The legacy of documentary photography is grounded in debates about objectivity: Can the message and story in a photograph really exist on its own, without a trace of the hand of its maker? And what are the ethical implications when we acknowledge a creator behind the lens? Does it render these important stories defunct? Despite the fact that documentary image-making has faced these questions since its invention, the answers remain unclear. But what happens when you take these questions and employ them as your method, so that the images themselves act as their own commentary?
Blurring the distinction between fact and fiction, Max Pinckers uses photography to challenge the medium’s own limitations. By embracing a cinematic aesthetic to record reality, he turns the restrictions of documentary work into a creative tool, inviting us to question why we consider some images ‘real’ and others not. His latest book, Margins of Excess, documents the lives of six protagonists who embody the inseparability of fact and fiction.
In this interview for LensCulture, Pinckers speaks about how his approach to documentary work has evolved from past projects, his interest in American media, and why it’s important to approach photography with skepticism.
LensCulture: Your way of working with photography is very conceptual, and I want to contextualize this conversation by asking you why you started working with photography specifically. When did you first start using the medium and why, and what did those initial experiments look like?
Max Pinckers: I grew up in quite an artistic family. My father is a photographer, and my mother is a journalist, so I was raised in these worlds. I grew up in Asia until I was 18 years old, and also moved around to different places before that. When I moved back to Belgium, I wanted to reconnect with my friends there, and they all attended the art academy doing all sorts of things like filmmaking, new media, painting and animation. I decided to join them, and I went for photography – there’s no romantic story behind it! My first experiments were with Lomography and other analog experimentation. It was fun to shoot a film roll and send it to the other side of the world for someone else to shoot on top of, for example.
LC: How did those analog experiments affect your first documentary work?
MP: I really enjoyed the tactility of experimenting with different analog methods, and when I was in the third year of BA in 2011, I made my first documentary work. It was my first serious project, Lotus, that marked the beginning of what I still continue to do today: figuring out different documentary strategies with every new body of work. But those early analog methods are definitely where my initial fascination came from.
LC: So how do you personally define a “documentary” approach? More importantly, how do you define a traditional approach to documentary photography, and how do you see your practice as an evolution from this tradition?
MP: The first time the term was used in English (because it originally comes from French) was by John Grierson, who tried to define documentary as “the creative treatment of actuality,” which is incredibly different than how the genre developed after that point. So I guess you could say that in the beginning, documentary work was very experimental, subjective and poetic – and still very undefined. It was just a way of dealing with reality, translating it into a subjective form. But then as time went on, the notion of documentary became synonymous with photojournalism in photography.
LC: I can see why this distinction is important to you.
MP: Yes, I think one of the crucial things that distinguishes documentary from photojournalism is that documentary work is always self-reflexive and self-critical. You’re questioning your own positions and blind spots, as well as your own inability to actually represent reality. But in photojournalism, you’re supposed to ignore that and try to achieve the best possible image that stands in for reality itself.
LC: How do you see your own work fitting into (or not fitting into) those genres?
MP: I position myself against the generally accepted belief of what documentary stands for, which is usually objective facts, truth claims, and positions of power and authority. I wouldn’t say I try to undermine it, but I do try to question it and look at it critically. Every work I make is focused around a specific subject matter – something that’s real, actual and contemporary – taking place in reality. But at the same time, I try to question the language and the medium that is used to report on it. So, every body of work is an attempt to develop a different strategy for doing the same thing. For example, in Lotus, the work focused on thinking about the reasons for applying aesthetics to documentary photography. Why does a picture always have to be beautiful or well-composed? Why does it have to be well-lit or look like a painting, when you’re actually just trying to say something about the subject matter.
And then in other work, like The Fourth Wall, I take a slightly different approach. I wanted to show the influence of Bollywood cinema, and how fantasy worlds or fictions really can define how reality is perceived.
LC: And how did Margins of Excess come about after you went through all these other ways of working?
MP: I won the Edward Steichen Award, and part of the prize is a six-month residency at the International Studio and Curatorial Program in New York City. My wife Victoria and I work on everything together, but when we arrived in NYC we didn’t know what we wanted to work on yet. I always thought the United States was an interesting place, and I wanted to go there to make work for some time. We landed there in mid-2016, which was quite a defining moment, because it was the middle of the election period. I’ve always been interested in news media and the entertainment value of news as it blends with Hollywood codes and the problematics of journalism. It all ties back into how we portray truth, which is the core of documentary making.
LC: What were some of your other first impressions of the US after you arrived?
MP: The museums in the United States are very interesting in regards to how they represent history – they love dioramas. Umberto Eco wrote this fantastic book called Faith in Fakes, which explains how American culture prefers an authentic copy over the real thing. You can really see that when you go to the museums and how history is represented there.
