Imitating amateurs: Dutch photographer Michiel Burger

Despite his young age, photographer Michiel Burger (29) has an inspiringly long list of publications under his belt with 21 books and zines filled with his fascinating work plus an ever-growing archive of self-shot and collected images documenting his life. The artist, who hails from the little Dutch town of Deventer, has just moved to Brussels. We jumped at the chance for a chat and asked him about his unusual approach to photography; one that ignores common aesthetics and tries to imitate the ways of the amateurs.

What are you currently working on?

For a very long time I’ve been working on one big single project, a photographic archive that contains 65 different series. It’s a documentary approach that’s not about beauty but very normal, trying to use photography in a very private, intimate way. The archive is divided into four different categories: the first one is documentary and shows situations through the gaze of a tourist, while the second one does not depict any people and the third one is very personal and deals with subjects like my dying father or the windmills of my childhood. The last one concentrates on traces of personal lives, like my Dad’s underpants after his death.

What do you want to achieve with this archive, what message do you want to deliver to the viewer?

My work is personal but not very special in a sense that I’m leading a special life. Not at all. I’m convinced that I am leading a very ordinary life that many people can associate with. I study, I work, I go on holidays… And that’s the point: I take myself as a normal European specimen and document my very normal life. The archive is more of an experiment, I don’t know what will happen with it and I don’t try to arrive at a certain end product, a certain message. I just see what happens. Most photography wants to show the special, extraordinary things from far away corners of the world – I show the boringness of ordinary, everyday life, but in quite a private way.

You already mentioned that you don’t want your pictures to be beautiful… aesthetics are not important for you, then?

I am a trained photographer,  I did eight years of photography school. I’m trained to see what might be a good picture, but I try to ignore that and not work that way. I don’t think beautiful images communicate our normality very well. I make sure it’s not about style and aesthetics. I use photography to collect stuff. In my archives you’ll find not only images that I made, but also photographs I collected, for example from films that ended up in the garbage of photo studios or from science books, because scientific pictures are never about aesthetics. And I also let others photograph with disposable cameras, for example a 11 year old child prostitute in Honduras. A part of my collection then ends up in my archive as a series – it’s an alternative way of making a documentary.

Which other photographers inspire you?

I like most of the conceptualists like Hans-Peter Feldmann or John Baldessari. I also really like Richard Billingham. I’m inspired a lot by amateur photographers, it’s closer to what I like, especially when it comes to situations. In the end I’m trying to photograph like them.

You did eight years of photography school – might it not have been easier without doing that?

When I started school I photographed my friends in abandoned buildings or skating – just to find out that was a big cliché. Then I photographed old people with wrinkly faces, which was another cliché. Every year I got better, but every time I was just shooting another cliché. Only if you can identify the dogmas, the way culture makes us look at photographs, only then you can comment on them or oppose them. Photographs of the amateur, not the art amateur, but the real amateur, are the most honest ones. After years of training and looking at images it’s hard to make something unpretentious. You’re supposed to show a certain coolness, beautiful colours, everything is about form and style. But I don’t agree with that. Many people want photography to do the same as paintings nowadays when it comes to colour and composition. Photography is something totally different. A photograph shows a millisecond of reality, it can prove something. A painting cannot do that.

How did you get into photography and how has your work developed over the years?

I’ve always been extremely fascinated by photography. I guess now I’m getting closer and closer to the point where I can narrow it down to simple things. A camera doesn’t need someone to think about composition for ages, a camera creates the image by itself; all you need to do is press a button. It creates fragments of reality.

You mentioned disposable cameras. What other equipment do you work with?

With everything, I don’t care about technique. It doesn’t really matter what camera you photograph with. I have some really cheap digital ones. If I want others to take pictures of something I always give them throwaway cameras.

You studied in New York for a while. Did that have an impact on your art?

It was definitely very special and very inspiring. I don’t think it directly influenced my work. But one thing I found very striking there: you have to be politically correct and polite all the time, and that got me thinking. Almost all documentary photography there is made to this backdrop, it’s made with a humanist worldview, which I agree with of course, but still, I don’t think everyone is equal. Reality is not like that, although we’d like it to be that way. This approach fails to show what’s real. For example I saw black guys on race bikes for the first time in my life (I come from a little town in the North of The Netherlands) but when this thought came to my head I immediately told myself “No, you can’t think that, it’s racist.” But actually it’s just the way a Dutch kid experiences the world, and then reality is racist. That’s the paradox of humanism.