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


Bert Danckaert

“I speak of the things that are there, anywhere and everywhere – easily found, not easily selected and interpreted.” Robert Frank

Robert Frank, Santa Fe, 1955

If there’s a photographer with a patent on existential disorientation then without a doubt it’s Robert Frank (born in Zurich, 1924). He emigrated to the United States in the late forties. While the ruins from ww ii were still smoldering and Europe didn’t know where to begin with rebuilding, Frank opted for the call of freedom and opportunity. The myth of “The American Dream,” however, soon got too much for him and he set off to South America and then back to Europe to photograph Paris and London, among other places. With the work he was producing he convinced a Guggenheim committee to give him a grant enabling him to undertake a road trip through the us. Between 1954 and 1957 he would produce the legendary book The Americans. Frank, who first and foremost wanted to be sincere towards himself, created an entirely new photographic style: the autobiographical document, in which the ambiguity between registration, interpretation, and metaphor manifest as a mirror rather than a (window) frame. (11)

“I am always looking outside, trying to look inside, trying to say something that is true.” Robert Frank

Robert Frank, Luncheonette, Butte Montana, 1955-1956

This also brings us back to the aforementioned notion of “invisible contamination.” After all, how can a photographer work introspectively, referring to his deepest impulses, when he simply registers what takes place in front of him (outside him) with a mechanical instrument (the camera)?

It seems as though the photographer has little choice and is entirely dependent on the frame of his camera. Of all the arts, photography might be the most impotent because it is inextricably bound to what is there. And yet …

Robert Frank photographed roadside diners, elevators, gas stations, his wife, his children, in short: he photographed on the move. (12)  He captured everything that crossed his path, and yet at the same time it all seems to escape him; not only the moment he presses the button, which is always and irrevocably in the past (the tragedy of photography and its relation to death), but particularly in the way he surrendered himself to the unfathomable nature of imagery that, no matter the interpretation, can never fully be pinned down. Take the off-centered photograph of a bumper pool table (Luncheonette – Butte, Montana) or the “Save” gas station (Santa Fe, New Mexico). It’s precisely the aforementioned impotence (in this case, bound to Frank’s existential discomfort) that defines the poetry of this work.

Robert Frank belongs to a group of artists without a determined destination but for whom traveling itself is the journey’s end. Frank is the action painter and free jazz musician of photography. Searching, scraping, groping in the dark, drunk on impotence. And as such, he drew a sad poem from American society. (13)  Frank’s position is highly subjective; he doesn’t aim to give an overview. His photographs in The Americans therefore say more about Frank’s own demise than that of the United States.

11 John Szarkowsky, director of the photography department at moma (New York) from 1962 to 1991, curated the exhibition and book Mirrors and Windows: American Photography Since 1960 (Museum of Modern Art, 1978) in which he made a distinction between photographs that function as a window on the world and photographs that function rather as
a mirror through which, by means of the external world, the photographer is introspectively reflective.

12 Fellow comrade of Robert Frank, Jack Kerouac: author of the introduction to The Americans and writer of the cult novel On the Road, bible of the “Beat Generation.”

13 In reference to the introduction by Jack Kerouac of The Americans: “Robert Frank, Swiss, unobtrusive, nice, with that little camera that he raises and snaps with one hand he sucked a sad poem right out of America onto film, taking rank among the tragic poets of the world.”

Image Building

Bert Danckaert

The photographer’s possessions lay untouched, just as he had left them. It was only now that he understood the reason behind the police costumes and metal flight cases with the actor’s names written across them. When they had arrived that morning they had had no idea in what kind of fiction they’d be entering. The excitement with which they had stood shaving without water, the tense wait in the costume department, and hair and make-up, had now been replaced with a feeling of boredom and contempt. Absolutely no respect for this dojo, the photographer was keen to exploit it. Was he the attacker or the attacked? In any case he felt a lot of energy, both negative and positive.

Green Screen Color Reference Image

In a chaotic whirlpool of impulses he tried to focus while he watched Mansoor locking the door again. His rucksack over his shoulder, he carried his tripod like a machine gun as he stepped across the electrical cables and passed the control panels in the dark. Out on the other side he was met with the green screen and the extras waiting to be photographed in a fraction of time, and become something that had never been: a photograph. Frozen time creating a new moment.

