About photobooks: Interview with Daniel Boetker-Smith

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ACP is currently showing a unique selection of photobooks from the Asia-Pacific region in our Pop Up Gallery. One of our tutors, Michael Waite caught up with Daniel Boetker-Smith, Director of the Asia-Pacific Photobook Archive, to discuss photobooks in the 21st Century and the vibrant Asia-Pacific scene.

Come and visit us at 118 Oxford Street, Darlinghurst to spend time with some photographic treasures and discover the humorous and controversial work of Miti Ruangkritya, Thai Politics.

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Michael Waite: Hi Daniel – can you give some history and background to the Asia-Pacific Photobook Archive?

Daniel Boetker-Smith: The Archive started in 2013, inspired by two organisations - Self Publish, Be Happy, which is London based, and the Indie Photobook Library in Washington, run by Larissa Leclair.

M: How many books are in the archive, and is there a curatorial policy?

D: We have about one thousand books at the moment. We get anywhere between about two and ten a week, but we have a backlog of about one hundred, because there are only two of us, and we are both working full-time.  The archive accepts everything that is submitted.  As long as it’s made in the Asia-Pacific region, or it’s by an Asia-Pacific photographer - so it can be projects that are shot elsewhere, but by a photographer from the region, or it could be a Spanish photographer photographing in Thailand.

M: How can people access the collection?

D: We have a physical space in Collingwood, Melbourne and we also send collections of books overseas, so at any time we have about three boxes of books in different countries that are travelling around to different festivals.  All the books are on the Archive website, every book has its own page, all the details about the book are listed, plus links to the photographer’s website, to their gallery, their publisher, whoever. So we try to make it as easy as possible for someone to go buy the book directly from the photographer.

M: What do you have to say about the current level of interest in photobooks? Many people have made the point that the book is the ideal form of presentation for photography.

D: I think a photobook is important in the sense that if done well it gives you an insight into the way the artist wants that work to be read.  It takes you through their thinking, it takes you through, in a way, their experience of making the work as well. The book gives you an added extra in terms of the way to absorb the message, if you like, to interact with the story the photographer’s telling you. So I think that’s been a large part in terms of the way people have become interested again in the book. When they’re putting them into a book, you’re getting a sense of the way the artist has thought about aspects such as the texture of the paper, the feeling of the cover.

I’m a photographer as well, and I think what the book allows me to do is not think about single images.  It’s more akin to thinking about, and some writers have written about this idea, of the photobook as a novel, the photobook as a song, and I think in a way the process of shooting for a photobook takes you out of that pressure of the single image. So the context of the images with each other and the text, and the nature of this small intimate little book that you have in your hand - it all works to give the viewer something else. Also, in regard to this idea of shooting for a book -  I’ve made plenty of books that no one will ever see.

M: Just for yourself?

D: Yes. And the same thing, I might shoot over a weekend then put this book together, and it’s just fifteen images, stapled, and it’s just a way of processing something that you might come back to in a year or two and do something else with it, or you might not. It’s like keeping a journal at art school. It gives you a way to reflect on the images, and it gives you a physical form to start to compare things to, which you can’t really do on a screen -  you can’t compare twelve images on a screen to each other, it’s impossible.

M: Do you find generally with the books in the archive the photographic artist has been responsible for it 100% or do people quite often bring in a book designer to help them?

D: It depends on the nature of the work. In terms of the more zine sort of culture, that’s usually the photographer doing it all themselves, and then you have next stage where maybe it’s still digitally printed but a small edition, but perhaps it’s a bit more serious in terms of the binding, or a more substantial body of work.  In these cases, most people do go and talk to someone, perhaps a friend who has some design experience.

But most of the best books, the ones that have been really successful in the last five years, they’re all collaborations -  between the photographer, designer and publisher.  There is no one who’s ever said “the best work is made in isolation”, and I think it’s part of the project of the archive as well - the more books people see, the better they get about thinking about them and thinking about their work, and I think that’s another thing that’s really important, that as you think about the book format, it changes the way you shoot.

M: So I’m photographing, not just because I’m walking around randomly photographing, but I’m thinking “this will be in the book” and it will be a big book or a small book?

D: Exactly.  And there’s different ways of doing it. I think that some books are made where the body of work is done, and they think “ah – this could be a book” afterwards, which is fair enough, happens all the time.  But one of the classes I teach at Photography Studies College, we start from day one with the understanding that we’re going to make a book, so it’s kind of an unnatural process - you are shooting from day one for a book that you don’t know what it is going to look like, you don’t know how big it is going to be, what the work will be even about, but what it means is they actually start to look at books to generate ideas and what always comes out is the simplest things are the best.

In thinking about making a book from the start, you can actually begin from a very simple premise. Whereas when you think about a body of work, it’s almost over-conceptualising – “I’m going to do this project about this place, and I’m going to do this research”, all those things, whereas The Good Earth book for example, which is just here, (2012 published by 88 Books,) this is probably my favourite book in the whole archive, by Li Kejun, and it’s just pictures he took in a Chinese village of farmers laughing. And he’s got this weird lens, so they all look sort of strange. It’s printed on office paper and stapled but actually, it’s perfect -  in terms of what it does, it’s perfect.

M: Why did you decide to concentrate on the Asia-Pacific region?

