One Plus One Is Three: A Conversation on Collaboration
Taco Hidde Bakker
Many good photobooks result from sustained, long-term collaboration—the kind that goes much further than just calling in a designer to make the finishing touches. An initial concept can be carried beyond the horizon of what an artist or photographer might have fancied on their own, with surprising results that could transcend individual authorship. Editors, typographers, graphic designers, or other photographers may act as collaborators and valuable sparring partners, for everything from determining sequence to designing layouts—delivering valuable input during the process and, in a sense, becoming authors in their own right. However, there are compromises to be made too: collaboration requires trust, honesty, open communication, and the ability to let go of favorite images or ideas. One must delegate, not dictate.
Here, six teams who have made collaboration part of their photobook-making process discuss the books they worked on together, and how they perceive two important aspects of collaboration: seeing your work through different eyes, and what forms of communication seem necessary to complete a successful collaborative project.
– Artist Daniel Mayrit and artist and publisher Verónica Fieiras. Publication discussed: You Haven’t Seen Their Faces (RIOT BOOKS, 2015). • Shortlisted for a 2015 Paris Photo– Aperture Foundation PhotoBook Award Artist
– Sarah Entwistle and graphic designer Antonio de Luca. Publication discussed: Please send this book to my mother (Sternberg Press, 2015).
– Photographer Alejandro Cartagena, photographer and editor Fernando Gallegos, and typographer and editor Roberto Salazar. Publication discussed: Before the War (self-published, 2015).
– Artist and photographer Laia Abril and editor and art director Ramón Pez. Publication discussed: The Epilogue (Dewi Lewis, 2014).
– Photographer Rob Hornstra and graphic designer Jeroen Kummer of Kummer & Herrman. Publication discussed: The Sochi Project: An Atlas of War and Tourism in the Caucasus (Aperture, 2013).
How does collaborating get you out of your so-called “comfort zone?” To what extent does seeking the input of others help you see your work with different eyes, take a more objective stance toward it, and perhaps deepen your emotional engagement with a project?
Thobias Fäldt: There is always that point in the encounter at which “the other” reshapes the initial idea to the extent that things will get uncomfortable. We have learned to appreciate this moment of crisis. It has become crucial for the development of what we wish to achieve. And it involves a great deal of trust between us all.
Verónica Fieiras: It’s a challenge, because as an editor you usually start working on a project which is already clear and finished in the artist’s mind. However, many things need to be rethought and transformed in order to translate an exhibition project into a book, which needs a different language. I had liked Daniel Mayrit’s project You Haven’t Seen Their Faces since the first time I saw it, but thought it was too cryptic and needed to be a bit riskier. Daniel was open to it and we both gave it a twist.
Daniel Mayrit: When Verónica first approached me with the idea of making a book together, I told her I didn’t want to. At the time I was working on a dummy which was the opposite of what the book would finally become. A few weeks after the proposal, I agreed to listen to Verónica, and thought, Maybe I was wrong after all. From that moment on I had left my comfort zone, and every decision that followed was a piece of cake.
Alejandro Cartagena: For my book Before the War I wanted to let go of the images as much as possible—to see them in a different light. So I let Fernando Gallegos, with whom I had worked on Carpoolers , crop and sequence the images as he pleased. This was an important step in order to detach myself from the images and not force any of my feelings onto them. After we had finished the dummy we brought in Roberto Salazar to look for loopholes in the design, but were primarily interested in his passion for typography. After multiple tests, the three of us decided which type would work best for our publication.
Fernando Gallegos: Being a photographer myself, I think there is always a need for fresh eyes, for new directions in which a project could go. We pushed ourselves to go beyond what the images actually portrayed. At the same time, we always pulled each other back to our original idea. The basis of our collaboration was keeping a balance between the initial idea and making things more complex, as well as abstract.
Roberto Salazar: First and foremost, collaboration is based on the notion that nobody possesses a 360- degree view—not of their own practice, nor those of others. I have an aesthetic and technical bias; however, my subjectivity is only relevant within the context of collaboration. As such, I’m able to enrich a project by adding to the gene pool, as it were.
Jeroen Kummer: Trust is a key factor and liberating to the creative process. You should be able to leave your comfort zone but also enter a new one together. As a designer, you should be aware of entering someone else’s creative space, but this doesn’t mean you should not get your hands dirty because you respect the work too much. For their part, photographers need to trust that their publication is in good hands with a designer and leave space for them to do their thing, so common ground can be found—this is crucial to making something special.
Rob Hornstra: If you are not capable of leaving your comfort zone, I’m afraid you will end up with a mediocre book.
Laia Abril and Ramón Pez: In each project we adapt our skills, responsibilities, research, and motivation, depending on what we think the project needs. Our process is based on continuously researching every aspect of the edit. We find the inspiration and the answers to every project’s difficulties by seeking new forms for narrative structures.
