An Interview with Kris Vervaeke

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Kris Vervaeke was rewarded a Photo Awards 2011 Juror's Pick by Stacey Clarkson. Her body of work, "Fade Away," collects images of decaying photographs found on Chinese tombstones. Kate Levy  interviewed Vervaeke about the body of work, and the elusive quality of these photo documents.


Kate Levy: Some of these images have a very graphic immediacy to them, almost counterintuitive to the softness of the gradual weathering they endured. When I look at them, I am reminded that altough the picture's positioning on a tombstone may invoke a cacophony of memories, paper is just paper. I see this project not only as a direct comment on the fading of an identity and subjectivity that once was the only thing, but an exploration of how the brutal material of photography doesn't hold the candle for nostalgia. Can you comment?

Kris Vervaeke: There were two reasons I decided to start this project. First, when exploring the pictures on the tombstones, it struck me how beautiful the individual faded images were when looking at them purely graphically. Secondly, the large quantity of images in the cemetery created a noise. That was the cacophony of memories, young, old, messy, loud, almost hearable, emphasized by the irregularities in the different stones and their various levels of decay.

I wanted to take the images out of the tombstone's frame, out of the crowd on the cemetery and away from the context of death. I wanted to avoid distraction, single the pictures out as pure graphic images. In a way, I wanted to give them tranquility, listen to the individual stories, to the life that was still audible.

The result fascinated me. The pictures invoke at first a very personal encounter, almost intimate, as meeting a family member. You look into the individual faces and you feel as if you can bring back some of the fading personality, by giving it attention and interpretation. But then, contradictory, quickly, almost unconsciously, the graphical image takes over and the personality that you thought captured your interest fades. The abstract starts to dominate, and you almost have to force yourself to keep seeing the individual person. You lose interest in the story of the person on the photo and you wallow in the beauty of graphical image.

Your point is absolutely correct, paper is brutal. It cools down one-dimensionally and very quickly. It does not carry memories well.

I have worked - and still am working - on further challenging this duel between the graphic image and the personality. I have worked on large individual prints, reunited the cemetery crowd in a large collage of pictures to invoke the noise I captured in the cemetery. I have let the pictures decay and crumble to invoke the multidimensional feel of the stones, and I have placed the photos back in vibrant living environments. 


Copyright Kris Vervaeke


KL: Have you traced any of the individuals marked by the tombstones and images back to their families? Are there any specific familial lineages that you have hooked onto throughout the project? Do you have any particular criteria for selecting images to photograph? 

KV: No. In this approach I did not trace any lineages. Selection was made on the type of person shown on the pictures and on the graphic.

At first, I made up stories; I was interested, but only for a short period. The image as an image fascinates me more than the history or family of the individual. Now, I kind of like the fact that the lineage remains unknown. It strengthens the idea of the fading of the individual as such.


Copyright Kris Vervaeke


KL: Have you extended this project in any way? Can you talk about what you are working on since you received Stacy Clarkson's juror pick in 2011?

KV: I am still working with these images. As I described above, I'm challenging myself on pushing the individual back in front of the graphical image.

I'm also currently working on photogrphing ignored, neglected or abandoned places in Singapore.

One space is a small social-cultural theme park built in the 1930's around Chinese mythology and daily life situations. It was a big attraction in the 1960s and '70s, but now it is rarely visited and considered boring. I find it absolutely beautiful in its ambition and in its decay. IT is pregnant with messages and good intentions, and with memories that nobody gives a damn about anymore. 

Another place I am focusing on is an old cemetery: neglected for decades, sitting in the jungle. A burial ground of the pioneers of Singapore. Unfortunately, it is situated on prime land. So this unique piece of nature and history will make way for urban development. It will simply get erased. 

I'm fascinated by people's sense of importance and their unpreventable futility. I'm fascinated by the power of color and abstract images that last so much longer and prove to be so much stronger. It's funny how we lose interest so quickly in individual stories but remain attached to color and shape. Even if we emphasize the individual, shape and color will continue to dominate our memory This duality and our own misconception on what we want to be important and what we really remember is inspiring.

Another project I have been working on for a while is on fortune tellers and people's need for prediction and religion. This series has a strong emphasis on color. Although you think you are looking into people's wants and non-wants, crawling through their desires when looking at the photos, you will remember mainly color when you reflect back.


Copyright Kris Vervaeke

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