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“At that time I was frustrated with everything, including photography – particularly my own. There was a sense of irritation generally in the air, so I just thought ‘let’s completely deconstruct photography’.”
- Daido Moriyama
Mr. Winogrand was so prolific that he could hardly be bothered to edit his work. A new retrospective explores the relentless output of a complicated artist.
Man with Bandage, 1968
“Photographic finesse has its place, but it can also get in the way. I was trying to show vitality. The pictures are about content, and more content. And if there is no content, take no picture.”
“It’s exactly the other way around now. ‘Okay I’m going to take my clothes off, and I’m going to stand there in the nude, and I’m going to try and look lonely or profound.’”
“Content cannot be manufactured, in my opinion. That which I can find is better than that which you can make. That which we find, the work and the use of the people out there, it’s natural, that’s what ordinary people do, that interests me.”
“I take pride in saying these are all how we looked, not how we wanted to look, or staged. You cannot stage pictures. That is something I have many many times defended. People say ‘Well you can stage that.’ I say ‘No you cannot, and I can prove it to you.’ Many times over I’ve taken a second shot after [some] kids have seen me, and nothing. It’s a different picture.”
“I started taking pictures in 1950. I went with a small youth group, every summer we went to the Alps and did hiking. They all had cameras so I had a camera. It was called the Kodak Retina I. It didn’t even have a rangefinder, it had a peephole viewfinder which was worse than you get on these throwaway cameras now. But I used it and I got good pictures with it.”
“The pictures I took in Germany were all lost on the ship when I came over here, because it was an old rust-bucket that nearly sank in the Atlantic. It took on water, all my baggage was floating in water and all the negatives were destroyed in the salt water. I tried to wash it, it couldn’t be washed.”
“In Canada the first good pictures I took were black and white photos of the ship pulling up in the St. Lawrence River and the towers of Montreal [in 1952]. I have got pictures of those German immigrants. They all had cameras and they kept them in their leather ever-ready cases with the flaps discreetly opened. They all wore suits and ties. A lot of them became successful and became importers. But here I have a picture of them on the ship. It’s a little bit like The Steerage by Steichen, but not quite. I never thought of printing them, but I have them.”
“In 1957 I became a medical photographer, and almost at the same time I became a serious documentary photographer. The reason I chose documentary photography — I didn’t even know that word — [was] I had great fun walking around the old streets of Vancouver, looking at the second-hand stores, the people and the signs. To me, that was a kind of vitality that spoke to me directly.”
“In that, I think I was really different. in those days I didn’t think of it that way. But what we know now is that nobody has done that, not even in small bodies of work. Nobody has done that. Before that [it was] buildings or swans or babies, sunsets or landscapes or barns with yellow tulips. I tell you nobody did that. It’s only now that that hits home.”
“Nobody did that even in the U.S.A. I have often looked at American yearbooks and things, the American Photography color yearbook, that was a big thing, I bought those. But they’re full of pretty pictures of women, some of them naked, some of them beautiful. Even the ones who are not naked look beautiful to me. Perhaps it’s my age. But there was no street photography. None done. And I did that, and I did it with a passion, and I did it with variety. You can see that now in the pictures.”
On why so many of his photos feature neon signs
“Oh, neon signs. This is one of the greatest use of technology, to make people happy. When you went to town in Vancouver in the 1950s, you had the experience of going to town. That’s gone. Now you have to look for parking, have park underground, which takes you almost as long as eating your dinner.”
“In those days we were convivial. That means we can live together. That has gone away. We are no longer convivial. We’re ‘You’re better than me,’ and ‘I’m better than him,’ and ‘I’m going to kick butt on him.’”
On his photo of the Neon jungle at Hastings and Carrall in 1958
“I don’t take credit for it looking like this. What I can’t believe is that there are no good pictures of that. That was a fabulous strip. I only took one picture. Not two or three for safety – I had no money for that. So I had to know exactly how to expose it, take one picture, and hope it doesn’t get lost in the mail. And some got lost in the mail. I had to send [the Kodachrome film] to Kodak in another part of North America. They could get lost and they did get lost.”
“When I see that now, I only have one slide of this. I think ‘How the hell did I not find the money to take two?’ Honestly, it was a question of eating, in those days. In those days, I put everything into photography, to the point where people said ‘This guy’s a neurotic.’”
On the White Lunch Cafe’s neon sign
“The White Lunch was an institution. I love things like that. The swirl of steam over the cup is pure genius. This is one of the better neon signs around. I’d go to the White Lunch. I can tell you what I ate there: braised sirloin tips and a custard pudding with a little bit of rice in the bottom.”
“Everything that’s uninteresting I remember faultlessly. But if it was my mother’s birthday, I’d have to think for awhile or look at a notebook. But this is how we are, how we are made.”
