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.  

Tezz Film Decor

Bert Danckaert

While the actor was still getting suited up, the photographer headed down the stairs towards the main studio where today’s action would take place. The photographer was asked to leave his personal possessions in a secured storage room that would be locked shortly. He laid the clothes he’d put on that morning over a chair, as though he were putting himself to bed. He would now assume another role. He was called Stewart and wore a badge bearing his new name. The room was filled with metal flight cases. “Tezz, costumes Anil Kapoor” was written across one of them. Clothes hangers, police uniforms, props. The photographer left the room, his photography equipment in his rucksack on his back and tripod in hand. “You can’t take that equipment into the studio. It’s forbidden to take photos on set,” said Mansoor, responsible for the extras. “Why not?” asked the photographer enraged. “Because it’s secret. Nothing from the film can be released before the film is out. Even the name of the movie is secret.” And yet they all knew this picture was going to be called Tezz. The photographer decided not to enter into a discussion, so as to avoid drawing attention to himself. He’d get his chance later in the day. He left his rucksack and tripod alongside his sleeping alter ego and double-checked that the door would be properly locked. The photographer followed Mansoor through a series of shabby corridors and rooms with electric cables strewn across the floor. They followed the trail of cables that were leading like tentacles towards the motherboard, nervous system, and electrical hub, near the main studio.

Stark spotlights lit a large green wall with white markers. It was a socalled green screen, which allows filmmakers to replace the green background with other images during postproduction, whereby complex locations can be edited together. A second space had been built in the middle of the studio space. A room in a room, suspended with ropes from the ceiling and supported on each side by wooden constructions. The photographer peered inside through a window. It was the window of the control room from which today the actors would be following the trains as they moved across the panel in the form of led lights. One of the lights was the train carrying the terrorists: a moving bomb. The photographer was instructed to enter the control room. The voice of the director, Nair Priyadarshan, echoed through the loudspeakers. He gave instructions to the technicians and actors. There was a concentrated atmosphere. There were at least fifty people on set. The photographer was guided to the other extras. The set was comprised of three rooms. The first was a large control room set up with dozens of computers and a control panel displaying a schematic representation of the British railway system. Separated by a glass door was an adjacent cafeteria, with refrigerators, microwave ovens, and coffee machines. Several scenes would also be shot here. Finally, there was a large conference room with a meeting table. The desk of the director was also situated in that room. There was a photograph of his kids to demonstrate that he was a loyal family man.

It was in this last room that the extras were assembled. “You’ll be called when we need you on set,” Mansoor shared with us. The sharply dressed supporting actors gathered around the meeting table. The photographer sat in among them. The room itself was pretty dark, colored led lights flickered on the wall; around twenty dvd players, stacked up on one another against the wall, were there to give the illusion of some kind of complicated security system.

A number of water bottles had been set on the table for the extras. And soon they were also offered coffee. Conversations slowly started to pick up. It was a diverse bunch of Westerners aged between twenty and fifty. There were people from Australia, a couple of Germans, one Brit, one Dutch person, two French, one Danish, one Austrian, a Swedish couple … and two Belgians (in the meantime the actor had also arrived). They were all set to play the role of security workers for British Rail. And they all looked “very English.” It was strange to talk to each other in this artificial setting. It was difficult to place one another because they all looked the same—and equally ridiculous. Presumptions based on how someone was dressed or how their hair was styled were out of the window. They examined one another, with an undertone of empathy and solidarity. The only distinctions that could be made at this point were between males and females, young and old.

Mansoor entered the conference room with two other men. They scanned the room and subsequently picked out three extras. The Austrian, the Dutch person, and the female half of the Swedish couple was asked to come onto the set.

The photographer looked at the space, its appearance was really quite “real.” He wondered what the hell he could photograph here. And even if he knew, he didn’t have his camera with him … Previous tension made way for doubt. He came to the realization he was unable to work with this space. It was too dark, too full, and too real. He would have to come up with something else.

