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DAKAR: a photo-essay by Helmut Tezak

Amnesty International has warned us earlier this week that populist politicians are busy creating a hostile climate for refugees and migrants. “Toxic political agendas are dehumanizing and scapegoating entire groups of people.” Of course, most politicians still pay attention not to cross any red line of overt racism or hate speech but their underlying messages (even from those in government positions) are easily decoded as well: ” Migrants (especially Muslims and Africans) have different norms which they have to throw away if they want to become ‘one of us’. There are too many migrants around anyway. And we will shoot from the hip at those who tell you something else.”

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© Helmut Tezak

With their persistent tweets and declarations they are all the time trying to infuse our mindset and to drive a wedge between “us” and “them”.

In the light of all this, I have taken an older photobook from the shelves that is investigating how “our” perceptions of “them” are built and how we live by our anticipations. It’s one of these rare pearls that would have been forgotten by the wheels of time, were it not saved from the yellow bag by one of my favourite antiquarian booksellers in town.

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© Helmut Tezak

DAKAR by Mr. Helmut Tezak (born in 1948) was published in 1983 with Camera Austria and has the ambition to shed a light “on the ordinary day-to-day life of the inhabitants of an African city.”  And, good to know, the African city, does not refer here solely to the Senegalese capital or to some remote spots on the African countryside. It also refers to the African quarters of Paris and Brussels. It refers to all the different realities that build the contemporary African city!

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© Helmut Tezak

Mr Tezak has dedicated DAKAR to the Senegalese ethnologist and film director, Mrs Safi Faye who is still admired today for her poetic and realistic reports from Africa in the 70’ies and 80’ies. This dedication sets the tone. We don’t have to look for evidence of an aestheticizing or idiosyncratic style. The work is old-school humanist (street)photography.

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© Helmut Tezak

Following the photographer’s footsteps we can have a rest from the heath in a dusty village, we can have a funny chat with a class of children under a tree or we can connect to the energy in metropolitan Belleville (Paris). But we can also take a breath and a pensive look at the Atlantic Ocean. The images are gritty and the realities they depict are tough.

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© Helmut Tezak

But, through the eyes of Mr. Tezak life is never miserable. It is as if the photographer is trying to show that comfort can be provided as well by the warm and natural contact people maintain with each other.  It’s very much about maintaining the humanist standards and not accepting the spiteful, negative and divisive ones of populists or hidden populists! Mr. Tezak’s final words to the book, where he is looking back on the intense two years period that he needed to produce it, are a reminder: “Ladies and Gentlemen, it’s fucking great to be alive!

Mr. Tezak’s photographs are unmistakably also meant to illustrate well-defined and highly theoretical reflections. He describes his book as a “photo-essay about masks, roles, behaviour and anticipation“. There is an “explanatory afterword” where he is presenting the reader with a number of concepts from domains like semiotics, sociology and culture studies. Roland Barthes’ famous texts on contemporary mythologies are mentioned (among other authors), implying that the book is meant to reflect on the myths that we – white Westerners- are imposing through the channels of publicity, television and press on the inhabitants of the African city.

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© Helmut Tezak

And on page 26, in the middle of the sequence of images, we find the following quote by Paul Parin: “The attribution of roles to others is one of the most important, perhaps the most important, instrument by which relationships in society are operating; by which relationships are maintained or changed; by which people are manipulated.”

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© Helmut Tezak

Throughout the book we also find a story line with enigmatic interactions between parents and their children. It takes the scope on a higher level. DAKAR is also a reflection about interactions between the strong and the weak. It’s about learning to listen to the messages of the weak as well.

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© Helmut Tezak

And then there is this spread with Accatone and Antigone. Is Mr Tezak suggesting that one has to be born with the genes of these two gorgeous European rebels in order to really resist the agendas of the strong and powerful? In order to engage in a genuine and regular interaction with the weak ones (including the new migrants who came to live around the corner)?

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© Helmut Tezak

The other day, I found a curious quote tagged on a P.O. Box in my street “the ruling norms are too narrow to imagine our realities“.  And when I am looking now at the photographs Tezak has made in Brussels, I remember again, why I adore this place which the US President elegantly described as a hell hole. There are so many different realities. It’s still so unpolished. The ruling norms are questioned all the time. The city is a constant invitation to defy the political agenda! I am not Accatone but I am happy to have read this book. And, it’s f*cking great to be alive!

Thank you very much for your photo-essay, Mr. Tezak!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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!

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© 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.”

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© 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

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© Carl De Keyzer, courtesy Magnum Photos

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