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John Vink: ‘The photographer is not a hero’

He studied photography at the fine arts school of La Cambre in 1968 and began working as a freelance journalist three years later. He joined Agence Vu' in Paris in 1986 and won the Eugene Smith Award that year for his work 'Water in the Sahel', an extensive body of reportage on the management of water in the Sahel.


Based out of Cambodia for the past 13 years, Belgium born photojournalist John Vink, member of the prestigious Magnum Photos is known for his long-term photographic ventures. His works, conducted in different corners of the world, are instrumental in giving an insight into the daily struggles of humankind for shelter, water or simply, survival. Unlike many, Vink has taken the digital space in his stride and his works are available as photography apps and e-books. Vink talks to Emaho about his photographic journey through the years, documentation of the land struggles of refugees, Khmer Rouge trial and his views on minimalistic roles of a photographer in storytelling.


What made you develop an interest in photography? And what role did works of Jean-Marie Perier play in it?

 Jean-Marie Perier was just a two-week fad. The road started long before that. My father was an amateur photographer and fervent Leicaist, and he introduced me to the bug by giving me a Kodak Brownie for my 10th anniversary in 1958. I remember taking pictures of the Brussels Universal Exhibition (the negatives are lost). I was processing films on my own a few years later. This was also the time when I was leafing through my parents’ collection of ‘National Geographic’, and ‘Life’ magazine with David Douglas Duncan’s photographs of the Korean War, stacked in a small room in the cellar. There was also a pile of amateur photography magazines with nude studies, which were rather suggestive for a 12-year old. So basically I was confronted with, and aware of, the evocational power of photography since a very young age.

The Jean-Marie Perier ‘influence’, a starlet and pop singer photographer for a teenager’s magazine, came at a time when I was 16, didn’t know better, was bored with college, wanting to quit it all and become a photographer. He was a very short-lived role model though. I realised very quickly that photographing show business stars was not my cup of tea at all. My parents, probably wisely, forced me to finish college before allowing me to go to ‘La Cambre’, a fine arts school based on the pluridisciplinary Bauhaus principles where I learned a lot about fine arts but not that much about photography.


BELGIUM. Belgium-France border. 3/09/1972: Workers return home after work in french factory © John Vink


‘My artistic stimulations are varied and relate to music, painting, photography, literature and certainly comic books with the one and only Hergé, creator of Tintin.’ Could you tell us how these art forms influence your artistic vision especially Tintin?

 ‘La Cambre’ fine art school was instrumental. Because the teaching in photography was not that good, I spent a lot of time at the etching, stage design, industrial design sections etc..As for Hergé, my parents had offered me a subscription to ‘Tintin’ magazine when I was a kid. Tintin is a comic figure created by Hergé in the 40’s. Hergé is the master of ‘la ligne claire’ (the clear line); he was the origin of what became a whole generation of  Belgian comic book storytellers. The ‘clear line’ means everything in the frame is in focus. There is no blurred or out-of-focus element in any of Hergé’s frames. To this day I mostly try to get as much depth-of-field in my photography. That, combined with a gift for storytelling and the adventurous, righteous and eternally young Tintin as reporter, must have left some traces in the way I frame what I see around me.


Initially, while starting photography, you managed to get sent to a psychiatric ward to avoid military service, and you documented it. How was the experience?

 That was rather stressful. It took one day, pepped-up with a placebo medicine I was given, to be noticed by the psychiatrist at the first screening of the draftees and to be sent to room 9bis at the psychiatric ward of the army hospital in Antwerp. I ended up with about 8 or 9 other draftees in a big hospital room, under the watchful eye of a military nurse. 7 of my ‘colleagues’ were simulators like me, but it took a while before we trusted each other enough to tell our little secret and our various strategies.

I had opted for a rather agoraphobic and asocial position and tried to be consistent with that during the two weeks it took to finally convince the shrinks that I was not fit for the army. I didn’t want to eat with the others, I slept in a bed as far away from the others as possible, came up with stories of shopping mall fears, of smoking joints, of living as a hermit in the countryside, made scribbles of tiny rootless trees on the lower left corner of a piece of paper. But I also wanted to take pictures of my time there. This was totally incoherent with my scenario as it implied that I was concerned about the people around me. But I managed to shoot a few rolls unnoticed, was deemed unfit for military service (even in times of war) and avoided spending one year dressed in khaki.


