The images in Erik Kessels’ books are so awkward, odd or mellow that we have to give them a smile of recognition – because we are all amateur photographers. For twenty years Kessels has been collecting and publishing pictures of found images and vernacular photography. This Dutch artist has a special eye for the absurd and the uncomfortable, and for hilarious mistakes. For everything in fact that makes us human and that doesn’t appear on Instagram and other social media feeds.
Usually, Kessels works with found images, discarded family albums he finds on flea markets for instance. “As a detective I’m looking for a particular story in the pictures I find. A story you don’t notice at first glance. You’re going to see it because I put it out in a certain way.” For example, in the ongoing ‘In Almost Every Picture’ series, Kessels published a book with the images of a family who fight with one of the biggest unresolved mysteries in photography: how to photograph the black dog. “They never succeeded. The last picture in the book shows a heavily overexposed picture of the dog, in which you finally see his eyes and thus a hint of his character.” It illustrates Kessels’ way of looking: in a random collection of photos he discovers a story and shares it with us in a tongue-in-cheek manner. Humour is key to his work: he seems to find the human condition utterly amusing although with a touch of tenderness, and with a sense of nostalgia. And so do we. The smiles on our faces are a manifestation of our recognition. With a rather empathetic view Kessels looks at our fumbling, and pours them into a visual story that both surprises us and places us in the mirror.
Today Kessels’ work is more relevant than ever. We are flooded with images through social media, and we absorb them often even without noticing. “ We consume photos but we hardly look at them anymore.” And they all look the same: perfect. “Through 3d printing and computing we can make things perfect. There is increasingly less space for imperfection. We even need to use technology to make things imperfect – we’ve got apps to give our perfect photos some authenticity, to make them less perfect and thus more interesting. We look for perfection in everything.” And this search for perfection and the impact of social media have given us uniformity as a side effect. “Teenage girls Facebook profiles look all the same, just as any safari image is presented in the same way, and anyone who wants to be unrecognizable on his profile photo creates a picture with the flash in the mirror. Everyone copies each other, and there is no criticism.” All these similar images cultivate the need for perfection – check any Instagram feed. “I think perfection is not a start but rather an end-point. Instagram is just like the front yard of a house, the perfect life as we like to present it to passers-by, while our backyard is often an incredible mess. But it’s there we feel free, it’s there we feel comfortable to hang around in our shorts, and it’s there that we create. By making mistakes in our backyard, we start looking at things differently, we get new ideas. Today people often no longer go to their backyards because through technology they can make everything in their front yard. At least, that is what they think.” Kessels made a book about the imperfection he cherishes so much: Failed It!
In our society, we are expected to achieve. Advertising and media force us to look at life in a certain way. “Andy Warhol predicted in 1967 that in the future everyone would be famous for fifteen minutes. It is happening now. We’re all on stage now. Instagram and Facebook are advertising platforms for people – professional tools for self marketing. However, reality is often different from our self-promotion. Our family pictures on social media are more perfect than ever, while at the same time there are more divorces and broken families than ever. Reality is different and I’m playing with all that.”
“In my work I try to make the viewers take a closer look so that they are forced to fill in the blanks by focusing on details. I want them to stop being passive and to actively search for answers like how, when, where, and why. For example, if the images are old I want them to notice the state that they are in, or I want them to notice the things that are absent in the photographs. By detaching images from their original context you change the way in which they are viewed. And with selection and curation you can enhance an existing story. You never alter the images or create something that wasn’t there already but you can magnify it. You create an opportunity for people to pause and take a moment from their daily image consumption to discover something new.”