Bogner’s Grocery, 1960
On his 1960 photo of Bogner’s Grocery, which is literally covered in signs
“That was off Oak street. The signs are a very very important pictorial part of the American city. I won’t even say pictorial, an important cultural part of the American city. If you take the Coca-Cola and other signs away from America downtown, you have nothing. Maybe some interesting architecture, but not very much.”
“The neon signs and the soft drink signs, the cigarette ads and the billboards and the posters and the grafitti and collages of torn-off posters, all that contributes to make the city a place where art actually happens. That kind of casual art, overlapping posters, can be very very interesting. Those posters illustrate the city even if people are not there.”
“A store like this was a gem. You cannot fake that. Look how casually they nailed this big sign over the small one. The Coca-Cola man says ‘we’ve got another big sign,’ and the person who owns the store says ‘well put it up.’”
On his love of old Coca-Cola signs
“Coca-Cola signs, see, nobody photographed Coca-Cola signs. I did. I actually photographed them to show how the city looks bad without them. And they took those down, of course. They have become collectors items.”
“I’m not surprised, because they are beautiful. Embossed on metal, they are beautiful. I wish I had some of them, but I never stole them. Crazy stuff. If you had this Santa Claus with a Pepsi sign now, it would be worth $500. I ate a meal for 25 cents at the same shop. If I had asked for that they would have said come back in a week and you can have both of them.”
“These are to me an incredibly pictorial aspect. [He points to a photo of an old building with some signs.] Without that it could have been taken in the Ukraine. But with that, it’s America. I call Canada America, I’m talking about North America. I don’t differentiate that much.”
On shooting in colour, at a time when all serious art photography was done in black and white
“First of all when you do black and white all have is the basic resource, a negative. That needs a lot of dancing around the darkroom and time and patience and energy. You should ideally be a man of leisure, an English gentleman. And a lot of English gentlemen did serious and beautiful photography.
“But I didn’t have time for that. That’s one reason [I did colour slides]. I’d get 36 slides back, beautiful, finish.””
New Pontiac, 1957
On Kodachrome slides
“Kodachrome was the best film and the most reliable development, but it was far from reliable. I was so frustrated at times I sent film to Palo Alto or to Rochester, just to get them developed right. And of course that entailed an extremely long wait. You’d take the pictures today and they would come back in two weeks or something.”
“But Kodachrome was the best film. I have to thank Kodak for making that product. Without that product, we would not have the pictures. Pictures that were taken on other films have suffered more than Kodachrome. Kodachrome was thought to last 50 years, and it has.””
On his awareness of what he was doing
“I was aware I was taking art. That’s the conceit of young people. I knew that what I am doing is not only unique, but that someday I’m going to unpack that and shock people with it. And that was 50 years ago. It’s sort of a fairy tale story, but that’s exactly how it’s beginning to play out.”
“I am not blaming people for it not happening until now, because without digital I could not have done it. [He takes out a photo of Nelson and Howe.] This picture was so badly damaged by fungus. By traditional methods you would have said ‘Sorry I can’t print that.’ Well we cleaned that up just like that and it made a beautiful photograph. The colour is beautiful, the detail is excellent.”
On street photography and digital technology
“Timing in photography is almost everything. You have to pay attention to where the light comes from, you have to pay attention to your background. If your background is too loud, or makes too much of itself…that’s the problem of the photographic process. It records everything that’s in the viewfinder, whether it’s important or not.”
“All the good pictures that didn’t turn out good, it’s because of the background or because the light comes from one side or some other technical glitch. That’s the grace of these modern digital cameras. First of all everything that can go wrong is taken care of automatically. A person who’s completely ignorant of the photographic process [can take [photos].”
“And I say that respectfully. You don’t have to know anything, you press the button and you get a beautiful picture. That’s how it works out now. This is enormous progress. Because of that you’ll see now a flood of good pictures which we never dreamed we would see. I already get them in the e-mail.”
Foot of Main, 1968
On his photos of second hand stores
“I call them a microcosm of American culture, because that’s exactly what it is, of all the things we want to have. All the things we need to have, and all the things we’d love to have wind up in second hand shops in that kind of condensed fashion.
“This [photo of a second hand store window] is an art piece. I’m not saying my picture is an art piece. But if you could freeze that window and carry it into an art gallery, you could show that in New York and ask $50,000 for it. And you’d get it. And they’d say ‘Why didn’t I know about it? Now I have to pay $100,000, because that guy wants to sell it to me for $100,000.’
“That’s how much that store would be worth if you could have preserved it and transported it to New York as is, authentically. To have a photograph of that is the next best thing. And who else would have thought of taking that then?””
His photo of the U.R. Next Barber Shop
“That was the best barber shop of all times. It was also the first [photo I took]. I couldn’t improve on it. Look at this, it’s almost like a Hollywood movie set, it’s beyond belief.”
