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 From this vantage point, things seem to be the same everywhere: everyone is withdrawn into their own little world.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.