DIETER DE LATHAUWER
by Nathalie Vissers


‘I loved my wife (killing children is good for the economy)’ is the intriguing title for the 2016 winning book dummy at Unseen Dummy Awards. From the moment of publishing, the book was well received. Experts selected it as one of the best 30 photobooks of the Photobook Awards Kassel 2017 and recently got shortlisted for the Photobook Award of Arles 2017. Its author, Belgian photographer Dieter De Lathauwer (throughout the rest of the article: DDL), is no unknown of this website (find an article from six years ago here.

I had the chance to meet with him during the final preparations for the launch of the book, february 2017. An ideal moment to catch up on the last years, his latest project and the evolution in his views on photography. Less of a traditional interview, and more of a friendly conversation while assembling his book, I got to learn a lot about him and his work.





A dark page in Austrian history

At first glance, DDL’s latest work ‘I loved my wife (killing children is good for the economy)’ looks different from what we’ve seen before. The work feels darker, even more mysterious and also more serious.

The process behind it, however, remains similar to what he’s done in previous projects: the starting point a specific country/location and the urge to explore it in a different way, through a certain social or historical story connecting the geographical space. After projects in Barcelona, Berlin, Spain and the boundary between Switzerland and Italy, the scene for his latest work is Austria.

Looking for an alternative way of showing the landscape of Austria, this project’s connecting thread is a dark one. During a two-week road trip, he followed his way along psychiatric institutions. Throughout the second world war, psychiatric patients were ‘euthanized’, because of the costs-benefits for the society. Estimates of the total number of victims in Austria and Germany reach more than 140.0000 victims. DDL planned a trip along all Austrian locations of this dark page in history.

The resulting book is a combination of in situ images, stills from historic propaganda movies and some digital collages. The title refers to one of the propaganda movies. In this movie, a husband decides to let his wife, whom he loved, be euthanized for the greater good of the society.

Similar to previous projects, he prepared in advance, doing his research, making plans and establishing the route. During the trip, however, he allowed himself to experience the place, letting go of any explicit knowledge. The journey turned out to be more emotional than expected. Being there, experiencing the location, seeing how the country deals with this heavy past, it’s a difficult experience in itself. Visiting more than a dozen of such locations in a tight two-week schedule and also shooting during the night, made it his most emotionally heavy photography trip. Still, the fact he was in all the Austrian locations and his journey as the connecting thread between them, is an important underlying aspect of the final work.


© Dieter De Lathauwer, I loved my wife (killing children is good for the economy)

In general, DDL likes to find a transfer between the specific circumstances in which he works and the atmosphere he wants to get in his images. He experiences the place, forgetting any explicit knowledge, and also worked at night, when things are quieter. The resulting images portray these aspects, they show us detached observation, combined with mystery, quietness and a hint of a dark, emotional story, without explicitly revealing it.

This balance between playing along with people’s implicit assumptions and giving enough information to show that something is seriously wrong, was a great challenge in this project. The title ‘I loved my wife (killing children is good for the economy)’ is a great example of this balance. Another important goal was to show silence and respect within the images.


© Dieter De Lathauwer, I loved my wife (killing children is good for the economy)


The subtle powers of images

DDL’s interest in image language shines through the entire conversation. It is one of the aspects that has been developing over the last years. He is more conscious about it now, reading things, taking time to reflect on images and paying attention to it in daily life. For example, he explains how the image language in newspapers has changed over the last years. He trusts that this personal research will implicitly find its way back to his work.

Indeed, his latest work also shows this interest in the power of images and how people interact with photography. He doesn’t guide the viewer’s interpretation from the start, instead leaving them to discover the work for themselves. Only afterwards, additional contextual information is given, in the form of a separate booklet (within the book folder) or information on the wall and propaganda movies (in the exhibition). This in turn, makes the viewer reinterpret the work with different eyes.

