Une Femme, ‘a woman’, is where the story of the Dutch photographer Jeroen Robert Kramer begins and where it ends; but she is never actually shown. Kramer sketches the life of Monsieur Khiar, who – like Kramer himself – lives in Beirut, and in whose company he lives in the aftermath of civil war. The Lebanese civil war, which officially lasted from 1975 to 1990, profoundly disrupted society. Since 2009, when Kramer walked out on his earlier work as a documentary photographer, he has looked at his surroundings with new eyes, and searched for beauty rather than terror. Monsieur Khiar gives him this opportunity, and imbues objets trouvés in Beirut with a personal narrative. Kramer’s registrations, collected over a period of many years, are brought together for the first time in Une Femme, in the form of a large solo exhibition in Huis Marseille and a publication with the same title. Jeroen Robert Kramer was interviewed by assistant curator Anna Kruyswijk on his life in Lebanon and what poetic freedom means to him.
Jeroen Robert Kramer / Une Femme is on display in Huis Marseille from 12 March till 5 June 2016.
Anna Kruyswijk: When did you start taking photographs?
Jeroen Robert Kramer: Photography is something I grew up with. My grandfather, mother and father all took photos. When I look at the friends I first took photos of, I realize I must have been about seven at the time. My grandfather gave me a 6×6 folding camera. For me this was just like it is for kids today with a smartphone; the only difference is that I spent a lot of time in the darkroom with my mother.
There came a point when my father said I should study something serious, and that ended up being law. I started my studies here in Amsterdam, where we lived, but I continued and completed my studies in France. I also got a diploma in French literature there, which came in very handy when I started writing Une Femme. Because I found my studies easy, and the art academy was next door to the university, I started following classes there too. After that I ran the family business for a while, but I enjoyed making things more than I enjoyed running a business, so I soon left.
AK: You left to go to the war?
JRK: Yes. For quite a while I was flying to and fro between Amsterdam and the Middle East. I stayed away for longer and longer. Then I lived for a year in Iraq, and after that for three years in Syria. I went to Beirut once to celebrate my birthday with friends, and noticed how much nicer it was there. In Syria I knew some amazing people, but the mood there could be a bit dark sometimes.
AK: Does this have anything to do with ‘a woman’, given the title of your project? And another question, one you keep asking Monsieur Khiar in the book, or which you want to ask: are you married?
JRK: It’s not as clear-cut as that. The whole project sings and dances around an event that we will never uncover. Something terrible has happened, but we can only guess at what it might have been. That’s why I try to draw strength from beauty. The more you avoid an event, the more relevant and intrusive it becomes.
AK: Let’s say, then, that you constructed the story around the idea of a woman.
JRK: Right. Even though there’s no woman in the story; the text in the book is not about a woman, but about a man, Monsieur Khiar.
AK: Of course, you yourself have been in contact with some terrible events. Why did you exchange the Netherlands for a war zone? You said once that the first time you set foot there, in 2001, you wanted to turn around and go straight home – but that a photographer colleague persuaded you to stay.
JRK: Once I was out of the plane and was a few taxi rides further I arrived in a street that was at war, yes. There were snipers everywhere and the street was totally empty. That’s one of the scariest things, because you have no idea what people are going to do, or who wants to kill who. I stood there, trying to decide whether to go further up this street or walk away, when someone come up to me, a Turkish photographer. He told me where he was going, and invited me to walk there with him. He taught me everything; there are no schools for that. I was glad I’d met him.
AK: What led up to the moment that you realized you were no longer happy doing the work you did there?
JRK: That happened gradually. When I look back at it now I am critical of my own work, about the way people take photographs in war zones. On the other hand, I don’t regret the years I spent living in war zones. They’re experiences I share with my wife, who comes from there, and it’s something I ended up using later on. A book was born out of it, and now the exhibition. It gives you the authority, and the factual knowledge, that you need to be able to create work out of it. I could easily have become bitter or angry. But when you transform it, do something with it, you can be grateful for it.
