Five Questions to John Vink

Hi John Vink. You’ve been visiting Cambodia since 1989 and have been based there since 2000. In short, what kind of changes have you seen during this time, both positive and negative?

The changes in Cambodia have been mindboggling: coming from "Year Zero" and reaching hints of the 21st century in two decades is not a small feat and says a lot about the vitality of the Cambodian people. My first visit to Cambodia was in 1989, just ten years after "Year Zero". The country had been thoroughly destroyed by the ultra-Maoist Khmer Rouge regime, it was still under embargo by the international community, the U.N. hadn't moved in yet and the civil war was ongoing (the last Khmer Rouge surrendered in 1998). Since 2000 the country has had a two figure growth nearly every year, thanks to a stabilised political situation but also because of a ruthless market economy. The country missed so many opportunities because of the war that it feels it has to catch up fast. There is an urgency in the air, aided by frenzied consumerism, which puts aside concerns about social issues. True: the country is globally better off than before. But to me the questions are: at what social cost, is it happening without jeopardising Human rights? More people have more money. There are more or less decent roads where there were none. According to the World Bank the number of people living with less than 1$/day has dropped from 47% in 1994 to 30,1% in 2007. Strangely it is harder to find solid numbers about the amazing increase of the income gap. It is of course anecdotical but just this year I spotted several Porsche Cayenne, one orange Lamborghini, a red Ferrari, a black Maserati, one white Rolls-Royce and several Bentley's on Phnom Penh streets.

iPad screen grab from Quest for Land. © John Vink / Magnum Photos

You’ve been photographing land issues in Cambodia for over 10 years, which is about as long as you’ve lived there. Was that one of the reasons you moved there?

The main reason for choosing Cambodia was being somewhere else without having to travel. I was tired of travelling constantly for the previous 15 years but still needed the visual and contextual stimulations of being in another country. Cambodia seemed interesting because I sensed I would witness an accelerated development process, be confronted with its mechanisms, and be able to dig much deeper into the issues of a country than if I was just spending a couple of months. Trying to avoid superficial coverage of a story has been a near constant preoccupation in my work, so this would be a perfect fit. Staying in one country instead of hopping on planes is also quite good for my carbon footprint. Over the last 12 years I have been a few times to Vietnam, Laos and Myanmar, but that's it.

Your iPad app Quest for Land is focusing on the land issues in Cambodia and is a huge project, reminding me more of a nicely edited archive than a book. You write that there are 3500 edited photographs related to these issues, of which over 700 in 20 chapters are included in the app. Will you keep updating the app with new work? And do you feel you’ll ever end this project?

"Quest for Land" was first conceived as a book, long before the existence of the iPad could even be hinted at. I had put together several dummies, obviously with much less content, but never found (and still haven't found) a publisher. When the iPad showed up I had gathered so much content that it seemed the obvious way to go. I mostly took over the structure of the book and took advantage of the storage and navigation opportunities to add a lot of material, including sound, allowing a much more detailed analysis of the situation on land issues in Cambodia. Each project I have worked on in the past ("Water in Sahel", "Refugees", "Mountain People") at one point had a book version, published or not. And each project will always be presented in different ways anyhow, depending on the context it is going to be shown in. An exhibition in a small gallery or a big museum, a slideshow, a few spreads in a magazine, a book: a different selection and a different sequencing will be used for each context. Back in 1994 I put together a first attempt of interactive content with the creation of a CD-Rom containing the work on "Refugees", sponsored by Apple France. It had an interactive map, soundtracks linked to the geographical location, several ways of entering the content (geographical, thematical), the possibility to tag, to make selections of pictures and share those selections by email etc... But distribution of content through CD-Rom was a dead-end. "Quest for Land" is an offspring of what was put together at the time for "Refugees", But with the advantages offered by an app: bundling a lot more information, offering a much smoother multimedia experience, being so much easier to distribute. And it can indeed be updated with new material, something which will be done for "Quest for Land" some time at the end of January. As to know if I ever will end this project? Publishing "Quest for Land" is supposed to draw the line and I indeed should move on to other ongoing projects. But one or two land issues featured in the app are still happening now, so I keep monitoring those and will add content to the app until they are finally settled. I have been photographing other things in Cambodia besides land issues over the past years! The good thing with living here is that I can pick up any of the stories I work on at any time.

