Who We Are

Bert Danckaert

This is Bert Danckaert’s last post for Democratic Jungle. There are 10 more chapters to go. Read them in the book THE EXTRAS. Order here, only 15 €: https://www.japsambooks.nl/collections/nieuwe-titels/products/the-extras

Together with the other extras, the photographer and the actor returned to the dimly lit conference room where in the meantime dozens of empty water bottles had accumulated across the table. In the background the photographer could hear Priyadarshan lethargically calling his troops to resume position. Slowly the machine came back into action. Professionally, the actors slid their tongues across their teeth, checking for any misplaced pieces of lunch. Hair was brushed, cables laid, and cameras clicked onto tripods.

Bert Danckaert – IKEA (Beijing) 2007-2011

The photographer could feel the extras looking at him; they said nothing. Willem, the Dutchman, was making jokes with the two French women, and although the photographer couldn’t hear him, he knew it was about him and his defeat.
“I was so close!” said the photographer frustratedly to Diane, with whom, out of his clone-colleagues, he had the most contact. She couldn’t manage more than an empathetic “I know …”

Bert Danckaert – IKEA (Berlin) 2010
Bert Danckaert – IKEA (Dresden) 2010

Mansoor asked Diane, Willem, the actor, and the two French women to follow him to the next scene. The photographer tagged along briefly just to see what would take place next. The scene was relatively complex. Everything had to be perfectly synchronized. While Anil Kapoor argued with Boman Irani about a difference of opinion concerning the lights on the control panel, Kangna Ranaut entered the frame with more bad news. The photographer couldn’t understand anything from their Hindi, but it all looked very dramatic. At exactly the same moment that Kangna appeared, in the background the actor had to give information to Willem who would then immediately exit the frame. In the foreground Diane was assiduously typing at the keyboard of a computer that wasn’t plugged in. The two French women had to pass one another in the far background; of all the extras they were the most expendable. The scene was rehearsed briefly first, and then during takes it continually went wrong. There was always someone stumbling over their lines, or entering the frame too soon or too late.

Bert Danckaert – IKEA (Amsterdam) 2011

Bert Danckaert – IKEA (Guangzhou) 2011

The photographer went back to the conference room where in the dim light Herman was sitting on the floor in a corner. His head was leant back against the wall and he gazed upwards—without really looking—towards the ceiling. His knees pulled towards his chest, exposing his blue socks. A strip of his pale, hairy shin seemed to undermine his “British” image. The photographer propped himself beside him and offered him a cold bottle of water, wet with condensation. Unintentionally he assumed the same posture. They bonded instantaneously.
“Do you think it will work out, your photo shoot?” he asked, with concern and skepticism. “It’s going to have to, even if I have to move heaven and earth!” replied the photographer with more confidence than he really had. “I think Mansoor was bothered by how it went just now, I have the feeling he’ll organize it better this time round, he promised me it’d work out.” “Yeah, no doubt it will,” Herman responded.
There was a short pause; they drank from their bottles.
“You know, I used to be a photographer?” Herman started up a new conversation. “I was a real fanatic, I had a darkroom installed up in the loft. I had a Durst enlarger with a Schneider lens. In the mid nineties I bought a Nikon f4 and a couple of lenses. Not long after that the digital cameras starting coming out. I’ve actually hardly used the Nikon. What do you work with?” “I’ve also always been Nikon.” The photographer heard himself say he was Nikon, you don’t use a brand, you are one. “I had an f3,” continued the photographer in the same jargon. This conversation was very familiar. “My first serious digital camera was also a Nikon, the d70. Then I swapped over to Canon, they were a bit faster with the digital developments and, moreover, a bit cheaper. The lenses weren’t as good. I bought a 50-mm lens for over a thousand euros, an f 1.2 from the professional series, you know the sort with the red ring, and I still had to correct the barrel distortion. Due mainly to the nature of my subjects, I have a lot of horizontal and vertical lines in my photographs.”
“How come? What do you photograph when you are traveling?”
This was usually the point at which these kinds of conversations stagnated, so a bit hesitantly he replied: “Well, walls actually, facades. In short: small details of our everyday surroundings, I refer to them as ‘inadvertent spaces.’” To his surprise this seemed spark Herman’s interest. “And why then only everyday places. There’s so much to be seen in foreign places?” “I photograph what we have in common,” the photographer tried to clarify, “the places where we park our cars, leave the trash out, places we continually pass but never give attention to. I try to capture these places as precisely as possible, over-aestheticized and often reduced to little more than their form, and so creating a stage for the exasperating banality and meaninglessness of my subject. A bit like we are ourselves … After all, see how we are sitting here. We are in Mumbai, thousands of miles from home and we’re sitting in a dark, stuffy studio, propped against the wall, drinking water out of plastic bottles. That’s what we do. We have a drink, eat a sandwich. It’s not a constant crisis … ” (Without saying so, this was a reference to a quote from Anton Chekhov that had always stayed with him: “Any idiot can face a crisis; it is this day-to-day living that wears you out”.) “And then I’ve not even started on what we do when we’re just at home. The farcical television programs we waste our time with, the ridiculous products we buy in even more ridiculous supermarkets. I find thinking about it simultaneously funny and frightening. We are creating our own demise while we stand by and watch, apparently indifferent and even bored by it!”

