet different from what one would expect. It was a matter of creating a surprise effect, catch the attention and bring the reader to apprehend the accompanying text with a critical mind. Libération became known for its unconventional use of photography and this certainly contributed to the success of the newspaper at the time.

The same idea was used by the picture editors at Libération who were using stock photographs. Sometimes the results were quite far fetched, or plain funny. I remember that this picture:


or this picture



(I don’t remember exactly which one but I’m sure it’s one of the two): was used for an article about a survey which found out that the sperm count with the population in the West was declining…

The danger with “décalé” is that you could end up using or producing pictures where aesthetic virtuosity becomes more important than the content. It is something I always was very cautious not to do, though, and the “décalé” taught me better where I would and should put my limits in this regard.

But anyhow, Christian Caujolle thought that the concept he successfully used at Libération could be expanded and applied to other news media and also to the juicy market of annual reports or advertisement. So he gathered a bunch of photographers (Michel Vanden Eeckhoudt, Gérard Uféras, Pascal Dolémieux, and later Hugues de Wurstemberger…) around him he had worked with when he was picture editor and founded Vu agency. It worked fine for quite some time. The line between journalism and advertisement photography became blurred a bit, but it never really bothered me because there was enough space for both options within the agency. For me it was just a matter of drawing the line again as to how far I would go into the direction of non-journalistic photography, and that was pretty not far away.

Vu was very trendy for six or seven years. Then Libération began to have some difficulties and there were rumors that it would close its daughter company. So I left Vu end of ‘92 before 15 or so photographers would be looking for a place to harbour them and subsequently applied in ‘93 for Magnum. As it turned out I got into Magnum and Vu is still around. Meanwhile, I had completed the Water in Sahel and the Refugees stories.

Wayne: You have talked about your “need” to leave Belgium. Why was that important for your sense of mission? For your development as a photographer?

John: Belgium is a really interesting place with a rotten climate. It is the friction line for two strong cultures and has been a battlefield for every European army (and even a few non-European armies) for many centuries… It counts an abnormal proportion of creative people doing things no one else in the world could come up with and counts an even more important proportion of narrow minded bigots. The food is fantastic, the beer is the best in the world, quality of life is probably unequalled, but sometimes I feel this is a cover-up for a lot of hypocrisy. Belgium is the champion of compromise (maybe that’s why it is the siege of the European institutions). Belgium is Catholic. Belgium has a coastline of 60 km. Belgium (the Flemish part at least) is one village. Belgium is crowded. Belgium is satisfied. Belgium is small. You want to get out of there.

Maybe if I had stayed I could have found an equivalent to each and every story I did in Africa or Asia and dig into Belgium as I’m digging into Cambodia now. But it turned out different, the itch to to go out there and see for myself, check things out with a mind as free and uncluttered as possible was too strong it seems. Things look crispier, it feels like you grasp what’s going on faster, that you analyze a situation better when your memory has no references. I think photojournalism is about knowledge but much more about intuition and open mindedness.

I ended up spending only a couple of months at home each year for several years. Shall we blame it on National Geographic or on the school’s atlas with all these incredible names in Siberia or in South America? I don’t really know. Once you’ve been bitten by the travel bug it’s hard to settle down. Being away also makes it tough to maintain fulfilling relationships, so when you come back for some time you find out that they are not satisfying—and leave again. You get dragged into a spiral. I did try to settle down a little more after becoming a nominee at Magnum and even started a documentary photography magazine called "Themes." I managed to publish five issues, ran out of money and started travelling again, working on the mountain people story.

Wayne: Why has it been so important for you to cover the “powerless and poor?” Why refugees in particular? From where does that sense of justice and injustice stem in you?

