Gaea Schoeters, journalist & author, wrote a poignant open letter to me about The Blue Skies Project in the insightful cultural magazine Rekto:Verso. It’s like she was able to take a peek into my soul, so wonderfully astutely written: https://www.rektoverso.be/artikel/beste-anton-kusters
I'm in Z33, House for Contemporary Art in Hasselt in Belgium. A group exhibit "The Artist Studio" with quite an interesting premise has recently opened. Here the studios of 14 artists (among which yours truly) have been re-imagined and built inside the existing exhibit spaces of Z33, offering a unique insight into how an artist works and thinks and relates to his/her space. In my case, I'll also be working there for one or two days a week for as long as the exhibit remains open (more details here), so my reimagined artist studio is also going to be a space to work. From the Z33 website:
"'The Artist’s Studio' navigates through various typologies of the artist's studio. Starting from the different artistic practices of the artists of Vonk (an organisation that provides studio spaces to professional artists in the cities of Hasselt and Genk), the exhibition focuses on the relationship between the artworks and their place of origin. Does the artist need a permanent studio to work in? Is the studio a place of reflection or rather a sanctuary? Does the studio function as a museum? Or is it primarily a laboratory for the production of knowledge?"
One of the key aspects is that curators Sofie Dederen (Frans Masereel Centrum) and Dirk Engelen (B-bis architecten) created a concept where I could take time and reflect about the works that I'm now making; something I feel is crucially important. For example, I would have the physical space to work on all 1078 blue sky images from The Blue Skies Project together.
The particular goal for me is over the course of 3 months to reflect upon the correct constellation of blue sky images. Will I organise them by their historical opening or closing date? Will I organise them by hue/color? By number? By gps location? These are all profound questions that I need to investigate.
The result of this reflection I will then be able to use when at a later stage this year, I can hopefully start work on the actual museum installation with the original instant film photographs (insert excited finger crossing here).
I'm now slowly adding about 200 1:1 reproductions every week, and hope that in a couple of weeks I can start my first tests.
And I'm wearing a brace now on my left wrist, as it seems I've been stressing the tendons in my thumb cutting a thousand images out of these large printed sheets, and banging a thousand nails into a wall.
The really funny thing is that this exhibit freakishly coincides with what I've been writing online here with Classroom Diaries: thinking about the impact of my new atelier on my artist practice and vice versa, my way of approaching, research, my process, creating my work. And due to this particular set of circumstances, I'm now able to show a part of this process in public in yet another space. So I work in my atelier, and talk about how it changes me, and now in an exhibit they create a new atelier where I can then talk about how I talk about the other atelier changing the way I work. Quite meta, don't you think? I love it.
Which reminds me. I think there's an important distinction between the English word "studio" and the French word "atelier". My studio is the professional place where I output my already created work and bring it to the world. It's more like a creative office, my place of business. And if I had any, my assistants and interns and studio manager would work there ( - crickets chirping). On the other hand, my atelier would be the absolute private place where I retreat to, to continually confront my artistic practice and expression, and learn and grow and study. In this space, limited dialogue with the outside world is crucial, and experimentation, failure and critical reflection is key.
I just came across these medical images of 2015 that were made of my neck. It's one of those moments the doctor tells you that you're actually too young to be worn out like this, but also that it is irreversible at the same time. Quite a mixed bag, feeling secretly proud that you're considered too young for something, but then sad that you're worn out.
The reason for all this apparently traced back to the camper van and my travels for The Blue Skies Project. Initially, I thought using a van was the best way to complete the journey, thinking I had absolute freedom this way and didn't need to worry about finding places to stay in – what I thought would be – the middle of nowhere.
Initially, I just couldn't find a comfortable position to drive, and for the life of me I couldn't figure it out. The seat was infinitely adjustable, trucker-style, so it should have been perfect. But I couldn't drive for more than 45mins at a time without needing a quick rest, as my right arm started to hurt more and more. It turned out that it wasn't the seat, but the position of the steering wheel that put a tremendous strain on my neck (in vans and trucks they're more "flat" as in horizontal, as opposed to regular cars).
In the beginning I endured, thinking that it was just me and that my body would have to get used to this new way of driving. But it didn't get better, and after a year the pain became unbearable. Painkillers didn't help anymore, and eventually I couldn't even lie down, let alone sleep. I was desperate. My doctor prescribed me more powerful medication, which finally offered some relief, and scheduled a CT scan at the hospital.
The diagnosis was quickly made: neural foraminal stenosis, the narrowing of the opening in the vertebra in my neck through which the nerves to my right arm pass. Turned out, a common thing among... truck drivers. Physical therapy brought a little relief, but not enough. I got scheduled for treatment at a pain clinic, where I was to receive three deep injections into my neck with intermittent pulsed electrical stimulation of the affected nerve.
I could barely lie down on the operating table by then, but had to be fully conscious throughout the procedure. It was really straightforward. Local anaesthetic, then they inserted the large needles while checking a live x-ray screen to accurately position them. The electrical stimulation that followed was incredible. The pain seemed to flow out of my body and the pulses offered an instant relief which I hadn't felt for over a year. Even though it was a weird to have three huge needles in my neck, I kinda wished it wouldn't stop.
