Off the record – Fleur Jongepier
“It’s just the way I see things.”
If I mention the name of Jane Goodall, most will know whom I am talking about. But if I mention the name Hugo van Lawick, will it ring a bell? Yet, it is thanks to Hugo that we have those beautiful pictures of Jane holding hands with chimps or letting them scratch her back. There is power in photography. The power of making an otherwise private and brief moment public and immortal. The power of selecting what has to be remembered and what can be forgotten.
It is with these thoughts in mind that I prepared my questions to Fleur Jongepier, assistant professor of (digital) ethics at Radboud University, who agreed to talk about her passion for photography (which can be observed more extensively on her website: https://fleurjongepier.myportfolio.com/photography). We call on a sunny Thursday afternoon. As soon as Fleur appears on my screen, I notice the luminous interior of the room, and I cannot help but think that it is really the kind of room I would have pictured her in. I have never talked to Fleur before about this passion of hers, so to break the ice a little, I begin by asking her about the origins, so to speak, of her interest in photography.
“I started doing photography” – Fleur answers, making apostrophes with her hands while pronouncing the words ‘doing photography’ – “when I was about eleven or twelve years old and got my first camera. I remember it was a kind of technology that gave me a sense of safety.” Fleur continues. “I got to look at my family, which was my main subject at that time, and to interact with them in a different way because of this technology. There would be things that I could tell them to do or ask them that I couldn’t do when I didn’t have the camera.” She goes on telling me about how she used to carry it around everywhere, and I find myself looking back on when I got my first camera, a Nikon Coolpix SQ (seriously, how cheesy is it to name a camera “cool pics”?) and I used it to take pics of the most random stuff (not cool pics, after all). While my own passion for photography did not survive long enough to allow me to improve my very poor skills, Fleur did not stop at the phase “let’s take a picture of my mum while having breakfast” as I did (sorry mum, I would not like it either, I know). “When I started studying philosophy, I took one or two photography courses,” Fleur explains. “One of the courses was on analog photography, and we were taught how to develop our own pictures in the dark room. To go back to the basics was very cool. I still like to shoot with film, although I don’t use it as much as I did in the past. What I really liked about analog photography was that I had to learn by doing. When I got a proper analog camera, I always used the manual mode so I had to set the shutter time and the aperture myself and, as a result, I would mess up many pictures. I had pictures that were all white, others all black, or out of focus. I really like that I had to learn the mechanics by trial and error. Also, with film cameras, you only had twenty-four opportunities, or thirty-four depending on which film you had. This meant that you couldn’t take pictures of all the things you wanted, something that really changed with the smartphone. Now you can take twenty pictures of a flower and then just pick the best one. This used to be very expensive back in the day, because you had to buy the film and develop it, so you would never do that. While some people might be happy about the freedom offered by digital photography, I actually like to have external constraints. Sometimes I still pretend that it costs me to take a picture and I ask myself ‘Would I make a photograph of this if I had an analog?’ If not, then I am not going to do it digitally either. I try to make a difference, although I find it really hard to distinguish between things that are worth taking a photograph of and things that are pretty.”
This makes me think about something I have seen in a series of short interviews with National Geographic’s photographers. In one of these episodes, Lynn Johnson, famous for her touching photos, said that she does not have photographs of the most important moments of her life, because she wants to be there in the moment. So I wonder what Fleur would do in these situations.
“I was once at a birthday celebration of a two-year old, and everyone had their phone out and directed at the child and the whole experience was sort of lived through their phone. This inevitably created some distance. In these situations, what you are trying to do is to record the event, and I wonder if you can record an event and still be present at it. I think this is really hard to do. One of the reasons why I like photography is that you are not really there. You are not a participant, rather, you are an onlooker. Like an anthropologist, you are not part of the practice, but you are looking at it. If this distance is an integral part of photography, then maybe to take a lot of pictures of main life events is like taking yourself out of the event. At the same time, I do not want to be this anti-technology person because it also works the other way around. Sometimes I look at my snapshots from my trip to Japan, and they bring back memories, they help me to go back to these moments. So I do not have an easy answer. Sometimes I tell myself, ‘Okay you can take three snapshots of this moment,’ then I send one of them in my family’s WhatsApp group to share what I am doing, but in general I try not to take my phone out for everything I am enjoying. Sometimes just experiencing the moment is better. You don’t always have to take a picture of it.”
