WE HAVE BECOME DESENSITISED TO IMAGES WITH AN OVERT MESSAGE

How did it happen that a columnist for Forbes magazine and a businessman who runs his own strategy consultancy, started to document the world using photography?

It wasn’t a conscious decision, but a gradual process. If you had asked me about ten years ago: “Would photography play important role in your life? Would it take the role of writing has in your life?” I would have said: “No.” Long before I started my column at Forbes, I was a reporter (also at Forbes) and I’ve been a history buff all my life. Over the years, photography has become my preferred form of writing. I take the term photography literally: writing with light. Not “drawing” or “painting, but “writing.” I’m very much a photographer in that sense.

But how do you manage to deal with these three activities at the same time?

My Forbes column is in the same realm as my company, Reason inc. I’m a marketing and innovation strategy consultant, and also write about this subject. I find marketing strategy fascinating because it is complex and goal-oriented: how do I arrange many variables to motivate target audiences to choose one product over another. The process of developing a strategy is very much like the process of writing an opinion column. And writing an opinion column, in turn, is very much like my kind of photography: taking a lot of information, processing the information, developing an original insight out of it – and, ultimately, presenting it in a way that will motivate audiences. Only the end goal is different: in consulting, it’s to motivate people to prefer a client’s product; in my writing and photography, it’s to motivate people to think new thoughts.

What’s the place of photography in your professional life?

Photography, as I practice it, is much like strategy: a form of goal-directed, purposeful, thought. And the more things I have to think about and the more forms of thought processing I can apply, the happier I am. I don’t think of strategy, or photography, or writing as work. I’m a very simple person in a way: I like to spend as much time as possible processing information toward an insight, and then expressing that insight. Again and again, and in all the ways I can do well. What form this expression takes is a secondary consideration – it’s just a function of the subject matter.

You are in perfect position to compare written journalism and photojournalism. Where do you see the difference?

I don’t view myself as a photojournalist, or my photography as photojournalistic. I’m interested in the intersection of documentary photography and art: the former because it has a basis in reality, and at heart I’m a social scientist. The latter, because it allows me to emphasise my insight on the facts. Photojournalism is, at heart, about telling stories. By talent and by inclination I’m not much of a storyteller: my mind is very goal-directed and a story is rarely an end in itself. My images are introverted and personal – about expressing what’s going on in my head, based on the information in front of me.

More broadly, still images are, by their very nature, reductive – that’s a big part of their appeal. But for that same reason, the documentary still image also has certain natural limitations, compared to the written word or moving image – both of which are inherently better suited to portraying causes and motives. All too often, conventional documentary photography functions like the morality plays of old: unabashedly simplistic narratives to drive home cliché messages: war is evil; rich individuals and nations are taking advantage of poor individuals and nations; children are paying for the sins of adults; man is destroying the environment. When Jacob Riis published How the Other Half Lives at the turn of the 19th century, his documentary images of New York City slums shocked his contemporaries in the middle and upper classes; most of them had never seen an image of a slum. More than a century later, we’re drowning in all kinds of images and we have become somewhat desensitised to images with an overt message.

In general, when you ask a photographer why black and white photography, you can hear in his or her reply because it brings out emotions, because of amazing play of light and shadow, because it lets you focus on the story. How about you? Why do you photograph exclusively in black and white?

There’s a very simple answer to that – maybe the best answer: I’m colour-blind. If you put one of these colour blindness tests in front of me and ask what number I see, I don’t see anything. I mean, I see dots of many colours but I don’t see any pattern. When I used to photograph with colour, people would often tell me: “Marc, your colours are so interesting.” Of course they are interesting because I don’t see them properly, (laughs)

But when you know that you can’t rely on the colour information that your brain receives, you learn to disregard it. So black and white photography comes naturally, because I’m already trained to subtract the colour information in my mind. It’s a handicap that can become an asset, like being a left-handed tennis player.

In your latest project – Mask of Perfection – which we feature in this issue, you discuss the impact of mass media on contemporary perceptions of beauty. You illustrate this by using naturally beautiful models marked up for perfection as defined by plastic surgery – photographed in the style of 1930s Hollywood portraiture. What led you to this project and this way of presenting the issue of beauty?

The concept for Mask of Perfection derives from my background in history. It portrays a historical discontinuity on several levels. Throughout history, man’s concept of beauty was subjective and largely subconscious. The term “natural beauty” describes it well. Beauty was unalterable: you could enhance it with clothes or makeup, but you couldn’t really change the way you look. Now, for the first time in history, beauty is malleable: people can profoundly alter their appearance. And how does this discontinuity manifest itself? An growing number of celebrities and public figures are altering their appearance according to the new standard. These most visible members of our society are literally starting to look different from people who are unaltered. Since we live in a mass media celebrity culture, the new view of beauty is trickling down to the general population, as more and more people in the general public have themselves modified to more closely resemble the look of celebrities. So you have a different model of beauty, the option to modify your appearance according to this model of beauty, and a new form of propagating this model of beauty.

What was your goal with Mask of Perfection?

I’m not looking to convince the viewer to be for plastic surgery or against it. Even though I have a strong opinion on the matter, I don’t talk about it publicly because it would distract from a more important purpose: the discourse itself. I want to make the viewer aware of the uneasy coexistence of two views of beauty, confront him/her with the discrepancies and tensions between the two – and, in so doing, motivate him to come develop his own individual point of view. For example, a viewer might instinctively favour natural beauty. I want him to start asking himself: “Why do I hold this view?” and “What does it say about my underlying priorities and values?” How was the models reaction when you asked them to go to a plastic surgeon for appointment?

That’s a funny one: my typical male socialisation of not showing weakness got the better of me. I assumed that many models would turn down a project that would -literally – highlight their supposed flaws. Much to my surprise, almost all the models I spoke with were truly excited about the idea. The common refrain was: “This is really cool – after all, no one is perfect.” Most were also interested in seeing how plastic surgery would see them.

There’s an increasing tendency to shoot staged or directed documentary photography. Is that good or bad? Is it still a document?

To me, the form of an image should follow its content. In this case, studio photography was absolutely appropriate because my thesis could best be communicated under controlled conditions, with the focus single-mindedly on the “patient.” As documentary photography evolves beyond recording facts, controlled conditions will become more prevalent – and accepted. In my photography, which is driven by insights, the physical context is an integral part of an image’s content.

You’ve photographed in many genres – wildlife in Africa, Buddhists in Burma, daily life in Rio de Janeiro, now Mask of Perfection. How would you define yourself as a photographer?

My work straddles a line between documentary photography that delves into fine art, and fine art photography with a documentary foundation. Mask of Perfection would be the latter – the images were conceived as a means of expressing an insight. My images from Burma or Africa are more documentary photography that crosses over to fine art, because the insight is derived from what I see.

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