A single session did it for me, although it did take a few days for my nerves to register the procedure and stop sending my brain all these panicked pain signals. I was in the clear. The specialist said that this treatment was not designed to solve the problem, but it would take away the pain symptoms. The longer they stayed away, the better. Could be 2 months or two years. Whenever the symptoms returned, the same procedure would be repeated until eventually ineffective, at which point surgery would be taken into account. In the meantime, targeted physiotherapy (Lorenzo you are amazing) and daily exercise would be key and the best chance to stop the progression of the stenosis. I don't think I've ever trained that hard.
Fast forward two and a half years to today, and the pain hasn't yet returned. I've also become good at sensing when I'm going too far and straining my neck. I learned to stretch regularly.
The sun is shining today, even though I'm told that it was the coldest night of winter last night.
Last week I finished scanning 1,078 polaroids in high resolution, and today I compared the reproductions that I made to the originals:
A sigh of relief. Many more sighs will be needed, but little steps like this make me confident to move on, damaged and all, looking at the faraway horizon ahead and the adventures it holds.
I'm a month in, etching the victim numbers onto my blue sky polaroids with an old 1951 typewriter. Every mark on the image is permanent, and I was dreading the fact of making any mistake along the way. I did several hundred successfully, and then the first one popped up. A simple case of accidentally switching around two digits. The only way to correct is like you would imagine the good old days: repeatedly backspace with the typewriter and make sure the correct digit is impressed even deeper over the incorrect digit. It reminded me from when I was a kid, playing with an old typewriter found in the attic and writing pages of probably meaningless text, the act of writing meaning more to me than the content at the time. I remember wondering how people could estimate the last word to fit on a line without having to hyphenate. Or how they could hyphenate at the last possible moment without losing or leaving too much space. That eager anxiety popping up again and again at the end of every line was fantastic.
And then came the kind of "automatic" typewriters (yes I sound really old now but I promise I still feel 18. No wait, make that 25) that would have a crude single line LED screen right above the keys fitting approximately 2-3 lines of text, automatically printing a line as soon as the proper length and hyphenation was determined. Or god knows which algorithm was used; probably nothing too fancy, but I was curious nonetheless. And what a miracle that was at the time, it allowed you to backspace and correct on that tiny screen without having to literally use white-out or cross out. Literally a "word processor" in the purest sense.
Fast forward to today and here, anno 2018 I'm going back to those days making a completely analog project again, in the most "dangerous" way possible. Dangerous as in that I have no possible backups for the originals, because they are polaroid images. There is simply no way to go back into a darkroom and make a new print. There is no negative that can be re-used. Gone is gone, any damage is permanent, images are irreplaceable. It's REALLY scary. To put in terms of today: imagine that you have your original RAW files on one hard disk only, no backup whatsoever, and that every time you would make an edit in Affinity or Photoshop, you would not be able to undo and you would have to save the work at every step.
I think the invention of "Undo" and "Save As" is vastly underrated.
Yet at the same time I feel eerily familiar working this way. Boxes and boxes of carefully protected polaroids, all labeled and in order, like a librarian with index cards to organise something much larger looming behind. Every time I take out a polaroid, I need to exercise a certain caution, a way of handling to minimise the possibility of any damage or degradation. I really like it that having a certain touch is required again. It's so much more than working digitally, it has so much more to it and kind of sets your mind free in ways I can only now appreciate after a decade of digital-based work where I would disappear into my screen. Really love that type of work too, but it's a different thing.
Now I appear to be growing calluses on my fingertips because I have to hit the keys to the Olympia really hard so the letters etch into the emulsion layer. Yesterday I broke a steel rod and had to do an emergency MacGyver repair. It made me realise how hard I'm actually striking those keys. Poor typewriter. At 874 polaroids numbered and 204 waiting, I'm almost there.
At the same time, I'm engaging in an attempt to keep the polaroids safe by scanning every single one along the way. A high res scan of 1,87GB, comparable to a 350 Megapixel image. I'm almost at 2TB now, and working right at the edge of what my RAW editor can handle.
This mix of working digitally and analog is really a nice place to be, I've always felt more in control in my digital darkroom than my analog one, yet I loved the latter so much more. Ahh the days inside making prints. Since I stopped with my darkroom I've always missed the analog-ness and the uniqueness of the original. It's something I feared I had lost, but now regained with Blue Skies. Actually doubly so, because I have no negative, only one original print.
For the book – I'm working with Teun van der Heijden – we're following the same thought process of marrying digital with analog. As we all know, no book leaves Teun's hands without also being a worthy physical object and having a well defined position in his mind of what that book should be. And the Blue Skies book has a set of unique hurdles to overcome, the simplicity of a blue sky polaroid being so abstract and unforgiving. The step of going from digital to analog in reverse and all over again. My publisher (who I'll reveal soon) is a wonderful man who's completely on the same page. His approach is equally unique and extremely thoughtful. I'll be in good company in his catalog, knowing that he deeply understands the work.
Today is break day. I tend to go deep and disregard my body along the way and I know I shouldn't be doing that. No stress in my mind though. But then again, who knows what dragons lurk in the subconscious depths of the soul?