“What is the relationship between your academic job and photography?” I ask naively assuming that a person who researches on digital ethics has obviously drawn some sort of connection between ethics and photography.
“I do not see a direct connection, but I do not know if I can really trust myself in saying this,” Fleur answers chuckling.
“Oh! I wasn’t expecting this,” I think, and wait for her to continue her thought.
“It is a bit like when I was writing my PhD thesis, and I had this naive and ultimately false idea that what I was doing in philosophy wasn’t connected to my personal life. I ended up writing a PhD thesis about self-knowledge, and all of the people I’m close to were making jokes and finding me ridiculous for saying that there was a PhD thesis that didn’t have anything to do with me. My whole life is a search for self-knowledge. So maybe in five years I will have to retract everything I am saying but, at the moment, I see art as a way of getting away from philosophy and from the cognitive mode.”
“What do you mean?” I ask intrigued by the idea that there is a “cognitive mode” button that we can switch on and off.
“I know there are people who try to look at the intersections between photography and philosophy. Although I think this is interesting, when I go to a museum, I want to see the artworks, I want to take them in, I want to experience them. I don’t want to receive cognitive knowledge. My experience of a museum would be ruined if, for every painting, there would be the artist next to it explaining why they made what they made. When I am in my ‘work mode’ I like to think about ethics, and work with arguments, premises, assumptions and so on, but I do not want my work to encroach on art. The same goes for novels or movies. I like it when a novel makes me think about philosophical questions, but if it is explicitly philosophical, I usually dislike it. In an interview from 1978, Iris Murdoch, whom I’ve recently developed a crush on, says that philosophy can be damaging to art. In her opinion, writers can include philosophical ideas in their writings but if they do so, philosophy immediately fails to be philosophy and instead becomes the writer’s ‘plaything’. When her interviewer disagrees with her, Murdoch suggests it may just be a personal taste, and that she herself just feels a sense of horror about putting theories into novels. I think I share her personal taste: I don’t want any kind of explicit philosophy to interfere with my aesthetic experience.”
I pause a bit. On the one hand, I do understand Fleur’s desire of “just experiencing” something beautiful when in a museum. On the other hand, I find it hard to draw a clear-cut separation between what is just a pleasurable experience, and what Fleur calls ‘cognitive knowledge.’ Not only is making an explicit connection between philosophy and art in regards to racism basically the main point of my thesis, but recently I have also been quite struck by the issue of the polychromy of Ancient statues. Those beautiful artworks that we nowadays see as white were not white at all. Either they have been left white when they lost their colors or, sometimes, they have been scrubbed to remove the traces of the original colors. The idea of a “pure, marble-white Antiquity” prevailed because J. J. Winckelmann (1764), one of the founding fathers of art history, claimed that white was the most beautiful color of all. Moreover, even if archeologists have by now shown that Ancient statues were polychrome, museums rarely take this information into account. Far from being neutral spaces that convey objective knowledge, museums resemble educational institutions, which have the power of disciplining our mindset. Therefore, it seems to me that museums actively produce the “cognitive knowledge” Fleur assigns to her “work mode,” although they do it in a more subtle way. Intrigued by possibility of discussing this with Fleur, I insist, “Okay, but even if for you photography is a way of getting away from philosophy, don’t you think that art and philosophy can be connected?”
“As an empirical fact, art has done a lot for emancipatory movements and activism, and it can do a lot. It surely has a great potential. But I think it boils down to a personal taste, I am definitely for the existence of emancipatory art and maybe it’s because I work so much with philosophy and ethics that when I go to a museum, or when I read a novel, I want something else. For instance, I am a big admirer of J. J. Voskuil, who wrote a long series of books describing, in an almost boring, dry and mundane way, office life and academia. He writes about all the silent irritations, discussions, silly research projects, and all of the useless meetings, which I now refer to as “Voskuil meetings.” It is not moral literature at all, and I love it. Indeed, if an author is able to combine a moral message and a good writing style, then it is the best of both worlds. Unfortunately, this is very hard to do and in most of the cases, it just becomes a personal opinion, a viewpoint. I think it is also quite paternalistic. I will decide what my experience is, and it might be completely different from what the artist wanted me to feel. As soon as artists start to make their message explicit, I have the feeling that this isn’t their job. Their job is to make art, not arguments.”
