JTF (just the facts): Self-published in 2018 (here). Stiff-cover, unpaginated (280 pages) and hand-sewn, with numerous color photographs (with two originals included in the book), collages, illustrations, and drawings, 7.8 x 5.5 x 1 inches. Includes half- and gate-fold pages, as well as texts and correspondence by Katherine Longly, Luca, Ren, Yuki, Martijn, Marina, Kenichi, R.P.K., Mina, Tomoko, and Rika, as well as an essay by cultural anthropologist Maho Isono. In an edition of 61 hand-made, signed copies. Concept, edit, and art-direction developed by Katherine Longly in the 2018 Atlas lab workshop by Alex Bocchetto and Yumi Goto, in collaboration with AKINA and Reminders Photography Stronghold. Designed by Katherine Longly and Welmer Keemaat. English translation and editing by Victorine Lamothe. (Cover and spread shots below.)
Comments/Context: On the cover of Belgian photographer Katherine Longly’s exquisite first photobook, a gigantic cotton candy hovers like a friendly spaceship in a white, boundless sphere. Shimmering with the hues of a muted rainbow, the galaxy it brings to mind is childhood – a place where our first culinary attractions are likely to be cast by outrageous textures, supernatural colors, and anthropomorphic forms. On the surface, food – for a child – can be a lot of fun: it establishes and reinforces social ties, embodies ritual, and enacts reward. Soon, however, and depending on our social and familial background, the (eating) culture that surrounds us, and the media we grow up with, food can become a complex, at times complicated, affair.
“It is powerful tool that can be used for many different things: to control your body, to connect with people, to manage your emotions,” Longly wrote me. “Whatever it be, eating is never just a technical act.”
With its title’s ambiguous foreshadowing, To Tell My Real Intentions, I Want to Eat Haze Like a Hermit explores not only the plethora of means which food can adopt, but also the secret roots at the heart of our relationship with carbs, proteins, and fats.
Longly, who first picked-up a camera as a teenager, is candid (within and beyond the book) when sharing her motivations for the project:
“As a child, I used to be overweight. Between control and pleasure, my link with food is still now occupied with the ghost of a little girl, who was a little too round. . . . I always asked myself questions about my relationship with food and my body. I wanted to question those issues in my artwork for years, but needed time to make a step forward first.”
After completing her previous project, Rotten Potato, which tackled the vocations of “’biggest eater’ contestants”, Longly was ready to approach her questions more directly. Still undecided about the form and precise content of the project, she began her research online, using keywords such as “obesity, diets, and eating disorders”, and soon realized that many of the articles she found led her to Japan: on one hand, there was the “Japanese diet” consisting of fish, rice, and vegetables, and therefore considered “healthiest in the world”; on the other, there was the so-called “metabo law”, which enables companies to monitor their employees’ waistlines, once they reach the age of fifty, as well as the rise of obesity in men and children due to the introduction of junk-food. Most troublesome to her, though, was the drastic increase of underweight women, whose eating disorders were not only discounted, but, encouraged by their social environment. This breadth of food-related subject matter and the fact that “Japanese culture was far enough” from Longly’s personal history, led to her first trip to Japan (a residency at 3331 Arts Chiyoda), during which she met and talked with a variety of people, including health professionals and XXL models, doctors and anthropologists – people like you and me. Once back in Belgium and sifting through her materials, she understood that she was most interested in people sharing their personal experiences. With the decision to collect and arrange a variety of testimonies, the idea for a photobook was born – and followed by two additional visits, where she meet with more people, found by coincidence or referred by previous interlocutors.
Aware that she was treading on sensitive terrain, Longly knew that she had to share first, before she was shared with. After conducting extensive interviews in English or with a translator (who eventually became a chapter of the book as well), she confronted the question how photography could capture and disclose these intimate, long-silenced stories, while also revealing her own. One strategy that artists have applied is to reconstruct narratives by combining text with images, using archival material, personal and family photographs, as well as portraiture (as brought to perfection in Laia Abril’s The Epilogue reviewed here). Longly, however – who wanted the individuals she interviewed to also play an active part in their stories’ visual narration – came to the conclusion that taking photographs or portraits herself felt too invasive and illustrative. Deprioritizing her own photographic practice, she gave her subjects disposable cameras with the request that they take photographs evoking their relationship with food or their bodies, to then send the film rolls to her Brussels address, where she developed, printed, and selected their images.