Have a great weekend,
After 5 years of on and off journeys to a thousand concentration camps, the cleanup started in the boot of my car. Everything that had been in there for such a long time could now return either to my studio, my storage or simply back home (hello coffee maker).
I actually started off my Blue Skies journeys not by car, but by renting a camper van from dear friends. It allowed me to be quite flexible – or so I thought – in looking for places to sleep. I wouldn't need to plan ahead where I would end up every night, which was a logistical challenge given the fact that I had no idea how fast or slow any given travel day would be. Travel was very complicated and had to be very fast and flexible, because I had to literally drive behind the good weather and breaking cloud cover.
But slowly, changes on different fronts were happening, making my life easier. Google's My Maps became vastly more powerful and allowed custom maps to appear in its iOS app, effectively connecting my location research to my GPS navigation. I didn't have to manually bridge between the two anymore, constantly manually entering GPS coordinates dozens of times a day.
Weather apps were also improving rapidly, I now had access to weather apps that used the European satellites and allowed me to see live infrared cloud patterns over the continent. This proved to be a crucial layer of information for me. Now if only that could have been overlaid over the Google Maps app.
And then – finally – the data roaming in the EU became standardised (gone with the preposterous roaming charges, the mobile networks desperately trying to squeeze out the last little bit of profit before conceding), so I could finally get rid of the bunch of different SIM cards I was forced to use in a mobile hotspot.
The final thing that made my life easier was the possibility to book rooms online on the same day, have all my reservations at my fingertips and easily change if circumstances would arise. I had started out with AirBnB, but that became quite cumbersome and it still was very hard to find same day reservations. In contrast, using booking.com streamlined everything in a wonderful way and openend up rooms for same day reservation even in the most remote parts of Europe. I still am super annoyed though how they constantly push you during every single reservation no matter where you are ("last room available!", "booked 23 times in the last hour!", "hurry" etc etc).
All these unconnected advancements made it much cheaper and more efficient for me to travel by car. Using only 1/3rd of the fuel of a camper van and literally allowing met to work out of my boot, I had finally found the most affordable and efficient way to deal with traveling for this immense project.
Now 5 years later, cleaning out the trunk, I noticed my foldable camping chair that I had always taken along with me. As you can imagine, traveling to more than a thousand WW2 concentration camps wasn't a particularly "light" thing to do, and I ended up looking for every possible way to rest my weary mind. I found that stopping randomly at large fields or meadows at the side of a road and just sitting there for a while staring in the distance, helped a lot to keep things in perspective. My little camping chair became crucial to me, my sanity-keeper.
To this day I keep it in my car, and it reminds me to once in a while just stop and let go.
I'm writing this as I start work at my "new old" atelier. I'm still close to my home studio, but I desperately needed a bigger space to produce the actual artwork for The Blue Skies Project, which requires quite a large wall to preview. I was fortunate enough to rent a classroom in an abandoned primary school just a few miles from home (thanks Vonk!). I'm joining other artists already there, and there's a good vibe going on. Plus the light in my classroom is just perfect :)
So I've got a busy six months ahead of me, and for now the walls are still empty: there's quite some research to be double-checked first, and some important dossiers to be made and submitted.
And then there's my fear of forgetting. So this lovely setting won't only be to find a good work rhythm, but also to recall things that happened during my blue skies travels along the way, things that I'm afraid I will forget... if not already.
I don't want to forget. It's been hard enough travelling all this distance over the course of 5 years. I've seen jaw-dropping monuments and commemorations at times, but I've also witnessed the most anonymous places with no trace whatsoever, empty landscapes and busy streets alike that have witnessed it all. It saddens me more than anythings else. I've collected stuff on scraps of paper all over, brochures, receipts, notes on my computer, in my phone, images everywhere, information in links online and in books and encyclopaedias.
I have to consolidate all this data, and I thought it would be a good idea to keep a diary of my atelier days at the abandoned school. Regularly set some time aside to talk about what I'm doing, what I'm remembering and don't want to forget, which project or what particular aspect of The Blue Skies Project I'm working on at that moment, and what I've come across in my rummaging.
The main things I'll be doing are obviously making the Blue Skies artwork and book. I'm talking to museums and I've just started book design with Teun, plus Ruben is working on a stunning audio piece. Both dear friends. Lots of exciting things going on.
I can't wait to get started. As soon as I've consolidated all the research – which will take me the rest of the year – I can finally dive in making the artwork.
Measuring about 10x2m, the thing is going to be huge. It scares me. I've got no idea if I'll ever be able to complete construction without some serious logistical and financial help. We'll see... plus who knows what will happen along the road.
I realise I've been in very deep for a long time now, and probably most of what I've been saying just now makes no sense to you whatsoever. I have quite some explaining to do, I promise things will become clear along the way...
Here's to blue skies and favourable winds,
The Natzweiler concentration camp is the only one that was built by the nazis on French territory. It was set up on May 1, 1941, in the Alsace after it had been annexed by Germany the year before. The site was chosen because of the proximity of a granite quarry. Approximately 52,000 prisoners were registered in Natzweiler and the subcamps, and the mortality rate was quite high due to the harsh working conditions: about 20,000 prisoners died of exhaustion, hunger, illness and maltreatment. The main camp had at least 42 subcamps at any given moment, with a t total of 56.