SUDAN. Muhageria. 17/11/1988: South Sudanese displaced returning from the water chores. They have to share a well with North Sudanese villagers © John Vink


Even though you say the transition from VU to Magnum was one of the best decisions you took, you have been quoted as saying ‘I had a very hard time adapting.’ What were the challenges you faced at Magnum and how was the experience different from VU?

 One of the best decisions. But there were and are other equally good options. There is a part of Magnum which requires much more input than I was aware of or that I seem to be able to give. I had a rather romantic vision in my mind of what a cooperative would be when I applied. I was not aware of the mythical aspects carried by the name. I guess I am not really a good group player and it seems I am usually better off doing things on my own. And I am not into power struggles. There are a lot of those at Magnum. As a matter of fact I still have trouble adapting to Magnum today, after 15 years. Probably because Magnum has grown too big in size. Managing a threatened business model with 50 voices is not the same as doing it with 20.

The photography business has changed drastically (Magnum has stopped being a press agency for several years now) and lately I find it hard to identify with some choices Magnum has made. It is not so much that they are bad choices. The group as such still has a clear vision of what is happening in the documentary photography world. But the group is so heavy that the implementation lags way too much behind the evolution of our professional environment. For sure, I am not good at certain things Magnum expects. And these days Magnum is certainly not good at things I need. Of course, the fact that I live far from any of the offices doesn’t help. I thought in this age of fast Internet that physical absence would not be an issue. But it is. I get little to none information about what is going on at the agency so internal communication does seem to be a problem. It is as if I am sending my photographs to a big black hole. There is nothing coming back, no response.


What kind of relationship did you share with other photographers in Magnum?  Is there a Magnum colleague whose works you deeply admire?

 In fact, I think I had more interactions with Magnum photographers before I joined the agency than after. Harry Gruyaert, Patrick Zachmann, Carl Dekeyzer, Jean Gaumy are a few I had connections with, and I still have some contact with them once in a while. I could, of course, catch up at the annual general assemblies, but I’ve been living in Cambodia since 12 years and I don’t attend the meetings anymore. Coming all the way from Cambodia is an expensive trip and I am not really convinced that my input would be useful. The work among my Magnum ‘colleagues’ I admire most certainly is Sergio Larrain but I’ve never met him.



 VIETNAM. Bac Ninh. 17/03/1990: Traditional songs with fake tambourine during a religious festival © John Vink


In an interview you mentioned ‘I don’t know if photography is really effective in communicating but we are sure trying hard.’ What according to you are the shortcomings of the medium and how do you overcome them in your work? Also, how important is story construction for you… I’m using as the reference your first visit to Phnom Penh when you did not take pictures of the empty streets at twilight just before the curfew. Why was that important?

 One can question the effectiveness of photography because we just don’t really know what is going on in the minds of people when they see our photographs. It is something no one can control. I don’t know what influence my photographs have. Feedback is a rarity. I try to make sure as far as possible in the process of presenting a body of work that it is not being misinterpreted. But there is a point where the photographs live their own life, a time that you have to let go. At one point photographs don’t belong to the photographer anymore. They become part of people’s minds, and what those people actually learn from or do with them is beyond the photographer’s reach.

Photography also makes only a fairly limited use of the five senses. It is all about vision. No sound, no smell, no 3rd dimension. We do play with time though. And memory, the knowledge of things past, plays an important role in how a photograph is perceived, translated, imprinted in the brain of the reader. Also we don’t record everything around us during a trip, out of laziness, of time or whatever. So yes, I regret not having photographed the streets and the houses of Phnom Penh back in 1989. I went through those negatives last year and found a few photographs from streets. They brought back so many memories from that time. They conveyed so much. They ‘positioned’ the other photographs I took. They gave a lot of contextual information which is relevant to me but maybe to others too.

It is really important to collect as much as possible once you are working on a story. Even trivial or seemingly irrelevant things, as long as you are guided by ‘appealing aesthetics’. You never know. They might come in handy when it is time to reflect and build something coherent. And if the photograph doesn’t fit in the story, at least you have a good single photograph, which can stand on its own.


Your subjects are about far off cultures and their reality. For example, ‘Refugees in the World’ is about refugee camp life in India, Mexico, Thailand, Pakistan and others. In ‘Quest for Land’ you have chronicled the life of people in Cambodia. What drives you to narrate their stories? And how do you keep yourself motivated?

