Flipping the Bird

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Placing words next to pictures creates a curious problem for many photographers. They end up being worried that the words take away attention from their photographs — as if this were a competition. But it is not. Words and pictures operate very differently. Instead of seeing their interplay as a competition it’s much more fruitful to view it as a relationships: it works best if it’s an equal give and take between (in this case) unequal partners.

Words and pictures are very specific in very different ways. At the same time, words are completely interior entities for human beings, whereas pictures are external, showing the light that is reflected off the many surfaces that create the world around us. If you view things this way, you’ll realize that if you’re a photographer, words can do amazing things for you.

That all being said, in a text-image piece one of the partners — the images or the text — will usually be in the driver’s seat, shaping the work and its intended outcome. The most important aspect to consider is not whether viewers will ooh and aah over the photographs but whether the whole works the way it is supposed to.

There is a wide spectrum for how such a construct can function, from it being very focused on photographs, with text supporting them, to it being driven by the text, with photographs adding another element. The novels written by WG Sebald provide prime examples of the latter.

In Flipping the Bird, a book of photographs by Jaap Scheeren, it is the text by Rik van den Bos that propels the narration forward. It might as well, given that the text contains the inner monologue of a narrator exploring the landscape of the dunes near/at the sea in the Netherlands (at least that’s what the landscape looks like to me; during my visits there I remember seeing such a landscape near Bergen). The narrator is on an extended walk: “You know that feeling? That you’ve walked so far into nature / it begins to pull.”

Of course, in the Netherlands you can’t really walk very far into nature, given that it’s a very small country, with large amounts of artificial land — land claimed from the sea. But nature might re-claim the land, especially the one below sea level. That threat to human life is never far, and it’s deeply ingrained in the country’s psyche after a number of natural flooding disasters. This aspect plays a role in book: “the peacefulness / the serenity / seems to turn against you instead.”

Flipping the Bird looks into the push and pull between humans and the larger landscape they live in, which includes all the other creatures present. While humans project their ideas onto the land and its inhabitants, turning sea floor into land to build on and encroaching on the spaces inhabited by wild animals (all while pretending to be interested in them), they also are single-handedly responsible for the largest carnage of natural life in centuries through global warming.

The book deals with that conflict, as the narrator walks into the land, looking for connection with something s/he starts to feel increasingly connected to, only to find that that attraction is not reciprocated. Instead, there’s a flurry of invectives being thrown at her/him. Nature, if that’s what we want to call the natural word, is not interested in the narrator’s newly found fondness for it. There’s only one way out for her/him — I don’t want to give that part away.

Scheeren’s photographs of the dunes and their flora and fauna makes them look like the sort of paradise Hieronymus Bosch might have captured, had he had a camera available instead of paint and a canvas. Scheeren seeks out anthropomorphic forms — trees that look as if they were human beings (or parts of them); and the photographs of animals shows them acting as if they were human beings as well (it would seem that a number of taxidermied animals were used — in all my years of feeding and looking at squirrels, say, I’ve never been given the finger by one).

The combination of the mostly playful photographs and the narration in the text creates a strange beast of a book that is at once fun and disturbing at the same time. In some ways, it is not too dissimilar to what you can encounter through Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights, say.

If that art-historical reference is too much of a stretch for you, maybe think about some of Duane Michals’ work, for example the 1976 Real Dreams. Real Dreams is one of those underappreciated treasures from the history of the photobook. It’s an incredible collection of text-image pieces that each operate a little bit like a comic strip. While the format is rather simple, a lot of the pieces combine playfulness with a sense of profundity. I’m thinking that it is the latter that tends to get overlooked. A more recent example that falls into the same vein is Patrick Tsai’s Self-Portrait.

I don’t know what it is that has so many photolandians shy away from engaging with this kind of work. For sure, if there were more books like Michals’ Real Dreams, Tsai’s Self-Portrait, or Scheeren and Van den Bos’ Flipping the Bird the added mix of playfulness and profundity would lead to a richer experience in the world of the photobook. As much as I love photobooks, let’s face it: all-too-often the atmosphere around them is too dour (where not outright sour).

Flipping the Bird; photographs by Jaap Scheeren; text by Rik van den Bos (please note that an English and a Dutch language version are available); 216 pages; FW:Books; 2022

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