There were medical experiments at Natzweiler, mainly for the effects of mustard gas, typhus, and hereditary diseases. For this purpose a gas chamber was built outside the camp, and bodies were sent to the anatomy institute at the Medical University of Strasbourg.
The camp was evacuated on August 31, 1944, before the advance of the Allied armies. Most of the 7,000 remaining prisoners were evacuated on foot to its many sub camps, and were transferred to the control of Dachau in April 1945.
The journey to Natzweiler-Struthof is part of a series of journeys that I'm undertaking to photograph the blue skies precisely above the (last known) location of every single one of the 1,074 concentration camps that have ever existed, as part of a photography/book/installation project called The Blue Skies Project. The project has proven quite immense and almost impossible to hold on to single-handedly – with staggering logistics to match – but I'm hanging in there.
So much has gone into my current Mono No Aware + Yakuza exhibit – it's the largest one I've had in my career to date – that I thought it might be a good idea to describe some of the things happening behind the scenes.
I was invited for a first conversation with Gerhard (the director) about 13 months ago. A simple premise: "next year is a city-wide celebration of the 25th anniversary of the city's relationship with Japan (Hasselt has an exquisite Japanese garden - the largest in Europe), your images often have a connection to Japan, might we find common ground?" As Hasselt is my home town, everything seemed like a very nice potential fit. Gerhard had seen Yakuza exhibited before, and Mono No Aware at Ingrid Deuss in Antwerp. In the larger whole of the city wide celebrations, it seemed logical to display both bodies of work, and to focus on the newer, mostly unseen work of Mono No Aware. They would each get a separate space in the building.
As Mono No Aware only ever had been partially exhibited, a lot of production would still have to happen. And I was unsure about impact the huge space of the cultural centre would have on my work. My first sketches started out to try and make the space drastically smaller and more intimate. rooms within rooms, literally creating an environment which could be completely controlled. A natural instinct I suppose:
As you can imagine, this proved to be too expensive... I had to find a way to work with the space instead of against it. Because I've extensively used Japanese rice paper and goza mats in installations before, maybe they'd come in handy this time as well. Even though the sketches were very basic, they were excited to go for the key elements of high walls, circles, rice paper, goza mats and colour. I could start making a production dossier next.
Over the next couple of months all elements of the production had to be dealt with, and in the dossier I would end up including the following things - in no particular order:
a collection of installation views of previous exhibits (so I could reassure everyone that I did indeed know what I was doing)
a list of assumptions specific to the organisation and location
the overall concept of the exhibit and its installation + whatever is tailored to the space/organisation/event
synopsis of each project
a cv and bio, publication tearsheets
a visual overview of the installation elements needed
a complete edit of all the images of the Mono No Aware project (and Yakuza too of course)
current status: what existed already and what not (production-wise)
a general timeline
a budget proposal (artwork production, framing, installation production, artist fees)
transport requirements, storage requirements
personal thoughts and questions
exhibition histories of both projects
specific production sheets for the lab, the frame maker, etc.
As soon as the budget was approved, I could start production... First setting in motion the things that would reasonably be expected to take the longest or have insecure delivery dates, i.e. ordering the custom made goza mats and rice paper in Japan and getting them shipped to Belgium and through customs. Thanks to my brother and sister-in-law this all went without a hitch.
A schedule of days reserved for the build up was spread out over 3 weeks in April, starting on the 3rd, and the opening being on the 23rd (with a private viewing on the 22nd). The first week would be used for construction of the walls and the painting, while we started sewing the mats. The second week the system to hang up the rice papers would be tested, and on the 18th all the artwork would be delivered and everything would come together.
2D and 3D
Most of my time went into designing the actual exhibit, while communicating with the technical staff along the way as to where they might foresee problems installing, visitor flow, or anything else.
In this specific case, the exhibition space doubled as the foyer of a theatre (seating 900), so I needed to take this reality into account. As a bonus, this also meant that most probably many more people would see the exhibit, literally passing through it on their way to watch a play or a concert.
3D helps me to get a grasp on variables that I can't see in 2D. However, I still always start with sketching on paper, then printing and cutting out all the images and laying them out on a floor plan / wall plan, slowly moving to digital along the way.
In the meantime, things start appearing in the press, and my control strips arrive from the lab. More work to be done. Images are to be printed on different media and across very different sizes (from tiny 8.5x11inch to massive 9ft wide posters), and every digital file needs to be dealt with individually.
Erwin, head technician, tells me it's time to deliver the wall colours: I verify each color with its corresponding color code so the paint can be mixed. The walls need to be painted about 10 days in advance so they can dry thoroughly and self-adhesive posters (or anything else that needs to be stuck) can be applied safely.
All in the while, the tech guys are building the walls. Also a test shoji screen is made at a 1:2 scale. Paint is delivered and painting begins.
And then they deliver the outside banner.