The Construction of the Image

Bert Danckaert

Thomas Demand started out as a sculptor meticulously building models of everyday situations. It became apparent that the photographs he originally made as documentation of the installations added an extra layer of ambiguity, and so they soon become the end result of his artistic process. Presenting the photographs (of, for example, a room of photocopiers, a stairway, or kitchen) in very large format created a sense of theatricality and dubious illusion that was simultaneously quick to reveal itself as a construction: meta-photography in its purest form.

Thomas Demand, Copyshop 1999

Because photographs always refer to reality without being reality, they are by definition always a construction. Scale models of the world we inhabit. The magic of photography lies in the process that leads to its construction. A lot of photographers knowingly work with this. There is a literal reference to the scale model in the work of Thomas Demand as everything in the photograph has been built with his own hands. The concept of staging can be seen in the second phase of the process through the physical act of the sculptor who reaches the definitive form of his work through the medium of photography.

What is staging? From the moment the photographer directs his lens towards the subject, he determines what will appear in the frame and what will not. In other words, the photographer determines the scene of the photograph—like a stage on which a real life situation is photographically simulated. Which is why so many photographers are fascinated with the notion of simulation and the relationship between reality, construction, and fiction.

The tension so compellingly present in Demand’s work is equally manifest—though using a completely different technique—in the photographs by the Canadian photographer Lynne Cohen. Since the early 70s, she has photographed interiors, inspired by the Pop Art and Minimalism of that time. Her preferred locations are overly constructed spaces such as laboratories, classrooms, or health spas. She also often photographs military installations or shooting ranges, where domination, power, and violence are countered with a hilarious absurdity, at times reminiscent of Jacques Tati films (4). Lynne Cohen photographs these spaces with a large 8 x 10 inch camera, rendering an incredible degree of sharpness and precision. It’s almost like a scientific instrument that produces a copy of reality for Lynne Cohen, sometimes in black and white though increasingly often in color. The objective and unerring frame Cohen employs renders the photographer invisible, as though these places have photographed themselves and the artist only had to remove the film from their cassettes and bring them to the lab.

Lynne Cohen, Untitled (astroturf) 2007

Like Thomas Demand, Lynne Cohen originally trained as a sculptor, and you can sense this in her sculptural approach to her subjects that appear like found installations or constructions that have been conceived by an artist. Only here the artist is the near invisible photographer who brings these constructions to life within the workings of her camera, without physical intervention. Cohen also plays with the construction of reality in her presentation of the work by framing the photographs in Formica frames made with materials predominantly used in kitchens. The imitation marble and granite in the Formica frames is produced through a photographic process: a real block of marble is photographed and then printed and laminated and turned into a kitchen surface, for example. The reference to photography as ersatz falls together beautifully with her Pop Art-inspired approach.

Both Lynne Cohen and Thomas Demand are acutely aware of the concept of staging defined as the construction of a set in which—through the construction of photography—a scale model is staged in the same way that decor in the theater represents a real location without actually being one.

Much has already been written about the relationship between theater and photography. This is undoubtedly the result of both disciplines’ ambiguous relationship with reality. Photographs always present a view of real situations; even when the situation is entirely constructed, the camera still captures what is in front of the lens. Reality is also staged in theater. We witness real life actors who breathe and feel as they perform. While everything is “real” and takes place in “real time”; neither the photograph nor the theater play are reality itself. Photography and theater are therefore both forms of ersatz; at best they present references or real life constructions. Both art forms are false realities and real falsehoods.

The works of Sarah Pickering also illustrate ideas about the relationship between the photographic image and its construction in striking way. Pickering photographs situations staged by the police or fire department for scientific investigations of crimes and fires. The concept of staging and reality are literally simultaneously at play here. We see burning interiors or street scenes during insurgencies, but the houses aren’t real, the blackened washing machines surrounded by false walls make it immediately apparent that these are exercise and test sites. The subjects of Sarah Pickering’s photographs openly play with construction: houses are just a facade and traffic lights aren’t fitted with bulbs. Their sole purpose is to indicate the space through which the training officers can navigate. Sarah Pickering adopts a strictly documentary style to depict these places. She uses the camera as a neutral observer to capture a clear registration: the estrangement is within the subject itself, rather than the approach. By printing the photographs on a monumental scale, the construction becomes magnified whereby the images gain a surreal undertone.

