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Photographers you should know:
John Vink


Diego Maradona during an interview before Argentina's match v England

As you would expect from a photographer who’s career has spanned the best part of 40 years, John Vink has seen it all. It’s a cliché, but he truly has. Born in Belgium in 1948, John’s first exposure to the medium of photography was through Douglas Duncan’s work documenting the Korean War. With his parents keen for their child not to be confronted by the harsh realities of violence and war, they hid the copy of Life Magazine featuring Duncan’s work in the cellar. That, however, did nothing to dissuade a ten year old John who’s curiosity had been piqued. Having already learned to take photos and process film as a young kid, by the time John was 16 he had decided he wanted to pursue photography after coming across an article about French filmmaker and photographer Jean-Marie Périer.


“That is when I decided I wanted to become a photographer. Little did I know the job wasn’t all that glamorous. But I had to finish school first, and that took me a while as the motivation to get it over with quickly somehow got lost.”


With his school studies wrapped up, in 1968 John enrolled at La Cambre- a respected fine arts school in Brussels. During his time in the capital, he made good friends but felt he had “learned not much more than the history of photography”. Despite only realising how useful the knowledge gained would be later on, the three years spent at La Cambre were formative. This was a time when John started diving deep into the practise, researching the likes of Robert Frank, Henri Cartier Bresson and Jozef Koudelka and building a bank of references that would go on to inform his work later on.


Having spent time working as a freelance photojournalist in the seventies, John's first major project took him to the Sahel region in sub-saharan Africa in 1986. Documenting the issue of water management and the plight of people migrating due to climate change, ‘Water in Sahel’ won the Eugene Smith Award.


1986 was a busy year for John. After covering the Tour de France for French daily Libération the year before, the paper sent him to Mexico for the World Cup, giving him free rein on the type of images he could capture. I came across John’s body of work from Mexico by chance while researching the ’86 tournament for a separate piece and spent an hour down a rabbit hole having transported myself to the streets of Mexico City. Left wanting to know more about what being on the ground during the World Cup was like and keen to build a picture of John’s career- a month ago, I had the chance to put a few questions to him via email. The resulting interview is perhaps one of the most interesting I’ve had the pleasure of doing since I started Jogo Bonito and I’m really excited to be able to share it with you now.




Supporters at the Azteca stadium

Can you explain what your creative process is like? From the conception of an idea to the presentation of the final images.


The process is a flowing one. One story leads to another. It seems all the stories I did over the years are connected at one moment or another. At one point during the development of a story, the idea for the next story reveals itself by chance. I start doing some basic research about it, not too much as I don’t want to be dragged into preconceived ideas, and start collecting images for the new story, even when the previous one is not finished yet. 70% of my stories are self-initiated and financed.

It started in 1986 with ‘Water in Sahel’, a story about water management in the Sahel region, with people having to migrate because of climate change. So the next story (still ongoing in fact) was about refugees in the world, taking me to more than a dozen countries, and that led me to work on ‘Mountain People’, dealing with groups of people with a strong cultural identity living in mountainous areas (were they pushed up in the mountains to keep being who they are or is it just the rough topography which preserves their culture?). All these stories are related to one common set of preoccupations the people I photograph have: territory, land, and belonging. So when I decided to live in Cambodia for 16 consecutive years because I became fed up with the continuous traveling, I picked up the huge issue with land evictions there. Tens of thousands of people suffering from land-grabbing create immense development, social and political issues. So these were also topics I worked on during my 16 years in Cambodia. Now that I shuttle back and forth between Cambodia and Belgium, the work I do is more geared toward landscape photography, but still with the same preoccupations about territory: what does the linguistic border in Belgium look like? Or what do the rapidly growing suburbs of Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia look like?

So you see, all these stories are part of a thread. And ‘The Thread’ is the title of a book I have been working on and for which I am looking for a publisher for quite a while. It is going to be a big volume, with about 500 pages and some 400 photographs, covering my 40 years plus of photography.


What is your go-to camera and why?


I am almost exclusively a Leica viewfinder guy since 1972, and 5 years ago indulged in the laziness of a Leica Q.


What’s your take on the resurgence of film photography?


Given the IA surge I would say it is a healthy, be it environmentally unfriendly, take. The back-to-basics and the inevitable ‘slow-photography’ rhythm puts things in a badly needed different perspective.


What is your earliest football memory? When did you first fall in love with the game?


I never played football. The only team sport I practiced for a couple of years when I was a kid was lawn hockey. I am more into sports where you don’t need anyone else: running (not anymore because of tendon issues) and biking. I can’t say I am a big football fan, even though I can appreciate a match when it reaches the sublime moment when everything fits and the issue becomes inevitable (not nearly often enough).


Football fields in Neza

You documented the ‘86 World Cup and captured the event both on and off the pitch. What was that experience like? Who were you shooting for?


I had covered the Tour de France for the French daily Libération the year before. They decided to move the whole sports redaction, assigning me to photograph the event, to Mexico D.F., together with computers and all, which was quite a technical challenge in those days. I was free to photograph what I wanted when I wanted. The only imperative was to get the films in Paris, so I had to make frequent time-consuming trips to the airport to find and convince a passenger to take the unprocessed film on the Mexico-Paris flight. A courier would wait for the passenger at the arrival gate and hurry the film to the lab at the newspaper. The next day I would see what I had photographed.


What were your expectations of what you’d find in Mexico and how did they match up to the reality on the ground?