On his shot a family walking down Robson street beside the International Cafe
“I used to eat there many times. I had the goulash, very very good. An Austrian woman ran that. I have a picture of that [block] as it looks now, and it looks like a suburb of Shanghai. It’s not the same anymore.”
On his shot Hastings Street at Columbia, 1958
“I had a 35 millimetre camera which had bellows on it, and I could put a view cam on it from a big camera. It gave me that kind of long perspective, a telephoto perspective.”
On his photo of Granville and Smithe in 1959
“If you go to this spot on Granville street, all you see is trees. That’s gone. Everything that had teeth. This is what bothers me about the city. Everything that had interest or teeth or contradiction or American blaring culture which makes our cities interesting. Take that away and it’s all grey. That all has been taken away. So now we go to Granville street, it almost looks like an East German slum. It’s not nice.”
Paris Cafe, 1959
On how modern digital technology has made it possible for him to mount a show like this
“[That photo] is from the 60s. Look at how that can be resurrected through the digital method. If I had had to do a show then, I simply could not have afforded it, it would have cost 10 times as much and it wouldn’t have been as good.
“All the factors that lead to a good show have come together now. At my age, 76, perhaps it would have been nice to have that at age 60 or so. But I’m glad, I’m happy, I’m proud. I think actually it’s better it’s now, because I think it would have changed my life [to have success earlier]. Instead of taking pictures I would have sat around at parties.
“This has been a coincidence if things. One is that Kathleen [Bartels] who is directing the Vancouver Art Gallery wants this sort of thing. The other thing is that it’s technically possible now to make them to a budget, and to make them very good. Whether a picture was taken in the 50s or now makes no difference.”
On how many photos he took and where they were shown
“I have 80,000 slides. I don’t have them all anymore. Furthermore many of these slides don’t play in this kind of thing. They were done for very different reasons. I’ve got lots of pictures of motorcycle races and of butterflies and God knows what else. I’ve made 28,000 negatives. I counted them, I figured it out, per page of 36 exposures.
“I had many many slide shows, probably 80 or 100. But I did not have that many print shows.
“These [images] would have disappeared if we had not done this show. I’ve even said to my wife, ‘If you have to dump those, don’t dump them all on the same day.’ Nobody wanted them. It’s colour. I offered them to the National Gallery, and they said ‘Sorry we only do black and white.’ I enquired, that was the early 80s.”
His reaction to the National Gallery turning him down
“A person like me doesn’t get pissed off. I get tense, and I get nervous, and I am not Fearless Fred, as some people say. I can be daunted, but I don’t get angry that quickly. There’s a Spanish proverb, ‘He who gets angry will destroy himself.’ That’s a good one. I know it in Spanish, but not this morning, I need more coffee.”
On a 1960 photo featuring two kids play fighting over bubblegum
“Isn’t that a fun picture? I have two pictures of that. This one I took it at full aperture, on ISO 10 film. Do you know what that means? Films now have ISO 800 or even more, 1600. This was so slow, I had to shoot the picture at full aperture, F2, and a tenth of a second. And that’s how it turns out, and it’s good.
“I said to them, ‘I’m not sure if I got this picture of you guys, could you do it for me again?’ And of course, it’s so stiff and acted, it has no value at all. You couldn’t even show it to your own mother.
That picture has the authenticity of observed life. To me that is the key to success in photography.
“There are people that don’t think that way. Jeff Wall is a friend, and he thinks that what he enacts is better than what other people find. I don’t want to rock the boat, but it’s not for me. His is a new stage in art. It’s a little bit like film is compared to history. It’s valid, I’m not challenging it. When I make a remark like ‘what you find is more interesting than what you can make,’ I mean it, but I don’t mean it in such a way that it [precludes] other people from producing art on different levels.
On his love of old neighbourhoods like Chinatown and Strathcona
“Oh, Strathcona. Strathcona is the archetype of an intact neighbourhood. There have been changes, but Strathcona has remained at least 60 percent of what it used to be. The lanes are interesting, the houses are interesting, the inhabitants are interesting. I know two or three.”
Arthur Murray, 1960
On his photo of commercial signs at Carrall and Hastings in 1968
“Signs in this context expressed the vitality of a city. You notice that now the city has no signs, the vitality is no longer visible. It may be in the dining room or the kitchen or the bedroom, but not in the city.”
On going through his files for the Vancouver Art Gallery show
“I look back into my files and see if there is anything I want to pull out. Many of the pictures that are now in the show were originally in a discard file, because some of them were not perfectly sharp. Some just weren’t important then, because it looked like ordinary [life], this is how the city looked. So now pictures I had practically forgotten, have been fished out and used.
“I have not had a holiday in the last four years, because I have worked 10 hours a day on this show. It’s a lot of work, an unbelievable amount of work to make those scans, to approve the proofs, to print them, to reprint them if they’re not right. And to learn how to do it.
