thoughts

This is This and This is This

Hey!

Happy New Year.

Here are some things:

This is some snow. This is a book at the presses. These are the first dummy tests for the "dislocate" books. This is a good whiskey (after having a few). This is some more work done on the "yakuza" solo exhibit in april. And these are flowers for my mother.

....and there's much more to come.

2013 is going to be a good year, I'm sure of it. For all of us... it has to be. My best wishes to each and every one of you... and see you soon.

a

Dislocate, a First Chapter: Tokyo/Brother

As you know by now, Dislocate has been playing around in my head for several years. I've always had a feeling about it, but I could never put my finger on it, figure out what it was about, or even if it would ever be or become a project. A while ago I wrote that it was time to really think this one through, that it needed the airplane treatment so to speak... And yes, I'm happy to say that it now feels like I've finally found what dislocate is about. I know, it sounds weird to talk about projects this way, but it really works this way for me: something starts, i see something, hear something, a vague feeling, an itch, it comes into my mind... and at some point I start scratching. I realize I want to get it out, but to do that I must first find what it actually is and define it. More often than not it remains a vague feeling for a long long time (in this case, 4 years)... hopefully at some point becoming clear.

dislocate | tokyo

Once the feeling acknowledged and defined, I must decide if it is worth pursuing, worth following up on, worth investing my energy into... worth trying to tell the story and worth making it happen. A lot plays in my head at this stage: will I be able to cope, will it be long term or short term, how much will it cost, will I be able to make money, will I be able to grow as an artist, will my family understand, will others believe in it too....

---

So goes the story of Dislocate: for a long time I had the feeling of being homesick for no reason. Nothing bad, nothing shocking, but an itch nonetheless. After a while I started paying attention to it and this feeling always seemed to come pretty randomly, strangely not related to any place or time or travel. I found this very weird - for example, I'd sometimes get homesick being at home, and this I didn't (and still don't) understand. Given my family that I love dearly, I should have completely no reason for this.

So... long story short, I've decided this is interesting enough to pursue... and now a part of me is focused on identifying my "homesick moments" and trying to visualize this through images, and write down the story. It feels like a real journey I'm undertaking, because, I guess, if I feel homesick at home, there must be some other place I do feel at home, right?

dislocate | tokyo

So I'm going to visit places until I find my true home. Does this mean I'll be visiting the places I used to live, Saudi Arabia and Australia, or the place I live now, Belgium? I don't know, maybe... but I think it would be a testimony to a very limited definition of "place": just geographical.

Places more often are related to people I am close to or connect to: a place as "with a person", wherever physical that place might be or might change over time. I know this sounds kind of abstract, but at this point it seems like the best definition I can come up with to describe the quest of finding where one feels one really belongs.

And I know maybe most people do have the feeling they belong... but surprisingly, many people I talked to about this over the last months, expressed a strong feeling of recognition and surprised me by saying they had actually felt this way for a long time and never felt they could talk about it. Sometimes this crystallized into the feeling of not finding a soul mate, and other times it was expressed in the most literal sense, an immigrant who has no connection to his home country anymore, yet at the same time is fighting to find a home in the new country he is (sometimes not very) welcomed into.

So where is my home? Where is my land? Where is my place?? Who is my place? What sets my mind at ease? Who sets my mind at ease? Where can I belong? How can I find out?

I'm going to explore all this. Going to document all I come across that is related to this. Hard, because I cannot easily "summon" or predict or even plan that feeling of homelessness setting in, just to explore it. It's really hard and often pretty painful. It comes and goes quickly at times, but sometimes can also last for days, completely paralyzing me.

---

Sometimes little things make me feel at home, like for some reason flowers do. Other things on the contrary make me feel away from home, alone, tiny, wrapped in a blanket wanting to be somewhere else but at the same time knowing that being there is the catalyst for that feeling. Staying at a hotel room for me is always a very strong catalyst for such things, and I try to nourish that, make use of it as opposed to letting it paralyze me. Instead of fighting it, I'm now deliberately letting it. for better or for worse. you'll find images that feel like home, and images that feel like lost... and those images might be surprisingly different for everyone, or even surprisingly the same...

We'll see where the journey brings me, but I certainly can see now already that it'll be intense. First chapter is chosen: "Tokyo/Brother"

I hope the above made some sense... if not, don't get to upset... more to come soon... just wish me luck :-)

Have a great day today, a

Ten images that didn't make it into YAKUZA

Sorry that I've been gone for a while... it's the first time in years that I've been able to relax my mind a couple of weeks, and in hindsight it has been necessary: I've been able to take some much needed important decisions, decisions that have been delayed and delayed even without me realizing it, and with a relaxed mind have come to surface and have been easier to contemplate... And of course I've started preparing for the fall when things will get up to full speed again with many especially exciting new things that I want to tell you all about, not only things related to the Yakuza project. More on all this soon...

In the meantime, I thought this one would be fun: the ten images that most narrowly did not make it into the ODO YAKUZA TOKYO book.

 anton kusters - odo yakuza tokyo - just didn't make it

The story goes as follows: during any book design process, one has to be prepared to meet unexpected circumstances, and it's not uncommon that even at the last instant, things can change completely. In my case, my - what I (and the printer) thought was the - definitive book edit had always been 98 spreads with images, plus 6 spreads for the chapters (plus pages for text at the beginning and the end).