Bert Danckaert – IKEA (HongKong) 2011

Bert Danckaert – IKEA (Istanbul) 2011

Herman smiled and nodded in agreement. “You know,” he went on, “I understand exactly what you mean, in the past I used to get really stressed about it too. I would often get into arguments about it with my wife. Sometimes right in the middle of a holiday, in some or another resort where we were supposed to be perfectly happy, I’d just get completely overwhelmed. It would have the total opposite effect on me. The all you can eat buffets, the activities, the artificial waves in the swimming pool would all drive me completely crazy.” Herman laughed, this time the photographer nodded in agreement. “I have a different take on things since being ill, I think. Without warning you’re suddenly met with the start of the next chapter. You don’t want to be there, certainly not yet.” Herman took the last sip and crushed his empty water bottle, screwing the cap back on whereby the bottle froze in its new crumpled form. “In any case, I no longer have the luxury to think about things in this way. Every moment is a very conscious one, for me.
I refuse to let my last seconds be consumed by ‘The Wheel of Fortune!’”
A silence fell, the photographer looked around the darkened room where the non-acting extras were sitting talking with one another in small groups. There was a resigned atmosphere in the room. Everyone was waiting patiently; no one rebelled. Besides, Mansoor was really very friendly and everyone was given as much coffee and water as they wanted. All the same, it seemed they had been taken hostage by this disaster movie and its successful actors. The photographer was doubtlessly the only one with an ulterior motive, with a plan for the end of this endless day.
“It hadn’t been going well with my wife,” Herman continued, “and then, when I got ill, it became untenable, I just felt I no longer had the time to question whether things would get better, or resign myself to the fact that everyone has problems and I just had to accept it. Once I had been given the all clear—which remains relative in my condition, my health is reassessed every six months—I rented a studio and left my wife. She wasn’t at all surprised.”
The photographer wanted to ask Herman what kind of cancer he had overcome, but given they had only just met and actually he had no idea whether liver cancer, for instance, was more life-threatening than throat cancer, he decided to refrain from asking. He also took the last swig from his bottle and placed it against the wall beside him.
“What kind of camera would you recommend I buy?” Herman went on, as though they’d been talking about photography equipment the whole time. “I have a small pocket Nikon at the moment, but it’s pretty limited.
I’d actually really like to pick up photography again.”
The question caught the photographer unawares, moreover, he didn’t have the knowledge of a salesman. “It depends what you want,” he cautiously began. “I assume you’d like to replace it with an slr?”
“I think so,” said the German in his English suit.
“As long as you stick with Canon or Nikon you can’t really go wrong. Of course, within those ranges the prices vary massively. You could opt for a full-frame, that’s a camera with a chip as large as the old 35-mm films. That doesn’t only offer a better technical result, it also gives you more creative flexibility to play with the depth of field.”

