“My pictures are getting closer and closer to a self-portrait”
“Photography is not about photography, it’s about something else. For me it is very much about encounters, about meeting people. That’s important for me. To get to know them, to know more, to be curious, to ask questions with my camera and with my mouth.
That’s perhaps the most important thing for me. I experiment with people. I am trying to get as close as possible. I want to be very primitive. I like the word primitive. You know: when you’re hungry, you’re hungry, when you’re horny, you’re horny. I want that to be shown. I believe in that. Very back to basics. That’s one of the reasons I so much admire Daido Moriyama. He is horrible and I love that. He has a fever. He’s nervous. He’s desperate. I am always looking for that kind of feeling. If they are desperate enough to keep going.
“I am collecting pictures. Pictures, pictures and more pictures. Feelings, feelings and more feelings. I write down people’s names, addresses and phone numbers. Then I go to my lab, have the films developed, have the contact sheets printed. Sometimes I make small seize RC prints. And then I go back and give them away. The first exhibition in Hamburg was over the bar. I put up 350 24x30 pictures. Then we made the agreement that everybody who could recognise himself, could take the picture down and keep it. That was a good opening. It was an opening for five days and five nights. It was the first exhibition I had. It was a great moment in my life, really. Ten years after I went there and everything was clean. No pictures, but one. That was a picture of me. And they kept it. That was so nice. That was Café Lehmitz. I started in the fall of ’67 and I had the exhibition in April ’70.
“I take pictures of people I can identify myself with. It’s a kind of humanistic school. You can see the line from W. Eugene Smith and Ed van der Elsken. Mostly I deal with two types of photography. One is I’m getting involved in a subject, a project. I’m a kind of project photographer, a diary photographer. I mix them. I try not to take the pictures as I see them, but as I feel them. I am very interested in imperfection, in closed worlds in the meaning of locked worlds like prisons, mental hospitals and homes for old people. If you’re curious, it’s nice to enter these places. With a camera it’s easier. It opens doors. I like the opportunity I have. When I enter, either a bar or a mental hospital, I always have my camera with me. Of course I have been thinking about the project in advance. I have been thinking before, but I am not thinking while shooting. I am thinking afterwards. I am more gut commanded. I shoot with my guts, not with my brains. Afterwards yes, but not while I am shooting.
“When I look at my own pictures I am rather negative. It’s just a little part of the meeting that I can show. They don’t smell. I am often disappointed about my pictures you know, when I think about it. But I try not to think about it. I try to keep going, to put more energy in my pictures. The only way I can do, to be honest. My pictures are getting closer and closer to a self-portrait. If I take a picture of a dog, it’s not a dog, but a self-portrait. If I take a picture of a naked woman, or of people who are having a good time, it’s a self-portrait. When I take a picture of people dancing, it’s never about dancing, never. It’s about longing, it’s about secret dreams, about feelings or about what you are afraid of. And I am typically somebody who is very afraid of everything. But I am not afraid of being afraid.
“When you are working this way, you are not supposed to judge the people. You have to believe in them, you have to take the responsibility. You have to show the pictures to the people as much as possible. Do you agree with this picture, is it a true picture of the moment we had together? Do you prefer another one? You have to deal with this. Which means the pictures are just ten percent of the work. The real work is like an iceberg, what you see is only the one tenth above the water. Especially in the mental hospital. I was dealing with the parents, the relatives, the children. Showing the pictures, talking, going home with them. That really was work.
“I never work with contracts. Never. I work eye to eye. And they respect that. There has never been a problem. I have photographed mad men, real psychos, real cuckoo people. No problems at all. It’s always face-to-face. I have been working hard for 35 years. I can say I have a little experience with this matter.
“If you have exhibitions, you have to invite them. That’s nice. O yes, that’s nice. I prefer to show my work, especially when it comes to projects like the mental hospital or prison. I like to show that in the prison. I had great shows. Maybe just for two or three days. I put them out on the floor. We have coffee and we criticise. And while I am teaching myself, they are teaching me. The way they react. They don’t really know that. This is a way for me to learn more.
“I tell them my intentions immediately. The story writes itself. I never follow a script, never. They are involved in the project. I am not steeling. They often ask me ‘What is the meaning of all this?’ ‘I don’t know yet,’ I say, ‘but perhaps you can help me.’ I want everyone to be involved. Because my way of thinking, of acting, of handling is based on a very simple idea: we are almost all alike. It doesn’t matter where we come from. It could be Istanbul, Okinawa, Groningen or Stockholm. We all belong to the same family. We are all brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers. It is an easy, back to basic idea. It is very easy to talk like me, or to act like me. You are not supposed to be afraid of anything and this shows in your body language. And sometimes, when I am a happy guy, it shows in the pictures. But mostly not (laughs out loud.) I am sorry to say.
“It depends on my mood if I am dancing or smiling while I am shooting. I let myself go. Yes. It depends on the daily mood, the mood I’m in. If you don’t feel good than it’s no good going out taking pictures. I now have a kind of technique to build myself up in ten minutes. Then I go. Sometimes I don’t need that. It also depends on what kind of mood the people are in. The background, the stage, the light, the shadows. Ya, ya, ya. Mmm.