D: I knew there was a gap there, and I knew there was a gap there because the gap was in my own knowledge. I’d just come back from Europe, and I wanted to get some knowledge about what was going on in the region and this was a way for me to do that. And it’s also being realistic about what’s going to happen in the future, it’s obvious that the Asia-Pacific region is the one that’s going to expand in terms of photographic production, there’s so many countries that are in, or coming through, a political situation where they need to have these sort of outlets and discourses.  So over the next twenty years the content coming out of those countries is going to be huge and really important. We need something in this region, because there’s so much happening in these countries that no one is seeing. It’s important because the economic, political, social impetus in the Asia-Pacific region is so vital at the moment.

M: The history of modern photography, and photobooks, has been dominated by European and American photographers. Is the Archive also a vehicle to raise the profile of photographers from this region?

D: Most photography festivals now also have a photobook element. And that’s why the archive has been really important, in that we actually go to those festivals and show books there, so it’s been a way of people seeing the books, but also it’s been a way of giving those festivals that sort of added extra, because you can show forty bodies of work here (indicating the table of books in the ACP gallery) and there is no festival in the world that can show forty bodies of work in an exhibition. So it enables a much broader discourse, in terms of a much richer snapshot of what’s going on in photography.

When we went to PhotoIreland last year, all of the books we took were self-published, had never been to Europe before, so you have this whole audience of people in Dublin who were looking at these books who would never have seen these books ever, because they’re books made by people who don’t have the finances to get them to Ireland, don’t have distribution, don’t have the financial clout to publish them in editions to be able to spread them all over the world. So in a way, those people in that festival in Ireland got to experience fifty books that they would never see otherwise, so it’s a really special thing for the photographers, to know their books getting out there.

M: One thing I like about this exhibition at the ACP is how the books are displayed on tables, and I can just pick them up and feel them with my fingers, not having to wear white gloves, or view them through a glass case.

D: That’s why people make the books, so people can actually see them and touch them and experience them - that’s the whole point of it.  I’ve been asked - how do you manage the longevity of the books in terms of storing them and looking after them, and my answer was that you have to give up one or the other.  Either they’re in a place, and they’re wrapped in plastic so they’re secured forever, or they have much more presence physically, they are able to travel to places, people are able to see them and to touch them, to smell them, and that’s what it’s about. That’s the balance, you either make it accessible or you don’t. If it’s accessible there is the danger of it getting damaged, but that’s okay, and I think most photographers would be happy that their books are getting seen, rather than sitting on a shelf somewhere.

M: In regard to the work of Miti Ruangkritya, it’s represented in the gallery as a book but also as prints on the wall. All of the photos are of defaced election posters.

D: Yes, so you can see the texture of the poster. The photos were taken during the 2011 election, and the people on the posters are Yingluck Shinawatra, the sister of former prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, and Abhisit Vejjajiva, the leader of the Democrat Party at that time


M: Some of the defacing is simple – just insults written across the face, but others are quite strange and bordering on surreal. For example, there are a few where the politicians face has been cut out and in the photograph we see through that opening to things like steel bars, brick walls. It made me think of the photo collage work of John Stezaker, but it’s just the result of some citizen in Thailand hating that politician.

D: It’s about frustration, some of it is very violent. When you spend some time with this work, it’s very violent.  Cutting a woman’s face out, cutting a man’s face out. Which in a way is very threatening to the powers that be, but in a very subtle, gentle sort of way.  And he’s a really genuine guy, and he doesn’t have all the answers.  He’s using the book as a way of exploring stuff.  His work, quite rightly, is starting to be shown in other countries now, he was at the Format Photography Festival in the UK last year, showed his book, and won the 'Portfolio Reviewers Choice Award'.  His work is starting to get noticed, and that’s not because of us, but because the work is so strong.


M: What are the production details of the book?

D: It’s A4, an edition of 500, and he is printing them as he goes. It’s laser printed and saddle stitched. If you look at this work in the context of his other work - this is Thai Politics no.3 -  he’s done a whole series of books and they’re all quite humorous, they’re an exploration of the ridiculousness of the political situation, but it’s also looking at resistance. In a way, he’s living on the edge a bit, he is dealing with some pretty touchy subjects.  He studied in the UK so in a way that provided him with the lens to view his country from outside, and maybe that was part of how he could see the potential of something like this in a very simple way. And these simple projects lend themselves to books so easily.


M: It goes back to what you said earlier in regard to the Asia-Pacific region – there are many photographers emerging from countries that are going through different types of political and economic upheaval. Many are making work about this experience, however it isn’t always welcomed by the powers that be.

D: Miti’s is a perfect example -  all of his work is really politically charged, to the point that sometimes he can’t show this work in certain places at home and he gets in trouble. There’s also a quarterly magazine from Taiwan called Voices Of Photography edited by Wei-I Lee, and its constantly getting pulled off the shelf in China, he’s getting threats to be arrested.  He’s just showing Chinese content, but he is dealing with really touchy issues in terms of human rights, in terms of politics, in terms of economics ...  it’s really important, but I don’t see that magazine being sold in Australia.  It’s printed in English and Mandarin, he’s doing this amazing work, but no one really knows about it.  So this is all part of that in a way.

Thai Politics no.3 by Miti Ruangkritya, 2011, self-published


Click here to see the list of photobooks on display at ACP Pop Up Gallery

All images © ACP Michael Waite