Fleur takes a short pause, and then resumes. “I also write fiction and here it is more obvious that you need a message and idea. You need to know what you want the reader to feel, what message or sentiment you are trying to get across. A good short story is one in which the author knows full well what they want you to feel and what the implicit message is but the question is whether this needs to be made explicit. The artists should know what they are doing and why they are doing it, but maybe this does not have to be obvious for those who watch or read their art.”
“So you also write!” I exclaim. “But then what does photography allow you to do that maybe writing short stories doesn’t?”
“One thing is to go outside. I don’t have a dog, so photography is a good excuse to go outside.” We both laugh and I realize that I am short of both the dog and the photography excuse. I need to work on a pretext too. “But I also look at the world in another way when I have a camera with me,” Fleur adds. “If I am outside without my camera, I will look at things instrumentally. For example, a person might be an obstacle, and a street a passage, and so on. If I am with my camera, then I approach things in a non-instrumental way. When I take photographs, I tend to look for trivial things, things that I would never look at otherwise. I don’t take pictures of sunsets or flowers, because I would see them anyway.”
From what Fleur says it seems to me that photography is a sort of therapeutic experience for her, a sort of private moment that does not necessarily need to be shared with other people. It seems like a reminder to keep on looking for the small beautiful things around you. However, Fleur already surprised me a few times with her answers, so instead of drawing this conclusion myself, I ask her. “Whom do you take photographs for? Is it for yourself or to share with others?”
“I think it’s a bit of both,” Fleur answers without hesitating. “For instance, I recently ordered a really large print for my office of a picture I made in Japan of a concrete wall with yellow flowers, daffodils, in front of it. It is a bit of a strange picture. I mean, who would want to have a picture of a big concrete wall with vague flowers in the foreground in their office? If I shared it with my family, they would probably say ‘we have flowers and concrete walls in the Netherlands too, so what’s your deal?’ This is a picture I made for myself, I would say. I think it is beautiful in the sense that it is a weird combination of the natural and the artificial. It is beautiful in a way, because it is ugly. I do not know if that makes sense.” Fleur stops and chuckles. Then continues: “Especially over the last couple of months, during the coronacrisis, I have been very much focused on the beauty of ugliness. Although the pictures I now share with others are the more aesthetically pleasing ones, my ideal audience would be of people who, like me, appreciate ugliness, and think that this type of photography is beautiful in its own, jarring way. My goal is to take pictures of things that are interesting to look at, and not so much of prettiness. It is the same with people. There are people who are really attractive, they’re objectively beautiful, so to speak. But they’re not beautiful.”
Now it is my turn to chuckle. “Oh, I know what you are talking about!” I think recalling all the crushes I had on people who my friends did not find particularly attractive, while I always insisted that there was that small detail that made them handsome. Luckily, I manage to keep this for myself and, instead, I say “Yeah, this is pretty intuitive while thinking about people but I’ve never thought the same about pictures.”
“Me neither!” Fleur utters. Who knows, maybe she is also thinking about her past crushes now.
“So what is your focus when taking pictures? From what you said so far, it seems that what interests you is the subject of the pictures. But there are also people who, for example, take photographs of the same thing at different times of the day to experiment with the light.” As soon as I say this, I realize that the “people” I have in mind is actually one of the greatest Impressionist artists, who made more than two hundred and fifty paintings of water lilies until cataract impaired his sight.