 I think the pattern in my work is not the fact that it is often located in far-off cultures. It is not so much about the geographical or cultural distance as it is about the fact that it tries to describe groups of people who somehow become sidelined, seem to drift away or are chased away from the average. I believe that by showing what is different or on the sidelines from the average, one can put his own life into perspective, one can understand the complexity and the fragility of life. Maybe you are born here and become that, or you are born there and become this, but something can happen and you end up becoming something totally different than what you had planned or planning to become.

As to the motivation: the majority tends to forget about the minority. And usually the minority has no voice or only a faint one. That is good enough a reason for me to try to give them a voice.


CAMBODIA. Phnom Penh. 22/11/1999: Being 20 in Phnom Penh. During Water Festival, celebrating the end of the rainy season. Musicians in an open/air cafe © John Vink

In an interview you said, “I never use the “I” word in my stories. The “I” word would only be a distraction.” Does it mean that you don’t like to focus on the photographer, as it would overshadow the subject matter? Can you explain with reference to your approach in ‘Quest for Land’?

 Well yes, what matters is the story, the fate of the people I photograph. How I do that, the visual signature with which I try to achieve that, is as much the reader should know about me when reading the story. There is no need for more at that time. I am always a little taken aback when the attention shifts to the photographer instead of the story.

A photographer should not be considered as a hero. He is just doing a job: telling the story of people to other people, and he is not into show business. That some people would want to know what went on behind the scenes of a story or if the photographer was in a bad or good mood that day is of course legitimate and can sometimes be interesting. As long as it is not part of the story.

I find the lines are a bit blurred today. Authorship often takes precedence over content. But what is more interesting when reading an outstanding novel? The biography of the writer or the content of the novel?


You have lived in Cambodia for ten years, witnessing injustice on a daily basis and the constant effect it has on Cambodians. How do you see yourself in this chaos – A foreign photographer who is in Cambodia to document reality? Or a photographer who wants his work to be effective in a way that would perhaps help in finding a solution?

 It is twelve years by now. The idea behind it was becoming closer to being a local photographer instead of being the superficial passer-by. Now I am a combination of both: I am a foreign photographer in Cambodia in the sense that there still is a cultural difference, but I have access to a subtler view of reality and I am hoping my work can be effective in putting the situation in perspective by providing some tools to understand it. The troubling fact is that it is not chaotic: it is development at a fast pace and it is rather cynically well-organised. The power of greed is pretty hard to dissolve. Still worth a try to expose though…


 ALBANIA. Kukes. 29/05/1999: Kosovar refugees released by the Serbs after two weeks of detention in Mitrowice prison, arriving in Kukes and meeting with family and friends © John Vink 


The recent passing away of leng Sary (in March 2013) has been a big blow to the trial of those accused of genocide from the Khmer Rouge regime. This happened while you were away working on ‘The Three Rivers Dam’ project. Could you explain in detail how it affects your e-book ’30 Years For A Trial’? What is your personal reaction to the after effects of the genocide, on Cambodian society today?

 It doesn’t really affect the ’30 Years for a Trial’ e-book yet, as that work focuses on Kaing Geak Eav, alias Duch, the head of the infamous Khmer Rouge interrogation center ‘S21′, on the difficulty of photographing something which is not allowed to be photographed, and on photographing 30-year old events. Ieng Sary’s death, who, by the way, died a free man, forebodes the fate of the two remaining accused, Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan (Ieng Tirith, the 4th accused was declared unfit for mental reasons). If they die before the end of the trial, then ’30 Years For a Trial’ will probably be the only comprehensive photographic report on the only trial of a Khmer Rouge. Time will tell…


You have always covered situations and topics related to an aftermath of a bigger event. What attracts you to these particular topics and what is the reason that you leave out the main event coverage?

 What need is there to tell the story of an event if it is already being told by many other colleagues? I know that things have to be told again and again, possibly in an unprecedented way, lest we forget about the essentials. But the attention from the media for a certain event has a very short life span. What happens when the media attention has dwindled and when the reporters have left? Is the story suddenly finished? Is everything settled? Of course not. What happens after the hysteria? What happens after the war?


            GUATEMALA. Todos Santos. 08/11/1995 © John Vink


In the Kashmir series, there is information, drama, persistence and great amount of subliminal messaging. Being the first elections in Kashmir, what was the core idea that you followed while covering the event. What kind of preparedness was needed for you to be there at the right time at the right place. 

