A conversation with Carl De Keyzer about India.

When it was published back in 1987, India became an immediate and gigantic succes. It has sold not less than 8.000 copies and  many still regard it as Carl De Keyzer’s best book because of the aestheticizing flash techniques and of the relaxed mood in the pictures. In this post, we are going back with the photographer to 1987 to learn from him how the book was originally created and received. Today he disagrees that his book is his best one but he confirms that it helped him to catch the attention of the legendary Magnum Agency and that it layed the foundation for an impressive series of (till date) 16 other photobooks. So, it is safe to qualify the book as a milestone in the history of Belgian photography.

The story of India started in Arles where young Carl De Keyzer showed to Dutch publisher Dirk van der Spek his little, black Ambassador wading through the monsoons.

India. Bombay. © Carl De Keyzer - MAGNUM Book "India" 1987. 1985.

© Carl De Keyzer, courtesy Magnum Photos

At that moment De Keyzer had already spent two summers on the subcontinent sleeping in shabby motels, travelling in crowdy third class wagons, tirelessly waiting to make those two or three precious images per week. Van der Spek promised to publish a book on the condition that De Keyzer would return one more time. Thus, young De Keyzer who was teacher in Ghent in those days, returned one more time during the next summer break. With a kind of reluctance though, because inevitably there would be monsoon season again!


© Carl De Keyzer, courtesy Magnum Photos

But today, the photographer realizes that this was the way how he has learned to finish off a project. As for his famous flash technique, he claims that the use of his old and powerful Metz was rather a necessity than a deliberate choice to aestheticize. “The Indians were all the time taking refuge from the blazing summer heat in the shadow. Without my flash they would have remained invisible. I had to develop a technique by which I could both show what happened in the daylight and unveil what remained hidden in the world of the shadows.”


© Carl De Keyzer, courtesy Magnum Photos

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© Carl De Keyzer, courtesy Magnum Photos

After his return Van der Spek kept his promise and the Ambassador (and its passengers) would famously become the cover of the book. But Van der Spek had done the selection and sequencing of the pictures without much consultation. It makes De Keyzer smile today but he admits that he never was very happy with the result. Especially van der Speks introduction that coined the book as a positive, joyful testimony of India leaves the photographer with ambivalent feelings.

Dirk van der Spek: “Laughing people in the land of Nehru and Gandhi, the land of cultural conflict between Hindus and Muslims, Sikhs, Biharis and Bengalis. The land that is also notorious for its gigantic natural and environmental disasters. Ostensibly it seems as if the people cheerfully accept these problems.

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© Carl De Keyzer, courtesy Magnum Photos

India. Bombay. Beach laundry. © Carl De Keyzer - MAGNUM Book "India" 1987. 1985.

© Carl De Keyzer, courtesy Magnum Photos

According to the photographer, it was not at all his ambition to create a positive image of India in the book.  On the contrary, he wanted to show “the back side of the postcard images” that only show the Taj Mahal, the nice beaches and the beautiful saris. The photographer also states that Indian critics were not pleased at all. They could not understand why a photographer had to show someone repairing his bike in a river (“Is that being modern?“) or a shopkeeper helplessly lying in his inundated business (“Do they like it in Belgium when their shops are flooded?“).

India. Calcutta. Howrah bridge © Carl De Keyzer - Magnum 1986.

© Carl De Keyzer, courtesy Magnum Photos

India. Benares. © Carl De Keyzer - Magnum 1986. Book India "1987".

© Carl De Keyzer, courtesy Magnum Photos

But, recalling his days in India, De Keyzer also agrees that he had been too easily charmed by the never ending stream of children that came up greeting him all the time and by the Indians in general who still took a keen interest in him as a foreigner. “Maybe I have been a little bit naive in the way I have portrayed them. Maybe the book contains a neo-colonial point of view. After all, westerners like this way to look at the third world.India would teach the photographer a good lesson.  In his later books, he would become more critical for himself, his public and his subjects. He would not be the one trick poney photographer with a daylight flash. He would elaborate his subject much more profoundly, he would become a sharp critic of contemporary politics and society.