The final stretch
Time for the final stretch. In the last week, everything comes together as the artwork all gets delivered on the same day:
framed images from the framer
posters from the lab
vinyl letters and stickers from the lab
printed huge rice papers from the lab
the custom shoji screens
already produced works from my storage space
I print a paper for every single wall, with a visualisation and all necessary measurements. They remain on the walls until final inspection, so everyone working on a wall has all information at all times.
Sewing goza mats
One of the longest works of this exhibit was the stitching together the goza mats. Everything needed to be sewn together by hand in specific patterns for specific parts of the exhibit. Almost 200 mats in total, it took us four full days with a team of 6 people. Without my family I would've never been able to pull this off. Thanks a million everyone...
Then the posters are installed, the artworks are hung, the rice paper is cut to size and the vinyl letters are attached: we're nearing completion.
At the very last moment we have to hang the final rice papers from the ceiling, which takes a full day and a half. A few hours later, the vernissage.... and all stress melts away.
I'm so incredibly grateful to be able to work with my family and such dedicated and professional people, and an organisation that believed in the concept in the first place. Needless to say, you must come and see... it's totally worth it, I promise.
As a final bonus, here's a video walkthrough.
Have fun, and see you soon,
Recently I did an informal talk at my friend Evelien’s place in Amsterdam. She organised everything and hosted at her place with Po, cat extraordinaire. 8 friends at the table, cooking and having dinner together, and afterwards one of us talks about his work.
I had mentioned before to her how I missed being able to talk to friends about what I’m currently doing, what thoughts are going on in my head, the projects I’m tackling behind the scenes, the way I try to stay afloat financially, how to produce my own work, what scares me, what makes me confident, if the ideas I’m having are actually good or not. You know, things you normally only reserve for your inner circle, if even that. It's cool to appear confident after all.
So Evelien said “hey what if we create a formula that’s casual enough so that friends/colleagues/fellow professionals from different fields can get together, cook together and drink wine together, in general find out how everyone’s doing, and then after dinner one person gets up, connects his/her laptop to the tv and talks openly. A limited group, 7-8 people max. Oh, and you should be the first one to do this, by the way. Just so you know. Next time you’re in Amsterdam, you’re on.”
No pressure there :)
Renate was going to cook Bombay Eggs for dinner, and we decided to name the event “Eggs & Photos”. The condition would be that always at least one dish should have eggs as an ingredient., and that the friend-speaker should have prepared a three hour talk at the minimum (just to mess with their minds). The concept was born.
I’ve written before about having a group of people that are instrumental to me being able to gauge different aspects of my work or my process, but now I got the chance to talk about everything all at once to everyone all at once. Basically an unedited look behind the scenes into the running engine that is my mind.
It was different than any talk I’ve ever given. So much better and more liberating. I can’t say exactly what prompted this, but I ended up laying everything out there, no taboos. About (the lack of) money, securities and insecurities, storytelling, the choice of only making autonomous work, collaborations, cameras, images as objects, books as objects, connecting to people, drinking coffee and what not. The resulting discussions were extremely interesting, professionals friends bouncing off ideas and feeding off of each others feedback. Actual constructive dialogue, as it were.
Usually the outside world knows you through your images, your publications, your social media, and to a lesser extent your lectures or workshops. All of which is admittedly a very narrow connection. But now, I could talk about a complete picture of what’s behind all that.
It’s one of the most important things I’ve always missed as a professional photographer: constructive professional peer/friend feedback and discussion. I always imagined this to be the core reason why photo collectives existed in the first place, not for the pooling of resources or the collective strength or the brand or the notoriety or whatever, but the open-behind-closed-doors discussion of everyone’s work in every possible stage, from concept to full on production to putting it in the world out there. No taboos, no holds barred. Genuinely people interested in thinking and discussing - with a strong professional background, not necessarily related to photography - with zero alternative agenda.
So it turned out, while preparing my massive three hour minimum “tour of what’s inside my head” presentation, that I didn’t even know that I was actively working on 9 substantial projects simultaneously (and a whole lot of concepts of course). Two have already been “put in the world” so to speak (Yakuza & Mono No Aware), but they do need constant working on nonetheless (e.g. I’m working on an exhibit for both of them as we speak). Because my work is autonomous and long-term, whenever a project is put out there (even if you’ve worked on it for years already), it would be considered “just the beginning”.
So I’ve come to look at my current projects as my nine lives: if I manage to get each and every one out there in the world, that would be 9 versions of myself out there, each with its own idiosyncrasies, mistakes and imperfections, its own beauty and ugliness, its own successes and failures. But it will be out there, alive and independent, making a mark, and I’ll be proud.
The one thing I can’t wait for? To be invited to the next Eggs & Photos, as an audience member this time, to return the huge favour.
The Hinzert concentration camp was established in 1938 to construct the Westwall. There were 27 sub camps connected to the main camp. Originally, it was a police detention camp, and officially came under the control of the SS-WVHA on February 7, 1942. Hinzert was unique among concentration camps in the sense that it had an autonomous Gestapo (secret state police) interrogation squad inside the camp (which was uncommon, as the concentration camp system was run by the SS, an entirely different organisation).
