Ad van Denderen
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Constructively Disrupting
New documents of experience by Ad van Denderen
Frits Gierstberg


Globalization is a broad concept that encapsulates processes of change of an economic, cultural, political, ecological and military nature which, propelled by sometimes dizzying technological advances, play out on a local, regional, national and international level. These processes leave virtually no place on earth untouched. This justifies the use of the term when we try to grasp developments with a supranational character. The disadvantage, however, is the implication that the intended changes are the same all over the world. In this sense the term is not productive, and could even be called misleading. After all, we can only truly understand the effects of globalization when we take the specific character of local and regional societies, cultures and economies as our starting point, without forgetting the historical perspective.

This all sounds very abstract, but let us imagine, for example, that globalization suggests a process of neutral unification, behind which the demise of eurocentrism lurks. The fact that Europe resists or defends itself against this becomes clear when we look more closely at developments in the Mediterranean region. After all, following the so-called postcolonial period of mock guilt and penance came a period in which Europe shamelessly bid farewell to the African continent. It did this by erecting an impenetrable border that cut through the middle of the Mediterranean Sea. The inclination to carve up the Mediterranean is just as understandable as the call for unity, as recently made by an (over?) ambitious French president in a plea for a Mediterranean Union. Europe, Africa and the Middle East meet each other in this region. Cultures, relgions, ideals and ideologies clash as strongly as rich and poor. Research institutes must make clear how relationships that have developed historically can be made visible, comprehensible and effective on a geopolitical level. But for most Europeans, the region consists merely of attractive holiday destinations on the northern edge of an azure sea, from Gibraltar to South Turkey (with the exception of parts of Morocco and Tunisia). This coastline has developed into one long aquapolis, where around 200 million second homes will be built in the coming 20 years.

Everyone pretends its so beautiful, complains Predag Matvejevic, a Croatian writer, Mediterranean expert and chairman of the Comité Scientifique International of the Fondation Laboratorio Mediterraneo. And beauty blinds: behind the sparkling waves lurk numerous problems that no one sees, let alone deals with. There is no perspective, no vision, no common image that would provide a starting point for a meaningful discussion about the Mediterranean.

Indeed, the region suffers under different processes of perception. For the average tourist – who, according to surveys regularly conducted on television, is unable to indicate even vaguely on a map of Europe where they are currently on holiday – there are no conflicts or cultural clashes. No one remembers the Achillo Lauro anymore. The continuous stream of refugees to the island of Lampedusa is kept out of view of the sun worshippers as much as possible. Business as usual. The Mediterranean is an idyll – Multiplicity, a collective of artists, architects and photographers, has shown how keen local authorities are to keep the fairytale alive. The Mediterranean is also a myth – the myth that European history books call the cradle of Western civilization, from Ancient Egypt to the Greeks and the Roman Empire. But who still knows where Carthage, Knossos or Troy were located? The long history and current geopolitical situation make the process of forming an image of this region complex and indistinct. In 1966, the French historian Fernand Braudel published his extensive cultural history of the Mediterranean in the 16th century under the title La Mediterranée, the first and, to this day, the only historiography that treated the region as a unity. In the book, Braudel introduced his three-layered division of historical time, which has since become famous among historians: the slow, almost unchanging progression, the slow movement of medium-term duration and the quick succession of short duration. At what historical speed is the Mediterranean region developing today?

The size and complexity of the region make it difficult to regard it as a unity. There are undoubtedly parties who, as a result of political or economic interests, benefit from this fragmented perception. So Blue, So Blue – Edges of the Mediterranean is an attempt by Dutch photographer Ad van Denderen to view the Mediterranean as a connected territory, within which a certain cohesion rules, despite the evident contrasts and paradoxes. Or where, at the very least, relationships can be determined between developments that may be geographically, culturally or otherwise far removed from each other, but which are insufficiently explained by the word globalization. Van Denderens odyssey not only has a political necessity, but also — and this is certainly no less important — a crucial new photojournalistic form.