As he had expected, this was very straightforward. He positioned his camera and set the frame. The actor was stood in front of the green screen, ready and waiting as a test model. It looked perfect. The even light was bright and detached; the green screen was big enough to allow the model to take some distance from the wall, so there were no shadows in the background. The gray, dusty concrete floor had a subtle presence in contrast to the latent and virtual green. The white markers on the wall reminded the photographer of the indicators pilots would have seen on their screens during precision bombing attacks that had been made visible to the public for the first time during the mediatized Gulf War in the nineties. This is when the photographer had truly lost belief in the power structures of our society. Just as how the exact time at which Somalia was invaded had been determined through the powers of television. The invasion needed to be broadcast live during primetime in the United States, in order to sway public opinion— lessons that had been learned from the Vietnam War. The soldiers had carried lighting equipment to film with, so their heroic acts wouldn’t be lost in what war actually is: killings in the dark and miserable pain. Forgotten and futile lives, over before they’ve even begun, now used for the higher purpose of the president’s reelection. Wars are won through the power of the image: he who controls the image wins. Image building.

Somalia, 1992

The extras were ready; the photographer was concentrated. Just one more test to check the lighting, and he was ready for a short, intensive stint of assembly line work: one for one these individuals would pose as themselves in front of the lens, dressed in an Indian preconception. Who we are and why we are who we are were the unspoken questions and main objectives to do this, in this moment. The photographer focused the lens, turned off the auto focus and was ready to go. A hand entered the frame of his image. He raised his head from the viewfinder to find an Indian security officer in front of the lens. “Do you have permission to do this?” asked the spoilsport. “Yes, of course,” the photographer tried to quickstep out of the situation by dancing the man’s negative energy back in his face. “Who gave you permission?” To which the photographer replied: “Mansoor, the man responsible for the extras.” “Wait there, and don’t touch that camera!” commanded the power tripper. He tried to stay calm, after all he was just moments away from creating his masterwork. He wasn’t about to let this watchdog ruin what he’d been building up all morning. He saw Mansoor walking through the corridor. The photographer went over to him and explained the situation. Mansoor responded with uneasiness, the photographer realized Mansoor had given him permission for something he didn’t actually have authority for. This should have happened under wraps, but now the ball was already rolling and would have to be played out within the hierarchy. Mansoor said he would speak with his supervisors and disappeared. The photographer returned to his camera where the dog was still keeping guard. The camera remained untouched. The actor was still poised at the ready. The other extras waiting neatly in line began to shift a little, looking around nervously. Technicians and prop assistants were already heading back to the set. It was now or never.

The watchdog had won. Mansoor came back with good news: “You have permission for the photo shoot, but now it is time to return to the set. At the end of the day, when we’ve finished filming, you will have even more time and I will help you,” he said encouragingly. The photographer pressed further to do the shoot immediately: “It will only take five minutes …” but it was useless, this battle had been lost and the battalion had to march onwards to the end of this day of filming, when the photographer would have his chance to seize the power of the image during primetime.

Respect for the Dojo

Bert Danckaert

I finished high school in the mid 80s. I was finally done with it. Half the teachers had found me to be a “troublemaker”; the other half perhaps saw something in me. Let’s just say I was given the benefit of the doubt. My classmates didn’t interest me, save for a few, and often even then I would discover I’d been mistaken. Friendships didn’t seem to exist in high school, everything was superficial and fake, even friendships—experienced so intensely in those formative years, because everything’s new (as you break loose from your parents’ construction, and your friends are the key to independence). My time in high school was a waste of time, apart from the lessons I received in humility. Elementary school must have been even worse; thankfully I don’t remember much of that. There you are completely mixed up together, a random cross-section of peers, regardless of race, interests, or social class. Everything still needed to be defined, a jungle of unrefined lives and the impossible task for those noble people who would come and stand in front of the class. High school hadn’t been much better. But now I was finished. The last couple of years had been easier, perhaps not so much because of the material we were covering (although that also went much faster), but I had a better sense of who I was, so I was much calmer.

