John Vink Interview, Part II

Part II of the interview with photojournalist John Vink, a W. Eugene Smith Award-Winner and member of Magnum Photos.

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” things) 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 analyse 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 ten 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…

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