Methods in Photography

Bert Danckaert

Unpacking one’s methodology is one of the key aims of a research. Contrary to the “ordinary” artist, the “researcher”—like a scientist—should demonstrate his acquired knowledge based on the methods he uses. It’s of course the case that those generating imagery don’t necessarily acquire knowledge. The aim of generating an image, for me at least, is not about acquiring knowledge. Rather, I experience it as an accumulation of rhetorical questions or as a slightly absurd existential visual reflex. As such, a particular vocabulary is employed, which can be subject to analysis: what, for example, are the conceptual effects of the distance from which my photographs are taken, most often between five and ten meters from the subject? Why do I emphatically avoid the human figure and why do I construct my images from horizontal and vertical lines, just as Piet Mondriaan composed his paintings or Mies van der Rohe conceived his buildings?

Piet Mondriaan, compositie met groot rood vlak geel zwart grijs en blauw 1921

What kind of knowledge might an artist acquire? And if certain knowledge has been acquired, to what extent is this relevant in regard to the produced image? And would the image-maker not rather avoid demystifying his process and keep the wonder of his intuitive methods intact? Or is that awareness of wanting to safeguard this instinctive process precisely the knowledge the researcher/artist acquires?

Mies van der Rohe, Barcelona Pavilion 1929

I initially began this project out of my astonishment that so many places around the world looked identical to one another, as though there were no longer space for cultural identity in our globalized world. So I went to Beijing to photograph an ikea parking lot because it looked exactly the same as the one in Ghent or Paris. Travel as a meaningless act: finding things I equally could have found around the corner; in this way, considering the impossibility of exoticism and the relativity of understanding distance and space in our overpopulated world dominated by virtual reality. I photograph traces and patterns produced by human activity. In 2007 I made two nearidentical photographs of a wall upon which a laborer had dusted off his work gloves, leaving behind a large painting-like image alluding to Altamira or Lascaux. I had taken one of the images in Frenkendorf, a village in Switzerland, and the other in Beijing, China. Both photographs show traces of human activity producing surprisingly similar images; Parallel worlds in entirely different geographical and political situations.

It wasn’t long before I realized that my approach to the notion of globalization was a naïve construction and that, alongside the ikea parking lots and commercial routes entering the world’s megacities, there’s a much more nuanced story to be found. I discovered that some places are indeed completely interchangeable and that there are images of the city that demonstrate the result of years of multiculturalism and the dominant force of the capitalist system: like a quintessential mixture, a flattened out hybrid of all races and ideas, a monster of equivalence.

But there were also aspects of the city that were so unique to themselves, quite far from interchangeable; some parts of Havana were so particularly Cuban and some parts of Shanghai so very Chinese that my construct was only partially valid. It became clear that my research question was too simplistic and that some nuance was imperative. I was curious to what degree political and social contexts filtered through my work: to what extent the communist system could be felt in my formal approach to Havana, or whether the tense social situation of Cape Town and its recent past apartheid could be seen in the streets and walls I photographed.

The thought reminded me of an experience I had as a student. On one of my many meanderings with camera in hand, I ended up in a village near a nuclear power plant. I directed my camera towards the gigantic cooling towers, but was unable to capture the physical violence and threat I experienced (it wasn’t long after Chernobyl). I turned 180 degrees and spotted a playground on the banks of a gray river. One of the apparatuses was a kind of high seesaw that looked more like a gibbet. By isolating the object from the rest of the playground (through an understanding of framing and distance), I produced an image that for me summed up everything that I had been attempting to capture about what was now going on just behind me. I came to the realization that a setting could project itself onto its surroundings, without physically being “present.”

Bert Danckaert, Orientations, 1991

I later often used this as a method or aid when I was overwhelmed by a situation. I would simply turn 180 degrees and subsequently try to work with what I—quite arbitrarily—was faced with. The eye guided by what is not seen. “Invisible contamination” seems to me to be a fitting description for the subtle reflections of fraught (political, social, …) situations upon such (arbitrary) locations. In the same way that light, in the analogue era of photography, forms a latent image on film: an invisible presence that only becomes apparent after its development.