Despite De Keyzer’s afterthoughts, the book remains a real pearl! When I  am leafing through the pages, Carlo Levi‘s account of his travels in India in the 1950’ies are coming to my mind: “At every step, a thousand apparitions surge toward us until, in the narrow lanes of the marketplace, as if all the veils had been pulled aside, we see a world that is so real that it seems as if words can scarcely keep up with the sight, stuttering, filled with wonder.

India. Agra. Taj Mahal. © Carl De Keyzer - MAGNUM Book "India" 1987.

© Carl De Keyzer, courtesy Magnum Photos

In De Keyzer’s book, we can see the same pre-globalized or even pre-modern India that Levi witnessed when he stepped out his car: “Hordes of children come towards us, along with dappled cows and enormous black water buffaloes….an ancient enchantment, a sort of incomprehensible, earthly magic, seems to envelop us suddenly, along with the mysterious silence of a remote era…..But also a transition is going on there, from one era to another, from the most primitive tribal coexistence, from the most retrograde feudalism to full participation in modern history.” (C. Levi, Essays on India)

India. Benares. © Carl De Keyzer - Magnum 1986.

© Carl De Keyzer, courtesy Magnum Photos

For sure, the book beautifully displays De Keyzer’s timeless look at the world. There are no explicit references the 1980’ies visible. Naturally, time has played its intriguing role, and De Keyzer becomes a little bit nostalgic when he looks at his book. India did undergo an irreversible transition. “In the 1980’ies, Coca-Cola was still forbidden. On the billboards you only saw religious effigies or Bollywood stars.” India of the 1980’ies has disappeared for good.

India. Madras. © Carl De Keyzer - Magnum. 1987. Book "India" 1987. 1987.

© Carl De Keyzer, courtesy Magnum Photos


© Carl De Keyzer, courtesy Magnum Photos

But not in his wonderful book. Thank you for this Mr. De Keyzer!













Sanfermines! The forging of a fiesta.

In Pamplona, a white-walled, sun-baked town high up in the hills of Navarre, is held in the first two weeks of July each year the World’s Series of bull fighting. Bull fight fans from all Spain jam into the little town. Hotels double their prices and fill every room…..” With these words Ernest Hemingway, opened in 1923 a text about his first passage at the annual festivities in Pamplona, the so-called Sanfermines. He would return four more times to the festival and it is argued that his literary love affair with the Sanfermines has forged the modern concept of the festival.

In 1923 allegedly only 20 tourists had showed up to attend the nine days party. Today Pamplona attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors from all over the world. But, those who have been there and done it will know: despite the crowds, the Sanfermines have kept a good part of their authenticity. It is still crazy, it is still total madness. To say it in Hemingway’s words, the Sanfermines still turn “all other carnivals pale in comparison“.

How come that the fiesta has kept its authenticity? Is it because of the peninsula’s decades long isolation from the cultural homogenization in other parts of Europe? Is it indeed Hemingway’s legacy that is guarding the true form of the carnival? Or is it maybe Henri-Cartier Bressons iconic reportage in the early 1950’ies that definitively moulded the form of the fiesta? For sure, it is also Ramón Masats’ superb photo-essay “Los Sanfermines” that has shaped the Sanfermines fiesta as it is today!


Masats covered the Sanfermines in the late fifties for one of the leading magazines of the period (Gaceta ilustrada). In 1963 the Espasa Calpe publishing firm in Barcelona published his photographs in a book called “Los Sanfermines”. It contained 141 B&W pictures and 15 colour shots, all made in the late 1950’ies. For the first edition, Ramón Masats agreed to include pictures that were shot by other photographers as well. But he remained the final editor of the photographs and he also composed the pages of the book that won a national prize for the best edited book of the year.


