A series on Thai transsexuals becomes a meditation on documentary and staged photography, and the blurring between the two - says Max Pinckers in an article first published in BJP's July issue
An episode in Homer’s The Odyssey tells of how the ship carrying Odysseus is blown off course on its homeward journey, bringing the hero and his men to an island inhabited by the lotus eaters, “who live on a food that comes from a kind of flower”. Odysseus sends three crewmen to investigate this strange tribe but the trio are given the lotus to eat and become so enamoured of it that they lose all thought of returning home, and eventually have to be tied up aboard ship.
“Then I told the rest to go on board at once,” the text continues, “lest any of them should taste of the lotus and leave off wanting to get home, so they took their places and smote the grey sea with their oars.”
The Homeric idea of the lotus has endured and today it still represents something that is sweet and addictive, capable of inducing a dreamy forgetfulness and a gentle sense of complacency. Lotus, the new photography book by Max Pinckers in collaboration with Quinten De Bruyn, sets out to question just these tempting qualities.
It is bound in light-blue cloth emblazoned with a line drawing of a maze-like structure of walls and doors; maybe an exhibition space. On the back another illustration shows us the joists supporting this theatrical stage set. We’re backstage, looking through the curtain, as if part of a performance.
Before we’re greeted with a photograph, Pinckers is already challenging us. The exhibition-space maze of the cover, the tranquil blue, the practical workings of the theatre space, and the title itself all seem to suggest a calming but confusing experience – one in which things are not as they appear. Pinckers is asking the audience “to question the authenticity of an image”. For him, documentary photography is at its most exciting, charged and creative when the pretence of objectivity is discarded.
“Fiction often teaches us more about reality than reality itself,” he says. “Without objectivity there would be no tension between what we see and believe. If we forget about objectivity, we wouldn’t look at photography the same way. It’s necessary in order to make the viewer believe in what they are seeing, and question this very reality depicted in photographs.”
In an interview with Belgian art critic Hans Theys, Pinckers said: “We try to make documentary photographs, but at the same time we try to challenge this discipline. Generally, documentary photography is associated with snapshots. The photographer enters a place as an objective bystander, he or she pretends to be absent, makes a photograph and leaves.
“As opposed to this, we try to adopt a subjective viewpoint. We get to know the people, we try to imagine photographs and we create them in collaboration with the people. We are looking for theatrical effects but we also want to raise doubts about whether something is real or staged and constructed.”
Pinckers started the series in 2011 but only published Lotus late last year, via his own independent publishing company Lyre Press. He printed 3000 hardcover issues of the book, each with 75 colour photographs, taken with a Mamiya RB67, and more than 100 Polaroid or 35mm disposable images, organised in fold-out pages. Spend any time with him and it becomes apparent how seriously he takes the process of printing and publishing his photographs.
He uses medium format film, scanning the negatives to make digital pigment inkjet prints at an aspect ratio of 6×7cm. The images in Lotus are presented with large white frames to “refer to the way documentary photographs are presented,” he says. “We use them because we want to present our photographs within the context of documentary photography.”
Lotus‘ presentation is unique, but Pinckers believes it remains true to the classic formats for documentary photography. “The reference to classic documentary photography is important, and we were careful to put structures in place that follow this,” he says. “The use of a hardcover, linen, good paper stock and high production values combines with the approach to the subject matter.”
Pinckers says his photography is about “creating a first layer of uncertainty”, and so the mere binding of these photographs already poses a question – what are we looking at? Ostensibly this is a series about Thailand’s transsexual subculture, showing individuals at different stages of transition towards womanhood.
Then there’s the notorious, world-famous culture that surrounds transsexualism in Thailand, the transsexuals – known in common parlance as ‘ladyboys’ – as sex workers. Lotus was motivated, he says, by “an attempt to show as many aspects of transgenderism as possible, in all levels of society”, as well as the processes that lay behind it.
“Clinics, surgeons, nightlife, student life, everyday life, beauty pageants, activist groups, popular culture, traditions and even references to Buddhist mythology” were all photographed, in an attempt to “provide something more than stereotypical nightlife scenes of prostitutes or go-go dancers. The whole intention of the sequence was to start the book this way and then follow into a more general, socially accepted view of transgenderism in Thailand, which is so unique compared to other cultures.”
It’s the perfect subject for Pinckers; one rich with humanistic concern and in many respects a classic subject for a documentary photographer. “But if you meet a ladyboy, you never know whether he or she is a man or woman,” says Pinckers – the uncertainty, the ambiguity of what we’re looking at, is residual, built into the frame.
“A man that becomes a woman is more real than the male version of himself. This, I realised, was the perfect example of how objectivity can fluctuate, and how personal truths are in conflict with general ideas of ‘truth’. These nuances are very important to me.”
Lotus’s opening photograph shows a table in front of a pink curtain. On it sits a free map of the Pattaya resort, a bottle of booze, two glasses on a napkin, a pack of condoms and a Bible. The next photo depicts an older man sitting next to a young woman, his arm placed on the small of her back, while another man lies nearby wearing nothing but a swimsuit.
Overleaf we see, from a distance, the view into a hotel room revealing the spread legs of a naked man as he watches television in bed. We then see young girls – or are they? – waiting in a lobby space. In another photograph we see a few girls in a club entrance; one sits on a stool, looking back at us as she presses the shutter release.