In To Tell My Real Intentions, a beautifully and joyfully designed book, Longly orchestrates the words and images of ten women and men, Japanese-natives and foreigners, covering an age-spectrum ranging from twenty-eight to sixty-four years, into carefully composed chapters. Each chapter opens with a half-page bearing an individual title that emblematically frames the unfolding narrative: food to provide “Healthfulness” and “Shelter”, to compensate for “Emptiness” and handle “Obsession”, to struggle with “Silence” and provide “Strength”, to cause or avoid “Judgment” and connect with “Heritage”, as “Inspiration” and to engender “Empathy”. When she first handed out the cameras, Longly worried that she would receive similar images, but was proved wrong, as each participant chose a different way to capture their individual circumstances. Kenchi, for instance, forced into the government’s metabo program, photographed his efforts in dieting by depicting his off-white shakes (you feel his pain, especially when reading that, despite his weight loss, which would classify him as slender man in the US, his supervising doctor still keeps asking him to lose more); then there is Ren, a once-chubby child, who loved food, and took four hours to eat her lunch – she photographed the site of her long-gone kindergarten, where she was severely bullied for her slow eating habits; or Martijn, who also was overweight (we learn this from a teenage-photograph), but is now “slender and handsome” (for which another photograph gives proof), visually overdosed on an grotesque amount of sweets, candy, and cakes, to avoid buying them (his pictures are so crammed with colorful deliciousness, they had the opposite effect on me).
Longly responded emotionally as well as aesthetically to each of the ten stories: pairing photographs with her subjects’ responses (but without Longly’s questions), she applied ten distinctive designs and layouts, chose four different types of paper, and various saturations of color. For example, that form is reflective of content is visible in the bright, full-bleed and crowded layout referencing Martijn’s obsessive relationship with sweets; more heartbreakingly tangible in the fragile pages of the almost-entirely-dark and increasingly illuminated photographs taken by Marina, a once-neglected child; or the story of Yuki, who is anorexic and only took pictures of foods or drinks without calories – “Her stomach is empty, her kitchen is empty. So the design for her story is very sober, very white, the pages are almost empty.” Gladly, food is also celebrated, such as in Tomoko’s temptingly arranged meals (recalling cookbook illustrations), which she describes with great care and as a tribute to her family.
Despite the individual character of each chapter’s look and content, To Tell My Real Intentions is a precise and convincingly designed whole, allowing the viewer to dive deep and get to know the book’s protagonists. This is because Longly has proven herself an excellent editor of images and words, whose astute sensibility does not linger on how much has to be revealed, but on what is left to be imagined. Within these blank spaces she intelligently places her own photographs, depicting different foods and her research materials. Interspersed throughout the book and hidden under gate-fold pages (on which the ten participant’s pictures are reproduced) are images that provide social and cultural context, mind-maps, articles and statistics – parts of which are highlighted in yellow and enriched by her drawings, sculptures, and collages of found images and advertisements. And while you might wonder whether Longly’s own story is lost somewhere along the way, it is found in the book’s perhaps most innocuous place – the endpapers. Opening to a mouth-watering arrangement of candy, chocolate-covered nuts, chips, and puffs – and bearing a small, tipped-in candy-bag containing a photograph of Longly as a young girl, the photographer considers this image her most intimate of the book: a childhood memory of Friday evenings, when she was alone at home with her mother and allowed to eat whatever she wanted. The back endpaper is a humorous wink to self-representation via a collage of present-day photobooth images.
Inspired by Miki Hasgawa’s Internal Notebook (a tender, yet gut-wrenching account of child abuse in Japan), To Tell My Real Intentions is not a book that aims for the perfect photograph, but for the atmosphere images can create and the stories they can unearth, especially when paired with the written word. It is a book about food (and why to love it), about loneliness, and neglect, insecurities and frustrations, as well as the possibilities of overcoming them. Defying the typical imagery of obesity and anorexia (in fact, we rarely see an entire body; usually, only its parts), the book is also a plea for kindness and candor. When asked why she choses to work with analog as opposed to digital pictures, Longly said that she chose disposable cameras “because at the time of social networks, everyone wants to give the best image of themselves as possible; but I wanted the contrary. I wanted the images to be as spontaneous and honest as possible – with no further control over them.”
Considering this era of self-promotion, the depiction of the human body is among the most controlled and modified imagery. As such, we tend to forget that the figuration of the human body, its wholeness, its fragmentation and vulnerability, its predisposition towards hurt, as well as its sources of nourishment, are as old as the act of image-making itself (it began in the caves). Photography is an essential part of this subconscious vocabulary, of our archaic relationship with images and their embedded symbolisms, their social powers, their magic. By using the photograph neither as fact nor illusion, but as index and symbol, metaphor and talisman, reminder and warning, Longly takes us back to a place where seeing and sensing were one and the same.
Collector’s POV: Katherine Longly does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. Interested collectors should likely connect with the artist directly via her website (linked in the sidebar).