“In my imagination, it was true”: Margins of Excess exhibition artist talk by Max PINCKERS
by Allan LEONARD
14 June 2019
As part of the Belfast Photo Festival, Belfast Exposed is hosting an exhibition of Margins of Excess, by Max Pinckers. The artist gave a talk about this project in the gallery, describing how he approached the topic of intersecting news story truths from investigative facts and subjective realities.
Pinckers began by explaining his interest in documentary photography, which he described as “touching the essence of photography”, because the image you capture is a snapshot of what is actually there. The photographer and other viewers translate the image to their own reality. This is known as an “indexational relationship”. Another way of putting this is to use the image as a piece of evidence (as testimony of a moment in time), to complete whatever narrative we wish in our minds (having the image make sense to you).
Documentary photography deals with real things in the world and saying something about it. But how do you represent reality when it’s ambiguous — whose truth? Pinckers suggested that the blind spots that all of us have is really more representative of reality.
In photojournalism, the intent is to be as objective as possible, to make a best effort at representing an event. The result is descriptive, with no room for self-reflection. The target is mass media consumption. Documentary photography, on the other hand, is personal and intentionally subjective.
Pinckers said that he tries to document things that reside in people’s imaginations.
He explained that he always works in book form, which encapsulates the finished product. For him, while the spacial exhibitions always change, the book is where his concepts and ideas reside.
Margins of Excess was made possible by an award that Pinckers received in 2016. He travelled to New York City with his partner, Victoria Gonzalez-Figueras, who served as his assistant, translator, and editor. Pinckers sought to explore how images are used in news stories and in what context. He was fascinated by news broadcast as a form of entertainment in the US, and how it was produced.
Pinckers discovered people who were newsworthy because they lied, not for material reasons but personal ones. He saw this as a grey zone, where the lie served another purpose. Pinckers also made it clear that he was not blaming the press for amplifying the lies; he wanted to expose both the incredible and investigative.
Margins of Excess tells the stories of six “characters”. This was achieved by Victoria and him driving across the US. Access was made easier by Pinckers presenting himself as an artist and not as a photographer. This helped him gain their trust. He had each speak a monologue to video camera and edited each two- to three-hour session into a transcript.
The final book structure consists of an actual news headline, a portrait image by Pinckers, a quotation, an associated press article (grey paper), related imagery (archive), a personal testimony (yellow paper), and related imagery (produced). The “chapters” are interspersed with other mini stories, as if one is zapping between TV channels.
As you read a character’s story, you wonder how much is true and how much is imagined. The provided complementary imagery can help fill in the blanks, as you wish. Indeed, one established cognitive bias is to do just this — we rationalise what we don’t know with reference to what we do know, as a means of making sense of our world. Pinckers is just providing some visual filler (very cleverly). You can read the book in your own way; it depends on how much you project your own imagination. Margins of Excess is not a descriptive exercise, but one to make you think about how your own reflections shapes your interpretations.
Pinckers provided background to a selection of the characters on display.
Herman Rosenblat tells the greatest love story that never existed, of how a girl would throw apples over a fence to him whilst he was in a concentration camp during the Second World War. Nevermind the implausibility that she would ever be allowed so close to such a place. For Rosemblat replied after his story was debunked, “Yes. It was not true, but in my imagination, it was true.” Pinckers then explains why he photographed an orange instead of an apple being thrown over a fence: “Because there was never an apple in the first place. Within this context, I have created the freedom to visualise the story using my own imagination, while staying true to the narrative.”
Jay J. Armes is a self-styled private detective with prosthetic forearms with hooks for hands. Except that one is attached to a revolver. And that he supposedly saved Marlon Brando’s son from being kidnapped. Armes’ story was categorically debunked by an investigative journalist in the 1970s. Yet it hasn’t detracted Arms from his projected persona nor media interest in it.
Darius McCollum’s imagination as a public transport operator has had more troubling consequences. His obsession with driving trains (very competently) in the New York subway system landed him in prison, where his Aspergers condition has never been treated. Whenever released, he would predictably repeat his favourite activity. As a result of a court plea bargain, McCollum surrendered himself to a psychiatric facility to treat his conditions.
Pinckers answered some audience questions. When asked whether he considered himself a photographer or story teller, he replied, “A photograph has to have a reason for being made, serve a concept that tells a story.” I suggested to him that this also distinguished a photographer from an artist.
In telling his story, Pinckers explained that he used several strategies: “I had a press card, from my association with Magnum, which gave me access as a photojournalist.”
Pinckers was asked where the seed of Margins of Excess came from. “From compulsive TV watching in his New York hotel room?” I suggested. No. Pinckers replied that he learned of a history teacher who spoke of the Holocaust with a personal reference, demonstrating his numbered tattoo. It was a fake. When asked why, the teacher explained that his students weren’t showing enough interest in the subject, but did when he presented his embellished version. This made me think profoundly about issues of trust, motivation, and persuasion.
Perhaps the greatest freedom is to articulate our sense of unfreedom — how we are aware that we could be being manipulated, even where freedom of expression is paramount. I interpret this not as surrendering to cynicism or “post-truth” (where truth doesn’t matter), but to reflect more on our own biases and try to imagine the why for someone living in theirs.
Margins of Excess exhibition is open to public view at Belfast Exposed, from 14 June to 27 July 2019.