Hinzert was originally built for 560 prisoners, but in reality continually housed between 800 and 1,200 prisoners during its existence. In total, estimates are up to 20,000 prisoners. Official camp records accounted for almost 300 deaths. This death count was extremely low because Hinzert was not only a small camp, but most of the time it also acted as a transit camp, with prisoners arriving there only to leave to another destination a few days later. But even so, researchers have found the official death count to be too low, with a more realistic figure being an estimated 1,000 victims.
On November 21, 1944, the Hinzert camps came under jurisdiction of the Buchenwald concentration camp, and was dissolved on March 2, 1945 when U.S. troops reached the city of Trier.
The journey to Hinzert is part of a series of journeys that I'm undertaking to photograph the blue skies precisely above the (last known) location of every single one of the 1,075 concentration camps that have ever existed, as part of an photography/book/installation project called The Blue Skies Project. The project has proven quite immense and almost impossible to hold on to single-handedly – with staggering logistics to match – but I'm hanging in there.
These 360 books weigh 396kg. At this point, I was happy that my table was holding up. All of them individually signed and wrapped, and everyone here at home had chipped in to prepare and pack in just one day. The next morning we drove two full cars to the postal center to bulk ship everything.
Things went really smooth... and these were just the pre-orders for May 1st. Needless to say I'm ecstatic. Hopefully this third edition of YAKUZA will go the same way as the previous ones.
Seeing all this weight on my table reminded me of something else too. The feeling that over the past years my focus has slowly been drifting into "taking care of the things that I have", versus focusing on "making new work".
What's on my table now (the projects that I've completed), versus what's on my horizon tomorrow (the projects that I'm embarking upon). I know there's tremendous value and importance to taking care of each of them... and personally I couldn't function adequately without either one. It's a case of grass greener on the other side: whenever you're on one side, you tend to long for the other side.
A part of me wishes it could stand up and boldly claim "I'm one hundred percent focused on tomorrow", and I guess, in a way, it's true: always looking for new opportunities, remembering things that catch your eye, things that you care about and want to talk about, things that happen along the way. I've got folders and notebooks full of opportunities to be taken. That's fine, and they're a treasure.
But it's the part that comes right after: shaping the idea so that it becomes a project, becomes possible, becomes reality, leaping out from a thought in your mind to something that's actually happening, and that people will be interested to see, hear, or read about.
On top of that, the landscape of storytelling has changed so much in the last few years, the language of photography completely being rewritten as we speak, it's not a case anymore of what we - as visual storytellers - can or cannot do. It's become a case of how much we are willing to adapt, unlearn old things and learn new things along the way.
Alongside all that daily struggle of adapting and making happen and moving forward, there's just one thing we must always do: keep our horizons distant.
It's hard to maintain that balance. 99 percent of the time you probably must look close, take care of the day to day, the realities that are in front of you NOW. Adapt. Make it happen. Move. But every once in a while, you need to climb a tree or a little hill and look into the distance, at your horizon. Enjoy the moment. Is it still far. Is it still like a dream. And don't forget to look back also, see how far you've come. It's always much further than you think. Plus it kinda puts things into perspective.
And then climb back down, adjust course if necessary, continue.... and enjoy. It's all about the journey after all.
In a way I feel very much that now after 5 years I've only just started out, just traveled enough to consider myself actually starting out – if you know what I mean. I used to climb up my tree, look out and only stare forward in the distance and dream and look at an horizon so far and vague that I could barely make out what it was. Recently I started looking back as well. Perspective. Makes me realise that it's all worth it.
The horizon's still far, but that's okay. Horizons always look so good. I guess they're meant to be.
I had an hour long interview on Belgian national radio (vrt - Klara) last week about my life and my projects, and how I approach both of them. Talking about jumping, insecurities, doubt, luck, happiness, working hard. I'm sorry, it's in Dutch...
Enjoy jour day today,
Not so long ago my brother and I took a cab home in Tokyo. I filmed the passing view in a really basic way, and I'm pretty sure the cab driver pokes his nose at a certain point. But every time I watch it, it always seems to evoke something, calm me down, and make me lose track of time.
Music credit: Homeward Angel by Moby.
I use notebooks extensively to write down my thoughts, to think about projects, to sketch, to jot down ideas... and I've always thought this way better than anything digital for the same purpose. There are great singular apps that are really focused on GTD ("getting things done") – and I use them too of course, they're fantastic – but I think writing and sketching in notebooks is simply for a different kind of situation, one that does not need to be solved by "getting things done".
Writing and sketching by hand is more geared towards what I would call GTO, or "getting things out" (of my brain) in the most easy and efficient way. And to me, nothing beats paper and pencil at this.
Of course, there are also many great ways to keep your notebook organised, most notably the all encompassing Bullet Journal and the deceptively simple Dash/Plus System... and I'm sure there must be many more. And of course I've tried these. But again, they're not solving the point described above: they're great for Getting Things Done, but not geared towards Getting Things Out. I think GTD should happen in different moments than GTO, maybe even effectively one leading to the other, as natural extensions of one another.
You shouldn't be bothered with organising in any way while trying to put ideas on paper, while trying to think about a concept, while getting thoughts out of your head. It's already hard enough to get them out of your head (however disorganised they are), you shouldn't be forcing your brain to think along the lines of a system (any system) while the priority is simply to get things out. Organising those thoughts has to be done indeed, but should only come at a later stage.