Sarah Pickering River Way (Roadblock), 2004

Photography and staging are inextricably connected, as every photograph is a construction (of seeing).

4 “I take my work to be social and political but there is no concrete message. Perhaps this is why I feel much closer in spirit to Jacques Tati than to Michel Foucault” Lynne Cohen. Interview with Lynne Cohen by William A. Ewing, Vincent Lavoie, Lori Pauli, Ann Thomas, in No Man’s Land, Thames & Hudson, 2001. London.


Bert Danckaert

Ironically, having arrived in the land of “New Belly” (with which everyone is immediately in internal knots) the actor had picked up a virus from back home. He had been vomiting all night. He was white as a sheet and in no state to perform the role of a lifetime. Even so, the brothers were filled with eager anticipation for what the day’s experience would bring. After a wild rickshaw ride they arrived at Mehboob Studios. They followed a passage between large buildings, passed several trailers with the names of the actors written across them, and were pointed in the direction of the make-up rooms upstairs.

“You will have to shave.” They were each given a disposable razor and directed to the restrooms where other men were attempting to remove their weekend beards with just a bit of water. The actor had recently started growing a beard for a role he was about to play in the Netherlands. He would be playing Uncle Vanya in a production of the same name by Anton Chekhov. Ten years back he had performed in the same play (with the same director) in the role of Astrov, the doctor. An idealist and ecologist avant-la-lettre. Now almost fifty, and certainly far from thirty, the actor had been given the role of Uncle Vanya, a washed-out grumbler who had laid his ideals to rest a long time ago.
Was that the group they were now associated with? The category “washed-out,” that had seen it all before and now no longer wanted to shake the tree?

Clean-shaven, they joined the other extras still in their tourist garb waiting to be seen by the dressmaker. Measurements were taken, costumes altered, hair combed. Slowly but surely they were transformed from T-shirts with baggy pants to men and women in business suits. Sandals and flip-flops were replaced with elegant black leather shoes and stilettoes. Loose hair was neatly pulled back into a ponytail, and the photographer was given a side parting like he hadn’t seen since he was ten. He took a couple of shots with his pocket camera, anticipating the real work he was already focused on and for which he had brought along his proper equipment. From the outset it was clear to him that he also needed to do something with the “extras.” He was thinking about a series of portraits of these oblivious tourists who had been transformed by a gay Indian “costumier” into an identity-less unity, fitting the picture they (Indians) have of Westerners. A preconceived, ideal image: a person as facade, empty packaging. Just like the buildings the photographer liked to photograph in the streets of sprawling world cities, or like the room of their hotel—islands of non-identity. Starbucks and Ikea. A clone of all genes.

They heard that the scenes they were filming that day would take place in a London branch control room of British Rail. No open-air decor, no lifesize imitation trains. Nonetheless, the photographer was already looking forward to seeing the hyper-constructed reality, like in the photographs of Thomas Demand. He picked up his rucksack and tripod, looking crisp in his brown business suit and sharp side parting, resolute that today he would take the most important photographs of his life.

Thomas Demand, Control Room 2011

A Doctorate in the Arts

Bert Danckaert

After seventeen years teaching students from the part-time art education course, (1) I was given the opportunity to become a photography professor at the academy where I had studied myself, around twenty years prior to this. My old teachers became my colleagues. There was a different atmosphere in the art school than the dark times I remember from the late eighties. The director was now referred to as head of department and the academy was preparing to “integrate” (in layman’s terms: to become a part of the university) within a relatively short time frame. We adopted the same Bachelor/Master system and the teachers were encouraged to carry out “research.” Substantial funds were made available for this and I was keen to take up the challenge. Although I—and everyone else taking on such a research—didn’t really know what research in the arts should be comprised of. I had heard about theaterprofessors from the conservatorium who rejected the trend to carry out “research” as they felt their artistic practice was already a form of research.

But was an artistic practice and the research that was inevitably part of it the same as a research within the academic context? And was the academic context of added value just a necessary evil until we were able stand on our own two feet, and shift from the academic context towards the academy context? (An apparent nuance, and yet worlds apart.) After a lot of meetings and stale conversations at the academy about the differences between artistic practice and artistic research, the initial outlines were drawn: a distinction was made between research “in” and research “about” the arts. 