It was fun and rather easy to photograph the things happening next to the pitch or related to the event: people were happy and emotional, and the settings were interesting. I was part of the flow. People were happy to be photographed. As for the matches themselves, I had only my 2 Leicas with a 35mm lens. Not really useful to cover a football match. But Canon provided cameras and big lenses to anyone, but mostly to professional photographers from non-European countries who could not afford such costly equipment. I borrowed one of those Canon AE-1 with a 200 or 300 mm lens twice, and I soon found out how difficult it was to use those long lenses (no auto-focus!), and how skilled the sports photographers must have been to bring back the essential images of a match. The second time I had one of those machines was during the final when I was lucky to take the three pictures of Maradona greeting the stadium after the last goal.


Aside from Mexico in ‘86, you were also in France for WC ‘98. What draws you towards these events? Is it a curiosity about football culture or something else?


It definitely is the curiosity about the sociological phenomenon. I did not really cover the WC ‘98, just took a few photographs as a record. But I also covered the rugby World Cup in, the same way as I did the Tour de France and the Mexico WC, this time for the daily ‘Le Monde’.


What would you say is unique about capturing football, fans, and culture compared to the other reportage work you’ve done?


Football is made by humans for humans, just like politics or culture. As such 'The Beautiful Game' is not more or less interesting than anything else to me. There is one issue though: fandom in its extreme form, be it for football, rugby, biking, religion or Trump is the same really. It is about extreme passion focused on one thing only. Extreme passion makes one wear blinders, tends to push aside compassion, empathy, and tolerance, and excludes ‘the other’. It promotes polarisation and violence, something I am particularly uncomfortable with as it erases the subtleties and nuances of life. I guess it is about people being able to manage and canalise their passion and being alert to what is next to or beyond their passion. But frankly, I am very worried about extreme fandom, be it in football or anywhere else, as it is a stepping stone onto much worse. Football is a beautiful game as long as it remains a game. Politics are exciting as long as dialogue persists. Religion is OK without proselytising


In all the places you have visited, which country/city would you say has the strongest passion for football?


Football is a global game. I have Cambodian friends setting their alarm clock at 3:00 AM to watch a Manchester City game, I saw kids hitting a ball made of plastic bags tied together with rope in the dust of Malawi, I was drenched in beer in a fan area when Belgium played, British fans give me goosebumps when they start singing in a stadium. Who can claim the strongest passion? I have no idea. Pleasure and enjoyment are feelings related to one’s life. I am sure the passion of the boy in Malawi and the British fan is the same.


Mexicans celebrating their victory after the match Mexico-Belgium in Azteca stadium

During your years of traveling and documenting different regions, you will no doubt come across children wearing football shirts and playing football, either in an organised fashion on fields or on the street. Many people say football builds communities and has almost a medicinal effect on people; giving them a way to escape from their daily problems. What’s your take on this?


That is indeed the case. The escapism factor is important but that can be said for any sport or any hobby, craft, or job as long as passion and commitment are involved. But activities that involve crowds sharing the same event have the additional and perhaps more important aspect of bonding. That bonding defines identity and answers existential questions. It helps define one’s place in society and gives a clue as to what on earth we are here for.


There’s also an anthropological side to your work. Is there anything you have learned about humans by documenting fans and football culture?


I have a feeling that fans, groups of fans, with their desire to win, to be stronger than the opponent, to express a position of power, are mirroring society as a whole in a condensed way, with its fringes and nuances erased or ignored. I am afraid I don’t have a very optimistic vision of mankind but I am extremely happy nuances, and differences are still around.


Throughout your career, you’ve displayed a knack for being in the right place at the right time. You were there for the fall of Romanian dictator Ceaucescu in 1989, Benazir Bhutto’s loss in the 1990 Pakistani elections, and the start of the wars in Yugoslavia in 1991. Can you expand a little on your experiences documenting major global/historical shifts? Do you feel a sense of responsibility to capture the perfect shot?


Even if I indeed happened to be present at a few historic events in the early nineties, I am not a conflict or hot news photographer. I always thought the aftermath of a crisis, or the evolution of situations for a looming disaster was more interesting than the crisis itself. It is more about the ‘why’ and ‘how’ than about the ‘when’ and ‘where’. I try to be there before it happens or after it is finished because it is never finished. Life goes on, influenced by the previous event. Photography is a rather powerful tool for recording and documenting things. But it is not more than that. It shows or tries to show. It is for the viewer to act. I can only influence the viewer by selecting what I show. That is why ethics are important. Otherwise, I am a propagandist.


The fall of Ceaucescu 1989: soldier stationed in front of burned buildings in Bucharest reading a newspaper

Your photos incorporate a variety of styles including war and street photography. In many ways, you’re a storyteller who uses the medium of photography. Do you identify with this sentiment?


I certainly don’t consider myself a war photographer. I would define myself most of the time as a journalist and/ or documentary photographer with a specific way or style of photographing which involves walking a lot on the streets, tracks, paths, and highways.

What advice would you give to a young photographer who’s making their first steps in reportage?


There has never been more access to good photography. It would be a shame if you didn’t look at what is being done. Today’s cameras are outstanding and allow you to concentrate on the only important thing: develop your own writing, find your words, build your own phrases, and put your story together. Photography is writing with light.

Because there is so much good photography around it means that there are many photographers around. Competition is fierce, and I wouldn’t like to start my career today. Developing your own writing is the only way you can differentiate yourself from the crowd. Strong ethics are the only way you will differentiate yourself from IA.

Check out John's work and learn more about his career here:


Benazir Bhutto during an election campaign meeting, 1990

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