Belgian photographer and artist Max Pinckers was recently in town for a talk, hosted by German camera specialist Leica — he was the latest winner of the Leica Oskar Barnack Award (LOBA), which has been running since 1979 and represents one of the most prestigious international photography competitions.

Max Pinckers

If you aren’t familiar with Pinckers, you should be: the 30-year-old is one of the fastest-rising names in the international art/photography scene, having joined the ultra-prestigious Magnum Photos agency back in 2015 and subsequently listed in Forbes Europe’s 30 Under 30, among other accolades.

He is best known for his works in documentary photography, yet it isn’t exactly what one might typically envision when referring to the genre — hard-hitting pictures that dwell on grave topics such as Nick Ut’s iconic photo of a young girl burned by a napalm attack during the Vietnam War.

Pinckers’ images often exude of a slight touch of the surreal; a frozen staged set that hints something isn’t quite right. Here, we have a selection of works from his latest photobook, Red Ink (2018), which showcases images captured during an assignment to North Korea. That is not to suggest that Pinckers’ works aren’t serious — rather, it’s a deliberate move on his part to draw attention to the fact that documentary photography can never be 100% objective.

Here, we speak to Pinckers on what documentary photography means to him, the role of a thinking photographer in today’s context, and more:

You specialise in documentary photography, yet your work has often been described as theatrical and possesses stylised elements. This appears to run counter to the traditional notion of documentary photography.

“If say you and I look at a photograph, we each have different interpretations of it. And the essence of photography for me is this conflict between the relationship a photo has with reality, and the way it gets transformed or changed into something that’s completely disconnected. So that’s what I would say my entire practice is based on: how I can make documentaries and how we use our imagination,  references from fiction, preconceptions, to project things onto it. All those things are part of making a documentary and that’s why I’ve developed this kind of strategy wherein everything I try to do, there’s always questioning of how that’s done, or how something is constructed and presented.”

Are you ever concerned that the audience might be misled by the addition of stylised elements, and if so, how do you address that?

“Yeah, but I think a photo does that anyway. Doesn’t matter if you use artificial lighting or not. If I were to take the same picture without that kind of lighting, it would be equally misleading. So it’s actually the opposite, by using artificial lighting, I am trying to tell the viewer that it’s a misleading representation of what they’re seeing. So it’s actually less misleading than if you were to do it in the so-called objective way, because you’re referencing a construction of a photograph in the picture itself.

It’s an inverse way of treating the idea of being misled or being objective. In a way I am intentionally calling it out, yea. And that’s why a subject like North Korea is very interesting to me and the way I work because everything we know about the place is part of a strategy of misleading and misinformation of propaganda and it fits very well into this idea of North Korea.”

In this era of social media and fake news, images increasingly dominate our short attention span. Would you say that the role of the photographer — especially a documentary photographer — has changed?

“Definitely. I think it depends what you want to reference to but I suppose you mean the kind of golden era photojournalism where photographers could still make iconic images and influence politics and society’s ideas about stuff — I don’t think photography can really achieve that anymore. Or the photographer’s role in that entire process has changed.

But I think it’s still very important because like I mentioned before, I think the photographer is an expert in thinking about images much rather that than taking a technically good photograph. And i think everybody can make great pictures; on your phone you can take fantastic photos, and you can disseminate and distribute them equally well just like media outlets.

But the main difference is that photographers think about a photograph, whereas the people that can take photographs don’t necessarily think about what it means behind the photograph. And I think that’s why now all the more the position of the photographer is to critique and reflect on the media and think about what position they take in the society, rather than the production of an iconic, captivating image that might change people’s mind about a certain subject. It’s becoming more self-reflective, which I think is good. Especially so because of how easily images can be manipulated, and it’s done on a much more intensive scale than before.”

Do you feel that photographs always have to have a message to tell?

“I don’t think the photographs have messages, I don’t think they have the ability to communicate one single message — that’s the beauty of photography, it can mean anything. They don’t have single readings. Depends on which context they being read, if the picture is in a gallery or on someone’s Facebook wall or in the newspaper, it will change the meaning of that picture.

But the message rather, can be the intention of the person taking the photograph, or the viewer that’s looking to reconfirm some kind of message they are looking for — and there are ways to create a very clear message or concept or meaning, through context, sequencing or combination of images. There are many different strategies. I think a photograph is always something that is very open to interpretation.”

What makes a good photograph for you?

“One that has a self-referential or self-reflective character. A photograph that can present itself while at the same time revealing the construction behind the production of it. And that it doesn’t just reveal itself as a simple translation of reality. Generally for me, that makes it interesting. It hints at something larger. For me, I think it’s much less to do with form or aesthetic or beauty.”

Why did you join the Leica competition?

“I competed in 2016 and was part of the finalists, and then I didn’t win the prize so I submitted again and i got it. But of course one of the main reasons I participated in this was the exposure that comes with it. You get an enormous support from Leica and you reach a lot of people with your work which as I said, is not only for aspiring photographers but even at a professional level, it’s so important to have your work seen. And having the kind of approval from winning an award of such an important and influential brand such as Leica is just a great honour.”

Has the Leica Oskar Barnack Award changed anything for you?

“I think one of the most significant outputs of winning this award was being able to show this body of work in South Korea, which is also something that came through Leica. For me it was really the most significant representation of this project because of the political situation. The South Koreans on the project were very interesting to interact with and talking about it was really, really great, and to have the books distributed there and to have talks there was all great as well. Hopefully the project can also continue. We’re now looking at how we can further present this body of work in South Korea and possibly, maybe a collaboration with North Korea. Winning this award has opened a lot of doors for future things.”

What projects are you working on next?

“I’ve been working on the post-colonial gaze in Africa for the past four years (as part of his doctorate research) and it should be near completion next year maybe. It deals with the exit of British colonial administration in Kenya in the ’50s.

As a jury member on the Leica Oskar Barnack Award 2019, what I’ll be looking out for mainly is a kind of coherence as a series. So not a standalone picture that may be very strong individually, but as a collection or story or concept that’s being told as a whole, and that there is a kind of intent behind what the photographer wants to achieve.”

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.