And then it happened. Right at the very last second, when the printer was making the final impositioning for the plates, we both noticed we had made a major calculation error in the book. I had designed part of one book section too many. Simple page count error. Basic rookie mistake. I've been professionally designing books for years, how could this have happened. This could turn out to be a disaster.... because this meant, that in effect, I would have to cut images from the book, and I had to cut them fast. There was simply no choice. The only other option would be to literally stop the printing and re-think the whole book paper, cover, book thickness, weight, binding,... not to mention the extra costs involved... and to delay the book launch by several months.

So I chose to push ahead. Cut the images. And what could have easily become a disaster, in hindsight, actually turned out to be something good. For some reason, I was able to identify the images that had to go, very quickly... having spent months with the edit, somehow it appeared clear in my mind what had to be done. And indeed, leaving those images out, turned out to make a stronger edit.

Of course, after cutting the images, I had to re-look and re-do the entire sequencing, and this in turn leading yet again to be forced to drop out another couple of images. Damn. In total, I decided cut exactly 10 images and changed the sequencing, dividing into more (but smaller) chapters... extremely tense moments I can tell you, especially because I think I only had 2 hours to complete the job, prepare a new hi res pdf and deliver it. The presses were ready to go. And you don't ever want the presses to be waiting for you, trust me.

Even with the pressure looming over me, I still recall those two hours as something extremely positive, as very exciting, as an opportunity to make the book better still. I'm so glad I didn't choke and pull the plug. It was like someone had whispered in my ear: "Anton, you now have 2 hours to make your book better, and it's your last chance... go for it".

Judge for yourself... what do you think of these 10 that didn't make the cut? I know showing them out of their original sequence is not ideal, but I hope it'll work.

 anton kusters - odo yakuza tokyo - just didn't make it
 anton kusters - odo yakuza tokyo - just didn't make it
 anton kusters - odo yakuza tokyo - just didn't make it
 anton kusters - odo yakuza tokyo - just didn't make it
 anton kusters - odo yakuza tokyo - just didn't make it
 anton kusters - odo yakuza tokyo - just didn't make it
 anton kusters - odo yakuza tokyo - just didn't make it
 anton kusters - odo yakuza tokyo - just didn't make it
 anton kusters - odo yakuza tokyo - just didn't make it
 anton kusters - odo yakuza tokyo - just didn't make it

have a great summer all, and more soon, I promise!

a

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.

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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.

Meet Gaston | The Blue Skies Project

Meet my late grandfather, Antoine Libens. Alfons Libens & Jeanne Degros were his parents. But everyone called him Gaston. Gaston is the reason that I 'm starting my next long term project: The Blue Skies Project.

The Blue Skies Project will become a personal journey, me trying to make sense of something unimaginable. Something unspeakable. Something that took place in Europe 70 years ago, before I was born.

I feel the need to personally understand and place the huge and unimaginable injustice done to so many millions during the years of the Holocaust. A darkest page in human history, yet a page never to be forgotten.

---

It all started with my grandfather during WWII, when he was a geography student at the Catholic University of Louvain, Belgium.

 gaston-libens_P1020863

One night, when Gaston was home asleep, Nazi soldiers raided the house. In the middle of the night they banged the door and forced their way in. His mother woke up from the noise and pushed him out of bed and out the bedroom window onto the flat roof. The soldiers were on a mission to round up and deport all university students who were member of a certain fraternity, with members active in the resistance.

It didn't take long before the soldiers entered Gaston's bedroom. Though it appeared as if the bed was unslept in, one of the soldiers felt the warm mattress and deducted that he must be hiding somewhere in the immediate surroundings. Outside in the meantime, Gaston had been unable to find a hiding place on the flat roof, the only thing in the nearby being a glass dome shaped window in the roof, behind which he desperately tried to tuck himself away as much as he could. One of the young German soldiers, about the same age as him, opened the bedroom window and climbed out onto the roof.

It was impossible not to spot my grandfather.

And indeed he did. My grandfather peering through the glass, acutely aware that he could as well just be standing up and in plain sight, and the German soldier looking straight back at him. Then It happens. They lock eyes for an instant. Both men in their late teens. Both men black hair. Both men look at each other for an eternity, in which they seem to realize something more, something bigger than that wretched war.

The soldier steps back inside saying "Nein, er ist hier nicht."... the cue for my grandfather to make a run for it. Over different roofs, several houses down the road where he jumps off into a courtyard.

Unfortunately Gaston jumps straight into a dog pen, waking up the dog who starts to bark loudly. It's about 2am now. Gaston frantically tries to keep the dog quiet, eventually succeeds, and stays in the pen literally for several hours, waiting. Hours later, he climbs out of the pen. As he walks back to his house, at the end of the street around the corner, he suddenly gets pulled into a house by one of his neighbors... a woman suspected to be collaborating with Nazi Germany. She pulls him into her house, whispering "Antoine! Hide here, wait, they're still staking out your house waiting for you to return...".

---

My grandfather's life got saved twice that night. And by two of the most unlikely people to do so.

A tiny story of hope in what were the darkest of days for millions.

(From that moment onwards, everywhere my grandfather went, he was always shown a secret escape route or hiding place... everyone in town and at the university knew they were after him, and all worked together to keep him safe. In the end, he survived the war not being deported.)

---

I'll be going into detail as to what I intend to do and how I intend to do it, and seek your wisest advice... I'm full on in the research phase now... the photography, the concept, the reason for the title, what I hope to achieve, my fears and aspirations, my sadness, my journey, hopefully my determination to be able to finish this project as i envision it, as that is what I fear the most: emotionally, this might just actually weigh too much upon my shoulders...

I have no answers. But maybe, just maybe, I could provoke good thought.

Lest we never forget.

a