Selected by Unseen Platform
Max Pickers discusses his project Red Ink, which challenges our reliance on photography by providing an alternative insight into the everyday life of North Koreans.
Unseen Platform: Are there certain trends or strategies in documentary photography that you pay particular attention to, or is it more nuanced depending on the context?
Max Pinckers: What I’ve always been interested in is looking at conventions or tropes in photography – especially photojournalism and documentary photography, which are distinct practices. Photojournalism is the kind of photography that we see most often in the media, creating people’s opinions and stimulating their beliefs. But documentary overlaps more with the art world; you don’t see a lot of documentary work in mainstream media. This doesn’t mean that documentarians aren’t influenced by photojournalists, and vice versa, but if you start looking at popular photojournalism, you see a lot of similar, recognisable imagery that is being published and awarded, which is ideologically charged. Much of this can be traced back to Christian iconography, for example.
My own question is: What does that mean for the relationship to what is being photographed? Because if you photograph these things in the same way over and over again, it means that the subject is actually kind of irrelevant, because it’s only about going after that one specific image that everybody already knows is going to have an impact. By questioning this relationship, I developed my own approach to it, and I like to reference it explicitly. I’m interested in creating projects where you always reflect back on your position, language and the medium you use, trying to grasp reality while also embedding the impossibility of doing so within the work. It’s about these contrasts and conflicts, but it’s also about making documentaries that say something about the world and our relationship to it.
And since your own work is conscious of fiction and how political biases can play into documentary work, how did you approach making a project like Red Ink, when everything in North Korea is already this sort of fabricated, manufactured idea of truth?
Well that’s the main reason I was attracted to it. For Red Ink, I put on the hat of a photojournalist. Usually, I stage things – I use complicated lighting setups, work with assistants, collaborate with people, create a context for my work with text and archival material, and so on. But in North Korea, I realized I could work as a normal photojournalist would, like a fly on the wall, supposedly not manipulating anything, because the manipulation was already embedded in the dominating preconceptions projected onto the so called ‘Hermit Kingdom’.
Did you try to piece together a narrative as you went, or were you just photographing anything and everything?
The possibility of photographing the most banal things and still having them mean something (that we were clearly being censored) was the most interesting part. For example, my food on the table, or people’s feet, or silly museum exhibits—things that don’t really ‘reveal’ anything. The pictures that meant the least ended up being the most important, because they make clear that there is nothing that can be ‘revealed’ by a photojournalist visiting North Korea.
So if there’s something you want viewers to take away from Red Ink, what is it?
I would like that when people look at photojournalistic or documentary photographs, they question the constructions behind them, and think about the larger ideologically driven production processes that drive them. Think about everything that goes into the picture-making, asking questions like: Is this true? Is it representative, or is it not? If it’s not, what does it mean? At the same time, I want to demonstrate how the people in North Korea are just like us, pushing against this stereotypical idea that they are all completely brainwashed. This notion is interesting because it’s also a reflection of the medium and production of pictures, too. Why are we so quick to believe them? Does that not make us brainwashed too?
Text by Cat Lachowskyj