TIM JOHNSTON meets ROBERT KNOTH PHOTOGRAPHER
DUTCH photographer Robert Knoth describes himself as a sissy, then laughs. If Knoth is a sissy, he is not the sort of sissy most of us would recognise. His travel resume is a catalogue of the bleakest, most dangerous places on earth: Afghanistan, Angola, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Tajikistan, to name a few. It seems he is drawn back time and again to such places to document the suffering of the forgotten.
Knoth’s concern is not disaster zones. Rather, he says, it is to seek to understand what drives people to do terrible things in these places.
‘‘ What is the moment when people start killing each other? What is the moment when government and the military say, ‘ This is what we are going to do, we know it is going to kill a lot of people.’ How does it work, how do people respond?’’ he says.
With his wife, Antoinette de Jong, Knoth is in Australia to launch Certificate No 000358/, an exhibition of photographs taken during a sevenyear period, looking at the human fallout from the Soviet Union’s nuclear program, both military and civilian.
The exhibition has travelled the world and been seen by more than 200,000 people.
The bulk of the photographs in the exhibition are portraits taken on a medium- format camera, with the subjects at home, staring straight into the lens. A small sign gives their name and the illness from which they are suffering.
‘‘ I find it a very simple and direct way of confronting people with a problem, saying: ‘ Look, this is what happened and this is a person who got affected by it, it has a name, it has a life, it is a person and, in a way, it could have been you’, and a lot of people read it like that,’’ Knoth says.
Few of his subjects show any obvious physical signs of the cancers or mental disabilities that radiation has inflicted on them. Knoth has removed the pathos from their victimhood and empowered them in the process. These pictures speak of the value of humanity and its ability to endure the seemingly unendurable. The exhibition, he says, ‘‘ is very much a story about how people just pick up their lives again and try to make the best of things’’.
The camera has captured a look of tender sympathy in the eyes of 15- year- old Annya Pesenko, bedridden and in agony; the hormonal fumblings of a high school dance in a dank village hall near the nuclear reprocessing plant at Mayak; the strength of the relationship between twins who discovered three months apart that they had brain tumours. Knoth’s lens has discovered that the calculus of human suffering is an infinitely complex equation.
The exhibition also invites investigation
of universal questions about the abuse of power.
‘‘ It is a story about nuclear energy, but for me it is more a story about power and the abuse of power,’’ he says.
‘‘ It’s about how a central government is willing to sacrifice a large part of its population.’’
Knoth describes his work as photo- documentary: large- scale projects that generally find outlets in books rather than the more immediate discipline of photojournalism.
‘‘ What I try to do is present a feeling, rather than the obvious in- your- face photograph. I always try to photograph the sensitive, the hidden, the subtle,’’ Knoth says. He cites Diane Arbus, whose signature work was of those living on the fringes of US society, as an influence.
Knoth is similarly attracted to those living in the margins. ‘‘ Life for most of us is easy, but there is always this shield we put up to not show too much to the outside world. These people don’t have that problem any more, which makes them far more interesting to photograph.’’
The power of Knoth’s method is clear at his exhibition. The shots are all in black and white, and taken on traditional film rather than digital. His technique has a beguiling simplicity, creating the cumulative effect akin to the powerful persuasiveness of witnesses rather than the shrill keening of victims. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
There is one photograph of a deformed fetus, which in some ways accentuates the normality of the other images, but Knoth generally has tried to avoid the freak show aspects of Arbus’s work, and has regrets about including the image.
‘‘ If you make it very confrontational, people don’t watch, period. You seduce your audience into watching, into getting to know more about that story, and if you can seduce an audience by taking aesthetic photos, that’s a tool.’’
De Jong, herself a veteran of many war zones, wrote the short text that accompanies the photographs and the book that goes with it. ‘‘ It really is a joint production: the text is as important as the photos,’’ Knoth says.
He describes the process of taking the photographs as brief, typically no more than five or 10 minutes, but says the interviews take much longer. ‘‘ What I do spend a lot of time doing is finding the right person, finding the right story in which I can tell what I want to say,’’ he says.
All the portraits are named, generally with some background on the result of the exposure to radiation in a way that personalises the photographs. ‘‘ What is striking is that I do get a lot of emails from people who see the work and they all specifically ask for certain people — ‘ How is so and so?’ — it all comes back to trying to show people as individuals, and I think it works in this case.’’
Knoth and de Jong are embarking on a new project to document the collateral damage done to societies along the heroin- smuggling route from Afghanistan to Europe. It fits into their pattern of attraction to marginalised people on the fringes of Western consciousness. Where the sissy bit fits in is anyone’s guess. Certificate No 000358/ is at the Australian Centre for Photography, 257 Oxford St, Paddington, Sydney, until April 26, then travels to Queensland and South Australia.