The poetry in the photographs of Titus Simoens (b. 1985, Belgium) is always based on extraordinary meetings. Graduated from KASK in Ghent, Belgium, Titus was selected by the FOMU Antwerp’s annual magazine .TIFF as one of the most talented Belgian photographers. Simoens launches his fourth book 11:00 am, edited by Art Paper Editions, on November 10 at Offprint during Paris Photo.
“11:00 am describes and shows the weekly appointments between Alfons and myself. Alfons is an 81-year-old man who lives in Ghent, close to my house. From October 2017 till May 2018 I visited Alfons every week at 11:00 am. I listened to his stories and photographed him during our visits. Alfons decided to cook for me every time I paid him a visit. It became our weekly ritual.”
Next to visiting Alfons and making photographs of him, Titus also questioned his own position as a photographer and documenter; how a project like this proceeds, how a story develops, how the photographer deals with the notion of a ‘story’ and how he portrays its characters. What is objective and what is subjective? When does a story become fictional, even when the approach is documentary?
“11:00 am is a multi-layered project that provokes the reader and viewer to question the meaning of a story. It discusses the position of a photographer when creating new work. It considers one’s perception of another one’s life, the continuous projection that people pursue when meeting someone new”.
As the work is mostly about how the photographer deals with the notion of a ‘story’, the design of this photo book is directed at conveying that idea to the viewer. Most of the space is white, the photos are small, as is the text.
“The white space is chosen carefully as it gives enough space for the viewer to get in the story and to fill in his own imagination when reading the text and looking at the photographs. The idea of putting every sentence of the text on every left page and every photograph on the right page of the book is aimed to create a way of looking for the reader from left to right. It has the idea of a page-turning book. The sentence is not a caption for the photos, the sentence allows the reader to form his own image and story”.
Before 11:00 am, Simoens has published several other books. A GUP favourite is For Brigitte. In this case as well, the book is based on a meeting, but the character and the approach of the work is completely different.
“It started with a letter shared on Facebook. One of the lecturers at KASK had received a mail with an unusual request from an unknown woman, and had posted it in the Facebook group of the school’s photography department:
‘I have a wish concerning my sister (who was recently struck with cancer), wanted to surprise her with some old photographs and clippings of her college years.’
I visited the woman at her house. She showed me pictures of her family and of her twenty year older sister Brigitte. Brigitte was the pretty sister, the beautiful sister. Every boy in the village was crazy for her. I started selecting images, intuitively going for those where she glowed, forming my own image of Brigitte based on the information the sister gave me, but also from a male perspective, simply choosing pictures where I thought she looked sexy.”
Working with found or archive material or with family albums is always difficult. Usually, the owner or the maker of the images, or the protagonists in the photographs, are out of the picture – having passed away or disappeared. However, when you’re making a book commissioned by one sister about the other sister as a birthday gift, both of them very much alive and present, things can be more difficult and delicate.
“How far can you push your own artistic agenda? At what point can you claim the images in the book as your own – if at all? How do you deal with authorship then?
I was very much aware of the fact that I was working with someone else’s images and during the whole process of editing, they always remained their images. I became fascinated by the question of when you could claim something as your own. Is it when you take an existing image and you simply put in a different context? Is it still the same image then? I tend to think it isn’t.
The most important thing was to think how these images that belong to a family archive could become my property. I scanned all the images I selected to create a new book. The design was done through an automatic placement through which the images were cut out. It was the way the first image on the cover, a wedding picture, had turned out that made me decide not to change anything to the book. The way her eye fell into that lower right corner.”
“The end result is as great a mystery to me as to them. So we trust each other. For example, Alfons from the book 11:00 am was happy with my visits and I was glad to have him photographed.
I always try to search for the real subject of my work. It starts with them and it slowly involves me. They are not surprised about the story, it ensures a good representation of our relationship. But I think to know the real answer we should ask the characters.
What intrigues is the question what happens after you finished the work. Do you still visit them? Did they become friends for life? Or do you never see them again? For me, there is no right or wrong answer. It is the same in life, we use each other in every situation and that does not necessarily have to have a negative resonance”.