“Yes, I make contact easily. Sometimes photographers are not very good in making contact with people, but they are extremely good as photographer. There are so many different personalities in the world of photography. My way of trying to make a picture is very much through people, through the meeting. Not everybody is like that. I think you need to be rather cruel at the moment of shooting. You take. You are a thief. You are a surgeon. When you perform surgery you need a very sharp knife to find the finest nerves in the body. It’s the same with photography. If you want to go behind the surface, you need to cut. I am very instinctive. I am very fast, I am very cool in the cutting moment. You have to be cruel. You should not think about integrity. That you can question afterwards or before, but not when you are shooting. Blunt knifes make horrible wounds. I have to be sharp like a razor blade.
“When I worked in the prison there was a guy called Jacky. He was a kind of a myth among the prisoners because he was such a great thief. Now he is an old man. I wanted to see him because I heard so many stories about his life and how he succeeded. Everybody was talking about him. So I went to his cell and the guards opened it for me and I stayed seven hours there, just talking. I didn’t take any pictures. After a while he said: ‘Imagine a pyramid, square at the bottom, sharp at the top. I have to sharpen myself like a pyramid. Before I go into something I have to be pure. I have to be clean. I am not supposed to have those burdens with me, which you have at the bottom of the pyramid. Which means friends, relatives, the car, the radio, the television, the drugs, the alcohol or the women. I do not need this and I am not supposed to have these. So I have to clean up. I have to sharpen the pyramid. I have to think about what I want to do, all the time. Emotionally I have to be prepared. My brain is connected with my heart. I sharpen my pyramid. Everyday I get closer to the top of the pyramid, and the closer I get, the more and more dangerous I become. And when I reach the top, then I am really dangerous’, he said. I liked that. ‘When I have that fever I can do everything I want. I am absolutely extremely strong. And I am beautiful’, he said.
“I believe him. Cutting the crap. Sharpening. (In a very soft voice, almost threatening:) That’s exactly what it’s all about when it comes to photography, when it comes to shoot. You have to be clean, pure. You are not supposed to have yesterday inside you. You have to be in the moment. You have to be so close to the moment and your feelings that it’s almost hurting you. Then you are so strong. And you have to be dangerous in a way, when you are cutting, when you are breaking through. You have to break through. You are not supposed to stay there and look at the surface. Like Daido Moriyama, he is like that. He is really dangerous, I think.
“I am so slow. The mental hospital took three years, the prison two and a half. The old people almost three years. That’s because I don’t take so many pictures, really. I sit down and talk and I am trying to understand. When I was in the old folks’ hospital I was cutting their nails, curling their hair. I was washing the people in the shower room. Sometimes I slept there. I have to force myself to stop this. I am getting older and older and in this way I don’t get anything done. I have to get more effective. I think I am today. No, I am not. Now I am trying to take pictures of men. These are a kind of self-portraits too. In Istanbul, in Helsinki, in Berlin, in Hamburg, in Paris. I have been doing that for one year now and I think I have three pictures which I like. This is typically me. I am my worst enemy and also my best friend. I am very self-critical. Some say ‘These pictures are rather good’ and then I will say ‘But I have done it before’.
“Taking pictures the way I do is a physical kind of work. It’s very physical. It’s also mentally tiring. What keeps me going is my curiosity. The body is not so strong anymore. You can’t do what you did when you were thirty. I have to be more rational. There are so many things I would like to do, many projects. I’d like to finish them before I die. It’s very simple. So I have to hurry on. And I think every man who has a vision, doesn’t have much time left, no matter how young or old you are.
(In a whispering, defiant voice:) “I have to be open for everything that is happening. I have to be as childish as possible, as pure as can be. I have to have the eyes of a child. I am not supposed to have any background. But of course I have, I know that. That’s why it is so important to build up this pureness in your mental way of making contact. I am not supposed to show a lot of respect for people. I am not supposed to do that. There are so many photographers who are standing there, excusing themselves for being photographer. You have to be proud of yourself, stand up with your experience. And then approach, attack. You can see it in the body language of a photographer that he is proud of himself. He can enter almost every group of people, no matter what kind of group. Because he knows that he has the power. Because he is sharp. He has no yesterday. He is sharp in the moment. And then the people, it doesn’t matter what kind of people, they listen to you. When you approach, you have to know who you are and you are not supposed to be afraid. You are supposed to build up yourself in a mental way. It shows in the body language and in the way you are handling the camera. They listen. They don’t have to agree with you, but they respect you. Every man who shows his direction, is respected. You can make many faults in life, but if you show your direction, they respect you. Many, many photographers see their subject and then they go around, around, around and they don’t hit. I am not this way. If I build up in this mental way I hit. I hit –pouf- like that. Directly. And that is horrible, in a way, and I like that. Because I respect people as human beings, not at the surface. Human beings. We are all primitive, we have all an animal inside. We are made of blood, sweat, feelings, secrets, longings and we are afraid. I know that. But I have to show it when I am hitting. This is a way to have a kind of result that shows respect for human beings. But if you are shooting with a lot of respect, the result will be that you are not photographing people, you are photographing furniture.”
© Pim Milo, May 2003