“All that has taken four years of my old life. But it has also in a way revived me. You could die of boredom, let’s face it. And this prevented that outright.”
On suddenly being the toast of the town, after 50 years of photography
“It’s wonderful. Let’s face it, we don’t want to live under a log. All of a sudden I have found recognition for something…it’s a funny thing. Artists have always liked these pictures, but they haven’t had the power to say he should be in the art gallery. Also they thought maybe painting may be better. People who have the highest rank in painting like my pictures but none of them came quite out and said ‘I’m going to talk to people at the Art Gallery, maybe you should have [a show] down there.’ It could have been done.
“But I was never bitter about it. In the U.S. people who did [similar photography] in the 1970s like Stephen Shore, Joel Sternfeld and Joel Meyerowitz, William Eggleston…they had done stuff like that and it got into the Museum of Modern Art and other similar museums. They had the funds and the grants and the money, and also the spirit that this can be used as art. In Canada, in this respect, we were hanging a little bit behind. We just did not have major art gallery shows of photography. Maybe in the east, but sometimes there were things we couldn’t do here in the west.”
On how his photo of a male mannequin’s upper torso in a suit, a measuring tape casually draped around its shoulders, reflects “the quiet charm which many other cities do not have”
“If I go to Berlin and look for that I will not find it, because these people are so uniformly educated and sophisticated and super clean, they don’t want stuff like that. They would probably parade in front of the shop and say ‘Hey guy, get mod! Get mod, clean up your act! Put something modern [in the window], we don’t want to look like a bunch of lumpy hicks from Russia!’
“This was on Commercial Drive. This is a wonderful thing. Here is a craftsman who has not studied art in London. Here is a craftsman who knew how to make a suit. He knew nothing else, but he thought that this would suck them people in. And I agree with him, it probably did. And I respect him, I’m not trying to laugh at his effort. I really want to say, ‘Hey guy, I respect you for the love that you bring to your craft. I don’t expect you to compete with Andy Warhol, I want you to make something that’s even better. But don’t get an education to do it.”
On his photo of a car racing across the Canadian Pacific Railway tracks on the waterfront, just ahead of an oncoming train
“Isn’t that lovely, the train coming, the car crossing just in time. I knew two people who died [in train/car crashes], two good acquaintances of mine, one a friend. I was in the fire department [in Germany] and our fire chief got killed just like that. Not in Vancouver, in my hometown in Germany.
“It was such a tragedy. He was also a sportsman, he was a German master in some kind of sport. But he created such a tragedy…they prevented his wife from jumping into the grave. He did just that, crossing the tracks in front of a fast-moving train, on his motorcycle yet. How he could do that? But you know what it is? Young people are so driven by testosterone, they’re full up to here with testosterone, and they will take unbelievable chances because they think they are specially protected.
“There have been times in my life when I may have been somewhat like this, but never so over the top that I would introduce myself as I’m Fred, I’m a type-A personality. Not that.”
On his photo of a dapper black man walking in Chinatown in 1962 with his daughter and dog
“I presume he was an employee of the CNR. He had his day off and went walking here with his daughter, dressed up beautifully. When I dressed up like that I looked like a bricklayer on Sunday, but he can pull it off with style.
On his photo of the art deco Marine Building and a decrepit rooming house
“That’s a treasure now, to see a picture like that. Not to have the damn thing around and catch mice at night, but to have a picture of that, because that is how the city looked in those days. [The Marine Building] was a state of the art building in the 1930s, and you have the Elysium Cleaners around the corner. This is a real timepiece. That’s a nice catch.”
On his Vancouver Flaneur photo of a dapper, slightly ominous man in a fedora and suit watching Granville street from a doorway”
“It’s simple and has a power. That’s my favourite shot for the cover [of the exhibition catalogue] because it’s simple, it has a power and it’s simple. [He looks like] a rent collector. He makes like he was part of a powerful group of people. If you had talked to him he would have spoken with a deep voice and sort of nodded his head to say ‘you’re half-right, but get lost.’”
On his 1960 photo The Joke, of two friends sharing a laugh at Carrall and Hastings
“I like this picture. It’s called the Joke, and it isn’t [technically] sharp. But look at the fun these guys are having: he’s patting him on the belly, saying ‘What about that now, guy?’ And he breaks up laughing. Isn’t that wonderful? That shows a warmth, the way people used to be out in the city. It said ‘This is our city,’ that’s the kind of venue where we could be ourselves and have enjoyment and meet friends.
“It’s not like that now. There’s an atmosphere of fear here, of dereliction, of drugs. It’s just awful. And we’ve made it that way, nobody can say that just happened. We made it that.”
On taking on-the-fly photos of people on the street, without asking their permission
“People say ‘Did you have a release?’ Well, you cannot take pictures of living people looking like living people with a release. You could ask for that afterwards, and I’ve done that.”