As with any photography app I imagine the main audience will be other photographers, wether we want it or not. Quest for Land seems to be a great educational resource for anyone studying Cambodia though. Is that an audience you’re targeting and is able to reach?

Yes that is true: we often preach to the converted. But there are more and more people converted to the use (if not yet the understanding) of photography. How many millions of photographs are being published every day with cellphones? How many more photography exhibitions, photo-festivals are there worldwide compared to 10 years ago? Was it Kertesz who said "The illiterate of the future will be the one who cannot photograph"? For sure the explosion of practitioners should trigger an increase in people wanting to know more, wanting to know better? We're not talking about niche communication here anymore. People interested in Cambodia, or development issues, or land issues are also more and more interested in photography. It all overlaps much more. That aspect is not necessarily the issue. The thing is: we (photographers) are all looking for THE audience, i.e. the paying audience. We never produced so much documentary photography and we never were confronted with so little revenue for it, but haven't found the way to monetise our work. The apps are one track to investigate. And anyhow, if it is going to be a small audience but a dedicated one I don't mind.

iPad screen grab from Quest for Land. © John Vink / Magnum Photos

Lastly, with the shift to digital media there has been huge changes for photojournalists and to agencies like Magnum Photos that you’re a member of. Many of your colleagues (not only at Magnum) have also made apps and ebooks and seem to embrace the medium to a slightly higher degree than other categories of photographers. What role do you think independent digital publishing will play for photojournalists, and do you think it will transform the way they work?

Magnum was at the forefront in the distribution of digital content a few years ago with the Magnum in Motion podcasts, but failed to turn a brilliant and creative way of presenting content into hard cash. With "Postcards for America" the agency is now probing into social media to support self-publishing of content in various ways (Tumbl'r feeds, pop-up exhibitions, exclusive publications), and that seems to be successfull in terms of public response for now. I am curious to see how it is going to evolve into a sustainable business model though, on how the formula might be applied to other subjects, other countries.

As for photojournalists being early adopters of independently produced ebooks and apps it is something that makes perfect sense. Being confronted with a saturated market, photojournalists are under heavy pressure to find satisfying outlets for their work. And, unlike writers who face the same kind of pressure if not more, they probably have more skills in dealing with the visual aspects of storytelling. And, frankly speaking, being able to get rid of all the interferences which often (not always, there ARE good picture editors and lay-out people around) dilute, distort or re-direct the initial intentions of a photographer in telling a story, is quite tempting. It is really about bypassing so many steps, going straight from A to Z, from the producer to the consumer, and ultimately about keeping control of one's own work. To be able to pick your own writer, your own graphics designer, to do your own edit or do it all yourself instead of having it being imposed upon you is definitely a gratifying experience.

Of course the consequences of failure are higher too. But in the end there will be only one person to blame: yourself. That's a fair and healthy situation. And if the consequences were not enough to cope with, the increase in the photojournalist's responsability in conveying the story also increases his need to comply to strict ethics. Of course it takes a bit more than putting the .pdf format of an existing book on a tablet. I think the first one who really went beyond that is Carl De Keyzer with his "Zona", one year before I managed to publish "Quest for Land". And then came "Via PanAm" by Kadir Van Lohuizen, backed by a considerable team and a just as considerable budget. It was a total 1-year-long experience, taking the photographer from Tierra del Fuego to Alaska following migration related stories. It was a breathtaking trip, with a very clever mix of B&W, colour, movie, sound, pertinent stories and with a huge amount of work, and to me it epitomizes what an app should be. Unfortunately it doesn't answer the sustainability question. Hopefully that is because it was published at the beginning of an emerging market.

I think independent digital publishing will not change the core of a photojournalist's work. It'll be the same terrain work as before, the same fact-checking as before. But the content will be much better controlled by the author, and that to me is definitely the biggest asset. Not being conditioned and formatted by the traditional media distribution channels, content distribution will happen with greater independence and therefore be more pertinent than ever. Although with e-books and apps, the question might become: Apple having a say in what it allows to publish, how really independent is that independent publishing?. I give them the benefit of doubt and for the time being I embrace the technology. Being isolated as I am in the far-away "Kingdom of Wonder", I can only welcome the opportunity given to me by independent digital publishing. And the nice thing is that I don't have to change anything in the way I work...

iPad screen grab from Quest for Land. © John Vink / Magnum Photos

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