*By Risotto Negro
I am an artist born in Netherlands. When I was young I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do. I studied history and at the same time I did some painting, photography and played music in a band. I liked Frank Zappa and The Kinks.
I quit painting and music (lousy painter / mediocre musician) and focused on journalism, took it more professionally. I did writing and photography. After a time, I concentrated in photo.
In 2002 a friend of mine, editor of a Dutch magazine, asked me to join him on a trip to Mozambique. I was very much interested because of the long term war consequences of this country. But he wanted to publish something completely different. My task: to photograph decentralization of administration, supported by Dutch development aid.
-My goodness… is there anything more interested than that? – I asked my friend.
-No, no, no.
-Ok, let’s go.
I thought more about it and it sounded interesting after a while. So we started visiting offices and government employees. The first pictures were in black and white (a lot of my work at the time was in b&w). After Mozambique I decided to continue portraying these bureaucrats behind their desks. I asked a journalist, also friend of mine, Will Tinnemans, to join me on the next chapter: India. That’s how the project Bureaucratics started. I used b/w and color. When I saw the results, I thought, this is so much better in color. After India, we went on.
Bureaucracy in fact being the executive power of a country and the showroom window of the state, we selected the countries based on their political system or impact: they had to represent something of wider implications: the world’s superpower (USA), the world’s biggest democracy (India), a representative of an African country coming out of civil war (Liberia), etc.
The process was more or less like this: First, we had to get a general and convincing permission to photograph and interview in the bureaucracy in a province, a state, a departamento, etc. of a country. Once we had that -and that proved very difficult indeed-, we would make unannounced visits to all kinds of offices and surprise the bureaucrats. While I was setting up my lights, the writer started the interview immediately, so the official is distracted and can’t tidy his desk. We wanted to photograph the natural habitat. All I did was asking: -Can you please look at the camera?
So part of the journalist’s job was getting the information (duties, salary, etc), but also to keep them from cleaning up or otherwise changing their offices. The camera was at eye’s height, imitating the eye of a local citizen just entering. I tried to make the portrait as boring as possible, with a Piet Mondrian structure. Bureaucracy means rules and regulations: straight lines, rectangles, squares. Bureaucracy is square, in all its possible meanings. So the photos also have a square format.
We shot in 8 countries, 20-45 portraits per country. We didn’t get the permission in 2 places: Cuba and The Vatican. I selected 70 photos in total. The project Bureaucratics became famous. This month (September 2010) alone, it is being shown in 5 different places. We exhibited in Buenos Aires last month at Centro Cultural Recoleta for El Festival de la Luz. I got an invitation through the Dutch embassy.
It’s a complete mystery to me how photographers can survive in Argentina: nobody ever seems to pay them. In Europe and the USA my exhibition is rented. In Argentina: no fee. I was told that many photographers give their photos to museums for free, instead of selling them. The Dutch embassy told me there was no chance they would pay me. I could have refused, but then the series would never have been shown in Argentina, I figured that that would be too bad for several people, not primarily or exclusively for me.
Even though circulations of magazines and newspapers are going down, I publish because what I do is related to society. People buying and hanging my art on the wall is great because that pays my bills, but I want my work to become part of the public discussion too.
At this moment I am in the US, Columbia, South Carolina. What I am going to do here is working on a new project: I will portrait homeless people. That may not sound extremely original, that’s what I thought at the beginning. I will set up a comfortable studio to do it. There is going to be some writing but I have to see how I do that. The problem is people sometimes have such a strong accent, I can’t understand them. My native language is Dutch, but I speak Español, English, French, German and a little bit of Portuguese.
I have a son married to a Colombian woman, so when we meet, we speak Spanish. I live together with my girlfriend, she is a performing artist. Now here in Columbia the weather is hot. Today I think I am driving a small road, one hour and a half away, country side.