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