On his photo of a young girl at the PNE in 1960
“I even like her. If she had lived across the hall, something would have happened. There is an archetypal North American personality here which grips me. I have such love and sympathy for her, because she went out at night. Look how she’s prettied up. She came here and said ‘I’m going to hit the town, in my own modest way.’ She has both a presence and a slight sense of abandonment. The way she has her cigarette, she’s got style. She is not one of the types you would say is a film star, but I’d like to use her in a movie.
On his Jackpot photo of gamblers at the PNE in 1961
“The jackpot is for 25 cents. Look at the size of the coin. You’d think she had won 250 grand. But there’s five cents, and there’s five cents and there’s 10 cents. It’s not big money.”
ASX CHANNEL: FRED HERZOG
(All rights reserved. Text and Images @ Fred Herzog Estate)
The post INTERVIEW: Fred Herzog – “In His Own Words” (excerpts) appeared first on ASX | AMERICAN SUBURB X | Photography & Culture.
By Paul Loomis exclusively for ASX, Interview conducted on Monday, February 11th, 2013
Antoinette De Jong and Robert Knoth are the authors of a book called “Poppy: The Trails of Afghan Heroin” that has transformed the way we think about photojournalism. It doesn’t fall victim to the reporter’s myopia of five hundred word stories three times a week, nor does it follow the western media’s coverage of religious extremism. Instead it does something that is magical, and that we at ASX have not seen a book of photojournalism do before. It opens a world that you rarely consider and shows you its pulsing red insides.
Knoth and De Jong are married, and have worked together for many years. They are from the Netherlands, and have learned to share the task of explaining their project harmoniously. When they speak, they seem to leave some for the other to finish.
A search for their names on the Internet is little good, you merely find them on Dutch television shows, and maybe encounter a blurb about one or the other. For us, after reading Poppy, this internet silence was Pynchonesque mystery, and so when they responded to our request for an interview, we were elated. We were not disappointed.
ASX: You were both photojournalists before you left the world of commercial journalism and started working on Poppy and other projects. What led you set out on your own?
De Jong: I worked in newsrooms for a long time before finally quitting my job and going to India. From there I went to Afghanistan because at the time, in the 1990s, everyone was telling me how beautiful it was, and saying how much I would love it. The best times of my life have been in Afghanistan. Riding through the mountains there on horseback, you just can’t beat it. I became fascinated.
Knoth: I think it was when I was in Pakistan after 9/11 and then suddenly 3000 journalists showed up all looking for a story.
De Jong: Yes, I had the same experience. I had been working in Afghanistan, and I was mostly the only person there. When there are no other journalists you are free to pursue the stories that you feel are important, but when everyone shows up you cannot sell your story, because then there is only one narrative and everyone wants to tell the same tale.
Knoth: It becomes very focused on just a few things, like religious extremism, terrorist groups, attacks, the Taliban, and Afghans beating their wives. These kinds of stories are what everyone is after. That was one of the reasons that I began leaning towards these long-term projects instead of the daily news. When you write three stories a week they are bite sized, and no one knows what is going on in the larger picture. With Poppy, we were able to cover so much more.
ASX: As a child I lived in the Netherlands, and it was a very peaceful, idyllic time of my childhood. What do you think drove you to get on the plane to Somalia or Afghanistan for the first time and go so far away from that European safety?
Knoth: We both grew up in the Netherlands and had very happy childhoods. My grandfather was a military man actually, as were other people in my family. My grandfather had a travel agency in the 1920s. He organized trips all over the world and was one of the first people to take tourists to Africa, the Middle East, and the United States. He was also a great photographer, a lot better than me. So I think it’s in your blood sometimes, a little bit of gene programming.
I went to Somalia in 1993 simply because the opportunity arose, and while we were coming over the city I saw a UN convoy moving very fast through Mogadishu. Then when I stepped off onto the runway I was almost run over by a UN tank, and there were all of these smiling Somalis asking “Whose he? Why is he here?” I just thought it was a big mistake, almost turned around and got back on the plane, but I ended up staying. Some people can do this kind of work and some people can’t.
ASX: Which conflicts have you covered for the international press, before starting on the Poppy project?
Somalia in the 1990s, starting in 1994, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Tamil conflict in the 1990s, Kosovo, Sudan and others.
ASX: Somalia gets a lot of press as one of the wildest places in the world. I think a lot of westerners couldn’t even imagine going there. Describe a typical day of reporting there, what should a visitor never do there?
De Jong: (laughing) Walk around alone on the street! That’s something you shouldn’t do.
But a typical day there, well, I would always be sick! Usually I never got sick, and Robert was the one who was sick everywhere we went, but in Somalia it was me. So I would wake up, boil the water, filter the water, chlorinate the water and then boil it again, and then still get sick! Then we would go out with our translator and try to take some photographs and talk to some people. I remember that almost every day there Robert would reach for his camera in the street, and almost in exactly choreographed motion, these little boys would reach down to pick up rocks to throw at him (laughing), it was just hilarious.