Bert Danckaert – IKEA (Lisbon) 2010

Bert Danckaert – IKEA (London) 2010

“I understand what you’re saying,” Herman affirmed, “I used to have a medium format camera, an old Hasselblad from an uncle, and because of its larger format it had a much smaller depth of field. I loved how you could accentuate just one element—an insect or what have you—by leaving the rest unsharp. What kind of camera do you use these days?” asked the German for the second time.
“A Canon 5d Mark ii. Within its price range it’s probably the best on the market.”
“How much does it cost?” Herman wanted to know.
“The body is about two thousand euros, a bit cheaper than the top line from Nikon, and far below the real professional digital backs from Phase One or Hasselblad.”
The photographer had had this conversation over a hundred times, but for one or the other reason he was happy to oblige Herman, he seemed sympathetic and sincere, although it remained difficult to detect who the man really was behind this British mask. The photographer heard his voice, his English with German accent, listened to his particularly personal story, interchanged with trivial thoughts about the technical aspects of photography, but had no idea how this man was usually “presented.” In fact the photographer struggled to imagine him in anything other than a suit with a side parting.
“Why is it you want to capture the things we have in common, and why travel to Mumbai, for example, to do that?” Herman moved on to the content of his work (he was evidently conscientious that the conversation had become somewhat one-sided).
“My starting point for this project was the idea that so many places on the planet are interchangeable with one another, as though there’s no longer space for cultural identity in our globalized world. So I started traveling, to Beijing to photograph the parking lot of Ikea, then Cape Town to photograph the preparations for the World Cup reflected in the building site of the Green Point Stadium, or here to the Mumbai film studios to capture the ultimate fictional construction and the image of decadence just a stone’s throw from the world’s most notorious slums. Mumbai is also the most heavily populated city on the planet and within the city there are both the richest and the poorest people in the world. I also went to Havana, to test my resistance in view of such a picturesque setting as the context for the endless communist revolution and isolation, through which equality manifests in the bitterest form of extreme poverty. I wanted to investigate how I could play with the demise of the exotic painterly image without falling into its trap. Each of them is a loaded location, owing to their political or social situations. It was in Havana that I really discovered that my concept didn’t add up, that not every place on the planet has been saturated by Ikeas, Toyota garages, and gigantic shopping malls.”
“If I understand rightly, in your opinion globalization—and the subsequent visual monotony—is then largely the result of neo-liberalism. In other words, that would mean that so-called cultural identity is related to isolation and poverty and an unrelenting grip on failed political ideologies,” remarked Herman. “With that in mind, I think you should really go to North Korea!”
“I’m afraid you’re most probably right, and North Korea is certainly on my list, although I’m nervous I wouldn’t get the same amount of freedom of movement as I had there in Havana.”

Bert Danckaert – IKEA (Paris) 2010

Bert Danckaert – IKEA (Shanghai) 2010

“I think I more or less agree with your cynical conclusion. But isn’t the new globalized culture precisely our new cultural identity, however impoverished that might be? Isn’t what we’ve become (or who we are becoming) the universal mix, the hybrid of all races? Everything is adulterated in this age. There are no more real flags; everything seems to be the same. More and more often you hear people asserting that they’re left wing, after which they begin a nationalistic appeal and defend the establishment. These days you can easily be against same-sex marriage and for abortion (although you come across the opposite more frequently). Should we oppose headscarves or not? And is nuclear energy not the only realistic alternative?”
“We waver from the one to the other and go with the winds. Everything is made permanently available whereby we don’t know what to choose first. We live in a permanent state of indigestion—a perverted, noncommittal, postmodern mindset. And what we understand as cultural identity has in fact become an exploited cliché: Belgian fries, Venetian gondolas, tango dancers in Argentina. I’m certain that once Cuba moves towards a more liberal society (which seems inevitable and is already underway) the old-timers from the forties and fifties will keep driving, but with environmentally friendly Hyundai motors or something: an icon of cultural identity, that by that point has nothing more to do with its original. It’s precisely for that reason that I photograph everyday spaces, because they are far more tied up with our cultural identity than the Forbidden City or the Moulin Rouge.”
“Cultural identity is who we are and what we do, how we live, build, move, and eat. Cultural identity isn’t something we cherish, it’s an invisible thing we carry in us, which continually fluctuates. And it’s the first thing we let go of in exchange for the delights of the free market; the call of uniformity and its Ikeas. I fear we give up our cultural heritage for the ‘Wheel of Fortune’ all too easily!”
The photographer wanted to add that our society would perhaps benefit from the shock therapy of cancer, but he swallowed his words out of respect for his German companion.

This was Bert Danckaert’s last post for Democratic Jungle. There are 10 more chapters to go. Read them in the book THE EXTRAS. Order here, only 15 €: https://www.japsambooks.nl/collections/nieuwe-titels/products/the-extras