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The link between camera and soul; interview by Theo IJzermans (1998)

Friday, July 31, 1998

In 1998 Michel Szulc-Krzyzanowski had an interview with the psychologist/photographer Theo IJzermans on the occasion of the publication of the “VISTA”-book.

Excerpts from this interview:
Why did you stop making sequences in 1985?
Making sequences was an aid to my own personal growth. In 1985 I realised it would eventually hold me back if I were to go on using sequences for that purpose. They were rapidly becoming less and less effective. Also, after fourteen years of making sequences I felt I’d said just about all there was to say in that particular visual idiom. I didn’t want to repeat myself and go on producing variations on old themes. I didn’t want to become an epigone of myself. I wanted to keep on growing and explore new avenues in photography. The images in the book “VISTA” are the outcome of that process.

Ten years on you went back to the places where you’d made your sequences. Why was that?
In 1995 I returned to the places in Mexico where I shot my sequences. As an experiment. I didn’t go there so much with the idea of producing new pictures. I just thought it would be interesting to go back ten years later and see what would happen; what memories it would trigger, whether I’d get round to any photography. I naturally had my cameras with me, as I always do when I travel. I spent the first part of my trip freeing myself from the sequences. This had been a gradual process that had been going on for ten years but by returning to Mexico I was able to consciously work through the final phase.

What do you mean by freeing yourself?
Sequences had always been a very explicit form of expression. They had a huge impact on the outside world as well as on my own interior world. The impact they had on me was enormous. I worked on them intensively for fourteen years, sometimes for as long as eight months at one location. I would become profoundly involved with a subject - and also with the purity of life that was necessary to produce a sequence. It was an all-consuming activity and it demanded total self-sacrifice.
In 1985, in a fit of youthful impetuosity, I suddenly gave up making sequences. Just like that. A cyclist who’s been racing for years withdraws gradually. He knows he’ll have physical problems otherwise. When you’ve been deeply involved with a project like sequences for a very long time you ought to do the same. But I didn’t realise that at the time. The sudden stop sent me cold turkey. I started wondering whether there was any point to life any more, whether my days as a photographer were numbered. I was twenty-one when I started making sequences and I stopped when I was thirty-five. By then they’d become an obstacle, as if an insurmountable mountain were blocking my path. They stood in the way of my creative and conceptual photography. Everything I photographed after that I compared to my sequences. I was haunted by the unwholesome idea that I would never be able to produce anything better or more innovatory. At the time it was as if at thirty-five my career was over. And I was doomed to lead the marginal, futile existence of someone who had once produced some interesting pictures. You see the same thing happen in music. A person has one big hit and then never gets over it. The “Whiter Shade of Pale syndrome”. Between 1985 and 1995 I was very preoccupied with this. It takes a mature person not to look up to that mountain. In my experience, the greater the success and the highert the standard of the work, the longer it takes to muster the inner strength to bypass the mountain. First I had to accept that there was indeed a mountain in front of me and then I had to learn not to want to climb it but to go round it. Then two things occurred, quite naturally and organically: I managed to round off the sequences period and I discovered I could photograph creatively and conceptually freely and unreservedly again.
On my return to the former sequence locations I had the idea of working in colour and shooting singles, 6 x 6. The whole process was quite spontaneous. Rather than being based on an idea that was imposed it was the outcome of a gradual evolution. Similarly, the use of mirrors and glass in the new images is something that evolved quite naturally. It’s important to realise that I didn’t initiate any of these developments. It wasn’t my idea to make sequences. The “VISTA”-pictures was something that happened to me, just as the sequences had happened to me before. Being a receiver makes me extremely aware that I’m not the one who makes the decisions and choices in the creative process, but that I’m merely an instrument.

An instrument of what?
That’s the big question. Any answer is speculative. Some say God, others Buddha, other people say Inner Strength. They could all be right. Who knows ? I can think of an answer, but that doesn’t mean it’s the only answer and the right one. I’ve learnt to accept that a question can exist without feeling the need to answer it.

What do you mean by expressions like “purity of life” and “being a receiver”?
The images in the book “VISTA” are totally uncontrived. Free of any affectation or manipulation. If you succees in eliminating all artifice, affectation and manipulation, an absolute immediacy is created between the maker, image and viewer. This can only come about if there is a direct link between the camera and the soul. There are no frills or trimmings. No haziness between them. It’s the most direct form of contact you can possibly achieve. To do this you have to elimate your own affectation and manipulation. I do this by adopting a particular lifestyle. By going to a place in Mexico where there are no other people and living there in isolation for many weeks, with nothing but pure nature around me. By leading a healthy life, meditating, training until I’m in top physical condition. Reading books on the subject. Following a healthy, meat-free diet. No alcohol, no smoking, no sugar. This creates the prior conditions for that purity. In the same way that a sportsman or woman wanting to deliver a top performance has to conform to certain physical and psychological conditions.
And yet these conditions don’t necessarily lead to a state of purity. Exemplary training is no guarantee for a new world record. However familiar you may be with the procedure, you can’t force things. You can stay in the desert for forty days and not smoke or drink and excercise and meditate every day and do everything that’s necessary, but it’s no guarantee you’ll be receptive during the creative process. If there’s a pressure for it to succeed, that’ll be your main preoccupation and it’ll throw up a fatal barrier. You’ll be willing something that cannot be willed. At the same time, you’re doing everything in your power to make it happen. It’s a very interesting phenomenon.

