Dakota is no more

Wyoming, USA.
June, 2015
He looks into the lens calmly and confidently. His hair, like a helmet, folded very precisely around his head. A handsome face. Freckles.
It was a quick shoot on the corner of the street, his friends waiting in the car. I found him while refueling. I noticed him immediately.
He told us about his life very briefly, about his father, his mother, and himself. Meanwhile, a lady - a somewhat strict-looking mother figure who seemed to live there – was checking to see who I am and what we are doing. She seemed to approve and left again. Shortly thereafter the photo was taken and he ran back to his friends. I jumped on the bike and our lives went on again.

August, 2019
“Thermopolis, I once photographed Dakota there!”
Dakota is someone I have often thought of the last few years. There was something mysterious, something big about him.
“Shall we visit him?” The idea of looking for him and finding him, of finding out what he looks like now, of a four-year-older Dakota makes me restless in a good way, curious and happy.
We find a motel with rooms that smell strongly of flea shampoo - my mother used to be a dog groomer - throw our things inside and start our search as quickly as possible. Perhaps we can find him before dinner.
We find the exact place where I photographed him. We also find the house where the strict mother figure lived. I ring the doorbell. There are about 10 tricycles in the garden and I wonder if she actually has that many children. No answer.
A young man drives by on a motorcycle and I am almost certain that he knows Dakota. The town is not that big and they are about the same age.
I open the book and ask him: “Do you know this guy, Dakota?”
“Uh, yes, m’am.” He replies nicely.
“He commited suicide last year.”
His answer hurts. A little bit, not that much yet. It is going too fast. “Does his mother live here? He quickly tells us that his mother lives somewhere around here. He does not have an exact address, but he can point us into the right direction.
I want to find his mother. We go from one house to another, to a restaurant, to a neighbor, to a trailer. Somehow I am hoping for an error. Miscommunication perhaps, maybe I just misunderstood him.
Eventually we find the address of his mother. I ring the bell, hear a dog. Nobody answers. The neighbors give an address of a trailer park. Blue trailer, white van in front of the door.
Mom is found. Seeing her son’s photo, she laughs and says “that’s my boy.”
She talks fast. She says a lot. Something about a stepfather. About diagnosing Dakota. About bipolar. Several times she mentions an OD through. It stings. So he died of an OD (overdose). I am just hoping it was “soft”. Then suddenly she says “and then he shot himsellf” … In the presence of 3 cops. I am confused. In a questioning tone, I repeat what she says. And she repeats: “yes, he shot himself”. Her eyes are full of tears and I just managed to release an “ah”. Suddenly I realize that Dakota is no longer.
A confusing story about receiving his ashes only 8 weeks later and “celebrating a celebration of life” follows. She is not ready to say goodbye yet. I do not know if there were any people on his celebration of life. I do know his urn is located in a full house, close to his dog Harley.
Details about his death - and about his life - are confusing and I cannot really follow. But it does not matter. Dakota is no more.
I would have loved to show him that he was on the cover of a magazine, that his portrait was shown at museums, that his face is in a book. Instead, I write it in his book of condolences. Rest in peace Dakota.

Dear David Lynch,

Last night, my boyfriend’s eight-year old daughter puked in her bed. She did yell for me, but stopped at, “Robin, I am siccc…” There was no need to run for the bucket. A thick sludge, containing potatoes, meatloaf, broccoli and yoghurt appeared from her mouth and ended up in a pretty solid shape on her pillow. In the morning she snuggled up against me and said, “My vomit had the shape of Holland”. Pretty creative, I figured. “Rorschach!” my friend yelled. “Lynch!” I shouted.

Earlier that week, I had seen an interview with you, done by a student - I’d say - in Pennsylvania: “If you don’t know what it is, a sore can be very beautiful. But as soon as you name it, its stops being beautiful for most people.”
Interviewer hesitates and asks, “A sore?”
“A sore in the skin, an infection, a deep cut with puss, and… with discoloration. But if you took a picture of it, a close-up, and you did not know actually what it was, it could be a great beauty of organic phenomenon.” Interviewer: “That’s… actually very true… Next question.”

I fully recognize the wish – or tendency – to see wounds as symptoms consisting of matter and colors, without labelling it immediately. But for seeing things this way – or in a different way most people see it – I need my photography, I need a goal. Without it, I don’t dare to pursue it.

Another example. Walking on a crowded market in Paris. Suddenly I saw a small, fragile looking man walking in front of me in a suit that is about two sizes too big. Cap on his head, bag in his left hand. When approaching the litter bin on the left side, he took the bag cautiously to his other hand and shambled on slowly, but with a clear goal. The oversized suit, the fragile body… he was very affectionate. I wanted to rush in from behind and fumble him up. Not fumbling in a nasty way, more fumbling as in squeezing, hugging him very hard. Just squeeze him so hard that he would get even smaller. So small, that I could take him with me in a little box. I did not do it. I would like to be someone who does those things.

I am curious if you – besides making your art – have the urgeto squeeze someone spontaneously in his or her chubby cheeks (like agent Dale Cooper does with the mechanic in the beige overall). If yes, would you actually do so? Or is this only present in your work? Could you – apart from your work – look at a wound with pus or vomit in the shape of Holland, with the same interest and fascination?

Are you what you create? Or would you like to be what you have created?

Awaiting your answer,
Yours sincerely,

(published in Focus Magazine Nov 2018)

A self-portrait

The endless search for recognition - recognition that I had begun finding in others long ago. Countless bodies and faces have been observed and photographed by me. With someone else’s face or body I can play around, model it, until I have what I am looking for. In others I find this, but in myself I hardly ever do. If there is anything that both frustrates and fascinates me, it is the making of a self-portrait.

