Dutch social documentary photographer Koen Wessing's body of work – which was accumulated during the mid-20th century – is up for viewing at the Jeu de Paume – Château de Tours, Paris, in Koen Wessing: The Indelible Image. About 80 photographs were chosen by Wessing himself especially for the exhibition, before his death in 2011, at the age of 69.
“The Indelible Image” is a tribute to Wessing's first exhibition in Santiago, Chile. Wessing wanted to visit the exhibition but couldn't due to an illness. He passed away on 3 February 2011, completely missing out his exhibition. The past exhibition featured his images of the overthrowing of Salvador Allende government in 1973 and his other works. Now, "The Indelible Image” is brought back to life.
Born in Amsterdam, Wessing grew up in the postwar period among a generation of intellectuals. The said generation was highly aware of the bloody violence and injustices of the war that brought the aftermath. Living in an era of reconstruction, resilience, and social progress ultimately shaped his worldview as a teenager. As with most Dutch photographers during his time such as Ed van der Elsken Wessing sought for the human interest in the context of The Netherlands' social climate.
Wessing was a true wanderlust with a camera. He hitchhiked across Europe, sometimes borrowing money, heading off to wherever the wind would take him. In 1969, he stopped by Het Maagdenhuis, an occupied administrative center of the University of Amsterdam. Exhibition commissioner Jeroen de Vries said Wessing built a temporary footbridge across an alleyway between the university and building next-door to avoid and go around the police blockade to get his film rolls for film processing. Such a story made him a legend.
He also went to Chile, Nicaragua, South Africa, Latin America, China, and Tibet. He covered post-Second World War events such as the decolonization and violent aftermath in Latin America, the fall of the Soviet bloc, the Yugoslavian war, apartheid in South Africa, and the resurgence of China. While raw and gritty, there's a lot of empathy and affection his viewers can find in Wessing's documentary photographs. His ability to show delicacy and sensitivity while capturing images of desaperacidos (a person who has disappeared, presumed killed by members of the armed services or the police, according to Oxford Dictionary) built a visual legacy that will forever be etched on to history and collective memory. De Vries says:
“Like famous phrases that you never forget once you've read them, some of Wessing's images remain etched in your memory as soon as you've seen them. They don't seem to relate to a particular moment in the past, but to something more universal. His photos show us the god-forsaken of the earth, but without dehumanising them, without making victims of them: they remain fellow human beings. Koen Wessing often sought out people who were mourning the dead he had encountered, or people searching for their disappeared loved ones – their ‘desaparecidos’.”
“The Indelible Image" will run through 12 May 2019. Find your way to the Jeu de Paume here.