I had decided I wanted to become an actor. Not that I had had any experience as an actor (I did go to the theater a lot, but I’d never performed myself). It played to my advantage that the theater school had a preference for accepting “untouched” candidates; these students could be shaped more easily into their ideal model of “The Actor.” Students who had already followed a preparatory course were often already “ruined,” tarnished by the dogmas of bad teachers and bad examples.

So I followed in my brother’s footsteps (who by that time had graduated as an actor), attended several auditions and was eventually offered a place at the Royal Conservatoire of Antwerp. Out of a hundred candidates twenty were selected. After six months only a dozen were left (halfway through several candidates were asked to leave) and at the end of the year, after stressful and crippling assessments, I was given the negative feedback: “You don’t have any personality.”

All the same, that year of theater school, under the guidance of an old charismatic professor and a young ambitious professor, had been far more intense and rich than the seven years of studying at the Academy and the Higher Institute (10). I should add that it had never clicked between the older teacher and myself, I never understood her. Perhaps I was too young, while she was somewhat off the planet. But the younger teacher had opened the door to the arts for me. He introduced me to the understanding of “artistic responsibility.” There was only one way, that of total consistency, the most direct route to absolute sincerity, without straying (an untenable but beautiful quest), which would bring everything into doubt, leaving nothing over—the role of the artist as a poisoned blessing and heavy burden.

The more seasoned teacher was always dressed in red, pulled incredible expressions, consumed two coffees during each break, and it was said that she also drank her own urine for the purpose of one or the other spiritual or health beliefs. I couldn’t fathom her, and she didn’t want to get me, possibly because I had no personality.

It was the more seasoned teacher who had introduced aikido practice to the theater school. Each week we had a class with Frank, who looked more like a Chen or a Zhou. During lunch he would eat a bowl of rice with chopsticks. He was consistent, straightforward, and honest in relation to his beliefs, completely and utterly. Frank taught us about meditation. We sat on our heels and would bow on a rattling outward-breath, refilling our lungs as we came back to an upright position. Energy in, energy out. Release and draw in. The cosmos gives and receives.

Taino Ten-Kahn was another exercise in which we would turn on an axis, as though there was an imaginary pole just in front of us, around which we would turn. We were to sense the center of a universe. The centrifugal forces made our hands spin around our bodies like swing balls on the ropes of our arms, while we undoubtedly physically experienced the imaginary pillar, as figures of yin and yang circled around it.

We were young and so of course things got out of hand sometimes during meditation. But all in all we remained relatively calm when we were throwing imaginary water into the air while calling “hishhh” or “hii tssoo” during the rowing movement, whereby we would “row” in synchrony like slaves on a ship.

Once, one lad arrived ten minutes late, to add to the situation he had terribly sweaty feet (and the exercise was practiced barefoot). In no time the stench of his feet had filled the room to the extent that we could think of nothing else. Frank explained to him to try and have respect for the dojo: the space we filled with our meditation. You were not to arrive too late and moreover you were to arrive clean.

It always stayed with me. Frank was absolutely right. Again, this was a lesson in respect for oneself, not—or rather thereby—for the dojo. Ultimate samurai consistency. To fall is to die, hara-kiri for the failed, and even this is an act of ultimate self-respect. To live or die for art.

During the fighting exercises (aikido is after all a fighting sport) we learnt how to exploit the energy of the attacker. When your aggressor aims to hit you in the face, for example, it is very easy to duck out of the way of the attacking arm, and, with a rotating Taino Ten-Kahn movement through your imaginary axis, grasp your enemy’s hand and extend their movement, whereby they lose their balance. By gracefully ending your turning yin movement in a contrary yang, you can subsequently floor your enemy, if so desired, delivering them a final blow.

The beauty of this movement (when it works) is indescribable. The simplicity with which the energy of the attacker is employed to floor them in a kind of rotating dance has something magical. You take the negative energy of your aggressor’s attack into your own movement and turn it to your own strength, yin becomes yang, negative becomes positive, the shadow becomes light, and the latent becomes visible. Once you understand this movement (I mean in the figurative sense) you start to see this negative energy as something you can use; after all, through the right “dance” movements you can turn it to your own strengths, a true advantage in the fight we call life.

