Interview with John Vink, Magnum Photographer on his new “Quest For Land” book available on the iPad

(All photographs in this post are copyrighted by John Vink / Magnum Photos)

When I was looking for photobooks to download on my iPad, I came upon “Quest For Land” by John Vink, Magnum Photographer.

His project “Quest for Land” is a comprehensive photoreportage about land issues in Cambodia over a time span of more than 10 years. He published this book via the iPad, in which he has over 700+ photographs over several projects that cover issues of land issues in Cambodia in the post Khmer Rouge era. The book also includes interactive slideshows with sound tracks, texts about the issues written by former Phnom Penh Post editor and journalist Robert Carmichael, and links to a number of reports about land issues put together by local and international Human Rights organisations.

If you are curious in learning more about “Quest For Land” and the life, work, and photography of John Vink, read on!

John it is an honor to interview you. Can you start off by tracing back more of your photographic past? How did you discover photography and when did you realize that photography was an effective medium to communicate a certain message to viewers?

John Vink

I started early for the discovery part: I remember taking pictures of the Atomium at the Universal Exhibition of 1958 in Brussels and developing and printing photographs when I was around 11. As for the communication part of your question, I don’t know if photography is really effective in that field but we are sure trying hard.

The fact that when I was a kid I was hiding issues of Life containing photographs of the Korean war by David Douglas Duncan because my parents didn’t want me to have anything to do with things related to war, made me realise pictures can at least disturb or stir emotions. Using photography systematically as a tool to convey information about facts came around 1973 when I decided I would use photography as a journalist.

You recently published “Quest For Land”, an incredible 10-year+ project of Cambodia in the post khmer-rogue era. What drew you to Cambodia initially and how has working on your project been different than other projects you have worked on in the past.

John Vink

I came to Cambodia in 1989 for the first time, a bit by chance, having replaced a colleague on an assignment for the French daily Libération. I came again in 1991, after the Paris Peace Accords and before the UN moved in. Then once more in 1999 to make a book ‘Avoir 20 Ans à Phnom Penh’ (Being 20 in Phnom Penh).

In 2000 I stayed, finally being somewhere else without the hassle of having to travel continuously. The big difference with previous stories I did is the availablity it gave me. It is really ‘backyard photography’ now. Some of the evictions I photographed happened 500 meters from where I live. It often takes only 5 minutes between a phone call from an informer and actually reaching the action point.

You get very close and intimate with your subjects when you are shooting them. When you are out shooting, do you like to talk to your subjects and how do they respond to your presence?

John Vink

In fact I get close only physically and not much more. I mean most of the time the people I photograph know who I am and why I am there, but that is where our ‘relationship’ ends. I talk very little to the people I photograph. A basic introduction is enough. I want to keep some distance. I need the freedom to leave or stay as I see fit. You know about being a fly on the wall. I try to be one.

In “Quest For Land”, you said how you want your photographs to have as little room for interpretation as possible. Could you expand on that idea?

John Vink

We talked earlier about the suggestive force of photography. Photojournalism also has a didactic aspect attached. You want to show, to suggest, but you want to explain as well, to give insight. And you don’t want to be misinterpreted. Of course at one point, the pictures escape me: they belong to the eyes and brain of the viewer. But I want to accompany my photographs as far as I can (through the editing, by properly captioning, by controlling the layout, the distribution etc…).

The fact that the photojournalism market has changed so drastically over the past fifteen years, allows for much greater control of their work by the photographers. They now have to decide what to photograph, how to do it and they have to take care of the distribution of their own work: there is no ‘interference’ any more by picture editors, how interesting that sometimes could be, by the marketing department, by advertisers.

Believe me: photojournalism is not dead… It is finally reaching maturity as it is much more in the hands of the content producers themselves. It is just a matter of finding the audience willing to contribute financially for that quality content. The iPad is one path to explore in that it gives better control by the photographer on the content he produces.

You included an incredible number of images in your book, over 700 divided over several stories. How many photographs in total did you take during those 10+ years (based on your estimates). Also could you describe the editing process for the book?

John Vink

Well with 10 years of work you do indeed get a lot of pictures. I believe there are something like 3000 edited photographs related to land issues in my database. Initially, four years ago, when there was no sight of an iPad and its possibilities around, I started working on a book about those land issues in Cambodia and trimmed the work down to about 150 pictures. That became the core out of which all the different declinations can be built by adding or subtracting pictures, depending on the context they will be shown (book, magazine, exhibition, slideshow etc…).

A book can contain around 100 pictures before it gets too expensive, heavy and/or boring. With documentary photography form, composition, is at the service of the content, the information. An exhibition will probably contain more photographs where form is more present than content. A book, depending how keen you are to convey factual information, will have more pictures where content is emphasized. It’s really a matter of balance, of rythm in the sequence, of the context in which the pictures are shown.