It would be like photographing and having a perfect contact sheet at the same time... it's kind of impossible... unless you're pure genius of course.
With photography it's exactly the same thing: a story usually gets built later. When you're photographing, you shouldn't be worried about the structure. Letting things flow, and having just the basic plot of the story in your mind is more than enough. Not only will it give you tremendous freedom, it will also allow other angles to pop up because you're open to things happening along the way. I'm speaking of long term projects here, because I keep in mind that if I find something or things go off in a different, maybe better direction, I always have the chance to come back again next time.
On the other hand, if you know you only have one shot, the chance of a lifetime right there and then, then for god's sake, please make sure you get the shot.
And eventually, slowly, you will start connecting dots, building structure. But still, I'd recommend to approach and err on the side of "disorganised writing/shooting and connecting dots later", as opposed to "setting yourself a rigid structure and employing rigid writing/shooting". Obviously both are valid approaches, and some days you'll favour one over the other, but in my case, if I can stand the uncertainty of maybe not delivering, I like the former much more. It's like taking little leaps of faith every time. In a way, being rigid about not being rigid.
Now this brings me to the next problem: How can I organise my thoughts after the fact? Weeks later, I can hardly tear pages from my books and bring elements together. I have kind of a feeling that a notebook should not be (substantially) altered afterwards, in order to respect the spirit and the time it has been written in. But on the other had, I need to be able to revisit my thoughts in a semi-efficient way, so as not that these notebooks become little black holes that suck up my thoughts only never to release them again.
Enter the little round stickers.
Deceptively simple, I just add a little round sticker on a page by something that I need to remember, or need to come back to. more stickers means more important. That's all there is to it. Nothing more, nothings less.
Come to think of it, photographers sometimes used to use these very same stickers to mark the selects on their contact sheets (although the red crayon/marker is probably the superior solution there)
To summarise: always be aware of the difference between getting things done and getting things out. They both are necessary, but warrant a different approach and should be avoided being mixed up. To "get things out", I try to do this:
- create the shortest possible path: avoid everything that stops or hinders the pure flow from your brains to the paper. I barely even use a title or a date, I keep on forgetting
- the shortest possible path means the thing you know best and can do instinctively: writing, sketching, pen or pencil on paper. Everything else is just a collection of micro-interruptions to your thoughts getting out.
- the importance of turning a page, and sharpening a pencil
- make sure your environment is conductive to what you are doing, but remember: it's not always what you think and it changes often: locking yourself away in a cabin in the mountains is not by definition going to make you think better. Thinking is a social, interactive process, and every project, even every mood, can warrant a different physical place. Just be aware of this, it's very subtle.
- to facilitate revisiting thoughts – a crucial phase – use red dots extensively. Also, every time when revisiting, be prepared to move, remove or add red dots as realities might have changed... hence the stickers.
p.s. In regards to GTD, so many people much smarter than me have written about this... I would say: pick and choose your system, change regularly just to flex your brain. In this realm, going digital really shines, and many apps are really amazing..
I've been traveling through Japan's most southern island Kyushu last week. With Jonathan, who lives there and helped me, and his incredible microbus. What a journey it turned out to be. Completely different than Tokyo, but in many ways, actually the same. At first it was like I was seeing a completely opposite, different country, a rural Japan versus the metropolis, but I started to realise a powerful connection that surpasses all this and makes sure that they cannot exist without each other: the people.
I saw old and young. I saw ancient homes long abandoned and new homes being built. I saw young people that left to the cities and their parents that stayed behind. I saw grandparents and grandchildren. I heard stories about generations and how they are connected yet separated, each speaking fondly of the other, longing to be united. I saw entire ghost towns deep in the mountains, alongside young families arriving from the city and new houses being built. I saw dedication and perseverance, hope, loneliness and happiness.
I saw a lot of weight to carry, yet also a surprising lightness surrounding it.
And I saw memories, in a harsh mountainous landscape shaped as if it had physically made space to store them. Memories like old homes, new homes, torn down, built up everywhere. Everything alive, connected by a neural network of roads and power lines running from place to place.
But above all, I saw people that understood. That deeply respect and understand their roots, their relationship to the place they live in, the country and culture they live in, the past and future generations they live with and without, and how this makes them to who they are today.
They profoundly understand the weight they carry, and in a world where it seems like we're all uprooted running around in circles, feeling like we're all alone raising our little families in an – at best – seemingly indifferent world around us, I think this kind of understanding just might be important. Not only for us, but for our grandchildren.
I think I'd like to dig deeper into this one.
I swear I only read the horoscope after the fact, and entirely by accident. And I still don't believe in those kind of things. But the fact happened nonetheless. Due to some freak coincidence of unrelated events, things hit me and I gained some major insights. Not without some agony of course.
These insights now feel good in a weird way that I now know where I stand; and more importantly, because of that, that I also know what lies ahead of me. A mountain to climb. A sea to swim.
