Photographer Max Pinckers: between fact and fiction


With an exhibition at Botanique, participation in a group expo at Bozar and a hefty new photo book, Brussels-based Max Pinckers is ubiquitous this summer

Always on the run

The worlds of fiction and documentary sometimes meet, at a blurred border. Filmmaker Werner Herzog once explained that he used “documentary” images in his fiction films and that he staged scenes for his documentaries.

Closer to home, photographer Max Pinckers can also be found in that tricky borderland. To a certain degree, he’s a documentary photographer and at the same time he incorporates fictional elements in his work.

“I don’t believe in the idea that a series of photos objectively represents what’s happening somewhere in the world, unless you add some text,” the 25-year-old tells me over lunch in his home town of Brussels. “Although we have accepted the idea that a photographer presents his personal vision of the world, a photo is still also considered an objective view. We tend to forget how easy it is to manipulate a photo.”

A photographer who says that words are more objective than an image: That’s unusual. “More ‘objective’ might not be correct, but if you want to clearly tell a story, you need words.”

He thinks for a moment. “Let me illustrate this. A newlywed couple are on the run, hounded by a gang of armed family members who disapprove of the union. After a few hectic months, the twosome, worn out and flat broke, find shelter with the Love Commandos,” he says, referring to a voluntary organisation in India that protects couples in love. “In words, you can shape this story quite objectively. But how on earth would you tell this story in pictures?”

Fictionalised world

And that’s not necessary, Pinckers continues. “You can combine a photo of the couple with, for instance, a found photo of a guy with a machete, a newspaper clipping about a similar story and a group picture of the Love Commandos. That way, you can tell the same story, and maybe in a visually more interesting way.” 

In words, you can shape this story. But how on earth would you tell it in pictures?

- Max Pinckers

That’s exactly what Pinckers has done in his new book, Will They Sing Like Raindrops or Leave Me Thirsty, for which he spent four months travelling through India, capturing the trials and tribulations – but also the love and laughter – of couples whose relationship is deemed illicit by their families because they didn’t marry the partner for whom they were destined.

Pinckers finds it important for readers to understand that the couples in his book are really in danger. But around that framework he weaves a more personal, poetic world. As long it remains informed by the basic idea of the endangered couples, he finds he has the freedom to fictionalise it.

After Lotus, about transsexuals in Thailand, and The Fourth Wall, situated in Bollywood, Will They Sing Like Raindrops or Leave Me Thirsty is Pinckers’ third major project in Asia. That’s no coincidence, since he grew up there.

“I was born in Brussels, and when I was five, my mother took me with her to Bali. I lived there for three years, before moving to Byron Bay, a small city on the Australian east coast. When I was 12, I went to live with my father in Singapore where I went to secondary school. During the summer holidays, I kept coming to Belgium, so I always had a circle of friends here.”

When he was 18 he returned definitively to study photography at Ghent’s Royal Academy of Fine Arts.

Hard worker

Pinckers only got his degree two years ago, yet the long list of publications and exhibitions you can find on his website would be envied by many much older photographers. Is he the hardest working man in photography?

“I’m just happy I get so many opportunities,” he replies. “This new book, for instance, was a commission from the international arts festival Europalia. I take the chances I get, especially if it forces me to push myself beyond my borders.” 

Self-publishing isn’t difficult. So why would I depend on some guy in an office to tell me what to do?

- Max Pinckers

There is, it occurs to him, another reason why he likes to work in Asia.

“When I’m in Belgium, I focus on creating my books and setting up exhibitions,” he explains. “I do everything myself: I don’t have a publisher or belong to a gallery. It’s impossible to combine all that with taking pictures; I would be too distracted. Whereas when I go on a trip to work, for a few months I’ll do nothing else but concentrate on my photographs. If I stayed in Belgium for a project, I would never pull myself away from all those practical matters.”

Pinckers indeed does everything himself, including self-publishing his books. “Because I’m able to!” he exclaims. “And it lends me a lot of freedom. I can create books the way I want to. Self-publishing isn’t difficult these days. So why would I depend on some guy in an office to tell me what I have to do?

He’s also allergic to “wheeling and dealing”, always feeling a bit “repulsed by the commerce in the art world,” he admits. “I sometimes sell works myself, but I’m not sure that I can continue working this way. I don’t like to have difficult conversations about money.”

Still, he hesitates about joining a gallery. “They’ll want to have exclusivity. But I don’t want to be pinned down,” he says. “I have no idea which road I’ll travel next. Maybe in the years to come I’ll be making sculptures. Not that I want to drop photography, but I’m a bit tired of the procedure and the aesthetics I used for my last three projects. I’m happy with how it was in the past, but that can’t be a reason to endlessly repeat it."

As well as the book, Pinckers is involved in two exhibitions in Brussels this summer: The Conclusion of a Movement in a Neutral Direction at Botanique, and The Word Presents the Belgian Six at Bozar.

Photo: Max Pinckers, from the series Will They Sing Like Raindrops or Leave Me Thirsty, 2013. The book is distributed by De Bedoeling

Brussels-based photographer Max Pinckers is ubiquitous this summer

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