I was a Dog (exhibit)

A quickie. I was recently asked to join a collective exhibit of former students at the photography academy of my home town. I was honored of course, but as I couldn't show work from the Yakuza project (someone else has got dibs on that biggie - I'll reveal very very soon :) I opted for an edit of images from my Mexico work in 2008.

Six images from a chapter titled "I was a Dog", part of Dislocate, the broader story in which I try to come to terms with my feelings of being uprooted.

The hardest part for me is always how to visualize the reality of the printed image in a given exhibit space, and depending on that, to try and make the best possible choices: which image edit, which size, to make an accompanying edition or not, and how to present the images. A good way for me to help visualize is that I not only make a simple sketch of the space and add the work into it, but that I also add silhouettes of people at the correct relative sizes. This never fails to amaze me, and always proves to be very helpful. Bigger is most definitely not always better.

For this exhibit, I had available 3 large panels of 2,5x3m (8x10ft) each, white, both sides usable.

Anton Kusters - "I was a Dog" - SASK Hasselt - setup 01

Anton Kusters - "I was a Dog" - SASK Hasselt - setup 01

Anton Kusters - "I was a Dog" - SASK Hasselt - setup 02
Anton Kusters - "I was a Dog" - SASK Hasselt - setup 02

As you can see by the relative size to the silhouettes and the panels, in this case, the prints should be quite large, 44" high by almost 70" wide.

If I would've printed a test image at this size without having made the sketch first, I would've most certainly opted for much smaller prints, because, right now, drying on my table at home, they seem way too large:

I was a Dog - image of print
I was a Dog - image of print

Presentation-wise, I'm going for a "bare bones" approach, hanging the prints with two steel clamps directly on the paper, without any framing or glass or filter at all. Light prints, heavy content. I hope it'll work out.

How on earth I'm going to transport these beasts to the venue next week is a mystery to me.

And I've beent told that any exhibit is prone to last minute changes because of many unforeseen/practical circumstances... e.g. what if there are only two panels available instead of three, or they cannot be setup side by side...

So I might have to adapt on the spot.

Makes it all the more exciting me says. Fingers crossed.

Cheers,

anton

More exhibit info on the website of the Academy of Fine Arts of Hasselt (in Dutch).

Your life is your preparation | TEDx

Hey. The day before yesterday I had the honor of being one of the speakers at a TEDx conference in my hometown. It was my first time attending TEDx in the flesh, and also my first time up on stage, getting a slot of 18 minutes with nothing else besides an automatic slide show of my images behind me and full house in front of me. Yep, I was nervous. The speakers that hit the stage before me (and after me) inspired me a lot, presented many many great ideas, ways of thinking different or looking at the world in a different way. Indeed, a truly inspiring event. Of course I ended up talking about a million other things than what I had planned for, and could not cover all I wanted to say. A tiny part of me feels I missed a chance there, but the biggest part of me is happy that it went well, that I could hold a creative audience's attention, and that the one point I did manage to make, seemed to come across.

I guess the video of this talk will be online soon, and then I'll add it here for you to see.... Here is the link to the talk: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-y4GCM60Vak and, as a comparison, I thought it might be interesting to share the original intended talk I wrote and practised but was not able to fully "transmit" to the audience, so to speak.

Not that it is that different from what I intended, but it's great fun to see them side by side. In part of course because time ran out much quicker than I imagined - I gotta take that one into account next time, and in part because I forgot a million things standing up there being nervous on stage with nothing but a mic on me. Funny to analyze your own memory in this way, what you remember, what you forget...

So, without further ado, this is the integral text of what is was planning to say...

anton's TEDx talk

[TEDx talk, Feb 4, 2012]

it's 3.30 am.

I'm sitting in the car next so Souichirou, my contact within. I have permission to photograph, and it's my first time on the road with them. He's driving the car with his boss in the back seat, who's asleep. We're on our way to Niigata prison, where two family members are going to be released that morning. Twenty cars driving to welcome their brohers back.

It's almost a 4 hour drive from Tokyo, and along the way Souichirou is explaining to me the finer points of yubitsume, or finger shortening. "you cut off one digit of your little finger yourself," he says "to lend power to the statement you want to make. Most often that statement is an apology. Then, on a white napkin, you offer that finger piece to your boss, begging him to accept it, and your apology with it." I find myself nervously checking if he's missing any digits himself.

