Packing My Library

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The other day, Collector Daily published their 2023 Photobook Review Statistics. Something like that had never occurred to me, even as it makes a lot of sense: looking back to see how you have done. What had occurred to me, though, and what I have been actively trying to do for a while now is to make sure that the books covered on this site come from a diverse background — as diverse as I can make it (what exactly this means I’ll get to below).

I immediately went through my Archive to do the counting and found that I had achieved what I had set out to do — making sure that photobooks by men do not outnumber everything else (in fact, they were in the slight minority last year).

I grew up in a society that was centered on fairness (that place doesn’t exist any longer — Germany has become brutally cold). It took me a long time to realize that the fairness in question was not actually applied equally. This took me a while because I tended not to run into unfairness. For me, a heterosexual man, things were always fair.

With time, I learned that many people did not and do not have the same experience. Even as I’m the kind of person who shouldn’t complain, I still feel cheated by the society I grew up in. After all, fairness is only fair if it applies equally, no ifs and buts. Otherwise, I don’t know what it is; for sure it’s not fairness.

I still believe in fairness.

When I started compiling/writing what would become this site two decades ago, it didn’t occur to me until quite a bit later that I needed to do something about fairness as well. If I merely continued what I was doing, I’d continue building a site dominated by men from a very small section of the world. That’s not only not fair to all of those who aren’t in that group; it’s also profoundly boring. So I set out to fix things. I cringe looking through my very early archive of material, given how unfair it is. I decided not to delete it simply because I need to have it as a reminder for myself to do better.

A few years ago, I was invited to contribute to How We See: Photobooks by Women. There should have never been the need to compile that book. Women should have always been treated equally. The same is obviously true for all those who do not neatly fit into the simple spectrum of Western life that what we call tradition has provided us with.

And yet, here we are.

I don’t know when exactly it was, but by that time I had also decided to try to plan what I cover here by at least trying to make sure the aforementioned disparity from this site’s very early incarnation would stop. As a consequence, thinking about which books to review has become a lot more complex.

I will always review books that I really like, books that I want to have in my house with that greedy possessiveness of someone who is in love. But that’s just a small fraction of the books I actually review. There are a lot of other books I have respect for, and those might get reviewed. Occasionally, I will even review a book that I don’t like, simply because in photoland, we are not even remotely critical enough (plus, writing a negative review often results in much more insight).

On top of all of that sits my idea of fairness. Who made a book I am being offered? What are their life circumstances? Where is that person located? What is that book talking about? There are some themes or areas that I gravitate to. These include Germany and its extremely troubling past or Japan.

Beyond those, there are some broader ideas. For example, I am trying to cover photography coming from the parts of Europe that before 1989 were basically under Soviet occupation. The Iron Curtain might be gone in a physical sense, but I maintain that for many West Europeans (and Americans) it still exists mentally. For many Germans, say, a country like Latvia is still completely strange whereas Luxembourg isn’t. Consequently, a photographer from Latvia would still have a harder time getting seen than someone from Luxembourg. That isn’t fair.

If you’re wondering where all this introspection is coming from, it’s not the New Year. I personally couldn’t care less for some random date change. Instead, it’s the fact that right now, I am sitting in a room filled with boxes. Inside these boxes are stacks of my books. In a few days, I’m going to be moving.

Coincidentally, just after finding the Collector Daily article I mentioned above, I also looked through the stack of books that I still might review. With one exception, all of them are by men. This brings me to another aspect of this, namely the factors that I cannot control. I’m not independently wealthy, meaning I can’t just buy any book I want to cover. Every once in a while, I will do that, finances and interest allowing.

Instead, many publishers (and occasionally photographers) offer me their books for review. From what is being offered I pick material that I might cover. And then I schedule it in such a fashion that over the time span of maybe four to eight weeks, things are pretty even in terms of diversity.

But there is another aspect. Even if I had all the money in the world, I’d still be at the mercy of what publishers decide to produce. After all, I can only review what is being published. Over the past few years, some publishers have gone out of their way to make their offerings more diverse. Others have not. My gut feeling tells me that by and large, there still are many more books published by men than women. And the disparity extends from there to any other aspect you can think of.

If you’re reading these words and you are a photobook publisher, maybe look at your catalogue. I’m not talking about the quality of the work you publish. I’m sure that’s all great work (even as you and I might disagree about that).

But what about diversity?

Do you publish roughly as many men as women?

If not — why not?

I don’t have to strain myself at all to think of publishers that overwhelmingly publish men. How can that be? How’s that fair?

Do you publish books by photographers with a large variety of skin tones?

If not — why not?

Do you publish books by photographers who struggle making ends meet?

If not — why not?

Do you look at regions or topics that aren’t discussed all the time?

If not — why not?

Do you pay attention to those who have a harder time getting seen?

If not — why not?

I could ask a lot more questions, but I think you got my point.

At some stage in his life, Walter Benjamin wrote an article about unpacking his library. I don’t know whether this communicated, but I think for me, the intellectually more fertile period of time is the one now, the one where I’m packing my library. This not only entails giving away books I haven’t looked at in a long time, it also has me think about my choices — and about fairness.

As much as I detest the term for its all-too-frequent use in high-falutin bullshit art speak, sitting in the middle of boxes packed with books, while the rest is still waiting to be boxed up, is the ultimate form of engaging with liminality, of being neither fully here nor there. Even as it’s nerve-wracking, it’s a good space to be in — for my thoughts.

It had and still has me thinking about fairness because the presence of every book is the presence of a person’s voice given physical form.

And all of these voices add up to the brutality of the fact that this choir has too many voices in the lower registers.

That’s not fair.