10 nhisk (National Higher Institute for Fine Arts), three years, reformed into the hisk shortly after my graduation, and operating to this day as a postgraduate program in the visual arts.


Bert Danckaert

Bert Danckaert as Stewart at the Mehboob Studios, iPhone film still

The last scene of the early afternoon was shot, and the digital rendering checked for mistakes. Priyadarshan took his glasses from his nose and slid them into his breast pocket. After he had lit the next slender king-size cigarette, he leant back and rubbed his eyes. An assistant removed the microphone from his collar, and disappeared off with it. Anil Kapoor had a short chat with the director, the photographer couldn’t make out what they were saying, but it was clearly small talk. Priyadarshan smiled, gave Kapoor a pat on the shoulder, stood up and left the studio. Kapoor followed his director to a place the lower castes, like the extras, wouldn’t get a chance to see.

Outside it was light and warm. A number of tents had been set up next to the trailers of the actors. Inside one of them, food for the extras was being prepared, served in metal trays like in a hotel. Mansoor guided them to the tent and gave them each a plastic bag containing cutlery, a serviette, a pot of yogurt and a bottle of water. The photographer was reminded of the scene in Slum Dog Millionaire where the Indian kids had used superglue to reseal mineral water bottles after filling them with the dirty water they usually drank. The photographer had seen the film on the airplane from Vienna to Mumbai, not quite knowing what he was getting himself into. Now that he was here, he wasn’t certain whether he should find the scene funny or sad. There he was, with the same Anil Kapoor in this poverty-stricken city, pretending otherwise, in a meta-construction of well-controlled entertainment. He joined the queue and served himself some rice, Indefinable meat and vegetables and then went to join the actor, who by that time had also found the catering. The actor was feeling better, you could tell by his full plate of food. The photographer asked how it was going. “ok,” he said, “I think the worst has passed. But, I want to leave, I’ve had enough of this shithole studio in this crappy country!” He couldn’t blame the actor, although he was having a good time. To start with, seeing the film set was giving him new ideas, despite its plainness it was still relatively intriguing. And secondly the photographer had a hidden agenda: he would soon be photographing the extras. He was excited and focused.

Using his iPhone, the actor filmed—by way of letting off steam—the photographer playing the role of Stewart, in his brown suit and shiny black shoes, giving an improvised guided tour of the studios. In Indian-English he explained where the toilets were—at least the toilets for the extras—and where the refreshments for the extras were being served and that all in all there were just thirty seconds and counting before they were expected back on set.

Where had he taken his brother? He could have been at home with a Trappist beer next to the open fire, visiting family, or reading the paper. Instead, he was here, with a churning stomach, on a shitty film set in a crappy country, surrounded by the sick, the wretched, and film actors, in a spacious hotel with palm trees beside the pool, but next to a stinky beach where crippled dogs hobbled back and forth. Overwhelmed with the general feeling of “why?” were they standing here, lunching, donning these ridiculous costumes. It had all happened too quickly. Hysterical giggles, for a prolonged amount of time. They had to put their plates down. Tears rolled down their faces. Security guards looked on indignantly. Luckily they were far enough away from Mansoor and the other extras, it could have otherwise been disruptive for the planned photo shoot.

Once they had recomposed themselves the brothers continued eating. Watched the film, and yawned somewhat. It was then time for the photographer to approach Mansoor and collect his equipment from the room where he lay asleep.

The Photographer’s Eye

Bert Danckaert

In the mid 90s I assisted the American photographer Stephen Shore with a workshop. Over a five-day period he discussed the work of the participants. Between these sessions he gave a couple of technical lessons and showed the work of colleagues he admired. At the time he was writing the book The Nature of Photographs (6) (a reworked version of which was published in 2007 by Phaidon Press). The publication came about as a result—and written version—of the courses Stephen Shore had given at Bard College in New York.