“I think this is something that has changed over the years,” Fleur admits. “When I became a bit more serious with photography, contrast was one of the main things I started experimenting with. Strong black and whites, shadows, and silhouettes for instance. While, now I have a renewed interest in color photography. It’s funny how if you make something black and white it immediately looks like ‘serious’ photography, whereas colors have an important function too.” Fleur pauses and looks at the screen while scrolling through the pictures she sent me before the interview. “So, if you look at the picture of the three large containers at the station of Kyoto, this would be nothing in black and white. Even the one of the gravel [figure 4] would lose much of its appeal in black and white.” Fleur concludes while still thinking, as if she was reflecting on “her style” for the first time while talking to me. I wait a bit before moving on to the next question. Her way of looking outside the screen and to the ceiling gives me the feeling that she is still putting the pieces of this answer together. “But actually, I do also have a special attention for the subject, maybe in a weird way. I need to take a step back. When I was about to defend my PhD thesis, all of my loved ones joined forces and gave me a Fujifilm camera. I was immensely happy with it, and still am. It’s a fixed lens camera, with a 35mm lens, which is generally used for street photography. A 35mm camera gives you a slightly zoomed out effect, but gives the impression of normal vision. Contrary to cameras with zoom lenses where you just get the subject towards you or away from you, if you have a fixed lens camera you need to move. This ties into why I do photography at all: I want to go outside and I want to move. And if I find an interesting subject, I like to have to go back and forth until I find the ideal distance. I have to do the work and not my camera, and this connects me with the subject in a special way.”
“But isn’t this a bit contradictory?” I ask.
“What do you mean?”
“Hmm,” I sort of mumble while trying to put my thoughts in order. “Well you have a camera for which you have to do all the work, so it creates a special relationship with the subject and with the things you are seeing. The camera makes you part of the event, but it also creates a distance, because you are seeing it through the camera.” I stop and think whether this makes sense. “Maybe this is connected to what we talked about at the beginning,” I conclude.
“Yes, of course,” Fleur agrees. “In a way, having a camera creates a sort of mediated experience. It throws you out of the practice, but it also lures you in. You are very concentrated on a specific image or on a specific face. That is also a way of being more in the moment, because you are only focusing on a detail. However, I guess that for me the feeling of being thrown out is more dominant. When I was in Japan, for instance, I really didn’t have any interest in being in touch with everyone else. I was there for a few weeks after a turbulent personal life event, and I just wanted to be left alone and do my own thing. In those weeks, I rediscovered photography. I thought that I could just look at the world for a while, from a distance so to speak, and I could join it again when I felt ready. But for the time being, I could only notice the things around me. It was a form of self-care. When you’re depressed everything is all the same and things don’t matter. So for me it was also a good sign that I regained a strong interest in photography. It meant that I was still interested in looking at things and at the world, even if I did not feel like participating in it, even if I felt a bit thrown out.”
Okay, now I am curious. I remember Fleur told me that the pictures she sent are all from her trip to Japan. If that trip meant so much to her, then maybe this is a good moment to talk about these photographs. I ask her to tell me something about the pictures and about that trip to Japan, about what it meant to her and what made her rediscovery photography.
“I don’t really know how to answer this.” She pauses a bit. “I noticed it in myself that I was more aware of the things around me. Maybe because I did a lot of mindfulness training, I realized that it was okay to just be where I was. You know, it was not great, it was not super bad, and even if it were, that’s what it is. Taking photographs in Japan didn’t give me immediate pleasure, it didn’t really fit into the positive/negative sort of frame. It was, and it still is, a nonjudgmental mode of noticing, of being in the world. Photography for me is maybe not about messages, or judgements, or activism and emancipation. It’s just the way I see things. The way I am in the world. That’s it.”
“What about this one?” I ask virtually pointing at the picture Fleur sent me in the Zoom chat [figure 5].
“In a way I think this photograph also very much fits the way I look at the world now. I walk across this place very often, but I never really look at it. And then one day I just saw it and found it interesting, maybe because of the colors.”
“Yes, also the separation of colors.” I say almost interrupting her. “It looks like separated in two parts and there is a really big part of grey, where there is nothing basically.”
“Yes true, this one is a bit geometric,” Fleur resumes. “You could paint it with big blotches of the same color.”
“Is this your new direction, if we can call it that?” I inquire.
“I don’t know, I don’t think there was an old direction for there to be a new one. I think I would like to do more projects in the future. A few years ago, I did a photography documentary of the carpenter who made my dinner table. He lives in the woods in Brabant, and he made his entire home out of wood. He is a very very interesting guy, who would also do great in a novel. I took pictures of his hands, of the wooden objects he made, and of the materials he was using. I want to take photography more seriously in the future, but I do need to think about what I want to get across. For now, it’s not more interesting than me taking walks I guess.”
We both laugh.
“You mention that you want to take photography more seriously. Have you ever considered being a professional photographer?” I wonder.
