Photobook Reviews (Week 28/2013)

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The Republic of Burundi is a small African country. What little I knew about it I remembered from reading a book about the war in Congo (Dancing in the Glory of Monsters: The Collapse of the Congo and the Great War of Africa). As is – or should be – widely know, photography has not treated the continent of Africa well at all. Corrections of this sad fact have been long overdue. And they have been trickling in. But for every step forward, there is another one back, with one stereotype simply being replaced by another ones. It’s hard to get underneath the surface when you fly in to take some quick pictures.

Thankfully, there now is Only in Burundi by Anaïs López, a photographer, and Eva Smallegange, a writer (you can see a preview of the book’s dummy here; unlike the dummy the book is not spiral-bound). The book works along the lines of the Sochi Project publications, combining photography with very engaging and informative text, presented in a very attractive (well designed) package. At the risk of repeating myself, the future of documentary photobooks is currently being shaped by the work of all the various Dutch photographers, writers, and designers who show how such storytelling can work.

Only in Burundi uses a man named Koky to provide a read thread. Koky is not only a well-connected man, but also a bit of a social wizard: One of those people who combine charm with just the right amount of persuasiveness to get things done, no matter where or what. Koky managed to give the photographer and writer access to people impossible to reach otherwise. But he’s not just some fixer; he is a conduit to a society that simply has different rules, rules that aren’t obvious or easy to navigate for people flying in from Europe. As a consequence, López and Smallegange change from being complete outsiders to being accepted guests, with a lot of access. A world has been opened up, and as viewers and readers we get to experiences glimpses of it.

Staying in Holland, at least in terms of photobook making, brings me to Martijn Berk‘s Falling from a Height. The book is, to use its maker’s words, an “honest story of my obsession for a 20-year-old boy.” One might wonder how or to what extent photography might ever be honest. This book might serve as a way to investigate this question. There are more than 4,000 photographs inside (I didn’t count them to confirm the number the artist gives), most of them presented as vast grids of images, in essence large contact sheets. These are all the photos shot during that obsession, so there literally is nothing hidden. It’s all right there.

Needless to say, looking at 4,000 photographs would induce a tedium in most people probably only matched by having to read a telephone book from front to back. But the book is smart enough not to just show digital contact sheets. Designer Syb divided the images into two groups. Using two different types of paper, there are large photographs on glossy paper, and there are text plus contact sheets (with varying numbers of images) on a matte, rather heavy paper, almost like a card stock. If you look through the book, this seems like an incredibly obvious way to present the work in a smart manner – and that’s great design: It’s simple and obvious, and only very few people can do it well.

So there is an obsession alright, a story (or non-story – it’s more like being in a certain state, isn’t it?) told with over 4,000 photographs. I have the feeling that those of my students who see the book will now refuse to aim for tighter, more coherent edits. But the lesson to be learned here is not that numbers matter. It’s that if you do it well, even more than 4,000 photographs can be a tight and coherent edit (just like 30 or 40 can already be too many pictures).

Adam Panczuk‘s Karczeby, with text by Kazimierz Kusznierow, combines his two series Karczeby and Actors. It’s probably safe to say that the people depicted in these photographs lead very different lives than the readers of this website. They’re farmers in the east of Poland, working the land, living with and from the land. According to the photographer’s website, the “word Karczeb was also used to describe what remains after a tree is cut down – a trunk with roots, which remains stuck in the ground. This also applied to people.” This kind of attachment to the land has disappeared from many (most?) places in the Western World, where people often move freely and easily for a job, to go to school, to join a loved one.

But there is more, since the part of the tree below ground level also goes back into the earth once the tree has been cut down – much like people, who, after all, are buried after death and who then become passive members of the cycle of life. We’ve come to disassociate ourselves from this basic fact quite a bit. The land, the soil – they’re alien to us. Food appears in supermarkets, coming from who-knows-where (which, often, might means very far away). And when we die we don’t die, we just “pass” or “pass on.” Needless to say, no euphemism will take anything away from the very basic fact that we all will die some day, and that’s it. The people depicted in Panczuk’s don’t appear to suffer from any of these hang-ups we have developed. You live, you work the land, and when you die, you go back to the land.

In between, you enjoy life, and that enjoyment can take the simplest forms. It’s hard to imagine someone sitting at an airport with their iPhone, say, might even consider putting up a backdrop in the form of some cloth that’s actually too small as theater. But in actuality, theater is made not by the presence of a stage, it’s made by the production (this becomes obvious once we look at what’s going on in our parliaments). It’s maybe too easy and tempting to attribute a happier life to Panczuk’s subjects. It’s a simpler life, for sure. And it might be more grounded in the very basic facts of human life. But happiness is always relative.

Karczeby might thus serve to remind us that a different life is possible, whatever we decide to make of this fact. And just like Panczuk’s photographs the text written by Kazimierz Kusznierow opens another window, to give us a different angle from which to look at things.

Ratings explained here.