Research in the arts could be viewed more or less as part of an artistic practice. The value of this research was its “communicability” and capacity to “reveal the applied methods” through which its feedback (or “nexus”) into the education program could be established.
Fantastic, right? I envisaged a radically different academy from the one in which I had trained: taught by tutors with a frame of reference as big as their belly button. I imagined an academy in which people would debate, a course with people working to a high standard resulting in a stimulating environment where people are constantly hot on your heels. A stark contrast to what the school had become: an arts graveyard where most of the tutors had barely lifted a paintbrush or held camera for years and yet knew exactly how the students should be instructed.
The American photographer Robert Adams, originally trained as an English teacher, has never wanted to give photography classes. In his book Why People Photograph (2) he devotes a chapter to “Teaching” and recites the well-known quote from George Bernard Shaw:

In this chapter he further discusses how dedicated teaching can bring an artistic practice into jeopardy. Of the seven people in the English department where Adams began his teaching career, two committed suicide as a direct consequence to being unable to strike the right balance between teaching and writing.

The Californian artist John Baldessari, the mentor of many a famous artist, sums up the paradox of art education in a more bearable light:

“It’s essentially an idea that you can’t teach art, but if you’re around artists you might pick up something”.

John Baldessari

Could research in the arts build the inconceivable bridge between teaching and an artist’s practice, or at least—if meaningfully structured— have a stimulating effect on both?
I decided to apply for a research fellowship and put forward a proposal based mainly on a photographic series I had recently begun working on, Simple Present. The book about Beijing I was about to produce would fit in perfectly as a “milestone” or “research outcome.” I was already on the job.
Several of my colleagues already had research posts. They were much laughed at (behind their backs), particularly by colleagues who didn’t carry out any form of research (due to laziness, lack of ambition, being too old, too radically against everything, or for other noble reasons). Teachers from other academies and colleagues from the art world were also derisive about research within the arts. The teacher-artist-researcher was possibly even more problematic than the art teacher.
I also wasn’t entirely without skepticism; just a few years before I took up research myself, I published an article in an arts magazine in response to the first PhD defense in the arts. The article was titled, “Mom, why do we do doctorates?” (3) Like other PhD defenses I witnessed around that time, the artistic achievements—which were the results of the research—suffered from a misconceived pressure to use academic language, leading to clownish accounts and dismal theses. It became apparent there was a fundamental flaw in the entire concept of a doctorate in the arts; the artists found themselves in a jam in which the academic expectations resulted in pseudo jargon and the presented artworks appeared to be an illustration of the research rather than an actual result.

6 Moeder waarom doctoreren wij, H ART, oktober 2006

The first Belgian doctorates in the arts had become fact and the tone was set: there was still a lot of work do to. At that time, every researcher was simultaneously a pioneer and cannon fodder. The title “Professor Doctor,” that many a fresh-faced doctor immediately added to their e-mail signature after graduation, was the slightly ridiculous consolation for the humiliation that went hand in hand with the doctorate research.
We were in search, all too often speaking a language that wasn’t our own—save for a few artists that could master the academic language (which, to be honest, often came at the expense of the scope of their artistic practice).
The academy was—through the forced academization process—looking for necessary progress. Merging with the university appeared to be of great value, at least if both parties were willing to learn from one another.

As soon as I was well underway with my research, the academy’s merger with the university was called off. We turned back to the arts and made plans to become a “School of Arts”; a merger between the conservatorium and another arts program was in the making. Our courtship display with the academic world evolved into a marriage of convenience with a prearranged divorce.

1 dko: part-time art education course (evenings and weekends).
2 Why People Photograph, Robert Adams, Aperture, 1994. New York.
3 “Mom, why do we do doctorates?”, <h>art #12, October 2006. The title refers to the novel Moeder waarom leven wij (“Mom, why do we live?”) by the Flemish writer Lode Zielens, published in 1932 and dramatized for a tv series in 1993.