Knoth: Its true! Also in Somalia it never is a smart thing to offend anybody. That might get you killed on the spot, conflicts over work and payment included. In this case it’s a bit of a story: Weeks before our arrival in the region of Geddo in Western Somalia everyone was already aware that we were coming. We were warned that quite a few people were already competing with each other to provide us with a car and fixer to earn some cash. If you pick one, you piss off the others, who then might pressurize you in working with them.
Before our arrival we already had arranged a safe fixer and car, while landing at the airstrip of Bardera we already saw other cars waiting for us. One of them was Abdi, a nephew of the king of the Marehan clan, which we found out later. Off course Abdi wanted to work with us, guaranteeing our safety, and he was not inclined to let us go. We managed telling him that we already had another team, which took a while.
The next day, just when we thought we would not see him again, Abdi returned triumphantly. With him was an old man who was introduced to us as ‘the king of the Marehan.’ Abdi handed us a letter starting with: “Read this letter carefully, it is good for you.” The king of the Marehan recommended we work with Abdi. If not, the letter read, our safety could not be guaranteed. After a quick discussion amongst ourselves we promised to work with Abdi tomorrow, after which they left. Within half an hour we were on our way to Garbahaarrey, knowing that it would be rather suicidal to return to Bardera any time soon. It’s like being in the Godfather. Offers you can’t refuse.
But I love Somalia. The people there, they are incredible. They have this wonderful sense of humor, a playfulness about them, and they really know how to enjoy life. For them, the fact that you are a westerner isn’t important, it often plays a complicating role when working in Africa. It’s a fabulous country.
ASX: So in all of these countries you must have spent a lot of time finding the right people to talk to. Did you have a method? Or more broadly, how did you do it? For example in Afghanistan when you were photographing people working in the illegal poppy fields they seem very relaxed and unconcerned. This is the case for many people and situations you’ve photographed. Is there a strategy that works consistently?
De Jong: Just walking in the street and getting to know people is a great way to do it. You get invited into homes, invited to eat, and people tell you stories. We prefer to stay in one place for a longer period of time rather than go to five places in the same period. And always we are looking for people who, by sharing the details of their lives with us, tell the region’s story.
Knoth: An excellent translator is the most important thing. They not only translate but they also introduce you to people in the community. But no, there is no method that works consistently everywhere. Working in Afghanistan is completely different than working in Somalia. The only consistent thing is that you must have someone to break the ice between you and the community.
De Jong: We also try to always have fun wherever we go. With the people working in the poppy fields we have a good time, we laugh, and take their pictures. This is the same everywhere we go.
ASX: What kind of camera(s) do you use?
Knoth: I have always used film cameras for a few reasons. A Hasselblad, a few others. When you go to Afghanistan with digital cameras you run out of batteries in a few days, and then you’re in trouble with no electricity available. Film cameras also tend to be lighter, and we try to travel as light as possible. Then you don’t seem as official or as much like a journalist. Your not holding the newest digital camera. People tend to forget about you and allow you to work, they don’t give you the same respect and they are more natural.
De Jong: I shot video the last time we were in Afghanistan with a 200 Euro flip camera. It was small, lightweight and cheap, but the footage was good and that is what’s important. One of our translators in Somalia used to make fun of Robert all of time for using these old cameras. He couldn’t understand why a westerner would use old equipment.
ASX: Poppy is a powerful book, and much of this power comes from how succinct it is. Although very large, it distills a vast amount of information into a single volume. Did you have a method for synthesizing so many years of reporting into a single book, once all of the work was done?
Knoth: This was one of the most horrible parts of the entire project. We agonized over what to include and what to leave out for almost three years. This project spanned twenty years of our lives, and when you look at it you might think that we set out to do it, that we began with a plan. But no, there was no plan, we merely realized at some point, several years ago, that we had worked in the region long enough to see something really large and unique. We saw that it was many of the countries or issued we had been reporting on were in various ways connected and decided to make a book.
De Jong: Of course there were many arguments over what to include and what to throw out. We both had things that were very important to us.
Knoth: Yes we fought a bit didn’t we? But after going through 1000 or so rolls of film, maybe more, we had come out with a series of photographs, around 1500, that we felt showed our experience. Then the book designer got involved, and we gave him what we had. After he’d looked at it we asked him if it made sense and he said no, he had no idea what had happened or what we’d seen. It made no sense at all. So he broke it up into these epochs, sort of trails that we’d travelled, and suddenly it all began to come together. That was around a year before the book was published.