John: Why do you climb a mountain? Because it’s there. I must say I never understood why people talk about well-known people. They have a voice already. So why add more noise? Too much information becomes noise. I never understood (or rather, wanted to accept) the fact that all the media focus on the same topic at the same time. When all the media went to Rwanda, I went to Angola. World news… What is that? Whose world are we talking about? Do you really believe the guy in Cambodia who just got kicked out of the shack he has been living in for the last 10 years gives a 100 riel note about Israel flattening parts of Beyrouth? Is a Hezbollah more important than an Israeli or a Phnom Penh slum dweller? I guess it depends on where the center of your world is. When I look at the Cambodian news, Cambodia is in the middle of the map (not that all Cambodians give a shit about the slum dweller next door mind you).

I always understood the function of being a photojournalist as a go-between, shuttling between one group of people and another to try and explain how the others are faring. It is a fairly simple job in fact. You identify a group, go there, look around, sniff around, listen, take pictures which try to convey what you saw, smelled, heard, and bring it back to others who don’t have the opportunity of going there. Personally, as a matter of putting the sound balance right, I would go to those groups which have more difficulties in having their voice heard (when the voice is faint it is more interesting for that exact reason: why is it that faint?). Refugees have less voice than others. They are pawns. Minorities have less voice. Victims have less voice. If they had a loud voice (if they were allowed to have a loud voice) they would not be a victim. Power is about shutting up the voice of the others. So it goes like this: you have a faint voice, I’ll try and talk about you. You have a loud voice: I heard you already and I am not interested in more.

I guess it has to do with my parents who taught me to be just, not to cheat, not to lie, and to shut up when the adults are talking.

Wayne: In your coverage of the powerless and poor, how fair is it to say that you often trace the issues back to some sense of the elemental: land and water for instance? How did you come to that method of covering the issues?

John: We may be sophisticated beings, but we still depend on land, water and air. We are territorially minded. We are dogs pissing on lampposts.

I did the Water in Sahel story because—thanks to Sebastiao Salgado’s work on the famine in that area in the late ’80s. His pictures were very strong and moving. They still are. But I wondered why do these images exist, why did this happen? Sebastiao was showing us the result, the consequence of something. I tried to find out why it went that far. The answer was easy to find: no water. Of course, then it became more complicated: why is there no water? Climate, geography, politics? I think I managed to cover only the climate and the geographical or topographical aspects of the story and only superficially scratched the political part.

I said before: I come after the paroxysm of war. The famine was a paroxysm. Trying to find out why there was a famine was coming after the paroxysm. Photographing refugees is coming after a paroxysm. Photographing the mountain people in Guatemala, Laos and Georgia had not that much to do with post-paroxysm but a lot with land and identity. Today I photograph what is happening after the paroxysm of a genocide in Cambodia. And what do I find (among other things)? Land issues. Maybe I’m not that open-minded after all…

Wayne: You talked about how the financial difficulties at Vu helped spur you to transition to Magnum. What was that transition like? How different were the two agencies? How has the agency been important to the furthering of your goals? What are the biggest misconceptions that outsiders have of Magnum?

John: As I said, I quit Vu before applying to Magnum, as I thought that was a clearer position in regard to Vu. I didn’t want to be perceived as a traitor, so I told Christian Caujolle beforehand about me leaving Vu and trying to get into Magnum. The risk was, of course, that Magnum would not take me, in which case I was out there on my own, because it would have been a bit strange to go back to Vu. Luckily, it worked out, and I spent the next four years passing through the required purgatory steps to become a full member of the Magnum cooperative. I had applied once to Magnum in 1985 already, but that was way too early, and I was not mature enough at that time.

In retrospect the Vu episode probably was the best thing that ever happened to me. It was the biggest move ahead in my “career.” It really revealed me to the business world in France and also to myself. It gave me the self-assurance I would need to be accepted by Magnum later on.

