Review: On Max Pinckers’s Will They Sing Like Raindrops or Leave Me Thirsty
Will They Sing Like Raindrops or Leave Me Thirsty
Designed by Jurgen Maelfeyt
8 1/4 x 11 1/2 in. (21 x 29 cm)
140 color images
Paperback with flaps
“Cops joined kin’s hunt for lovers,” declares the ragged-edged headline of a newspaper article slapped into Max Pinckers’s lush, layered Will They Sing Like Raindrops or Leave Me Thirsty. Providing context for the images that come before and after, the article serves as an entry point into Pinckers’s beautiful, poetic, and occasionally simplistic exploration of love as experienced by the Indian subcontinent.
To open the book is to fall into the middle of a mystery. Comprised of documentary-style photographs, staged compositions, reprinted e-mails, newspaper clippings, and digitized photo backdrops (where fall foliage and spring tulips form a literally impossible landscape), it pivots between the fantastic, the lurid, and the disarmingly real. In one recurring series, a powder-blue room holds couple after couple within its walls, their cuddling and smiles a poignant counterpoint to their confinement. They are, in fact, fugitives; press clippings on that same blue wall and reprints of desperate e-mails lead to the understanding that these couples’ lives are in the hands of the Love Commandos, an NGO dedicated to assisting couples whose families—for reasons of caste, religion, or economic status—forbid their marriage. Just how far certain families will go to forbid a union is made clear with more clippings: “Bro beheads sister,” for example, and “For honour, man kills pregnant daughter.”
This is a deftly layered book, each page a “clue” propelling the viewer past marriage podiums and portraits, past the unique synthesis of myth, history, and Bollywood spectacle that comprise modern India’s relationship to love. Pinckers’s best works read as beautiful hybrids, the spontaneity of documentary combined with the painterly sense of color and composition found in staged shots. He excels at catching emotion between lovers, whether they stand apart on a rocky shore or hide their connected heads under a saffron chunni. In one particularly heartbreaking set, a young couple lies shoulder-to-shoulder and fully clothed on a safe-house bed, moving from serious conversation to smiles, to laughter. The affection between them is so palpable that one can’t help but feel frustrated by anything that would keep them apart.
But here the book reaches too easily for an answer, and finds itself in familiar Western territory, with its predictable assessment of arranged marriage. Presented as a malevolent specter—the dark force of familial will waiting to put an end to true love—the photographer’s view toward the tradition comes through in both composition and juxtaposition: a photograph of a bloody hand on the same spread as the clipping that reads “Bro beheads sister”; an older man with one hand on a young woman’s neck, preceding “For honour, man kills pregnant daughter.” Marriage portraits with the faces cut out further emphasize that any sense of identity vanishes within these unions.
Hans Theys’s essay in the book identifies Pinckers as having been born in Belgium but raised in Asia, and asserts that, “the beauty of [his] approach is that he takes no stance. He doesn’t make a statement, he tries to show us things.” It’s an assessment that overlooks the fact that fictionalizing—that is, choosing the details of a story—is inherently a stance. Placing a photograph of a burning kameez across from a clipping of divorce announcements is a statement, as is having the argument for arranged marriage exemplified by reports of violence and a singular, poorly spelled e-mail. The country’s more complex tension between arranged marriage and romantic love—and the prevalent Indian view that the first can easily lead to the second—is vastly ignored here, in favor of a centuries-old storyline that paints the West as custodians of identity and passion, the East as fear-bound followers. In this, one can’t help regret the blindness of an eye keen on seeing so much. But while the misstep detracts from what might be a more nuanced reflection, it does not rob these pages of their dense, intriguing, visual glory.
Mira Jacob is the author of the critically acclaimed novel The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing (Random House, 2014), which was short-listed for the Tata Literature Live! First Book Award; honored by the Asian/Pacific American Librarians Association; and named one of the best books of 2014 by Kirkus Reviews, the Boston Globe, Goodreads, Bustle, and the Millions. She teaches fiction writing at New York University.
The PhotoBook Review is a publication dedicated to the consideration of the photobook—focusing on the best photography books being published, from the coffee-table book to the handmade artist’s edition, and on creating a better understanding of the ecosystem of the photobook as a whole.