From Janice to John in 7,864 miles.

Hundreds, perhaps even thousands of words, can pour out of me when writing about my trip across America—about all those encounters in which I, as a photographer, created images of the other. Created my truth. But what if the roles were reversed? What would happen if I suddenly became the subject and someone else were creating his or her truth about me?

Casper, Wyoming. Janice kicked me out of her trailer. She was angry. Very angry. I was allegedly photographing her handicap rather than her. And that wasn’t at all what she wanted. A few weeks earlier I had been in Austin. There I met a homeless boy with a beautiful back. You could say that I was—and might still be—slightly obsessed by that back. The boy has scoliosis, a severe curvature of the spine. I saw the pain and felt ashamed that his body, which gave him so much pain, was so fascinating to me and that I mainly found his back very beautiful, possibly precisely because of that pain. The boy, John, had less of a problem with this than I did. He gave me his back, I gave him my time, and together we did some panhandling out on the street.
With Janice things went differently. She, too, has scoliosis. I wanted to put her at ease by telling her about John. And that’s exactly where it went wrong. I was still seeing that beautiful back that was part of John, but she saw a snapshot of someone’s handicap. After a lot of talking and showing her other portraits, she agreed to work with me again, but the trust in me was gone. In photographs I can use many different emotions, but distrust is a tricky one. When trust is missing, I don’t dare to ask things; nor does the other dare to give. Not the nicest combination, at least not in this case.

Then it was my turn. I’d have preferred to skip this part, but that wasn’t an option.

Simone (de Vries, director) and Maarten (van Rossem, cameraman) arrived a few days ago and will film my journey. I feel like I’m having a bad day and want to hide. But that’s not possible, since a camera is constantly there. Then come anger and uncertainty, tears, followed most of all by shame—everything has been recorded and saved. I want to say that it can’t be used, but I hold back. A moment ago I came to realize that my pain—or my struggle—has become beauty.

I was Janice, but more and more I’m becoming John.

Guest Column K&C – AVROTROS
(translation: Beth O’Brien)

White Boy

“Let her do her thing!”
The big man on the bed brings the three men into line, as we agreed he would, but actually that isn’t necessary.

It’s an experiment. I want to produce a self-portrait in which I portray myself as the weakest link. And in order to heighten my sense of weakness, I situate myself among three unfamiliar, physically much stronger men whom I just found in this dilapidated motel.

The opposite of this occurs, however.
The two half-drunk Mexicans and ‘White Boy’, whose name I don’t even know, are standing before me and doing what I ask (or rather, command) them to do without questioning me at all. They follow my abrupt instructions without the slightest form of protest. It’s a game, I realize later, that I had already won before I even knew I was playing it. And for the first time I’m aware of how much control I have when taking a photograph.

The lack of control - and therefore the fear - that exists when I’m not taking a photograph is compensated by me with (extreme) control when I do take a photograph. The former erodes trust, the latter fosters trust. It’s as if these opposites neutralize each other.
Or keep each other in balance.

The photograph isn’t what I had in mind. Shit happens.
But evidently that wasn’t the point this time.

Dirty lakes and pretty bodies – it is not enough.

Pemba, Mozambique

Water. The ocean. At night the water draws back, and lit by the full moon the beach changes into a landscape subtly shaped by the push and pull of the tide – coming and going. Large plains of sand veined with small streams of water, rough ridges. To walk on it would make me a sinner. As if I were to sabotage the perfectly shaped landscape. Still I cannot hold back and I run – or rather: jump – from plain to plain. Large steps, so to leave as few imprints as possible.

Bilibiza, Mozambique

The next days we – my travel companion and I – travel inland. Water is the key word of this trip, but is what is lacking from our surroundings. Its absence just leaves me slightly dusty, but for the local population it is a different story. Women walk for miles with many liters balancing on their head. I fantasize about the strength of their necks – men cannot carry this.

At times we come across water in frugal lakes. There they bathe, they defecate, wash, and drink. The water makes their bodies sick and beautifully shiny at the same time. It feeds and dries out. The water almost acts like real life.

The people that live inland follow the rhythm of the sunrise and sunset. Normally that is not how I live, but I manage quite well. When waking up is hard, a 3 hour car ride will make sure it happens. My travel companion was brave enough to declare she wanted to lie in fetal position. Her request is met and straight away a large pothole in the road ensures she hits the ceiling in one fluid motion – in fetal position. The painful shriek from the driver tells he was not prepared for this bump in the road either. The chained but live goat in the jeep in front of us cries out but realizes a few seconds later that the hit might have freed him. With his front legs still tied together he tries to escape. Men in flip-flops chase him. Secretly we wish that the goat will succeed, but as his chances are slim we decide to leave the scene to pee in the small cornfield behind the house – toilets are scarce. When we return the goat is tied to the jeep again. When asked why the goat was not slaughtered before this terrible trip the men respond: ‘but we need water to clean ourselves afterwards’.

The jeep takes us to small villages. In just a few days we make a lot of miles. From time to time we pull over by one of the lakes filled with waste water. A few times I feel the urge to jump into it. Not because the water looks so inviting, but because the small children that play in it are changed into shiny glassy shapes – a nice contrast to the dusty dry land.

After a few days the conclusion is clear: there is no shortage of water. Dirty water. Fine for a dive, less suitable for drinking. The water pumps that were installed supply clean drinking water. And clean drinking water is a basic need for every (wo)man. Dirty lakes and pretty bodies – it is not enough. Not for the shining children, not for the strong-necked women, not for the goat.

COLLABORATION Marie Stella Maris X Robin de Puy