Al takes photographs of everyday life in public places. In letting the subconscious drive the process of taking photographs, he seeks to uncover the 'quiet revelations found in chance moments'. (Brougher and Ferguson 2001)
For his project he chose the topic "De Kustlijn: 68 tram stops on the Belgian coast". He always felt a special connection with coastal resorts. He was born and raised in the Northern Irish seaside town of Bangor. And so there is a strong feeling of nostalgia underpinning his choice of subject. His first visit to continental Europe as a young teenager was to Blankenberge. It was a memorable holiday, and he has never lost his liking for the place since.
Two years ago, he reread David Campany's "The Open Road: Photography and the American Road Trip" and rekindled his love for this genre of photographic travel. How could he apply the road trip concept to little Belgium? He found his answer in the longest tram line in the world, 67 km long between De Panne and Knokke. This gave rise to the idea of making a concertina book with 68 photos – one for each of the 68 places where the tram stops.
His approach to photography is based on the aphorism of the playwright Samuel Beckett: "Dance first, think later". That means: taking pictures spontaneously, wandering aimlessly without a plan. His project has no storyline. He selected 68 fragments. They represent his look at life on the Belgian coast – fragmentary, ephemeral, picturesque, sensory, with no ultimate meaning. As with life, it's a journey that goes on until the last tram stop is reached....
You can view/download a pdf version of the photobook "De Kustlijn" here.
The visual language in these images has been selected from the actuality of daily life; in the same way that a poem employs pre-existing words to craft and pattern its particular meaning, so the photograph frames pre-existing content ‘out there’ to suggest a story, generate a feeling or mood, stimulate some aspect of memory, or invite personal reflection on modern life.
These photographs ‘represent’ recognizable aspects of life lived in the everyday but they are not documents of reality; they seek rather to act as vehicles for the imagination offering a way to communicate and engage in dialogue about human experience.
The photograph seeks to discover poetic and symbolic qualities in the facts of ordinary experience, drawing on a way of seeing that looks behind the everyday, the mundane and the ‘literal’ to analogy, metaphor and symbol.
Walls divide, walls segregate by race, religion, nationality, political ideology ... some walls have come down – Berlin, the most notable example, with its fragments remaining as souvenirs, as ineffectual reminders of the destructiveness of Cold War hostility – some that began as a temporary expedient – Belfast – have remained intact as testament to an insecure peace. Some are today being strengthened and extended e.g. the US/Mexican wall, in a disquieting interregnum as the old neoliberal order fragments but a new society struggles to be born.
Some exist only in the mind as a trace, an echo from a painful past that continues to haunt the present - the Warsaw ghetto wall. Some exist as a mental barrier of isolation and loneliness, some walls are constructed from virtual reality behind the screen of a smart phone, cutting people off from their immediate surroundings and shrinking their contact with the real world.
It is never easy to get those meaningful juxtapositions or capture something of the uncanny, the ambiguous, the poetic or the sublime that you hope for but, as Sam Abell so rightly said, you can at least endeavour to make the best photograph that you can from the material that is in front of you at any particular moment.
And practitioners sometimes forget that photography is a skill like any other - playing the piano, playing football - that needs to be ‘practiced’ routinely to maintain acuity, whether in public places or elsewhere.
The individual living in relative isolation best serves the interests of the neoliberal economy, ascendant since the 1980s - discontented, disconnected, unfulfilled individuals make for compulsive shoppers in the playbook of the advertising industry's 'mad men'. It would seem that self-fulfilment is a commodity widely available for purchase in retail outlets.
Increasingly, in advanced countries - some more than others - individual self-reliance and competitive self-interest have replaced the goals of shared responsibility and the common good - the assertion that 'there is no such thing as society' is really saying that people have only themselves to blame for being 'losers' in the free market economy.
Neglect of the disadvantaged and the scapegoating of people on the margins of society is clearly on the increase. Erecting walls and exploiting the fears of the insecure seem to take precedence over building bridges and forging a compassionate society. We see increased atomisation, isolation and loneliness, most evident in the young and the elderly. How far is it from present reality when more and more speak of 'the lonely city'?
Billboards, bus shelters, whatever form it takes, outdoor advertising continues its encroachment on public space. It foists its commercial messages on a pliant public, extending its reach to the edge of public spaces where advertising should not go, and often in sizes that assert dominance, block public vistas, and dwarf citizens by its presence.
The Belgian Pride parade in Brussels was a great day out, lots of good vibes, joyful, colourful, a fun experience with a serious purpose behind it – the acceptance of difference.
And, above all, an antidote to the narrow nationalism that threatens Europe and America.
Feel free to send your comments and thoughts to Al in either Dutch or English.
He will be pleased to hear from you and will respond as best he can.
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