Bert Danckaert

The photographer and the actor exited the airplane into the warmth. As they walked through the terminal towards the taxi stand, a stocky Fleming recognized the actor: “Don’t I know you from TV?” “Could be,” replied the actor. “From which program?” the man wanted to know. “The Rodenburgs is the most recent, on vtm.” The man hadn’t heard of it. He’d been living in Mumbai for a couple of years now and had just been in Belgium for the Christmas holidays. He had recognized the actor during the flight. He wanted to know how long they were staying in India and where they’d be traveling to. “We’re staying in Mumbai, fourteen days.” “Only in Mumbai?” “Yeah,” they confirmed. The man looked at them as if they were crazy, said goodbye, and disappeared into the dark, and for the brothers still unknown, city.

The taxi crawled passed the tooting line of rickshaws and other jittering vehicles. Although it was almost midnight, this city was nowhere near asleep. Animals and people lived alongside one another in the streets. Families lay on the pavement under shabby blankets. Novotel Juhu Beach; the photographer had printed out the address together with their reservation with He had booked the flight and the room months ago. With an “early breaks” discount. Although he had checked the box for a single room, the receipt (for the same price) stated a double room, breakfast included. At a family party a few weeks before his departure, the photographer reported that Mumbai was his next port of call for research—the city with the second to largest population (not including the suburbs) and with the highest population density in the world. “There’s a spare bed?” asked his older brother. “Fancy coming along?” the photographer proposed. “Take a look tomorrow to see if there are anymore cheap tickets, I’m flying with Austrian from Vienna.” The actor was intrigued to see how his younger brother would work on his doctorate in the arts about urban space, and it was the perfect opportunity to go to India. The actor had never left Europe, or is Cyprus in Asia? For a moment the brothers weren’t sure. The photographer thought it sounded like an interesting idea: two midlifers in among 15 million Indians, an actor and a photographer in a city where fiction and reality clash in extremes. The Bollywood industry, alongside the city’s urbanism, was the reason to go to Mumbai (known earlier as Bombay). The Bollywood film industry was the largest in the world and therefore big business in India. The entire population was occupied with it. Bollywood filled the daily papers and the scores of cinemas throughout the city confirmed the desire for cinematic entertainment. 

The photographer imagined open-air sets that he could photograph in the same way he usually approached the “real” city: as decor. The puzzle seemed to fit together perfectly. Moreover, one of the sub-questions of his doctorate was about the relationship between theater and photography.