For nearly 20 years, Ad van Denderen — winner of the prestigious Visa dOr in 2001 — worked for the politically left-leaning weekly Vrij Nederland, which since the middle of the 70s has enjoyed a certain reputation in the Netherlands in the area of engaged photojournalism. He did photo journalistic reports on the most diverse news items. His book published in 1991, entitled Welkom in South Africa, about a small community in post-apartheid South Africa, bestowed on him a certain degree of authority in Dutch photojournalism circles with regard to the events that were playing themselves out in the former Dutch colony. His great interest in conflict zones also took him to the Middle East and the enduring Israeli-Palestinian war. This led to numerous reportages and the publication of Peace in the Holy Land (1997), in which he sketched a much more finely nuanced picture of daily life in the two camps than the rather cynical title would these days lead one to suppose. Characteristic of his way of working was his willingness to look behind the immediate news, to stay longer, sometimes for months in a row in a region, in order to record what, according to him, future generations should be able to see. He learned his craft from the Hungarian immigrant Ata Kando, and that undoubtedly helped him to earn a place in the best tradition of Dutch documentary photography, alongside contemporaries such as Bertien van Manen and Koen Wessing, distinguished by powerful politico-social engagement, a strongly developed sense of form and a preference for contrast-rich, dramatic black-and-white.

Even though his direct reason for doing so was perhaps quite prosaic, Van Denderens recent departure from Vrij Nederland is understandable within a broader, international development in which the traditional podia for photojournalism are slowly making way for new ones. This is a process that has been taking place for some time; but through both the rise of new image production and image dissemination technologies and a changing market for the news and the stories behind it, this process has become more rapid.

The shift from the printed magazine to the exhibition platform has not only an economic cause. Among an increasing number of photojournalists and documentary photographers, the realization has grown that the exhibition brings with it a fundamentally different way of looking and observing, one which lends itself well to an intelligent edit of images on the wall (format, order, location in the space), but which above all offers resistance to the leveling of journalism in the mass media. On the one hand, there is room here for immersion and reflection; on the other hand, the opportunity to slow down ones look. To an increasing extent, old and new media such as the photo book, the website and the weblog also offer these photographers diverse ways of escaping the whim of editors who have bet their cards on infotainment, citizen journalism or emotion-focused reporting.


Van Denderens growing need to approach things differently received a crucial boost at two moments over the past few years. One of them was a portrait sitting with a Palestinian suicide bomber in Hebron who, on the evening before he blew himself up, allowed himself be photographed as a proud father in a childs bedroom with his two young children on his arm. After his deadly act, the photo was circulated in the Western media. In an attempt to grasp the event, Van Denderen said that he looked into the childrens eyes for a very long time. His changed insight into the psychology of the lingering conflict led him to photograph posters of Palestinian suicide bombers in the West Bank. These pamphlets, which portray the suicide bombers as martyrs, are distributed immediately after a suicide attack, and just as quickly removed by Palestinians who are dragged from their beds by Israeli soldiers. This is why these posters, which according to the photographer can be regarded as devotional cards, are rarely seen in the Western media.

As a regular visitor to the West Bank, Van Denderen was acquainted with this phenomenon. In an apparently paradoxical step, he decided to return to one of the primary functions of photography, which is rooted in the creation of a faithful reproduction of reality. He photographed these posters in colour wherever and whenever he saw them and in as matter-of-fact a way as possible, disregarding himself as author. The initiative that resulted in the Martyrs series was a crucial step, even though the impulse for a new way of working had occurred several years previously. At the time, Van Denderen was working on a series about a diverse group of immigrants attempting to penetrate Fort Europe. He recounts an experience in 2001, which cast a different light on illegal immigration, a phenomenon he had been photographing since 1986. Hidden early one morning in the dunes of Punta Paloma in the south of Spain, he waited for the arrival of the illegal immigrants who were being brought over the sea from Morocco by human traffickers. Within no time, the small rubber boats had unloaded their cargo and just as quickly the immigrants had disappeared into the dunes. Van Denderen was able to catch several of them on film. What made the experience really distressing was the fact that a few hours later unwitting tourists, keen to spend a day in the sun, spread out their towels on the same spot.