 At the time I was doing a story on overpopulation in Delhi, which grew from 1,5 million people to 15 million between its independence and its 50th anniversary. I also wanted to visit Ladakh for a longer worldwide story on people with a strong cultural identity living in mountainous areas. I heard elections were planned in Kashmir, located on the way to Ladakh, and it seemed a good opportunity to try and sell a story to magazines on that. There was very little preparation. I didn’t even know these elections were the first ones, knew very little about the complexity of the situation. I hooked up with extremely helpful local journalists and that was it… I was lucky in fact to be at the right time in the right place. It really was a ‘total immersion’ situation where you learn about things on the spot, where intuition plays a big role. The story didn’t sell though…


You have often mentioned you prefer keeping a distance from your subject. Has this always been your approach? And why do you prefer the fly on the wall approach as opposed to that of an insider?

 I need that distance because I want to be able to be critical at any time towards the people I photograph when needed. It is enough for the people I photograph to know who I am, what I do and why I do it. We don’t necessarily have to go beyond that and become friends. It is different now as I am spending long periods of time with the same people and inevitably connections are made. But earlier, when I was traveling a lot, I always knew that at one point I would leave, and keeping a distance made separation easier. This attitude probably found its origins in my fear of photographing people, of getting dragged into a conflictual situation. I still have that fear.


CAMBODIA. Phnom Penh. 11/01/2011: Garment workers use hired cellphones to make 200 riel ($0.05) calls to families back in their villages after their shift ends at a factory in the Tuol Sangke area. The status of young women is changing as they become the main income generators for rural families © John Vink


In your book ‘Match’, covering 40 years of your work, you have paired pictures separated in time by at least 15 years but similar in content or their composition. What was your vision behind it and were there any unexpected realisations for you?

 Luckily that book, still available on ‘Blurb’ (and of which I sold 2 copies until now) is also available at the iBookstore on iTunes as an e-book called ‘Same Same’. It is really about the photographic writing – the style, the visual vocabulary I am using. It seems that at one point in a career we find our ‘voice’, we figure out how to translate reality by filling the rectangle (or the square) of the frame in a specific and personal way. From then on we keep using nearly the same way of taking photographs. When the style or the form keeps being consistent with the type of content, it becomes troubling. As if we were programmed to do the same thing over and over again. Identifying that and being aware of its dangers helps in trying to move forward. It helps to improve our storytelling ‘gift’ if we look for new words in our vocabulary.


You have always been tech savvy. Even at Magnum you, Carl De Keyzer and a few others were the first few to adapt to digital. Did you always see digital as the future? How complicated was it developing your own app for ‘Quest for Land’.

The core of the app, the overall sequencing, was ready since a long time, in fact, even before the existence of the iPad. I had been working on a dummy for a book and the app is an extension of the book dummy, with lots more photographs. But even so, with all the elements I wanted to add in the book, it would have been a very heavy one. Publishers are hard to find for that kind of subject.

The availability of the iPad came at the exact moment I felt I had to finalise the land issues story one way or another. The possibilities the device offers were quite obvious to me: a good screen, interactivity, the possibility to provide the reader with real in depth reporting, a simple distribution system, a widely used platform. It was clear to me that the iPad would be so much more superior to the ‘Refugees’ CD-Rom I experienced back in 1994. It seems the technology will at least not become obsolete as fast as the CD-Rom (although the ‘Refugees’ CD-Rom might see a new life with free access on a website thanks to Yves Bernard who was the original developer).

I hooked up with Robert Starkweather, a web designer and journalist in Cambodia, with whom I had been working on my website. He felt he was up to tackle the development issues. Together with Robert Carmichael, a Phnom Penh based journalist and writer, it took a few months to piece it all together. Overall the process went fairly smoothly. It was a really small team, and that makes things much easier.

Today, as I switch to e-books, it is even easier: no need for a developer anymore. All I need is a writer. All the rest, layout, uploading etc can be done by myself. It gives me total control on what goes out there. The only compromises I have to make are because of my limitations in going beyond the offered technology. The only essential part of the equation still hard to find is the readership: photography lovers are still stuck with buying analog books and people more interested in reading in-depth documentary photography stories have difficulty finding feeding sources.


