Saturday, September 08, 2007

Ruud Sies

It's Spring and I'm Blind
Due to their homeless status it is quite difficult to determine with any amount of certainty the precise number of homeless people in the United States. Various surveys as to the exact numbers involved have been conducted over the years. Most of them are dated, or based on outdated facts. According to the most reliable estimate, the number of people in the United States having to deal with homelessness in one year amounts to approximately 3,5 million persons. (National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, 2004)

Many of them live on the streets, strategically positioned at busy locations, i.e. the entrances and exits of subways or stations, at tourist attractions and in large shopping malls. By means of handwritten appeals for help they draw attention to their deplorable circumstances. In doing so they hope to change the indifference of the hurried passers-by into compassion which may subsequently be converted into a generous gift.

It is the same four-stage rocket – the Aida-formula – through which the advertising trade targets our wallets: Attention, Interest, Desire, Action.

Before Ruud Sies (1957) devoted himself once again entirely to photography he worked in advertising as an art director for over twenty years. That explains his special interest in the messages American homeless people employ to showcase themselves. During his 12-month tour of America he aimed his camera at this elementary way of advertising with a mixture of compassion and professional curiosity.

Sies took close-up photographs of the homeless in sober black and white. Only the hands holding the signs are shown. If they are not covered by gloves or mittens they turn out to be the only photographic elements in the images that reveal anything about race, age or sex. The persons themselves remain in the background. We see a segment of sidewalk, now and then some personal belongings or a dog. Due to the lack of recognizable faces everyone is anonymous. Man or woman, young or old, black or white, all those determining factors are left aside. The statistics will no doubt be able to reveal more in this respect. According to a survey conducted in 2005 – at the instigation of the US Conference of Mayors – the American homeless population consists for 43 % of men and for 17 % of single women; the remaining percentage being taken up by minors. Of these 49 % are Afro-American, 35 % Caucasian, 13 % Latin-American, 2 % are Native American and 1 % is Asian. Of the total number of homeless people 11 % are war veterans.

Through personal messages the homeless vie for attention. A basic, instinctive form of communication to which common laws of advertising nevertheless apply. Ruud Sies is not the first or only person in advertising to take a personal interest in these texts, as will be borne out by the following apocryphal anecdote about a copywriter who effectively adapted a text.

One day a blind beggar was seen to be sitting in his accustomed place in the street with the text “I’m blind” placed in full view. Passers-by hurried to their offices or home without paying much attention to him. Now and then somebody dropped some change. At a certain moment a copywriter who passed the beggar daily addressed him and asked if he might add something to the text. Permission was granted and three more words were duly added. From then on coins started pouring in. Three words made all the difference. After the copywriter’s addition the text said:
“It’s spring, and I’m blind.”

In effective communication it always boils down to catchy texts. Bill Bernbach, one of the founders of advertising agency Doyle Dane Bernbach, responsible for the best advertising campaign of the 20th Century ("Think Small" for Volkswagen Beetle), said: "The truth isn't the truth until people believe you, and they can't believe you if they don't know what you're saying, and they can't know what you're saying if they don't listen to you, and they won't listen to you if you're not interesting, and you won't be interesting unless you say things imaginatively, originally, freshly."

© Pim Milo

Friday, September 07, 2007

Juul Hondius

Look closely, what you see is not what you’re seeing at all
The photos of Juul Hondius (1970) have something in common with the annual World Press Photo competition. Its jury attempts to select winning entries that symbolise what has moved us the most in the past year. A photo that doesn’t so much reveal as summarise, and whose suggestive power appeals to our collective memory and our empathy. The complexities and contradictions of real life.

They are often pictures with blurred backgrounds. Blurred because a telephoto lens was used, or because of fog, smoke or dust. Sometimes the compositions resemble classic paintings, with no need for background. And human beings are always the central feature. These are the elements of a picture that Hondius most likes to work with. It’s not just a search for ambiguity, but also for the iconographic resonance of the photographed image. In New York, Guatemala, Aman, Bangkok, Tokyo and Moscow, he took portraits of anonymous travellers in buses, trams, subways, trains, planes and boats, always with a window in the background. The result was a series of pictures whose emphasis - travelling people - makes them particularly suggestive. From this vantage point, things seem to be the same everywhere: everyone is withdrawn into their own little world. Travellers can be commuters, but they can also be illegal immigrants, (political) refugees, asylum seekers. Our eyes are inadvertently conditioned to register a politically charged image. Hondius renders his subjects with particular clarity, so much so that we can effortlessly project ourselves into their situations. The picture’s artlessness leaves room for suggestions. So much so, that it is visually appealing. The expression, use of light and composition are acute and pointed.

A fundamental experiment
Using the visual rhetoric of film, photojournalism and documentary photography, Hondius encroaches on a Weltanschauung of security, harmony and unity. His mysterious choice of subject turns out to be an invigorating approach that is impossible to subsume under one common denominator. Moreover, his interest in fundamental experiments gains in strength and credibility due to the highly deliberate staging of the pictures.
When Hondius was an exchange student at Karlov University in Prague (1994-1995), he hung, as an act of provocation, portraits in the city that he had taken of Roma gypsies, carrying texts such as ‘Born guilty?’ and ‘Tolerance?’ When indignant people sullied and tore up the portraits, Hondius completed the project photographing the portraits again.

The ability to stage
Hondius’ work is difficult to place: it doesn’t fit into any genre of photography. The objects and individuals he portrays initially seem commonplace and recognisable, but their context remains ambiguous: where, when and why were these photos taken? The captions don’t leave us any the wiser either. This lack of information endows the photos with a peculiar kind of menace, as if they were part of a world that refuses to divulge its meaning and therefore remains uncontrollable. While this emphasises that photographs are only able to function in the news media because an explicit content is given to them by captions and articles, is also points out that many images have, as it were, inherent captions. By using highly coded elements from previous photography and film, they forge a seemingly natural link between visual rhetoric and written rhetoric.