The difference between Vu and Magnum was switching from a small dynamic and quite iconoclastic place where things were run in a fairly emotional and messy French way to a much heavier, more complex structure with a comparatively huge multinational network of offices and agents with heavy traditions and loaded to the brim with icons. I must say I had a very hard time adapting (and in fact, after being a full member for 10 years, probably still have not completely adapted). Things have changed quite a lot these days and nominees are much better taken care of to find out about the mechanisms of the beast, but at the time I felt kind of dropped into a big machine without anyone telling me how it would work. It was up to me to find out.

To make things more difficult there were quite violent tensions between the three main offices at the time, due to cultural differences, personal histories and because of crippled internal communications (no email). Although some of those tensions still remain (you can’t rewrite cultural identity or history) they are definitely less of a burden today because communications have improved (yes, now we do use email!) and because if we want to survive we have to get along and stick together to face the world out there.

In 1994 Magnum was also at a pivotal stage, at the very beginning of a switch from an analog to a digital distribution. It took ages to implement this, partly because of our inexperience in that area at the time, because most members were computer illiterate, except for Carl De Keyzer, a couple of others and me, because we were early in wanting to do the switch compared to many other agencies, and because of our specific and complex way of being organised which had to be translated into a digital system. Our data management was written from scratch, tailor made to our needs and has cost us several tons of money (amongst which 5 percent of our photographers share, still today). If we hadn’t done that Magnum would not be there today. It is as simple as that. I think it is the biggest managerial achievement of the agency ever. We are still free. Freedom is expensive.

The improvement of the Magnum machine is the thing which helps me most in achieving my goals, as having an efficient and up-to-date sales tool brings in better money with which I can continue working on my projects. But otherwise Magnum never really provided direct support for any of my projects. I was, for example, very disappointed by the fact that not one portfolio was published about my refugees work at the time when there was the exhibition at the Centre National de la Photographie in Paris in 1994. Not entirely Magnum’s fault, of course, but I was really expecting the Magnum machine to be more efficient and supportive for its new nominee at the time. That cold shower made me understand right from the start that I had to keep relying on my own and not count on Magnum too much.

As for the misconceptions outsiders may have about Magnum? I should know about what they exactly think first. The biggest misconception I had would turn around the term “cooperative.” My own (probably romantic) view of a cooperative is a generous place where ideas, energy and goods are equally shared in order to produce intellectual and material improvements for the members. I shouldn’t be romantic, shut my big mouth and be happy with what I can get.

Wayne: You said you felt a need to leave Belgium, but what has been the common thread about where you have lived since you left? In particular, what is it about Cambodia that has attracted you and compelled you to stay?

John: The only other place I lived in besides Belgium and Cambodia was Paris for a few years. Well, sort of… Just like when I was in Belgium I was home three months a year and travelling the rest of the time. Now the big difference with today in Phnom Penh is that I am at home all the time, being somewhere else without having to travel (and saving a lot of money in travel expenses). Some of the reasons why I am staying specifically in Cambodia can be found further down, but not travelling anymore also gives me the chance to build some serious / normal relationships.

Wayne: What has been most pivotal to you in forming your ideas about what constitutes a story? You mentioned Gene Smith; how, if at all, did he influence you? From what other art forms have you drawn ideas? How is multi-media affecting your ideas on this front? What are the limits and possibilities of multi-media for the still photographer?

John: Before I even knew I would be a photographer or a photojournalist I was also fed with the books about Tintin.



And I guess that these Belgian comic books about a reporter and his dog having thrilling adventures at the four corners of the world, drawn with great accuracy by Hergé in a style called “la ligne claire” (the clear line) have unconsciously taught me how to construct a story and what are the elements that keep it together and “entertaining”: beginning, rhythm, progression, climax, plot, suspense, end, characters. It also taught me to try and make pictures with great depth of field.

People like Gene Smith, Gene Richards, Gilles Peress, Larry Towell and so many other photographers have, in fact, only translated in photography what I more or less already learned through Tintin about constructing a story.