Stephen Shore and Bert Danckaert, Hasselt, 1995, photo Carine Demeter

In the publication he reveals, through a series of around seventy photographs from different periods and varying principles, the “nature” of the photographic image. Both anonymous and found photographs are placed alongside the works of contemporary artists (such as Thomas Demand, Thomas Struth, and Andreas Gursky), as well as descriptions of the work of street photographers from the 50s and 60s (Robert Frank, Lee Friedlander, and Garry Winogrand). Shore consistently provides the images with a short, clear text. Above all, Shore writes from experience—he knows what it means to try and get a grip on the world using a camera. Shore is photography, the two merge together, just as an artist and his research. Or just like a sailor needing to repair his boat out at sea, without the luxury of bringing the vessel into a dry dock (7). Stephen Shore doesn’t view photography from the outside, not from an academic perspective (like, for example, an art historian or theoretician), but attempts to fathom and frame the thoughts and actions of the photographer from within.

Stephen Shore, The Nature of Photographs, Phaidon, 2007

Over five chapters, Shore addresses among other things the physical appearance of a photograph (the paper, the emulsion, etc.) or the “depictive level,” in which he further discusses the transformation of reality into a photograph. In contrast with reality, photographs are two-dimensional, held within a frame; we see a moment frozen in time. In this way, photographs often reveal things we cannot usually perceive: in 1977 Larry Fink, using a flash, photographed a girl dancing, her braided hair swinging decoratively behind her. Shore describes the image as “frozen time,” creating a new moment. Based on a photograph by Garry Winogrand (Texas State Fair, Dallas, 1964) Shore describes the synchronicity of some photographs and the contingency of the chaos that surrounds us, and how photographers are able to challenge that synchronicity. In the photograph we see a cowboy wearing a Stetson hat, pulling a cow by a heavy rope. At exactly the same moment that Winogrand releases the shutter—allowing 1/125 seconds of light into his camera —the cow stuck its tongue out in perfect symmetry with the form of the cowboy’s hat. A fraction of a second later, this “sublime” moment will have dissolved again into the “ordinary” flow of time.

Garry Winogrand, Texas State Fair, 1964

In the final two chapters, Shore expands on the mental levels of the photograph and the way in which we use “mental models” to read images. Just as this text is simply ink on paper, we are able to discern its meaning by decoding its bizarre symbols. On different levels photographs are also constructions; the maker creates a construction through staging, framing, and selecting, while the viewer mentally reconstructs the flat piece of paper of the photograph into a memory of (or reference to) a past reality.

According to Shore, the difference between photography and fine art painting lies in the fact that the photographic image is analytical while a painter synthesizes an image. The photographer (or rather his camera) can only record what is in front of his lens, and with these means he creates an (directed) analysis of reality. The painter, on the other hand, processes an image by using a brush to physically sweep across the canvas rendering an autonomous representation. The painter reaches synthesis. The photograph is always a reference to light reflecting from a surface (8). In other words, the light existed regardless of the photograph. A painting consists of paint on a canvas, defined by a reality of its own.

Larry Fink, Studio 54, New York City, May 1977

I particularly remember one of the questions Stephen Shore put to the workshop participants: to imagine on which point the photographer’s eye had been focused when the shutter was released. Shore maintained that you could read this from an image. Most probably because the choice of frame, perspective, and selected moment in which the photograph is taken are the direct result of the point of focus. In other words, the eye of the photographer is embedded in the image. Shore went even further, he asserted that if you were to place a camera on a tripod in a controlled environment (like a photography studio), set the aperture, the shutter speed and focus, and subsequently invite different people to take a photograph of what they found in front of the camera (the different photographers can therefore only look through the viewfinder and press the shutter release), that this would still generate different images. Magic through the eye of the photographer, simply because the photographers themselves were focused on different objects at the moment they pressed the button. Naturally, this esoteric photography hocus-pocus raises more than a little skepticism; nevertheless, I find the thought extremely useful (and perhaps Shore had meant it more as a provocative thought experiment). The idea that the photographer’s thoughts—and from this, their point of focus—can steer the meaning of the photograph, without the use of technical influences such as perspective or framing, resonates with the notion of “invisible contamination,” in which the meaning of the photograph is also the result of a “magical” (invisible) projection. Above all, what’s interesting about Shore’s assertion is that his own particularly down-to-earth approach to his photographic work—in which the camera is sooner used to register, as oppose to interpret—seems quite contrary to his occult photography-philosophy. In fact, I also remember that this sober New Topographics (9) photographer was also a staunch supporter of homeopathy (evidence of the actual results of such homeopathic dilutions was the recovery of his dog, which was obliged to disprove all kinds of placebo effects).

