A good six months after Max Pinckers lost the vote to join the Magnum photography agency, he is presenting his brilliant new book, Margins of Excess, in which he shows precisely what documentary photography ought to be in the post-truth era. Hybrid, poetic, human.
These are strange times for reality. The deeper we get entangled in this post-truth era, the more malleable both it and our own perception become. We no longer believe our eyes, but only see what we already believe. This is not a new phenomenon in Max Pinckers’s practice.
For years, his work has explored the unsteady relationship between reality and fiction, rooted in his critical take on documentary photography, its inherent idea of truth and truthfulness, and its urge for aesthetics. What do we see? How do we see? And how and why are our gaze and, more broadly, our perception of reality and truth manipulated?
The foundations of his investigations lie in a concern to show reality in all its complexity, however paradoxical it may be. “We constantly switch between the real and the unreal, certainties and doubt, the tangible and the emotional,” Max Pinckers says. It is this hybrid core that he both beautifully and brilliantly reveals and explores in his latest book, Margins of Excess. It is primarily based around portraits of six people that have appeared in the American media with stories that were later “unmasked”.
We see Herman Rosenblat, for example, who invented a love-story set during the Holocaust at Schlieben, a subdivision of the Buchenwald concentration camp. Or Ali Alqaisi, who pretended to be the “hooded man” in the iconic photo from the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.
Truth or Dare?
““Why did you do it? Why did you tell such a big lie to so many people for so long?” It is one of the first things we read in Margins of Excess. And it is also the most striking question that Max Pinckers does not ask in his interviews with the six people. Margins of Excess picks up where the media’s occasionally destructive process of establishing the truth leaves off. With the individual who was “unmasked” as a liar and a fraud, as the inhabitant of a life that is detached from reality as we know it and seek to preserve it.
And yet, Max Pinckers is interested precisely in that ground beneath our feet. The portraits of the six “characters”, as Max Pinckers calls them, form the bedrock for the unmasking of the very framework that guides our perception.
News headlines, press articles, interviews, and an associative cluster of images – from apparitions and weeping Marys, to UFOs, white vans, and staged mourning – are all brought into the mix. Next to these images, which employ, fragment, manipulate, and/or over-aestheticize the language of documentary photography, his interviews show themselves unfiltered, like unmediated monologues that sometimes cut heart-rendingly deep. In these pieces, the phantasms of the six transform into constructions that arm them against the world, and which can be so real they hurt.
And therein lies the essence of this human photographic essay: Max Pinckers tackles our inability and that of the media to deal with whatever goes on beyond the reaches of our vision.
What is normal? What is deviant? What is that hybrid, defiant identity and how does it relate to perception? “People have a way of, what is known as, stereotyping things, making it into their own kind of format,” says Darius McCollum, a New York train buff who has been to prison 30 times since he was 15 for driving trains and busses illegally.
Is the lie whatever doesn’t fit in the box or whatever challenges the box itself? Is Ali Alqaisi a liar because he used an emblematic image to illustrate what he himself went through? Does it make his story any less true? Is Rachel Dolezal, who pretended to be a black woman, lying because she approaches race as something fluid (like gender), something to which the soul is connected but which is not a physical reality? “I’ve had my years of confusion and wondering who I really [was],” she says, “but I’m not confused about that any longer. I think the world might be – but I’m not.”
Why do we choose the photographic and moral snapshot over the story? The packaging is not the content. More than one photo is possible, and that is exactly what Margins of Excess – the unintended content of a photo that makes it available to other readings – highlights. It is these reflections that define genuine “documentary photography”: photography that shows the complexity of reality. It presupposes a passionate questioning of the world, of the medium that you use, and of your own role as a photographer. Max Pinckers throws a spanner into the works of our seeing-blind faith.
By questioning the great and indomitable truth from within that small, ever so human lie, with great compassion and poetic acuity, and exchanging it for those places in the margins of the image that are swarming with life.
> Margins of Excess. Max Pinckers. Self-published, 352 p. €50