CAMBODIA. Phnom Penh. 19/10/2012: Paying tribute to King Norodom Sihanouk in front of the Royal Palace by offering their hair © John Vink


You have always been unique in terms of publication. CD-ROM in the 90s and now the iPad. How does this new approach of publishing affect the way you shoot, document and edit your photo series?

 Am I unique? There are quite a few others out there who take the self-publishing path, be it with zines, apps or e-books. It is because we have to, because we want to, and recently because the technology is readily available. I simply can’t find publishers for my work, so I have to take things in my own hands, do as much as I can by myself. It is part of finding a sustainable way of producing the stories I like producing.

It is all about control, responsibility and pleasure. Control because in self-publishing there are no compromises to be made with outsiders. Responsibility because the only one to blame for mistakes is oneself. And pleasure because pleasure is linked to freedom. It doesn’t really affect the way I shoot. To the contrary, it comforts me in the ways I was shooting since I began, as now I know I can get my stuff out there the way I want it, when I want it. I can finally be elaborate, less superficial and provide so much more information.


There have been a couple of controversies… from Paul Hansen’s 2013 World Press Photo of the Year to Paolo Pellegrini’s supposed fabrication of photos in the series called the ‘The Crescent’. Considering the immense power that documentary photography possesses, do you think that this particular genre is being taken advantage of?

 Let it be taken advantage of! The more people make mistakes, the more they will be revealed, the more we will be scrutinized, the more we will be forced to strengthen our ethics… That everyone distributes photographs in all directions, that many editors, luckily not all, have given in or were forced to go for the readily downloadable 1.50$ picture instead of paying for content produced by professionals, has pushed a few to take it easy on the ethical front, or has pushed some others to look for markets other than the press (i.e.grants).

OK, that is one thing. It still is an epiphenomenon. Blame it on performance pressure and on the speed with which information is produced and distributed. The flow of rough information has become more photography-based than textual-based since just a couple of years. It is a good thing. But the result is that there was never so much quality photojournalism to be seen, together with an immense heap of crap. At the same time a greater number of readers has become more mature as well, more educated about the quality of documentary photography. That overabundance of information needs to be curated to gain sense and feed the needs of the readers. The photographer can and should do that himself.

Of course producing ethical photojournalism has a cost, and for the time being there still is no sustainable business plan. Big players like the NYT are trying to curb the ‘when it’s on the Internet it’s for free’ attitude. I also believe a direct link between the producer/photogapher and the consumer/reader is also a path worth exploring.


CAMBODIA. Phnom Penh. 3/01/2012: Residents stand on on the barricade to confront the police moments before the final eviction of the Borei Keila community © John Vink 

Cambodia being a small nation hosts two very important photo festivals: the Angkor Photo festival and the Photo Phnom Penh both held in close succession of each other. What does this signify about the photography movement in Cambodia and do you think there is a need to have two festivals?

 Both festivals are very different in nature and offer different stimulations. The Phnom Penh Photo festival targets more the Cambodian public, a younger generation of Phnom Penhites with creative aspirations. Quite a few young Cambodians decided they wanted to become photographers since and thanks to the existence of the festival where they were confronted with images they could never have seen otherwise.

The Angkor Photo festival is more regionally oriented with its workshops for Asian photographers and its selection of content. It is also much more journalistic.

The good thing is that they follow each other. You could get to both festivals during a two-week stay, but unfortunately the foreigners going to festival A don’t go to festival B. The Cambodian photographers do. And I am sure they don’t complain about the diversity they have to feed on.



CAMBODIA. Phnom Penh. 2/07/2013: Members of the Boeung Kak Lake community, entangled in a land issue since 2007, try to push past a Police blockade preventing them from demonstrating in front of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s house on Sihanouk Boulevard © John Vink


What are you working on right now?

 I started to work on the implications of a series of dams which will be built on tributaries of the Mekong. I am still following the Boeung Kak Lake eviction, which has been dragging on since 2007. I’ve started to focus on Myanmar, and am still trying to find out what it means to be Belgian in my ‘This is not Belgium’ series. I do have a few more ideas up my sleeve. The publication of a few more e-books being one of them.



Photography Interview by: Manik Katyal and Akanksha Gupta


Feature Image – CAMBODIA. Phnom Penh. 8/11/2012: Suon Sophorn’s Sam Rainsy Party Youth movement carrying portraits of the late King Norodom Sihanouk before an attempt to march to the Royal Palace to deliver a request to King Sihamoni for an amnesty for all those condemned for political motives.



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