Images are often smarter and more consistent than their makers, because they are the eroded residues of their perspectives, thoughts, doubts, and failures. Words about images are often no more than masks or veils: or circling descriptions, undoubtedly useful and challenging, but never reaching the core of the image.

6 Stephen Shore, The Nature of Photographs, The John Hopkins University Press, 1998. Baltimore.
7 In reference to Kathleen Coessens’s lecture at “Suspense,” symposium about research in the arts, Fotomuseum Antwerp (organized by kaska – Sint Lucas Antwerp), May 2011, where Coessens cited The Artistic Turn – A Manifesto, Kathleen Coessens, Darla Crispin and Anne Douglas, Leuven University Press, 2009, (ch. 4, “The Ship Sailing Out”). Leuven.
8 Garry Winogrand: “It’s light on surface!” from the documentary film Light on Surface by Jason Forrest.
9 New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape was the legendary exhibition (1975) at the International Museum of Photography in the George Eastman House (Rochester, ny). The exhibition, curated by William Jenkins, was a milestone in American landscape photography and still influences contemporary photography today. The title New Topographics can be understood as a reference to the photographer as topographer: describing the landscape as accurately as possible, with (ostensible) scientific precision. Exhibiting were the (then) young American photographers Stephen Shore, Robert Adams, Lewis Baltz, Joe Deal, Frank Gholke, Nicholas Nixon, Henry Wessel, John Schott accompanied by the work of Bernd and Hilla Becher (de), known for their typologies of industrial architecture under the title Anonymous Sculptures. In his introductory text Jenkins also referred to Edward Ruscha, who produced several photographic artist’s books in the 60s (26 Gasoline Stations (1962), Various Small Fires (1964), 34 Parking Lots (1967), etc.) in which he plays with ideas about the issue of “style” in photography and the “anonymous character” of the medium. Ruscha: “Actually, what I was after was no-style or a non-statement with a no-style.”


Bert Danckaert

The day wore on with a new series of tedious short scenes in which Anil Kapoor and the gorgeous Sameera Reddy all too often looked anxiously into each other’s eyes and the trains, in the form of lights, drew with increasing danger towards one another.

Anil Kapoor and Sameera Reddy at promotion of film ‘Tezz’

After one of the short breaks it turned out that Mansoor had now also discovered the actor. The actor, along with Willem—a tall, noisy Dutchman who seemed more interested in gaining the attention of the two French women—was holding a folder. All the extras were given one of two tasks: either walking through the frame with a disillusioned and troubled expression, or being busy at the keyboard as if that would somehow change the terrorists’ mind. And so the actor was now also pacing through the studio, clearly irritated by the situation the photographer had dragged him into.

Sameera Reddy

While they each focused on their noble mission, the “real” actors gave it their all. During the scenes in which Boman Irani didn’t appear, and there wasn’t enough time for him to go back to his trailer, he played incessantly on his brand new iPad 2. It seemed he couldn’t get enough of the game Paper Toss, in which you had to fill a waste bin with well-aimed balls of scrunched up paper. The higher the level, the harder the set-up became, such as a ventilator blowing the paper off course. You could see he was loving it. Boman Irani played the role of the British Rail director, and wore a gray suit. It was in the decor of his office that the extras were “held hostage,” waiting endlessly until they were given a folder and an assignment.