He continues "if you fuck up, you will have to apologize." Somehow, looking in his eye, at his hands, I have *no* intention of doubting that.

Turning around towards boss Nitto-san in the back seat, who in the meantime has woken up, I lift my camera to my eye to make an image. But he's looking at me so menacingly, that I simply do not dare. I literally start putting my camera back down. Souichirou, in the driver's seat, in the meantime, is telling me, not being able to speak English, "picture OK, picture OK", making it clear that i should not be afraid.

I lift the camera up again but I'm so nervous that I accidentally press the shutter release button before I can compose the image.

---

That was my first day in the field with the Yakuza, the largest organized crime syndicate in the world.For two years I photographed them. And yes, I had to learn to walk on eggshells. All the time.

To be honest, I have no idea how I pulled it off. It's the single most asked question by friends and strangers alike when they see my book or my images or hear my stories: "how the hell did you pull that off?"

how did you get in? how did you manage to independently publish a book and a magazine? did you design it yourself? how did you attract so much press attention and publications worldwide? how did you pay for all this? there must be some "key" to it, no? do you even speak Japanese?

No, I don't. And no, I didn't know how I had done it. And I got asked these questions so often, that I started to become curious myself, started to think back and see if there was a pattern of sorts. a secret. a key. I mean, I must be doing *something* right. Right?

And I sure would like to know what that is, so I can replicate that for future projects....

It took a long time to think, to finally see it. And I think I have the key now, I think I do. Well I could be wrong of course, as I am wrong about many things, but at least I can say that my theory has been proven right *once*...

---

So after the friendly golf tournament between two clans, mainly a cover to discuss business on various levels, the family members all go into the bath house to relax. Kaicho, for all intents and purposes the day to day Godfather, invites me in. Completely naked with a towel in one hand constantly wiping off the steam of the lens of the camera in my other hand, I enter the bath area. a dozen members are showering, bathing, relaxing. Huge tattoos, tremendous works of art, are on everyone's backs. So there I am shooting - naked, remember; have you ever done that, it's very weird to have your camera gear in your hand and be shooting but not to be wearing anything. Makes you, uhmmm, in a way, quite conscious of your own body. So there I am shooting, wiping, shooting, and one of the family members behind me starts to laugh. Joined by another. and another. After a few minutes everyone's smiling and laughing and commenting on something that I do not understand...

And then Kaicho walks up to me and says with a big smile, pointing to the really tiny tattoo of a sun on my back which i had done years before, "nice little baby tattoo"... only to burst into even more laughter.

---

Looking back I see that I have had an extraordinary amount of luck during this project. Too much luck actually. The kind of luck you can't prepare for. Like the bath house story I just told you... as funny as it may seem, things like this happening were so crucial to build up trust, break barriers so to speak, and ultimately, go deeper.

And the more I though about it, the more it became clear to me that the concept of "preparing for a project" had to be redefined for me. It had to be way much broader than what we would think.

If I look back on Yakuza, the key elements that made me "be prepared" so to speak, were long and far apart:

  • my parents were expats, as kids we got exposed to foreign cultures right from the start
  • i played golf as a teenager, and again around 30
  • I went to university to study political philosophy, and witnessed the birth/explosion of the Internet
  • I have a little sun tattoo on my back
  • my first job was as a graphic designer at a printer
  • my brother Malik moved to Tokyo, Japan about a decade ago
  • my second job was as a web designer at an ad agency
  • in 2001 i started my own company with friend and kindred spirit Luc, and worked hard for 7 years to create a cool independent team of professionals
  • in 2008 I met Magnum photographer David Alan Harvey, who became my mentor

Retroactively, I call these "key elements that make me be prepared", because each one of these elements can be linked to a crucial moment in the project. Like my little tattoo and the bath house.

Or my brother being able to lead the negotiations. Or my graphic design years translating into designing book dummies. or the mentorship of David Alan Harvey teaching me the two thumbs up approach. Or the web design company that I run with my friend Luc, that gave me room to pursue this project in the first place. So many things.

But it's of course obvious that you cannot call these elements "preparation", simply because, well, this kind of thing happens independently of any project. This is not "preparation", this is your entire life.