But when I was a kid my parents also showed me paintings by Pieter Brueghel (here: “The Triumph of Death”)

Jeroen Bosch (Here: “Hell” from the tryptich “Garden of delights”)



Jan Van Eyck (Here: “Virgin with the chandelier”)



…and other Flemish painters… Imagine what stories you can make up in your mind as a small kid when you see people being skinned alive in hell?

Later there was Wassily Kandinsky:



Or Joan Mirò (Woman Dreaming of Escape. 1945)



That is the power of painting: so many stories, so much information, in one and only frame.

Photography usually needs more than one frame, at least with the kind of photography I am doing. That is perhaps the limitation / asset of my photography. It seems that the more I go ahead, the more I have to have pictures relying on another one, that one picture on its own loses some of its power if it is not part of a thread. That the thread is what my pictures are about. And it somehow makes sense as I have been favouring the story as opposed to anything else for so many years.


To build that thread is a matter of collecting bits and pieces, left and right, without apparent immediate connection. It’s like a craftsman making the pieces of a puzzle he has the concept about but not the final image. The tricky part is not to forget to collect one piece or another, as a seemingly unimportant situation may in fact be crucial to the understanding of other parts of the story. For example during my first trip to Cambodia in 1989 I completely overlooked the fact that I had to take pictures of the empty streets of Phnom Penh, of the twilight just before curfew, of the absence of circulation. In retrospect it is the most obvious change with today and those pictures I did not take could have come in handy at one point.

 

But you also have to keep an open mind and at the same time be strict and coherent regarding the concept. You have to adapt the concept in the light of what you encounter but at the same time keep an eye on the initial idea. It is only at the very end, when the story is finished (but is it ever finished?), when you look at the outcome that you start piecing things together and try to convey and reconcile both what your initial idea was and what changes you found with the initial idea during the quest for bits and pieces. I mean: you learn a lot about things during the collection process, you refined the initial idea and therefore you have to integrate that in the final result.

 

With me the initial idea grows usually out of some other story. It doesn’t come out of the blue. It’s more of a maze. That’s how I very often end up working on several stories simultaneously, because suddenly an interesting situation leads me to initiate a new thread. The decision to pursue one thread or another and how I do it is probably as far as I will go in revealing my feelings about a situation. I never use the “I” word in my stories. The “I” word would only be a distraction.

 

The multimedia thing is just a logical extension of the storytelling and is realistically possible only since a few years thanks to the Internet and broadband (which I don’t have by the way). It is adding a range of information to the photographs. If done properly it helps in apprehending.

Wayne: You use the term “paroxysm” to talk about what draws you to a story. What do you mean by the word, especially in light of your coverage of the dislocations to people, especially those relating to the most elemental (famine and drought, land grabbing), and how powerless and poor are most affected by those dislocations? Can you also talk about the concept with regards to your story on Terre Rouge relocation?

John: I used paroxysm in the sense of crisis, when things go out of hand, when common rules don’t apply anymore. When things are being deconstructed, torn apart and when journalists pop up from all over. I usually come after the paroxysm, the crisis, when things are in suspension or settle down, when things are being rebuilt, reconstructed.

True that the particular case of relocations of people in Cambodia are to be considered a crisis, but compared to what happened before that in the country, one can also see it as a (painfull) part of the reconstruction of Cambodia as a “normal” country. I wouldn’t want to sound cynical, but the basic idea I have behind everything I am doing here in Cambodia is documenting the reconstruction of the country after the Khmer Rouge regime. What does it take to recover from near-total destruction, be it infrastructural, moral, social? Every single story I am doing on Cambodia can be seen from that perspective. The Terre Rouge relocation is just one chapter in the Quest for Land, a story about land issues in Cambodia I am working on, and that in turn is just part of another story about the reconstruction of Cambodia, just like the several other stories I am doing evolving around the Khmer Rouge tribunal. Imagine documenting a country being rebuilt from scratch.

That is why I stay here. And that is why I will stay for quite some more time…


CAMBODIA. Kep (Kampot). 13/04/2003

 

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