Nick Hannes, An Unexpected Lesson in Joy

JTF (just the facts): Self-published in collaboration with The Falabella Stable in 2020 (here). Softcover (16×23 cm), 104 pages, with 49 color photographs. Includes images captions by the artist (in Dutch and English). In an edition of 500 copies. Design by Arne Depuydt. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: The spread of the coronavirus around the globe has dramatically changed life as we know it. Following the World Health Organisation’s announcement that the virus constituted a pandemic, many countries implemented a full lockdown, ordering everyone to shelter at home, and everyday life came to a standstill, as people were forced to stay inside and practice social distancing. Stuck in their houses and apartments, many photographers have turned their lenses on themselves and their families, reconsidering their daily moments and surroundings. The Belgian photographer Nick Hannes decided to start a diary documenting daily life with his wife and their twin daughters, Billie and Suzanne, and in early June, his project was released as a photobook, entitled An Unexpected Lesson in Joy. 

The design of An Unexpected Lesson in Joy resembles a diary, a green notebook with the title just slightly above the center, and a thin black strip around the spine. Inside, the book has a consistent structure – all of the images are placed on the right side with a white border, while Hannes’ observations appear on the left side at the very bottom. His writing consists of just a few sentences, leaving most of the page blank, highlighting the fact that not much is actually happening. While the book has a typical vertical orientation, most of the images are horizontal, intentionally pushing us off balance, as we constantly rotate the book to look and read. The consistency in the design and layout feels like an essential, make due with what is available, element. 

The photographs were taken between 11 March and 9 May (during the lockdown in Belgium) in and around Ranst, where Hannes lives with his family. The book opens with a horizontal image of a suburban house at sunset, the lights are off, so it feels quiet and eerie. “The surprise party for my birthday has been cancelled. Everyone has to stay at home.” In mid-March, we abruptly found ourselves living in a world that left regular activities like going to the office, visiting friends, taking a walk, or going grocery shopping fraught with invisible danger.

Hannes’ photographs and commentary will resonate with those who were lucky enough to spend the lockdown time with their family, in the comfort of their homes, still going through moments of anxiety and uncertainty, but occasionally finding joy in the new slow pace. As we move through the moments documented by Hannes, the life of his family unfolds: a new routine is established, the kitchen has turned into a classroom, kids have had to find new ways to entertain themselves, everyone keeps wearing the same clothes, and they Skype with friends and send postcards. All the days seem the same. 

Hannes’ photographs capture beautiful and tender moments: a shadow of his daughter playing the flute, his daughter on a chair outside gently holding a rooster, his wife’s head above the water in a bathtub, the girls sleeping in their beds. In another picture, the girls and the mother are outside their house by the fire, the red of the flames matching the red light of the brick house, creating a warm and cosy atmosphere. “The end of the weekend. We celebrate by lighting a fire and looking at the stars.” 

There is also a healthy sense of humor in this story. An image shows the girls carefully assembling a box on top of a chair, which balances on the top of a ladder. Apparently, this is a school assignment – build a one-metre-high tower using various objects. Another photograph captures Hannes’ daughter holding a violin, yet she seems tired of practicing by herself; she is standing, with warm sunlight falling on her hair, her hands, and the instrument, keeping the background darker. “Suzanne is tired of her dad photographing her all the time,” reads Hannes’ diary entry. 

As we move through the visual narrative, the change of seasons is obvious. Close to the end of the book, a green meadow takes most of the frame and his daughter lies on her stomach dressed in red head to toe, as they play cat and mouse. A photograph of one of the girls covered in mud, is accompanied with the optimistic hope that “Everything will soon return to normal. We’ll be stuck in traffic again on our way to the Wijnegem Shopping Centre.”  The last image captures the farm with the greenhouse and an outside table at sundown, an affectionate look at the place as life starts slowly to come out of the lockdown. 

An Unexpected Lesson in Joy is a meditative reflection, as Hannes combines the uncertainties brought by lockdown measures with his careful observations, ultimately finding a surprising amount of joy in unexpected moments. The photobook offers a look at one family’s life during the pandemic, and thoughtfully considers a wide range of emotions that many have experienced in the past months and can relate to. This modest photobook exists as an immediate reaction to new global experience, and shows the artist’s instinct to reflect on the changing world, regardless of the circumstances.

Collector’s POV: Nick Hannes is represented by Panos Pictures in London (here) and Black Eye Gallery in Sydney (here). His work has little secondary market history, so gallery retail remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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