But what if that were the key? What if, your life were your only true asset that can adequately prepare you for your projects?

I mean... this gives a whole new meaning to "it's all about the journey, not about the destination"

---

In august of 2010,... --> Tell the story of the covert training camps, secret location, sleep in the room with the young recruits and talk about the immense duality that is Yakuza.

---

What would the images of the training camp mean to me if I had not experienced them first hand? Let's be honest: if I had to choose between experiencing the training camp, or simply having the pictures, I think the former will always win, hands down.

CONCLUSION

What I actually want to say is: after so many people asked how I could pull it off, and after looking back and thinking about it for a long time,

I found that the person you are and the support you have around you IS the preparation for any project to come, IS the preparation you need for whatever you want to do....

The surprisingly simple search to find and identify your "elements", your strengths *and* your weaknesses, and worship them as the most important thing in your life, knowing they will help you. And trust me, if you let them, they will.

All the rest is practical stuff. (note to self: the practical stuff, at all times, needs to be done relentlessly at 100% with zero margin for error)

In life, it's all about the journey. I guess we all know that, I know that, and yet at the same time I feel it's the hardest thing in the world to do, to learn to focus on the journey and just enjoy the ride.

But I keep on trying, and sometimes it works out.

thanks for listening.

Dislocate...

When i was in Mexico in the fall of 2008, during the Day of the Dead festivities in Oaxaca, i made the first image of was to become a life long project. I knew when i had made the image, that something had happened.

But i needed long talks with family and friends to be able to put my finger on what it meant exactly... David, being in Mexico as well, was the first i could talk to. At the time i had no clue how my developing visual language was tied into my own psyche, my own history and personality, and i really needed help contextualizing what i had just created and what it meant to me.

dislocate_ANT6334

It was a hard time for me right after that image.

It felt like I had touched something very personal, and to be honest i never expected this to happen. I mean, while taking pictures? It got so bad, I'd find myself traveling, wandering the streets all over the world desperately trying to find myself, pointing my camera inwards along the way.

Only very slowly i learned to use this feeling as a positive rather than a constrictive force. But it was hard - and sometimes, when i get into that mood, it still is - to make that switch.

Yes, i'm a gemini :-/

dislocate_ANT9957

I honestly never thought i would ever even have something resembling anything close to a life long project. It sounds so daunting. It's sounds so... pompous. So... something that fake artists declare, so... something so not like me, and certainly not something to tell anyone about.

But for some reason, it gives me a tremendous peace of mind and a kind of tranquility that i never expected.

I know i might never complete it, let alone publish it. Come to think of it, completion is not even relevant. But publication is, i guess... And i have a gut feeling that the chance of publishing this project will be directly related to how successful in general i will be as a photographer, because i'm sure i'll have to use up all my credit to get this one published.

I am, effectively, building up my entire career, just to have enough credit to make this happen.

No joke. That's how it feels. Sounds weird doesn't it.

---

The project "dislocate" not only photography: it spills over to the rest of my life. My relationship with my family has always been exceptional, and now it is even better; I'm much more at ease in any friend or love relationship; when I'm working, I now work harder and more efficiently; and I love what I do more than before.

On the other hand, I'm also much more intolerant and nervous, and get angry more often, when confronted with things that waste time or energy... I'm much more focused, and realize more than before that we are all given only one time here on this world. And I feel I have to make it count.

---

"dislocate" is not a singular project anymore. It's an assignment, it's commercial, it's art, it's my life, all at the same time. It does not distract me from any other work i do. It is just, simply, there.  I could best describe it as an energy, a mood that runs through me, all the time. It isn't even fixed to photography... Photography just happens to be the vehicle to express at this point in time.

"dislocate" forces me to open my mind as wide as i can. It makes me not judge others and listen instead, trying to understand. I honestly believe it might even make me a better person.

"dislocate" is my sense of my place in this world. Me feeling uprooted, my incessant looking for where i belong.

Where my land is.

Funny that feeling dislocated, something that used to unsettle me and make me nervous, now actually makes me feel calm instead.

I still get nervous sometimes though... but not too often anymore.

Actually, I think "dislocate" is never meant to be finished. It is just the thing that makes me feel that i am a photographer.

Hmm...

I hope it never goes away.