When we started researching, we were finding stories about individuals whose idea of truth or reality became very ambiguous. Especially in terms of their intentions and how they were portrayed in popular media. In the media, there was a difficulty to write about different kinds of truth or the representation of someone’s own fantasies or imagination without resorting to accusations or judgments of what is right and wrong. I thought these cases reflected how we still try to locate some notion of absolute certainty.
LC: So how did you choose these six stories in particular, because there are so many stories like this across the United States. What were your criteria?
MP: There was this spectrum of stories, where on one end you have con artists who cheat or pull tricks to profit financially and materially, and on the other end you have situations where the media would wrongly accuse someone of doing something terrible. But the interesting thing about the people that we worked with is that they weren’t making claims for any kind of material intention or purpose external to their own internal needs (or so it seems). And you also can’t claim that the media got it wrong, because they were just doing their best to understand these stories. That’s exactly the space I was looking for – where it cannot be so easily deconstructed in some kind of dualism.
LC: You play a lot with fact and fiction in this work, and how one cannot exist without the other. Why do you think addressing that balance is important in documentary work specifically?
MP: I think we cannot make a binary distinction between the two. There are of course things that are absolutely factual and irrefutably true, but when it comes to a documentary approach through photography, it all becomes very ambiguous. Photographs are both factual and fictional at the same time. I think it’s more about trying to point out how they overlap, fluctuate or relate to one another, rather than trying to locate the distinction between them. Terms like “fake news” are being used for the purpose of confusion, only for people to look for the confirmation of their subjective belief systems.
LC: How did you find ways to insert your own narrative and agency into this work? What were you trying to accomplish on a more personal level as you were shaping the visual stories of other people?
MP: The way the book is set up is very specific, so that you can really see the story of each person, and that sequencing is my own imprint. You are introduced to each person though press articles and a portrait, as well as a personal interview. But all the images in between that are associated with each story are free. That’s actually the most fictional part of the book, because you could say that what actually possesses the most documentary characteristics are the portraits of the people and the interviews that go with them. But the pictures that I sequenced in between are very associative, free and intuitive. It’s a space for me to project my own imagination.
LC: What’s also interesting about the book is how you represent the news articles and headlines. You introduce each of the six subjects with a headline from the newspaper, but you’ve removed it from the aesthetic of a newspaper clipping. You also do that with the articles you incorporated, so that people approach the text as more of an informative essay and don’t associate it with sensational media. Why was this important for you to do?
MP: That was an important graphic design decision. We did do tests with the original layouts of the articles, and it immediately became too visually eclectic. We wanted to maintain a unity between all the texts on a formal level. By dropping the original typefaces, advertisements and headlines, the reader focuses more on the terminology and words that are being used. For example, the word “allegedly” comes up a lot in the book, because that’s one of those terms that the press likes to throw around when they don’t really know what happened.
That terminology and way of reporting was very important to emphasize. But also, the interviews are printed in a different typeface than the press articles, and are printed on a different paper type. A small detail which not many people see is that the press content is printed on gray pages which are glued into the book as inserts, whereas the interviews are on yellow paper bound in with the rest of the body of the book. So, the press fragments are literally not a part of the body of the book. All these subtle yet significant decisions contribute to the overall concept of the work.
LC: This project is quite distinct from your other work, so I wonder, what did you learn about yourself as a creator during this process?
MP: When I look back at what I was doing with Lotus, I can see how that way of thinking has really evolved into something that I can really call my own – it finally has that particular complexity that I’ve tried to create over the past six, seven or eight years.
I also learned that it’s extremely important to be free, and that everything actually just comes down to the notion of freedom. It sounds stupid, like freedom as some kind of empty term that gets used all too often with no real meaning. But for me, the freedom to create and be completely free in the creative process within documentary constraints is very important. This goes back to what I said about the images being associative – they are interpretive stories based on imaginative things. That’s the freedom I have been looking for and which is becoming more and more important for me.
LC: As viewers encounter this work, what do you want them to walk away with?
MP: One of the reasons I use a cinematic and theatrical aesthetic is because it doesn’t quite look like what you would call ‘art photography.’ It’s accessible to everyone without being too cryptic or hermetic. I find that important, because they can be interpreted by people on all levels, without necessarily needing any conceptual framework to understand them, although they can go much deeper on many levels if one tries to understand the reason behind their making.
One of the essential things that I have always tried to do is make people stop and think about the construction, manipulation and motivation behind image production, and the currency they have in our visual economy. That is so important to be aware of: knowing that images are essentially created and disseminated to sell you something or to try and make you believe something.
Editor’s Note: To see more of Max Pinckers’ compelling work, check out the projects listed on his website.