With the iPad, the constraint of a limited number of pictures almost disappears. Which is perfect to provide the factual information that gives the reader access to a more subtle understanding of the situation and its complexities, just because you can add more photographs, more text, more captions. And you can add sound (which I did for the slideshow mode of ‘Quest for Land’). You could add movies (which I didn’t). Of course the sheer quantity of information you provide forces you to be very carefull in the organisation of its access so that you don’t get lost in an informal magma.

You created “Quest For Land” in collaboration with two of your colleagues, one to help with the text for the book, and another one for the iPad interface. How did you all work together as a team, and what insights did they give you about putting this project together?

John Vink

I have been working with Robert Starkweather, the designer, for a long time now, and he has a good understanding of how I function. We had numerous discussions on how to organise the content of ‘Quest for Land’, on how to systematically simplify the interface, on how to avoid dead ends in the navigation.

Robert Carmichael, the writer, came in a bit later, after the photographs were already taken but at the beginning of the discussions about the project with Robert Starkweather. He knows Cambodia very well, was an editor at the Phnom Penh Post and had reported on some of the evictions I documented. He was invaluable in adding historical and contextual information. He ended up in producing one of the most comprehensive writings about land issues in Cambodia. And he rewrote all the captions. Not a small feat.

In one of your previous interviews, you described as photographers being limited in power, and those who look at the photographs having the real power. Can you describe this idea more in-depth while relating it to the many unjust situations in Cambodia?

John Vink

Yes, I believe indeed that photographs don’t change the world. It is the people who read the photographs who do, or are supposed to do that. As a photojournalist, we merely maintain a level of information, of understanding what is going around us. Photographs don’t change the world but a world without photographs would certainly be a very different place. I was talking about the content and the emotional or disturbing power some photographs carry.

The readers of those photographs who are touched or who acquired a certain knowledge then try to put pressure on the authorities. That is what an independent press and freedom of speech is about no? We are watchdogs. I am not Cambodian. I don’t vote here. I even barely pay taxes here. But I believe I can help Cambodians to see better, to understand better what is happening in their own country.

There are several good Cambodian photojournalists and reporters and their contribution to democracy is fundamental, but my viewpoint, or the one of other foreign correspondents is slightly different. And we benefit from more freedom, as we don’t have the same kind of pressure from the Cambodian society (and authorities) as they do.

What are some of the common misconceptions foreigners have about Cambodia or the people who live there?

John Vink

Misconception 1: The country is still suffering from the Khmer Rouge era

Yes and no. Part of the population is much better off than ten years ago thanks to an unbridled market economy put in place by those in power, some of them former Khmer Rouge (turned dissident). Another part of the population is suffering more from that same unbridled market economy and/or from an erosion of democracy.

So if we consider that the current ruthless market economy in Cambodia was set in place as a reaction to the genocidal egalitarian chimera of the Khmer Rouge, then yes: the country still suffers from the Khmer Rouge.

Misconception 2: The land of smiles

Of course the Cambodian smiles are smiling out of gentleness. But often they are just hiding an embarassing situation, extreme poverty being one of them.

Out of all the projects you featured in the book, could you tell us which project was especially meaningful to you and why?

John Vink

That would maybe be the one about Boeung Kak Lake. I believe it is the first time since the fall of the Khmer Rouge that I see normal citizens dragged into an unjust situations by corporate or individual greed and stand up for their rights as an organised and very democratic group, and go all the way, not bending for the pressures and dirty tricks put on them by the authorities, expressing their frustrations against injustice.

You have been exploring digital media for presenting your work in the 1990’s by publishing your projects on cd’s with multimedia. What excites you about publishing “Quest For Land” on the iPad and what future possibilities do you see with it in regards to your own projects?

John Vink

As I said above: the control on the content and the autonomy it gives me in the creation process are greater than before because the tools we are provided with are more and more accessible. For sure paper will not disappear, analog publications will continue to be available, but they will be for niche markets. The large audiences will be reached digitally.

Do you also plan on releasing “Quest For Land” in another form instead of the iPad (perhaps PDF, or some interactive website?) I feel that it is a great medium to share your project (as creating a book with over 700 images would be difficult) yet not everyone owns an iPad. How do you feel that some people may not be able to experience your work due to not owning or being able to afford an iPad?

John Vink

There is a dummy for a book on my harddisk since quite a while, quietly waiting for a publisher. There will be an iPad Retina version of ‘Quest for Land’ soon with some of the stories being updated with new material. And that is yet another great possibilty with the iPad: buyers can get free updates. There will probably be a ‘light’ version of ‘Quest for Land’ for the iPhone and the iPad Mini.

Maybe the iPad itself is expensive (it is) but ‘Quest for Land’ costs less than a meal at a hamburger joint you drove to with your $10,000 car, and look at the amount of information you get for that… I am quite confident that there will be more and more content available for the iPad, that the price of the devices will go down (the iPad Mini is rumored at between $200 and $250). It is a really interesting platform with an unbelievable penetration.