He came to the realization that there was no opportunity in his work to reproduce these kinds of contrasts and experiences. By focusing on concrete events, the larger connections and relationships between apparently incompatible, but fundamentally connected, situations remain out of sight. He decided a different approach was needed. By converting this photo series, which appeared under the title Go No Go — The Frontiers of Europe (2003), into a book and exhibition, he took the first steps. At various points in the book he and his fellow editors inserted colour photos from travel brochures, related to the places and countries from which the migrants came. The stark contrast with Van Denderens black-and-white reportage images had a disturbing effect on the flow of the journalistic story. In the exhibition, the second perspective was introduced by combining the projected photos with Britanya (2003), a commissioned four-part film production made by Marjoleine Boonstra with illegal immigrants who had tried to enter Great Britain from the French town of Sangatte. They were the first interesting, if cautious, attempts to break loose from the respected, but by that time outdated, tradition of documentary photography, by utilizing simple interventions to break through the authority of the single perspective.

His decision, at the start of a new project dealing with the 17 countries on the Mediterranean, to swap his 35mm camera loaded with black-and-white film for a medium format camera with colour film was of a more fundamental nature. The transition from a negative format with image proportions of 2:3 to one of 6:7 also implied the transition to a radically new (journalistic) way of working. The medium-format camera is not only a very different object, in the physical sense, but it needs to be handled differently. The image proportions force the photographer to look at and compose pictures differently, leaving behind the nervousness and speed associated with a 35mm camera in favour of a slower, more concentrated way of observing. In a certain sense, the change meant a departure from the role of reporter of news events, of the proverbial fly on the wall, of the decisive moment. Van Denderen noticed that he started to see things he had not seen before. He began to pay more attention to surroundings and context, to indecisive moments and signs things or situations that openly point to a web of causes and effects, of developments and results, of connections and parallels and to aspects that at first glance appear to have no meaning, but are just there. Instead of the messenger, he was now the onlooker, without prejudice, judgements or even concrete ideas about what he photographed. More an informed finder than a purposeful seeker. So Blue, So Blue Edges of the Mediterranean is witness to this new way of working, which can still be called journalistic because at its core it is focused on investigating, informing and showing a concrete reality within a social framework (more specifically: that of a well-functioning democracy, for which journalisms informational and opinionated roles are of vital importance).

This journalistic approach has signed a pact with slowness, however (hence the term Slow Journalism), and on two fronts: first, it distances itself emphatically from the daily stream of news facts that are beamed around the globe via the fast media such as newspapers, television and the internet. Second, the basic principle of this way of working requires a long-lasting commitment from the photographer to his subject. This slowness is ultimately critical to the intensity of the result. The term intensity is more suitable in this instance than the obvious quality, because it relates to the act of looking. Only by investing more time can a certain amount of concentrated looking be developed; only then can the photographer leave behind first impressions, distance himself from the cursory glance of the day tripper, the confirmation-seeking glance of the tourist, the exoticizing glance of the traveller.

When we accept that Van Denderens documentary photos are documents of experience, then we can see that they are the experiences of an informed photographer. The concentrated observation and the extent to which the look is informed are deeply ingrained in the images in So Blue, So Blue. As a result, the images cannot hide their subjectivity. But it is also clear that they offer a fundamentally alternative consciousness and insight that is missing in a photo reportage. In other words, it is about a fundamentally different image language, one which can be called both personal and documentary. And which, as can be expected, constructively disrupts the usual perceptions of the Mediterranean.

Frits Gierstberg (1959) studied Art History and Archaeology at the University of Leiden. He is currently Head of Exhibitions at the Nederlands Fotomuseum, and Extraordinary Professor of Photography at Erasmus Univer-sity, Rotterdam, specializing in the socio-historical and documentary aspects of photography.

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