“I have considered it, sometimes I still do. But it’s so hard to do, you need to accept that you will need to do many assignments and a lot of weddings in order to make money. I don’t think that would make me very happy. Maybe some activities just need to be hobbies. You can really ruin your own hobby if you make work out of it.”
I have one last question. One of the trends that we see in mainstream culture is the desire of going back to what is real, what is authentic. It happens in advertisement; they try to sell you this pizza because it is the real Italian one. Or this chocolate because it is the true Belgian chocolate. Yet, it also seems to happen in photography. Laura Dodsworth, for instance, started a series of projects called Bare Reality, in which she takes pictures of breasts, and of male and female genitals to show what real breasts and genitals look like. So now I wonder if Fleur sees the same phenomenon and if she can shed some philosophical light on the matter.
Fleur reflects a bit before answering. “Leaving aside emancipatory photography, I think of photography as a way of looking at things, rather than of taking part in things. Yet, even if you have a sort of passive conception of photography, it doesn’t mean that there is an objective or neutral way of seeing things. There is always a form of constitutive relation between the viewer and the object, the very act of looking constitutes the object. Maybe this is also something you can notice in the picture with all the grey and geometrical lines. It was only by taking this photograph that the composition looked the way it did. The very act of looking creates things, in a way. And I think this is connected to what you mentioned about the raw reality of genitals and breasts. What something really looks like is an interesting philosophical question. Nothing really looks like anything; it depends on how you look at it. So there isn’t an essence of what someone’s face looks like. And there isn’t an essence of what someone’s breasts look like, it depends on how one wants to present one’s breasts, what one’s position is, and so on. But it also depends on the technology you are using, and photography gives you the possibility of changing the way you see things.”
For some reason I notice only now, at the end of the interview, that all the pictures Fleur sent me are of objects or places. “Do you take pictures of people?” I ask sounding maybe a bit too inquisitive.
“Yes, I do,” Fleur says. I can tell from her voice and the way she looks at me through the camera that she is a bit confused about where I am going with this question.
“Do you ever have this moment of awkwardness when you take a photograph of strangers and they realize it? Like you are intruding their private space.” It was an innocent (and a bit silly) question, after all.
“This is, I think, an area where my work has influenced my hobby,” Fleur concedes, smiling. “I now work together with people who are privacy-experts. It’s not my own area of specialization, but it’s related to some of the topics I do work on, and I’ve become much more aware and interested in privacy-related issues. I’ve always been super uncomfortable with street photographing people, even though it’s one of the things I find most interesting. But I tried to flip myself in the opposite position, if someone were to take a photograph of me just because the way I looked in a certain circumstance, let’s say on the train. I really wouldn’t like that. And so, by means of consistency, I don’t think I should do it to other people. There are also many street photographers who take a picture and then ask the person for their consent, but I’m too shy to do that. At the same time, I do like portrait photography, so for me the only way forward would be to make more photo documentaries.”
I look at the time, we have been talking for an hour. It is time to wrap up, it is Hemelvaartsdag so maybe Fleur wants to take advantage of the beautiful weather to take one of her photography walks. Maybe she will find a so-far-unnoticed place or object that inspires her.
“It was a really nice talk, thank you,” I conclude. I am not just being polite. I really mean it. It has been a beautiful talk, not because I agreed on everything. I am still wrapping my mind around the relationship between moral judgement and aesthetics, or around the ways in which art shapes our knowledge, and I do not necessarily see photography as a passive activity. Yet, Fleur has this ability of approaching things from a different angle and of making me think deeper about my opinions. While talking to her I felt more than once that I had to find more arguments and better reasons in support of what I was trying to claim. Fleur leaves me more enthusiastic about what I was already interested in and eager to do more research. And this, in my opinion at least, is way better than having a talk in which you agreed on everything. Plus, Fleur has been invited to talk at our next Film&Philosophy event. An invitation that she kindly accepted, so now I am also looking forward to that and to hearing some more about how she sees the relationship between ethics and aesthetics. With these thoughts in mind, I get ready and go out for a walk too. This is not an easy time, everyone knows what I am talking about. But precisely because this is a hard time, this might be the best moment to follow Fleur’s advice and go out, be interested in the world, notice what’s happening around us, and look at things, even those we have not noticed until now, from another perspective.