AK: How, exactly, did you go about doing something with your experiences?
JRK: They run through all my work. Une Femme is really about how people behave with each other, how they make no time for each other, have no respect for each other – can no longer be in a gentle space, open to what’s good and beautiful. You could say that the ugliness and spectacle of war has given way to silence.
AK: When you decided to stop being a documentary photographer and start again as an artist, there was obviously a run-up period that led to the book and the exhibition. Could you describe how that went?
JRK: I stopped abruptly in 2009, and I took a certain distance from my work by exhibiting the project Room 103 in the Noorderlicht Photogallery. Then I started work on the book Beyrouth Objects Trouvés (Editions Noorderlicht, 2012). In retrospect I see that as a study for Une Femme.
AK: What made you decide to stay in Beirut?
JRK: Une femme.
AK: The project?
JRK: No, a woman.
AK: How appropriate. Is the story in the book also based partly on your own life?
JRK: Of course! “If a book’s back blurb says it’s ‘fiction’, you know it’s true,” someone said to me recently. Without lies we’d have no films or novels. Or only a few very boring ones.
AK: Philosophy has something in common with photography: both disciplines investigate the nature of truth.
JRK: They do, but of course it’s also simply fun to play on people’s fear that they don’t know what’s ‘real’. It puts them on edge.
AK: Would you have the same vision if you’d stayed in Amsterdam?
JRK: No, absolutely not. Ever since I was 19 I’ve become completely accustomed to French, Syrian and Lebanese culture. That’s where I live, and that’s where my friends are. Because I’m part of that culture I can see the differences, too; I can see where my Dutch thoughts end and I switch to French or Arabic ones. It’s like doing the cultural splits. For instance, Lebanese people are less quick to say they think something’s ugly, and that makes them flexible. The cliché about Lebanon is that you can go skiing in the morning and swimming in the evening, but it’s also true to say that you can have tea with a terrorist in the morning and a mai tai in a gay bar in the evening.
AK: Would you say that you have been influenced at all by Beirut’s art scene?
JRK: Definitely – by a friend of mine, Ninar Esber, for instance. It’s after I talk to Ninar, who makes very different things from me, that I can take steps in the right direction. I believe that the more you go your own way, the more inspiration you can take from entirely different things. But at the same time I like to exercise a kind of creative hygiene, by not looking too much at other people’s work.
You could say that in Une Femme the photographic images are subordinate to the narrative; the images go in all directions. There will be those who don’t recognize my style. You need backbone to do this, and not try to be immediately recognized as the author of all the photos in a given project.
AK: Could you say some more about the poetic approach you’ve developed?
JRK: You have to photograph the way you write, and write the way you photograph. The texts are simple registrations, and as such they’re more like snapshots, while the photos are searching for the emotions of a lost past.
AK: We see street scenes, interiors, cats, women and objects. What is the point of this collection of disparate images?
JRK: It’s described in the story: Khiar says to me: “Photograph that cat,” and I complain a bit. I’d been told that no self-respecting photographer should take pictures of cats. But the cats stay, and they become part of the story. I get pushed around by Khiar, he’s angry and authoritarian. Part of the work is determined by him. Sometimes I walk around for days with my camera – a 4×5 plate camera, or a medium-format Mamiya if I’m feeling lazy – without taking a single photo. In the meantime I don’t move anything around in the image, out of a sort of journalistic reflex – not that I’m actually against doing that. After printing the photos I look at what they could do for the story.
AK: While you were making Une Femme, Sjors Swierstra was filming you. Did the prospect of that documentary influence your own working methods at all?
JRK: From the moment he was there I stopped worrying that the project had to be a success. The presence of Sjors and his team legitimised my project. That gave me the confidence to go on with it and to develop it further, in the smallest details. The documentary affirmed my goal, and that was enormously liberating. Hence the cats.
AK: One last question, to tell visitors to Une Femme something about the main character: who is Monsieur Khiar?
JRK: No-one will ever know.
© Huis Marseille and Jeroen Robert Kramer, November 2015