If anything seems important in a collaboration, it’s open communication. You need to be able to trust one another and clearly and honestly share your feelings, doubts, and hopes for a possible outcome. Continuous debate and discussion often sharpen the concept and shape the project. How do you engage in such dialogue?
Entwistle: I had worked with my grandfather Clive Entwistle’s archival material for a couple of years before deciding to make a book. It’s an unstructured and pretty intimate collection. Until Antonio de Luca and I began working together, I was so steeped in this collaboration with my late grandfather that I felt an urgent need to have a live dialogue with someone, but also a desire to delineate the book as an object. I wanted a graphic collaborator who would have an emotional and visceral engagement with the material.
I had already begun constructing the text component and was eyeing up a large hoard of visual material when our collaboration began. Working with Tony from an early stage of the project was a pragmatic necessity for me: I had to answer his questions and complete tasks that would allow him to access the project. Straight away, he encouraged me to bring the images into the process. The action of inserting groups of images into the text was a fairly crude and practical remedy for communicating via a Word document, where images would appear throughout the text.
de Luca: There are two voices in the book: Clive (the protagonist) and the caption information (the deuteragonist). Clive always passed judgment on himself and others, whereas the caption information never judges Clive; it supports him, regardless of the fact that most of the architectural and other projects he designed never did materialize. The challenge was to create a book that could be read linearly and intermittently while experiencing the two voices simultaneously.
Originally I had begun designing a photobook, but Sarah wanted neither a photobook nor a literary book. She wanted something in between. Because of the amount of material Sarah kept discovering and sending to me, the book took one year to design. The images were copied and pasted into a Word document, forming a long chain. Each element connected to another element, forming Clive’s lifeline—which meant that if even one element was deleted or added, the entire book would have to be redesigned. It slowed down the process and forced me to respect Clive as a man with faults and triumphs, Sarah as an artist and as his granddaughter, and the book as an artifact.
Fieiras: Collaboration is a continuous process of reaffirmation, because you need to constantly justify your decisions and adjust your points of view, which helps make your ideas stronger. It’s an enriching back-and-forth process which teaches me a lot—not only about my collaborative partner, but also about myself. It’s a way of testing my flexibility.
Mayrit: We both made it very clear what we wanted, which helped a lot in staying focused on the main goal. From the beginning we decided to keep the political statement I was making with the book, but we also wanted to make something useful for the audience, not just a book to be looked at.
Abril: We distinguish between a photographic project and the concept of a book. Usually, the book’s concept is shaped by more people—such as an editor, designers, and a publisher. The moment at which the photographer stops being afraid to share the concept and all the ideas is when the book begins to grow exponentially. But no matter which point our collaboration starts at, both of us need to know everything, as if we were together on the project since day one. In our experience, this way of working can bring a story to a higher plane.
Pez: If a photographer knows how to do a good edit, and comes with a clear book concept, it’s still interesting to collaborate and brainstorm about new ideas. With The Epilogue, Laia was already shaping the concept of the book before she even started to take photographs, which really makes a difference in helping to structure the book—the edit in this case is equal to the concept and the story.
Källström: The interplay between everyone involved shapes the concept, and the structures are chiseled out from our different experiences and expertise. In the actual book object, its form and the photographs cannot be reduced to the sum of their parts. To reach coherence, there must be constant discussion stemming from our various points of view.
Kummer: I see shaping the concept and story as the most important parts of bookmaking. Sometimes I come up with ideas at an early stage; sometimes images already carry a clear direction. But in whatever order you work together, a book needs to stand on its own and should in fact be the publication the photographer wants. And designers, who often have more technical knowledge than photographers with regards to printing, lithography, paper, etc., have an obligation to include photographers as much as possible in the decision process.
Hornstra: Designers are not really involved with the content of my projects—for example, The Sochi Project, which I did with writer Arnold van Bruggen. We usually invite designers to learn what our work’s about while we’re still making it. You then need to make your ambitions for the project clear, and why you want to turn it into a publication. It’s important to express your feelings concerning the publication—not just how it should look, but what kind of emotion it should generate. You also need to articulate your desired audience.
This all creates a healthy starting point for designers to start thinking about a communication concept. The moment we start talking about the book, designers are totally involved and equal to us. This often goes wrong, as photographers and artists can find it difficult to treat designers as equal partners. It’s a good thing to learn how to be equally invested in a book project.
Taco Hidde Bakker is a writer, translator, and researcher based in Amsterdam. He worked with Paradox and Dana Lixenberg on the book, web documentary, and exhibition The Last Days of Shishmaref (2008–10). He writes for magazines such as Camera Austria International, Foam, EXTRA, and the British Journal of Photography. He also runs the Amsterdam chapter of The Photobook Club and Circle Rules Football Amsterdam.
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.