How did these VISTA-pictures originate ? What form does the creative process take?
In the same way as the sequences. I’m preoccupied with photography all day long. The work is constantly on my mind. The images loom up. Ideas come and go. I’m totally immersed in the creative process. When I first arrive at the beach in Mexico after a long journey it takes a while for the creative process to get underway. It gradually builds up and eventually reaches a climax. Then suddenly it’s all over. Then I leave. There’s no need for me to stay at my post any more. But I can spin out the creative process for a very long time. I can make it last for two to three months. With regular interruptions when the food supplies run out. Then I make a hurried trip into town, travelling half a day, quickly buy in food and water, sort out various matters and then get back to work as fast as I can. It’s almost an obsession. My only thought is to hang on to what I’ve achieved, otherwise I’ll have to start the build-up all over again. I keep telling myself to hang on and get back as soon as I can and continue where I left off. My food supplies are sufficient for me to live and work non-stop for about twenty-five days at the same location. Thanks to my camper with its large fridge, freezer and over a hundred litres of drinking water, the fish I catch in the ocean and solar energy for the light and the computer. I never see anyone during these periods. Every day I listen to the news on short wave. Otherwise, I train a lot, go for walks, meditate, fish and read. On my last trip I took along books by Jung. About man and his symbols. About the way people, drawing on some innate source of knowledge, create icons which then take on a far-reaching significance. Also Harry Mulisch’s “Discovery of heaven”, in which he deals with the notion of the “golden wall”. The way I live on location never varies. There are no surprises. You can never get any mail. Never get a phone call. Nobody drops by. There’s none of that. You have space to develop your spirituality and creativity and time to think.

In an interview we had ten years ago you said that photography is the only way to convey a vision of society. How does that apply to these pictures?
I don’t think of a message and then take pictures to project it. Apparently, my photography contains a message, one which I fully endorse. I don’t think my conceptual photography explicitly comments on society but I do believe your consciousness is flexible: that you can apprehend visual experiences outside your normal pattern and that these can extend your awareness. Where there’s inflexibility of consciousness you find dogmatism, intolerance, racism, nationalism and stagnation in the development of people, society and technology. Where there’s flexibility of consciousness - you can read up on this in history books - you find that people are more educated, society renews and extends itself and technological discoveries are made. You find tolerance and openness. My conceptual photographs are a form of training. To loosen up our consciousness. And in that sense they’re socially relevant.

Your images remind me of a child in a sand pit playing with reflections and shadows and the shapes they produce. An adult wouldn’t notice things like that. Do you recognise the child in these pictures?
I’ve never lost that exploratory perception that children have. I see it as a continuation of a capacity we had as a child. To wonder at everything there is to see around us. I’ve managed to retain that receptiveness. Probbably because I took up photography at an early age. I started when I was six. On the beach you can’t photograph in a routine manner - becasue in my pictures you immediately notice whether an idea is being repeated. I would be instantly and ruthlessly exposed. Every photograph has to contain a discovery. Which is why it would be psychologically impossible without any tolerance. In other genres, like photoreportage, you’re always safe because a large proportion of the visual content is accounted for by the subject. The photographer only has to record it well and at the most introduce slight variations. That’s the only creative leeway there is. That’s something very different from the exploratory and receptive way of looking you see in children. I find it baffling that I had to make sequences from 1971 to 1985 only to wait another ten years to achieve the maturity required to photograph something as simple as a fingerprint in the sand. It’s extraordinary that a photographic rendering of the ultimate perception wasn’t possible until the age of 48.
I look for visual sensations. For things that rivet our attention and surprise us. For things at a location like the beach that show you something that transcends your normal observations there. A good example is a picture from my last series of a stretch of sand in which you see a bump or hollow. You can’t make out what it is. If you look at the picture you can make it move, make the bump turn into a hollow. These sort of visual phenomena can be shared. What I can see, feel and experience through this picture the viewer can also see, feel and experience.
I see this kind of photography as a form of communication and not as a private hobby which other people can view. This is an extremely important criterion for me. I always ask: Can I convey this to the viewer? Can I arouse in the viewer the sensation that I experience? I have a strong urge to photograph. When I’m not photographing, something is wasted. Something people should know about and I feel strongly that I sould be the one to tell them. I can’t explain why. I can only surrender to that compulsion. I see myself as a visual go-between. I feel an obligation to make myself available, to be on the spot, because otherwise the transmitted ideas will be wasted. Being available, receiving and carrying out ideas is like a drug. It stirs something deep inside of me and the energy it generates is addictive. It’s such a wonderful feeling that I constantly want to strive for it and want it to last as long as possible. Back in the Netherlands it ebbs away and is not aroused until I start planning a new trip.
As a result, I continually travel back and forth. Ever on the move, driven by the compulsion to be a receiver and bringer of gifts. Like Herman Hesse’s boatman in Siddharta. To and fro. Taking my freight on board and conveying it to the other side. Taking and giving. The meaning of life. It’s important that people realise that this is not a pretence. I wouldn’t wish my compulsion on anyone. It’s not easy. It takes over a large chunk of your life. It means having to do without all sorts of things. At times I wish I could lead a different life, with a flowing, undulating line instead of the rigorous up and down lines of a boatman. But apparently that’s not how my life is meant to be.