V.D.

Since opening two years ago Third Floor Gallery, an independent gallery set up and run by photographers, has quickly established a reputation for itself by virtue of a diverse and engaging program of international documentary photography by established and emerging photographers alike, many of whom are challenging the boundaries of the genre. This can certainly be said of Vincent Delbrouck, whose current exhibition V.D. includes three works or series – ‘As Dust Alights’, ‘Some Windy Trees’ and ‘Beyond History’.

 

The use of his own initials as the exhibition’s title gives us our first hint of Vincent Delbrouck’s unique approach to documentary photography, exemplified in ‘Beyond History’, a project spanning 1998-2006, during which the artist made a number of month-long visits to Cuba. Here there is no claim to objectivity, despite the detachment implied or assumed by documentary practice. Rather we find Delbrouck tangled up amongst his subjects, implicated in a way that confounds the conventional distance between photographer and subject within documentary practice.

 

‘Beyond History’, consists of two walls of scrapbook-like displays – varying sizes of images, some postcard size, polaroids, handwritten notes, scribbled out areas, taped to the wall – and ten or so larger prints on the surrounding walls. Mostly portraits of young men and women, poor, wearing few clothes, some provocatively dressed, some posing with attitude, directly address to the viewer, others caught in a vulnerable and private moment. These montages create an intense intimacy not only with the viewer but between the subjects themselves. Like some kind of dysfunctional family album or private journal we are left to speculate as to the relationships between the individuals and their relationship to Delbrouck.  Who are they to him? What is he to them?

 

We glimpse in the backgrounds of dark, shabby interiors flaking paint, faded linoleum floors, ancient TV sets, kitsch plastic flowers. And beyond in the glaring sun deserted streets crumble into decay. To some extent we are familiar with such images which exert a seductive power over a Western eye, imbuing (somebody else’s) poverty with a romantic or heroic quality. Delbrouck shows us these images of squalid beauty but places them amongst portraits of Cuban people who do not submit to our gaze, who defiantly meet our eyes, and any aesthetic pleasure is swiftly hijacked by a more empathic response, and a pervading feeling of melancholy. Delbrouck says of the work, ‘I wanted to discover something from inside, a dark side also’.

 

‘Beyond History’ invites us to contemplate a place after ‘The End of History’. After the death of ideology, the sovereignty of global market forces. There is no grand narrative, no history, there is only the fragmentary, transitory, the intimacy, dirt and chaos of real life. Perhaps the defining image of the exhibition could be that of a bare-chested boy, his trousers worn fashionably low to reveal the waistband of his pants, printed with the words ‘HANES  HANES  HANES’ – in Welsh, HISTORY  HISTORY   HISTORY.