The photos were incredibly difficult to choose from because we had all kinds of formats. I have shot in these regions with large format black and white, with my Hasselblad, with 35mm color, and then Antoinette with an old Olympus 1,her flip camera and a digital Canon, so the mediums really were incredibly diverse. At one time this might have been unacceptable, but now with the internet, you could even shoot pictures with a cell phone camera, the aesthetic standard has been seriously altered. We threw out all of the aesthetic photos and focused only on the story. That was a very important part of the process. We discarded everything that was merely beautiful and had nothing to say.
De Jong: Combining all those different formats also worked well to provide an element of fiction to the book, and at times an almost surreal feeling. As far as keeping it succinct, rather than going in depth on some issues, we felt it was more important to paint a mosaic. Often you only need to hint at something or suggest something in a few words and images. That can already show the fluidity of events and explain the chains and networks and how it’s all connected. We wanted to provide a high density of all sorts of information that seemingly had nothing to do with each other and then peel off the layers and allow the reader to see the story emerging.
We split it up in three layers: first a historical timeline, second our own observations/reportage elements and diary fragments, and the third was captions/extra information related to the pictures shown. And then the main text. Each element was needed to understand the others. For each country we started to collect information, roughly from the beginning of the Afghan civil War in 1972 till 2011. So it was quite methodical.
ASX: That confirms my initial suspicion that all of the images are highly curated and none are lightly placed. One of the photographs I remember best best from the entire book is the one of Mamik, the blind girl you photographed first in 2001, and again in 2009. Her transformation was so tragic, and it is one that reveals the desolation and poverty that drives so many people in Afghanistan to cultivate poppy. Have you seen her again? Can you talk a bit about your relationship with her?
De Jong: Yes, Mamik’s image was one I was absolutely convinced had to be in the book. When we first met her we were riding on horseback, not even in trucks, through the mountain communities who were experiencing a terrible drought. There were many fresh children’s graves. All of the men had gone off to Pakistan, to Iran, or to Kabul to find work because nothing could be grown any more in the villages. There were only women and children and old people, and many of the old had stopped eating in order to save food for the children and their mothers. It was devastating.
When I met Mamik the vulnerability of her position was immediately clear. There was no medical care for her, and only her friend to take care of her in these very difficult conditions. She said it herself; she said that she didn’t know what she would do without her friend.
And when we came back almost ten years later, her friend had been married off to another village, and Mamik had to live with her brother and there she was pretty much confined to the house, without anyone helping her. She had no hope left. I thought her position was like that of much of population and in that sense it helps to explain the context of life in Afghanistan.
ASX: When I saw the first picture I thought that you understood her situation much better than she did, and that the horror of that second picture is part of life’s fundamental horror. In that second photograph she has been finally introduced to her own reality. I thought too that she in many ways represents many of the people in the book, people who participate in the global drug trade because from their situation it is a very viable, reasonable option. I kept having this reaction to Poppy as I was reading and viewing the photographs, realizing that people react in a logical way to their surroundings, and that if I were them I would almost certainly do exactly the same thing. I would become involved in the drug trade if it was my only option.
De Jong: I’m glad you said that, because throughout the book we tried very hard not to be judgmental, to show people in the places they live with their options around them. This was very difficult, and I worry sometimes that to some people the book might seem a judgment on those it depicts.
Knoth: The heroin trade in Afghanistan set off in the 1980s, as way of funding the Mujahedeen which received large sums of money and weapons from the West and the Saudis, and being quite aware of the fact that they were dealing in opium and heroin on a large scale. Much to the chagrin of the DEA they were not allowed to go after these cartel. From Afghanistan the drug trade started to tap into this emerging global network and it has continue to grow ever since. Millions of people now depend on it.
Drugs have become an integral part of our economic system and drugs have been a byproduct of modern warfare since the dirty wars in South East Asia in the 50ties and 60ties.
ASX: This sort of brings us to my next question. I live in Mexico City, and Mexico has an enormous drug trafficking problem. I had a friend who was a journalist here in the city, and who sadly died in mysterious circumstances shortly after I met him. Before he did, he told me that the only option when it came to drugs was to put them in the hands of Governments and Corporations, who he claimed were only potentially evil when they were not regulated, in order to keep them from falling into the hands of criminals, who in his opinion represented a legitimate evil. After tracing the effects of an extremely powerful (politically and physically) drug, what policies would you urge Western governments, who have drug consumption problems, and other governments, who have drug production and trafficking problems, to pursue? Do those policies include legalization and taxation?
De Jong: We tend to support legalization, but reluctantly. It’s not going to be the silver bullet, there will always be a parallel market, but it will reduce a lot of the negative side effects, crime, healthcare issues and addiction. We think it is difficult to implement smart policies. For example the semi-legal marijuana laws in the Netherlands have had some serious drawbacks, and are now playing out in organized crime and violence. So yes to legalization, but with great care.