While working on “Quest For Land”, what were some of the most difficult challenges you faced?

John Vink

Access to the stories is fairly easy once you get to know something is going on. Although things are changing for the worse, the authorities are not very efficient yet in preventing the press or the Human Rights observers from doing their job. The only problem I had is with evictions taking place in remote areas: by the time you know it is happening you’re too late and the settlements have totally disappeared and its inhabitants are scattered around.

In the cities those under threat of being evicted know how to inform the press well in advance. Not so in the remote provinces. And roads there can be in pretty bad shape too…

Could you also share with us some uplifting and encouraging stories during your photography in Cambodia?

John Vink

The fact that members of the civil society stand up for their rights in an increasingly more repressive society is certainly something which brings back the faith in mankind.

Unfortunately I am not very optimistic for the long term here in Cambodia, and, unless some fairly radical change of attitude at the head of the country takes place, these manifestations of common sense will be more and more difficult to express.

The evictions bring about so much frustrations and helplessness among the population, that for sure that pressure cooker is going to blow unless you put some valves on it. Back in the 60’s the Khmer Rouge built their momentum on a very similar situation.

Describe some of the shortcomings you think are inherent in photography, and how you try to overcome them in your work?

John Vink

Shortcomings to photography? There are only two dimensions, no sound, no smell, often there is no colour, there are things happening outside the frame: that is a lot missing to pretend representing reality. Yet that is the game we play: we make believe that all these missing parts are there somehow, we have the viewer’s brain imagine the colour, the sound, the context etc…

With photography we create a fiction, we build a tension between reality and its representation. Photography is really a way of writing. The word is composed with ‘photon’ (light) and ‘graphein’ (writing): writing with light. And you can write anything you like: poetry, fiction stories, reports, you name it.

I am in the field of documenting facts and situations. And I work with certain ethics which are supposed to build a truthful relationship between the reader and me and which give the reader some guarantee that he can trust what I say or show.

What future projects do you plan on working on, and what can people expect in your next digitally published project?

John Vink

I am working on an ebook about the first Khmer Rouge trial which saw Kaing Guek Eav, alias ‘Duch’, condemned for his role as head of the infamous S21 interrogation center.

As for projects, there are a few. I don’t really know which one will develop into a full fledged one yet. It might be something about ‘vulnerability’, about ‘living on the edge’… I also have a project on my country, called ‘This is not Belgium’, in the back of my head.

What is some advice you would give to those who want to embark on a long-term project but aren’t quite sure where to start?

John Vink

  1. The starting point is that there is no real starting point after formulating the idea of the story.
  2. It is just about taking pictures.
  3. Think about a story and start anywhere you feel fit.
  4. What you just photographed may be the last picture of that story.
  5. You don’t know yet which picture will be the first one.
  6. Be ready to change your mind, depending on what you encounter, on who you talk to.
  7. Be opportunistic and alert.
  8. It is a big puzzle with pieces you collect left and right.
  9. There is no straight road.
  10. Don’t conceptualise too much in the beginning.
  11. When you are stuck leave the story for a while.
  12. Let it rest. Start another one.
  13. Come back to the previous one.
  14. Follow your guts but be very uncompromising when comes the time to edit.
  15. And most of all: show respect to those you photograph.

Photos from “Quest For Land”

Below are some of my favorite photographs from “Quest For Land“. All photographs copyrighted by John Vink / Magnum Photos

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Teaser for “Quest For Land”

Watch this video to learn more about the app, and how to navigate the book!

Purchase “Quest For Land”

Help support John Vink and his on-going projects in Cambodia by purchasing a copy of “Quest For Land” for only 8.99 USD (cheaper than lunch at a restaurant!). If you own an iPad, you can download a copy via the iTunes store here.

John Vink Biography

Vink was born in Belgium in 1948, and after studying photography at the fine art school of Cambre in 1968 he began working as a freelance journalist three years later. He joined Agence Vu in Paris in 1986 and won the Eugene Smith Award that year for his work ‘Water in the Sahel’, an extensive body of reportage on the management of water in the Sahel.

Between 1987 and 1993 he compiled a major work on refugees around the world; the book ‘Réfugiés’ was published in 1994. John Vink became a full member of Magnum Photos in 1997. In 1993 he started working on ‘Peuples d’en Haut’, published in 2004, which is a series of chronicles of communities with strong cultural identities living in mountainous areas. He is based in Cambodia since 2000, a country he has visited since 1989. The book ‘Avoir 20 Ans à Phnom Penh’ was published in 2000, and ‘Poids Mouche’, a book on Khmer boxing was published in 2006. In 2012 he publishes ‘Quest for Land’ for the iPad, on land issues in Cambodia.


Below are some other related links and interviews with John Vink for “The Quest for Land”

Follow John Vink

Follow John and check out his other work in the links below:

Does anyone have any further questions for John Vink or feedback about “Quest For Land”? If so, leave a comment below!

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