In 2009 La Fábrica Editorial (Madrid) has published a new edition of this work, revised by the then 78 years old Masats: Sanfermines. The new edition exclusively contains Masats own B&W photographs and also the Hemingway alpha-text about the festival. Chema Conesa did the neat and beautiful book design which perfectly honours Masats’ sober, modern way of looking. Please look at the book’s prelude to check this out!

© Ramón Masats


So, what is it all about? Each year, on the 6th of July at 12 AM, a rocket (the chupinazo) is shot into the sky above the town hall square of Pamplona. From that moment onwards its inhabitants collectively enter that other, uncompromisingly carnivalesque dimension of their lives. They all take a nine days break from ordinary life full of economic hardship (poverty remains Spains biggest secret).


© Ramón Masats

During this annual break the partygoers no longer reckon with the normal time units (“It is Sanfermines all the time!”). Until the 14th of July, the fiesta unfolds itself as an endless, cyclic frieze of weird images, rituals, sounds, actions, smells and tastes. The new beacons of time and place comprise the famous encierro (running in front of the bulls), the procession, the kiosk concerts, the riau-riau, the fountain jumpings, and as a matter of course also the cruel enactment of a myth in which a drunk audience dressed in white celebrates the torture and murder of a black bull. Thus, the fiesta develops itself as a crazy filmscript in which the actors have to play every day the same role. A new order has taken over control.

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© Ramón Masats

What makes Masat’s book a masterpiece is that its composition closely follows the syntax of the alternative order which reigns in town.  Chema writes in his afterword: “What Masats was most insistent about was the order in which the images are placed to tell the story as it happened. As a maker of documentaries for television he was known for his meticulous editing and for the care he took with the tempo of each story. In this instance he was careful to respect the order of the events in Pamplona. Despite some unavoidable jumps the narrative decribes the development of the Sanfermines quiet accurately“.

A series of captions of gently dancing men and women taken on different locations in town act as “unavoidable jumps” between all the episodes of the fiesta.




© Ramón Masats

Masats’ “photo-essay” also mirrors very well the abundance itself of the fiesta. The book does never seem to reach its finale. Its pages are not even numbered! We cannot but follow the endless frieze of partygoers drinking, eating, dancing, strolling around, flirting, napping, playing, singing …… And, what makes the work all the more great and powerful is that we feel that Masats takes the participants as seriously as the participants take their rituals seriously.

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© Ramón Masats

Let us focus now on two specific elements of the fiesta as Masats is showing them in his book. Firstly, the dancing giants! Every day, as soon as the street sweepers have finished their impossible job, eight giants appear in the streets of Pamplona.  They are accompanied by so-called Cabezudo’s (thickheads), Kilikis (bodyguards among which Caravinagre or Vinegarface) and Zaldikos (half humans, half horses) who are entertaining both young and old spectators. Would these sovereigns not be the perfect metaphors for the partying people of Pamplona itself? During the fiesta they are freed from the constraints of normal life and they have merged and unified into one “gigantic” body.

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© Ramón Masats

Another interesting element of the book is that Masats does not neglect the roots of the Sanfermines. Historically it was all about  poor farmers and breeders from rural Navarra who came in July to the annual livestock fair in the provincial capital. The brave but pitiful labourers of the primary sector were allowed to join the wealthier bourgeoisie for nine days only. And that is when they built a carnavalesque utopian world in which they could feel like giants.


© Ramón Masats

Today, the peninsula is no longer isolated culturally. A globalized culture – with its ahistoric imagination very unlike the images of the carnivalesque giants- is spreading all over the country. Local farmers and breeders are disappearing also in Spain. Yet, the Sanfermines still attract crowds from all over the globe. And also the dancing giants still appear every day in the streets. As always they are putting a smile on the faces of their faithful audiences.

What a fiesta! Superbly forged and preserved by some of the finest artists of the 20th century? Thank you for this Mr. Hemingway. Thank you very much Mr. Masats!








reporting on the art of the photobook