Paper Toss

Paper Toss

Just one more scene needed to be filmed before lunch. Willem was indiscreetly chatting up the French women, and had thought to make himself interesting by making fun of everyone else. Willem ran his own business in sports gear and consequently was always tied up with work. He also did a lot of sports: climbing (on a real rock face, when possible), kayaking or rafting, as well as regularly playing squash and mountain biking. Willem did indeed look athletic. He was blond and looked as though he always had everything under control. He went traveling every year. India had been on his wish list for a long time, and he was pleased to have already struck off Thailand, Argentina (and the South Pole), and Australia, among others. “India has incredible nature, rich culture … and yeah, such saddening poverty, but the people are so proud despite their lot in life!” Willem was the only one of this motley bunch of Westerners that annoyed the photographer. He was also the only one the photographer could imagine without his English disguise. He was wearing a badge with the name “Harry” but still looked incredibly “Willem.” In the same way you can always spot a Dutchman on a crowded campsite. A lot of the Dutch are very “present” and moreover they’re often rather large. The photographer caught himself with unadulterated (though entirely harmless) “racism.”

There they stood in brown and blue business suits: fortune hunters and adventurers. All forced, through the situation, into a suppressed and leveled off identity. Westerners made up by Indians to be Westerners. Imitations shaped by preconceptions and clichés. And all this in the middle of a festering megacity, of which no one actually knew what the population was, and no one had any idea how many people perished from rotting limbs, hopelessly begging in the knowledge there was no escape from this miserable existence.

The photographer needed to do something with the extras. After all, these non-individuals summed up his entire project. He envisaged a series of portraits against which everything he had previously produced would become obsolete. He remembered the green screen, the brightly lit wall, just behind the window of this studio, which Anil Kapoor had looked at with such concern while there was nothing (yet) to be seen. Cultural identity, the lack of it, and the interchangeability of space and its meaning. This was perfect! All he needed to do was set up his camera and tripod in front of the green screen and invite the extras, one by one, to pose as themselves but in their British disguise. The lighting of the wall was ideal. An enormous soft box evenly lit the entire wall with the same quality of light the photographer was always looking for in the streets: strong and without shadows, like an invisible presence, meticulous and absolutely democratic. After all, this kind of light didn’t determine what was important and what not. It simply “lit.” All are equal before the law. No atmosphere, nothing falling into the shadows—the light of equality and evenness.

Boman Irani on the set of Tezz, Control Room

The boredom and impotence that had taken hold of him in the early afternoon, was now replaced by euphoric self-confidence. This was his moment. Here he was in the Mehboob film studios of Mumbai and all the pieces of the puzzle were coming together perfectly. Or perhaps his fantasy, flexibility, and anticipatory capacity, combined with years of experience and thought about image and society, were the cause of everything culminating here into a defining moment. This was the big reward he had always felt coming, though the uncertainty of whether it would actually come had often made him hesitant and impatient. This was his “once in a lifetime” opportunity! Diane was the first to be told about his plans. She was immediately enthusiastic. Herman, who had joined them, was also more than happy to pose for the series. Moreover, the photographer had promised to give a print to everyone who was willing to collaborate. This way, each of them would also have a great keepsake from this absurd day. While the photographer carefully informed Mansoor of his plans, he saw Diane and Herman telling the other extras. Mansoor was very helpful and said there would be some time straight after lunch before they would start filming again, so this would be the ideal moment to plan the photo shoot. Once this scene was in the can, he would take the photographer back to the room where his photography equipment was so he could prepare and set everything up to ready for the shoot.

On rejoining the other extras, the photographer was pleased to discover that literally everyone in the group was enthusiastic about the plans. Everyone, without exception, was willing to be photographed. The photographer now addressed the entire group and explained that they needed to be ready after lunch to pose, one by one, in front of the camera. He also asked his models if they could remove their English nametag. He thought they seemed a bit too literal and, moreover, the badges would draw too much attention and disturb the image. He was already imagining the mystery these photographs would possess: a series of thirty portraits of Westerners in which you feel something isn’t quite right (contaminated by the presumptions of Indians, though without it being explicit), in front of a bizarre green wall with white markers on both sides (that had some or another function in the postproduction of the green screen, when filling this latent space with digital content). The photographer asked that, when it came to their turn, everyone pose as themselves in real life, and not as their British persona. He suggested they pose faced directly towards the camera, looking straight into the lens without smiling. To do nothing really, like underacting or just “being.”

This was foolproof. All the ingredients were there, even the lights were already in place for him. Just a moment longer with this stupid folder walking through the frame and then it was his time to shine.