In preparation for the trip the photographer had written several e-mails, among others to the Belgian embassy in Mumbai and to an Indian gallery he had been put in contact with (through a friend and colleague who’d had an exhibition in Mumbai a couple of months ago). The e-mails remained unanswered, as was so often the case. He bought the Lonely Planet guide to Mumbai and Goa on Amazon. It described how on a daily basis the film industry recruited Western tourists to stand in as extras in Bollywood films. This sounded like the perfect opportunity to infiltrate the otherwise closed to public film studios. A hilarious idea: the well-versed actor standing in as an extra: a lesson in humility in faraway India, and simultaneously direct access to the source for the photographer: the actual decor of the illusion, just as in a photograph.
Novotel Mumbai was close to the beach and in the pictures on their website the photographer had seen a swimming pool with palm trees. An impersonal business hotel, just what he was looking for: a neutral place to retreat to in the evenings. A no-man’s land with the identity of globalized luxury. In these Novotels or Ramada Plazas all the rooms were the same. The ideal non-space to take a distance from “outside,” just like Ikea or Starbucks were like islands during his travels. Zen for plutocrats. Minibar meditation with free Wi-Fi.
They drank an expensive beer in the hotel bar and went for a short  walk. For the brothers it was still only around eight in the evening. Their internal clocks were still in another culture. The next day, after a near sleepless night, they walked for half an hour through the bustling streets of their area and then took the train to the city center. Three trains passed before they understood how to board: unashamedly force yourself into an already bursting carriage. The trains didn’t have any doors, passengers hung halfway out the openings in the carriages and at each station a new battle commenced between the different passengers simultaneously wanting to get on or off the train. Final stop, Church Gate Station. They wandered passed a park where people were playing cricket and a cinema called “Eros”—whose name was written in bygone Art Deco-style—with film advertisements that promised an overkill of Indian kitsch. They passed the heavily guarded Taj Mahal Hotel, near the Gateway of India, a triumphal arch dating back to the beginning of the twentieth century in honor of the Britons who had to leave here after the World War ii. Terrorists had overrun the Taj Mahal Hotel in 2008 and for days there was gunfire between the captors and the army. Ever since, the entire city had been afflicted with paranoid security controls. There was barely a supermarket without airport-style scanners. Every time they entered the hotel the brothers were thoroughly screened and their rucksacks examined. Cars entering the hotel drive were inspected with mirrors for bombs under the body of the car. Pleasant resort, super safe … Once inside, the place was an oasis of tranquility and space, in stark contrast with the overcrowded and mega-chaotic city.
They were constantly hustled by beggars, sometimes fingerless or with other disfigured limbs, sometimes children barely three years old.
Here, in the old city, were the tourists. Mostly lost backpackers making a forced layover in this inhospitable city. As well as businessmen with a day off who  wanted to see something—other than hotel meeting rooms—of this “country of the economic future.” They sped passed ice cream vendors and men selling extraordinarily big balloons. Given the massive police presence, the number of beggars and the particularly warm weather for January, it could have easily passed for Paris or New York. On their way for a little bite and a local beer, a man stopped them to ask if they wanted to appear as “extras” in a “real” Bollywood film. He promises transport to and from the studio, a long day with lots of waiting, food and drink, and he also throws about 500 rupees into the bargain (not even 7 us dollars). The photographer wanted to know whether they were allowed to take photographs and if they would see anything of the studios. “Of course!” he confirmed. They agreed immediately.
They were hardly a day in Mumbai and already had a foot in the door. Easy as that, mission accomplished, desired destination reached.

The photographer and the actor were going to be extras in Tezz, a romantic terrorist film about bomb attacks on the British railway system, starring Anil Kapoor—the quizmaster from Slumdog Millionaire and an antagonist of Kiefer Sutherland in the series 24, playing the part of the president of one or the other rogue state. No small fish. The film was set in a London station the man explained. Around thirty tourists (all plucked from the same spot in the street) would figure as members of the public in the background. The photographer began to imagine how they would be donned in Western costumes, to fit their cliché image of a Westerner. He could already see the decor cardboard facades of a British station featuring life-size models of trains. He imagined how, during the numerous breaks, he could take one photograph after another. The reality of the decor would be a perfect extension to his photography project about cultural identity, globalization, and the construction of images. Excitedly, they entered a café and ordered tandoori chicken. That was quick, tomorrow would be an important day.


Bert Danckaert


Over the next few weeks, excerpts from the essay ‘THE EXTRAS’ will be published on this blog. Whilst the book was deliberately published without images, the author has decided that, for this online publication, to make visual references to works mentioned in the text alongside photographs he made in Mumbai as part of the project ‘Simple Present’.

A photographer lands on a film set in Bollywood. He wants to photograph décors as part of his PhD research in the arts. Posing as an extra, he infiltrates the set of Tezz, a romantic terrorist film. But nothing goes as the photographer had imagined. In among thirty other extras, he winds up on the least photogenic set. During the long day’s shoot he enters into various conversations about photography and society, with the overpopulated and poverty-stricken Mumbai and its surrealistic Bollywood featured as the backdrop.

The Extras is about how doubt and incapacity drive the artistic process. The book is also a reflection on the oeuvre of photographers working along the boundaries of fiction and reality in a globalized world, where it is increasingly difficult to take a clear position (or photographic point of view).

Bert Danckaert is a photographer and professor of photography at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp. He received a PhD in 2014 from the University of Tilburg (NL), with his thesis “The Extras” and photography book Simple Present. Bert Danckaert regularly writes about photography for the contemporary art magazine <H>ART.

The book appeared in Dutch as DE EXTRA’S in 2013. Published by EPO. Paperback 117 pages.
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The English translation was published by Jap Sam Books in 2016. Soft cover, 80 pages.
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