Knowing what lies ahead, however huge it is, is comforting. I'd rather know and have to do something hard, than not know and not be able to do anything. Not knowing is frustrating, debilitating, demoralising. Knowing means I can focus, instead of being helpless throwing punches in the dark. Knowing allows me to either succeed, or to fail with only myself to hold accountable. Yes, I know there are always circumstances that arise, and pure luck plays a big role too. But at least I'll be walking in the right direction.
"Knowing" really is half the battle. And I'm in good spirits now, finally knowing where it's at.
Whenever I'm at a seaside, I try to go for a walk. Usually a long one. There aren't that many things that calm my mind and senses down so well as waves crashing on a shore... be it a rocky one or a beach. Pair it with the ever present wind, even rain or cold, being barefoot trousers rolled up walking a long stretch, and having nobody around for miles... it's a perfect recipe for many things.
Over the past year of so, I've had the feeling that these walks had turned from "staring into the distance nice-to-do walks", to "necessary, career-do-or-die thinking walks", and that's not what it should be. The need for thinking things over about my photography somehow crept in there and became way too much... draining my energy, and freezing me over stone cold, not being able to produce new images. To the point that I ended up standing there at the Baltic Sea wondering just what's the use of it all.
And then I stumbled across Ira Glass' fantastic advice (yes... I'm sorry it took me so long to come across this). He hits the mark so perfectly... It's about that gap, knowing that gap is there, seeing where you want to be and seeing where you are and not being content with it, and wanting to take just one huge step to get "there" but not being able to and then wanting to quit.
Listening to this, I know now that I too, fell for it... I wanted desperately to be past "making mistakes" already... and then simply "being able to recognise what is good" and "not being content where I was", kind of fooled me into thinking I could also get where I wanted to be quite easily.
Of course I cannot skip the step of actually having to make a lot of work and making many mistakes along the way. Being able to discern what is good or where you want to be, is fine, but it maketh the artist not.
Of course the "information age" isn't helping me either: you see so much wonderful work being put out there, every second, every day. So many fantastic books to read, so many exhibits to look at, so many things to explore... it's almost discouraging. Almost.
I honestly "saw" it. I honestly felt I could immediately just "be" there. I was wrong. And I believed it so much, that I now realise that I turned a blind eye to what I should have been doing.
So. Problem solved. Now I know i must go out and go through a volume of work. However I need to. However long it takes. Work hard. And make mistakes. And grow. And keep going. Do not stop.
If nothing else, just because mistakes are actually cool 😊
Not so long ago in Berlin.
I really, really, really don't know where the series is going yet... but there's something in the images I'd like to explore.
I went to Berlin for two weeks, looking to see if a new story – that was playing in my mind – was actually possible. I worked hard setting up everything right, and friends helped me out for many crucial parts. I played over all possible scenarios in my head countless times.
And of course reality turned out to be something completely different.
We all know this mostly happens, and we all know we must be prepared to adapt at all times. Mind you, I'm not thinking "different" in terms of "better" or "worse". The project just became "different" in se, in every possible way. I eventually ended up asking myself if I should hold on to the story I envisioned, or let the unfolding reality in front of me take me along for the ride? Or could I make both fit together? Were they even that different? A tour de force?
I'm now letting everything sink in at home. I'm empty and full at the same time. I hit rock bottom there doubting myself and my abilities. Yet I met amazing people with beautiful stories that I would sooooo like to visualise in the best way I possibly can. Need to. Their stories. The common ground they represent.
Pretty vague right now, I know, I know... but I'll come up with a title and a good description as soon as I have just a few more images... Slowly and steady, right?
I must say, it feels like I'm on a huge crossroad for this one, constantly being swayed left to right, top to bottom. Love it. Hate it. Continue. Abandon. Move on. Get real. Make better images. But even though all that's happening, I still see something in the imperfect images I already have.
So I kind of have nowhere to hide, right?
All is set.
I just need to make many, many, strong images.
As if that's the easy part.
I just laid out the last three images of my first book YAKUZA next to the first three images of my second book MONO NO AWARE...
Completely different project, timeframe, approach, thinking, mindset, everything.... yet...
food for thought I guess...
Mono no aware is the title of my upcoming book.
It's a Japanese term that could be translated as an awareness of the transience of things.
Like when you're driving home and the sun sets over the vast fields around you and the music's just right and the warm wind in your hair and your friends next to you and conversations go quiet and the long winding road ahead and your mind goes blank and you find yourself staring into the distance and then you snap out of it, everyone knowing you've all had, but can't keep, that moment that just passed.
I'm sure there are many more examples of these kind of moments... We all know them. We're all moved by them. They all stop time for us for just a second... and then we must move on.
Here's the introductory text:
So there you have it. Mono no aware. A new book.
As you've read in the previous post, the road to this book hasn't exactly been easy. But now we're in that home stretch, and it feels right. Good people and friends helping. Hopefully we'll be at the press soon. And as always I'll be talking about every step of the way.... my fears and anxieties, thought processes, decisions, mistakes, and hopefully a tiny sprinkle of genius in there somewhere.
One thing for sure: I feel I need to make this book, tell this story, because, in a way I can't really explain, I believe it's important we keep our little moments just a little longer.
Try to stop time. Just sometimes. Just a little bit.