“In this image there is also a hidden detail of one of us, the photographers, literally inside the image,” Pinckers says. “If you look closely you can see my right leg on the left side of the image; the position from where I was holding the flash. There are other images too where you may see a hand, an arm or a tripod and flash. These were amateurish mistakes but we chose to leave them in as a note to our own presence or constructions behind the images.”
Lotus then morphs into something more conventional: a series of portraits of transsexual people photographed inside their apartments and outside in the vibrant city. We see them as they dress up and ready themselves to perform, or just hang out in their downtime. Other images were made at the local hospital, where people undergo gender-changing procedures.
The book shows them at work, in the go-go bars and strip clubs and massage parlours, on stage, on the streets, gathered together in the lull before the show starts. It shows, sometimes queasily, the surgery involved in gender transitions, such as the bandages and drip-feeds emerging from a patient’s midriff. It also shows women still very much in possession of male genitalia.
Pinckers took straightforward, up-close-and-personal portraits of his transsexual subjects. They are often in states of undress, posing in intimate little rooms that are presumably their homes. For other images, he would lurk behind another photographer on the beach or in professional studios, capturing stage-managed beauty shots.
Pinckers and de Bruyn also distributed disposable cameras to the people they followed, incorporating the photos their subjects shot into the book, printed on bright-yellow fold-out pages. The participants were free to shoot anything and proffered images of friends, strangers, selfies, failed shots, and Pinckers and de Bruyn themselves in the process of setting up shots.
The last spread in the book shows the Polaroid portraits of people the artists encountered while working on the project, with their nicknames written on the white strip below. “A central aspect of the work is the question of aesthetics in documentary photography and why documentary or photojournalistic images always seem to apply painterly, beautifully aesthetic strategies irrelevant of their subject matter,” Pinckers says.
“That’s why we commissioned some of the subjects to photograph themselves: to show that aesthetics are not of great importance if you really want to reveal something about a subject in a straightforward manner. Their images are amateurish and don’t follow the formal codes of photography; there are fingers in front of the lens, crooked, blurry framing.
“Yet they show us a lot about these people’s lives and their personal spheres. They feel more honest and direct – something we, as photographers, could never achieve. The conflict between our over-stylised images and their own photographs is where we try to make this point.”
At the heart of the book lies the idea of the lotus and a question – are we being misled? Seduced into assuming something much more binary, that only reveals itself as misleading when a sustained engagement with a photograph takes place? Pinckers challenges us to ask how these images are made. What was the cost of their creation? What negotiations took place to bring them under our gaze?
“The documentary photographer that captures reality as ‘a fly on the wall’ can’t deny his or her directive and manipulative role any longer,” writes de Bruyn in his introduction. “The anonymity, the seeming absence, is merely a pose. The tableaux the photographer captures are not lies but enfold themselves within the studio that he or she creates from reality.”
Pinckers’ career in photography can be distilled into an enquiry into this very existential question and how it plays out in this part of the world. Lotus has not been created in a vacuum but is part of his long engagement across Asia. As a child he lived in the region for many years; as an adult he has returned again and again, in a bid to understand the visual multivalence of the place (nowadays the 28-year-old is based in Brussels, and a doctoral researcher at the School of Arts (KASK) in Ghent).
Pinckers comes from a canon of contemporary photography that could, a little reductively, be called ‘hyper-real’. Using intricate compositions and lighting that can veer from garishly bright to chiaroscuro, his photographs weave in stories, tableaux and scenarios that seem actively influenced by, and might serve to affirm, cultural stereotypes and clichés of the very un-Western countries he works in.
Take, for example, Pinckers’ series Two Kinds of Memory and Memory Itself, shot in 2015. The product of a Japanese residency via a commission from Tokyo-based cultural project European Eyes on Japan, the series explores the tension between the country he had imagined – Yakuza, manicured raw fish, a blubbery sumo, bonsai trees, samurai swords, wasted bankers, geisha, karaoke – and the one he discovered as he explored it. This conflict, between what he’d almost been conditioned to expect and what he found, is explored though his series of staged images set within the contemporary Japanese landscapes or streetscapes.
Then there is Pinckers’ previous book, The Fourth Wall (2013), a Mumbai-based exploration of the cultural influence of Bollywood that sold out of its first run of 1000 self-published copies, which won the City of Levallois Photography Award in 2013 and was nominated the same year by Martin Parr for the Photobook of the Year Award at the Kassel Fotobookfestival. The idea of getting behind the stage is evident in the title and the book looks at how cinematic representations overlap with reality.
Even more relevant to Lotus is Pinckers’ other Indian work, Will They Sing Like Raindrops or Leave Me Thirsty. Released in 2014, this series focuses on honour-based violence in India and, in particular, the attacks on men and women who fall in love and pursue relationships against their families’ will. An organisation called Love Commandos is fighting the violence, a voluntary group formed to protect couples who celebrate Valentine’s Day from attack.
Pinckers could have taken a straightforward editorial strategy, photographing the Love Commandos and the people they have helped. Instead he chose to use a visual language borrowed from Hindi cinema’s depiction of relationships and love, blending these into the very real portraits of lovers on the run.
‘What is documentary?’ he seems to be asking. ‘And what is staged by me? What is performed by the subjects in frame, consciously or not? How much does our behaviour in front of a camera lens stem from the visual culture that surrounds us?’
These questions help us to understand Lotus as part of an ongoing enquiry, one questioning the roles that the photograph, photographer and subject play when a defining – even decisive – moment is singled out from the many. They serve to remind us that the making of the image is integral to the understanding of the image – that even if we taste the lotus and lose the desire to find our way home, we can still smote the grey sea with our oars.