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 photographer’s 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, rythm, progression, climax, plot, suspense, end, characters, etc… 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 many informations, 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 been coming 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 informations 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