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When contexts change

About (personal) border crossing

During my research, I came into contact with the work of photographer Walter Pfeiffer (° 1946). I find his ideas particularly inspiring.

Since the early 1970s, Walter Pfeiffer has made many images thathave been considered erotic. He creates portraits of young men, picking them off the street and bringing them to his lens. The bodies in his images have a tension and a certain wildness that, according to him, is characteristic of the youthful culture of the world of his ‘models’. He thinks one thing is important; his men should always be photographed uninhibited.

Image from the book cover Night and Day, by Walter Pfeiffer. Codax Publisher, 2006.

In the 1970s, Pfeiffer was accepted at face value for his work. Now people only ask if he is gay, he says. He believes that the rising accessibility of porn is killing our imaginations. The body in an image is no longer the goal of the image itself. Rather, it has become a fleeting means of taking us elsewhere in our imagination. Contrastingly, Pfeiffer considers that time and effort is required to look at what a body has to say in images.

As a maker, do I find a body expressive because I can imagine what may already reside beneath its surface? Or, does a body in an image only come alive when it’s inner content is available and visible for all external viewers to see?

Every artist, performer and maker likes to push their own boundaries. In principle, crossing borders is necessary to push boundaries. Otherwise, you can not renew yourself as a person or as an artist. The art is to balance, as a maker, on the boundary of what necessarily arises and exists within the intimacy of the creation, and what is further told or shown within a public setting. My goal is never to shock anyone at first. Shocking is not the means by which I provoke an entrance towards a human being – neither as a performer or viewer.

Behind the scenes at the creation of STRANGER, image made by Joery Erna.

The research I did for STRANGER, into the expressiveness of the unclothed male body in an image, has been a very cathartic experience. I dare say that my deeper understanding of the dual body identity that exists within us all- the private self-image and its public conception - has brought me to the essence of my imagery as a maker. By taking the time to listen to what goes on behind the masks and armour we wear, I have accessed a degree of openness required to show the body - hopefully in its truest form - in future work. If there is one thing a viewer may notice about my work, it is its honesty. What I find essential about my visual language is that the bodies in it do not lie. A body must be sincere to achieve fair work. From my perspective, when bodies are not fair in a work, a viewer will not accept, believe, or connect empathetically to those bodies. An imitation of something cannot express a feeling. I hope that as a viewer one can also be moved by the inaccuracy of a body; its unique movement, versatility, the grain of its being in my images. My wish is to succeed in capturing an even greater, shared, emotional intimacy in my future work. I hope this research can guide my quest for a genuine body image in the world of my arts, and for my colleagues and viewers, inspire a more open approach to looking at bodies.

The first collaboration during my research into sincere embodiment is in portrait photography. When I start browsing through a wide range of literature and essays, and reading about the photographic portrait, the first thing that strikes me is that this genre occupies an eminent position in the history of photography. The human body, and especially the face, has fascinated photographers from the dawn of photography to the present day. It is already clear to me that reaching a consensus about defining what a portrait is, is a hopeless and impossible task. Let alone finding parameters to define what an image must contain, in order to be able to speak of a ‘good portrait’. What is that? Is it essential as a photographer to concentrate on the face? What about the relationship between the photographer and the body in the image? What does the portrait say about the maker, and what does it ultimately say about the depicted body? What is the current state of affairs, and how do young photographers look at the body in front of their lens?

I start my traject by meeting second-year photography students at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts, Antwerp. Their lecturer, Charlotte Lybeer, gives me the space to invite them to connect with me. We begin our conversation as a blank page; I try not to explain myself or colour their open view of me. No background, no personal intentions. I explain my research as clearly as possible, elaborating that I will ultimately give them just one task. This being, at the end of our journey together, for them to share with me one image that they believe, within the framework in which we worked together, is a genuinely embodied portrait of me - seen through their eyes. If they join me in this connection, they will get full, free rein in their way of doing it. I elaborate that I will try to be as open, generous and uninhibited as possible within their process of discovery - about who they believe, think or feel that I am. I will put my body at the service of the search for their own artistic vision, methodology, and technical development regarding the genre of portraiture. I want my body to be a blank canvas for them.

The idea immediately stimulates them. Eyes start to sparkle. The mirrors of their souls look activated. Many questions are asked, all of which I neatly disregard in the hope that they will get closer to themselves - their own decisions and thinking about portraiture. Should it be done collectively? How long will the project take? Can they make more than one image? Do they work in the studio, on stage, or rather via a documentary? Where; can they follow me overtime in my private place or do we meet at a specific place and time? Do we talk in depth at first, or should we not share a single word more than is necessary?

My opinion does not matter at the moment; I put my ego aside and the only thing I do is create time and space for us to meet as a starting point. I step into their world with an open mind, and at the end of our journey I will see unique, well-considered portrait images - a collection of personal interpretations that consider what a photographically, truly embodied portrait can be. Together with this beautiful group of people forms for me a study of possibilities, in which they can give way to a new direction of classical portrait thinking. I will not see the images they offer as a confirmation or continuation of history, nor a finished form of portrait photography. Instead, I will observe them as a manifestation of an implicit question about this genre, regarding where boundaries are sought, chosen, and tested. The intriguing interplay between object and subject will be sharply captured. And it will eventually reveal something, directly and/or indirectly, about me, the maker, along with my connection with the artists. New questions are bound to arise, that broaden our horizons and pave the way to untrodden paths - always withholding an open, critical, and inspired approach to portraiture.


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