ASX: So that is one option, if governments decide to legalize, but for many Western governments that does not seem like a political reality within the next several decades. Do you envision any kind of decline in the global drug trade in the next 50 years? One precipitated, perhaps, by more advanced surveillance and enforcement methods by governments? Or will the drug problem grow as new markets open up in the developing world?
Knoth: It is quite impossible to contain the flow of drugs or any other goods for that matter. Much if it having to do with scale. New technologies and developments have allowed us to increase the scale in/of which we do things and also at a cheaper price. Container ships can now carry up to 11.000 containers: in less than 10 years’ time the amount goods transported more than doubled from 332 million tons to 828 million tons. It’s impossible to check everything. At the same time drug cartels clog the judicial system with drug runners, often tipping off the police themselves while the big shipment bribe their way through. Another example are IED’s, they are cheap to produce, so in Afghanistan the Taliban have figured out that while planting one IED has little effect, planting a hundred of them is a very effective way of taking on an opponent who in terms of resources is vastly superior. The same goes for human traffickers, counterfeiting goods, etc. Scale has been an effective strategy for the ‘little men to take on the strong men’ so to speak, and to obstruct the entire system of control. The fact that crime has gone transnational makes it even worse since governments are restricted to operate within their own countries. The US and NATO logical response is drones and special forces operating in more than a hundred countries in a desperate attempt to stem the growing anarchy.
Whether that is the smartest response is a different matter altogether.
ASX: In Mexico the Narcos have more planes and better guns than the police.
Knoth: Right, they are being outspent. It’s a matter of money.
ASX: On the back of “Poppy” the first line is “In the 21st century, globalization has opened up the world for better or for worse.” This question is simple, and at some point everyone decides it for themselves. For you, globalization is ultimately what kind of force? Do you fear its impacts or believe in its liberating power?
Knoth: Well I don’t know, it’s very difficult to say, I think it’s both. For me it’s both. It’s much better than the cold war. (laughs)… It has improved the lives of millions, if not billions of people though, without a doubt. On the other hand some of the consequences we have seen are very dire.
De Jong: Absolutely, it’s very complicated and very difficult to understand as a phenomena. Poppy is a result of it though, in many ways. Its coverage, its expanse, which you have mentioned, was only possible with the Internet. But 21st century globalisation is a process of transformation, as it was in late 19th century when we moved from an agricultural society towards an industrial society.
Knoth: Back then it also led to massive instability eventually leading to WW1 and WWII. At the moment the chaos around us is growing as well. So maybe it’s time to start looking at what is going from a different perspective, the economic rationale behind it instead of religious extremism vs democracy. Our book is an attempt to do that. If anything Poppy is about transformation.
De Jong: Without the Internet… you’ve mentioned your debt to the Internet in terms of what you are aware of and what information is available to you, we are the same. The amount of information that we were able to integrate into Poppy would not have been possible without the net. Our research phase was enormous, and honestly I don’t think the series of realizations that made such a huge portrait possible would have ever been set into motion without the enormous amount of data at our fingertips.
Knoth: There something called data journalism now, where you don’t listen to anyone, you don’t read the papers, you just look at massive amounts of data. And frequently what you see in that data is completely different from what everyone is saying. Poppy is somewhat like that.
ASX: It actually makes more sense to me now, the book does. Now that you’ve mentioned your debt to the Internet and its ability to put so much information at your fingertips, I recognize Poppy as a very unique object of our age. I said repeatedly that I really know of no other book like it. I think it is singular in its scope and perspective and in the vast amounts of information it synthesizes. An impressive achievement. What’s next?
Knoth: That’s still uncertain. We have some ideas for new work. We have carefully considered a film adaptation of Poppy, but that is still not much more than a plan. We are continuing with Fukushima, and some other smaller projects. Right now we don’t have anything planned on the scale of Poppy. I guess Poppy is just once in a lifetime given the scope and depth of the project. It’s actually quite difficult to decide what is next in that sense.
(All rights reserved. Text @ ASX and Paul Loomis. Images @ Antoinette De Jong and Robert Knoth)
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© Leonard Misonne
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Name- Meral Güler
Age- A girl never tells…
Where are you from?- London, England. I currently live in Los Angeles, USA
Your equipment- My Leica M6 was recently stolen from me In London. For now, I use a borrowed 35 but I have always wanted to shoot a series with a Mamiya 6. Can anyone lend me one?
Influences and photographers you like:- I am influenced by literature and films from the fifties and sixties. I am captivated by the works of Mark Cohen, William Eggleston, Lee Friedlander, Anna Fox, Chris Killip, Saul Leiter, Fernando Maquiera and Pascal Felloneau.
A little about you- I see myself as a visual storyteller, capturing the narrative and irony of everyday life around me. I made Documentaries Features in England and have been photographer since 2009.
William Gedney worked within the confines of two frames, his viewfinder and a window. Yet his series on a vanishing Brooklyn elevated train was full of fleeting revelations.