As a result, the viewer’s eyes are opened to the power of images. In our current age, where we are confronted with a tsunami of images on a daily basis. These images are, to a large extent, snapshots documenting ‘real life’. As a result, we tend to forget the subtle and subliminal impact of photos. DDL is using this subtle impact to guide his viewers. Without lying, he is showing us images that can be interpreted differently depending on your assumptions. For example, in the book, there is a portrait of a man that looks a bit angry. People immediately assume that this man was one of the ‘bad’ people, but in reality, he is one of the people that helped to stop it. Similarly, an image where a barn is figured prominently makes people assume something bad happened in there, while it is actually the castle/church in the background that figured in the historical story. In a way, he is using the same technique as propaganda movies, using powerful subtleties to guide people’s interpretations.


© Dieter De Lathauwer, I loved my wife (killing children is good for the economy)

On being a photographer

Zooming out from particular projects, we also had a chance to discuss some of the bigger questions: What does it mean to be a photographer? What is the goal of photography? The answers to these questions are always very interesting to me, photography seems to have so many different functions for different people.

This is something DDL has been thinking about too. As photographers, we have a certain responsibility, not just to make images. Our time on this planet is limited, so if we have a certain gift, why not try to use it?

Photography is a powerful communication tool that can add value in different ways. Whether it is through showing a historical or societal story, making people experience reality differently, giving support to people in similar situations or telling a story. There are many possibilities, you just have to make a choice. This choice is often a mix of emotion and ratio.

The main advice he has for photographers that seek his guidance (he is also acting as a portfolio reviewer or mentoring projects) is to make this choice and to be enthusiastic or fascinated about what you are doing. Afterwards, it is a question of communicating this enthusiasm to other people. This will result in an emotional impact of the work. Communicating our own fascination and eliciting an emotional impact in the viewer, isn’t that the core aspect of what we are trying to do with photography?

His ideas on the meaning of photography have lingered in the back of my mind for these last weeks, so I can definitely see how DDL is good at being a mentor. He himself likes the mentor role too, he prefers to talk about others work instead of his own, so he can offer them new possibilities.


© Dieter De Lathauwer, I loved my wife (killing children is good for the economy)

For DDL, photography needs to stay challenging. That’s why he is not afraid to try out new things, experiment with new ways of making and showing his work.

One of the things that he is currently interested in are the rapid evolutions in digital art. It is an interesting field for photographers to follow; photographers are too often only seeing their work in relation to painting or to the history of photography itself. Learning from other artistic evolutions like video art, installations and performances could really make a work stronger.


Photography is fun, collaboration and hard work

One last thing that I learned from our talk is that photography is not only about creative or artistic ideas and making images, but just as much about putting in time, effort and hard work. Not only in conceptualizing, shooting or editing a project, but also in all the practical details to get the work out in the world.


One of the images at the recent exhibition of ‘I loved my wife (killing children is good for the economy)’ 

DDL is conscious about these practical aspects, details matter, e.g. the manual crosses that he used on every copy of the back come back in the exhibition, where they are painted on the wall. He also paid special attention to the tactile sensations of the paper, adding a manual stamp to the separate booklet, printing out and pasting small photographs on the front cover, etc.

There were a lot of stories to share in this respect, about all the things that can (and will) go wrong in the making of a photobook, accidental errors in exhibition prints, issues with making the soundscapes or the laborious task of having to manually add 20 minutes of subtitles to propaganda videos. Photography is hard work!


Installation view of the recent exhibition of ‘I loved my wife (killing children is good for the economy)’

Of course, he was not alone in this. Photography is also collaboration. He talked about the great collaboration with his graphic designer (Nick Lambrecht) in working on the book, but also about managing to work together with many different people (sometimes with strong opinions), while maintaining his own view. Not an easy task.

Being an artist/photographer is as much an expert in time management, team management and project management than in creativity, artistic ideas and shooting images: combining family, a job and personal artistic projects.

As a result, I ended the day feeling very impressed by not only the quality of his work and his new photobook, but also by the time, energy, focus and passion DDL is continuously putting in his artistic work (whether it be on the train, during lunch breaks or in his spare days). A great inspiration for every photographer who feels he/she doesn’t have enough time to make quality work. If you would like to experience his work at first hand, don’t forget to check out his book.



 

 


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LINKS
Dieter De Lathauwer 
Review by Robin Titchener
Signed copies for sale at tipi bookshop 
Other points of sale