Thursday, September 23, 2010

In Defence of Stealing Photographs - Johan de Vos

I like to keep my writing room free of possible distractions: bare walls, a minimal amount of books, no music, no plants. The basic colour is khaki. I call it ‘my military office.’ And yet, five small photographs in five small frames decorate the wall. I put them up myself, heaven knows when. Quite some time ago I guess. I can see them when looking up from my computer screen. They’re cheap photos: I cut the first out of a tv guide, the other three I took myself, and I stole the fifth. I’d like to talk about the fifth photo. It intruded into my life like the Trojan horse. Its cargo: two little girls.
I am crazy about this photograph and I have my personal reasons. I love women. And because the photograph was taken from a low angle (the height of their laps), they appear larger, while the legs of the lady on the left are highlighted. That’s the way I like it. The young women are posing in a private interior. I recognise the intimacy of a living room. The flashlight accentuates the photo’s amateurish character. Amateur photos bare more than professional photographs. They take the photographer seriously. Their attitude comes across as a partial submission: they allow themselves to be taken. One woman is holding the other; the lady on the right supports the one on the left. The girl on the left has crossed her naked legs. She is laughing into the camera, and metaphorically laughing me in the face. It’s a laugh about nothing in particular. The laugh is a means of posing: to make a sweet face. Both seem emotional, sensitive to what is happening. Their attitude is what makes this moment so important to me, the viewer. The girls have dark skins. They are from another world. I have no clue who they are, not even remotely.
I did not buy this photograph. No one gave it to me. I simply stole it, out of principle. For a number of years I’ve grown convinced that it is obscene to allow personal photographs to circulate in commercial circuits. Even more so if it occurs outside the sphere of the persons portrayed. In fits of frivolity and ignorance, I would sometimes buy photo albums or boxes of photographs at flea markets or antiquarian bookshops. Until one day I bought a small ziplock bag containing forty-two photos of one and the same person. They showed the phases of her life: from her birth until she turned twenty-one. The year of her death. The purchase had set me back fifty francs. Only after returning home did I realise what I had just bought, and it was then that it dawned on me: certain things are not for sale, you should never buy or sell things like these, you should burn them maybe, or give them away, or better still, simply leave them behind.
So my hunger for amateur photographs had been sated. I still look at them in the boxes and albums that happen to meet my eyes. It has become somewhat of a professional attitude to allow each photograph one second and a half for it to manifest itself. So year in year out, I look at thousands and thousands of photos as if they were films, one image connected to the next. The same happens when browsing newspapers and magazines, viewing exhibitions and photo books, or just while walking down the street. I can recollect many of them, a number of photos I can even group together and classify, but it rarely ever happens that a photograph overwhelms me utterly. It occurs perhaps once or twice a year, at most. It’s precisely what happened with this photograph: it was tucked away between a small stack of colour photographs, and at a single glance I knew what it was: a photograph to die for. It happened in a town in the north of France, I slid the photo under my sleeve. It was mine now.
 Stealing is trickier than buying. Especially because a photo of this calibre would rarely be valued at more than one euro. This amount would be an insult to the ladies. Yet I can hardly urge the salesman to be so kind as to up his price. Besides, I wouldn’t even allow him a penny for this merchandise. And even a hundred euro would not even come close. Because stealing is harder than buying, I now rarely ever purchase photographs, yet their quality has increased exponentially. I’m no fool.
In the meantime, something else has happened. I’ve been using that photograph. It’s been on my worktable for weeks; I’ve used it as a bookmark, I’ve scanned and enlarged it, I’ve examined it with a magnifying glass and used it at an exhibit at the Market Square in Brussels. For that occasion, I blew up the ladies to almost life-size format and rendered the colours brighter than the original photograph. In their pose, in front of that wallpaper, and with that flash against the wall, my ladies now occupy a place of honour in my visual memory.
The photograph has such complexity that you’re always able to discover new facets. I have asked myself innumerable questions about the light effects in the background, and on the tiled flooring. I have estimated the dimensions of the ladies and the precise shape of the room they’re posing in. I wondered about the scar on the arm of the girl on the right. I’ve tried to imagine their fragrance. Actually, this is no longer about the ladies at all. The photograph has detached itself from reality: what it represents is now a part of my life. I have little desire to get to know these young girls, or become familiar with the true story behind the shot. It would only cause confusion, and upset my personal interpretation.
This photograph also has little bearing on my personal memories. To me, it fills a lack, it is an additional, permanent aspect of my life. The photograph is also a thing, it’s right up there. It is almost as stable as the house I can see through the window next to the photograph. It is my landscape. Trees, plants and animals will always remain important – that’s why so many people buy a house with a view on natural scenery. It is an obvious choice. I, however, have little affinity with nature. In an unguarded moment, I picked out this photo to play an important role in my personal horizon. It’s more than welcome to stay.  

Johan de Vos is a remarkable Belgian 'photocritic' unfortunately not writing in English very often. We were lucky to have this text translated for a publication in the magazine of the Photomuseum in Antwerp.