Book Review: To Hans by Vivian Keulards
“My brother Hans was 38 years old when he was found dead in a Berlin hotel room. He had suffered a cardiac arrest, caused by drugs. His death was a fact, the way he died a taboo. For years and years, we – his family – did not speak openly about his addictions,” Dutch conceptual portrait photographer Vivian Keulards writes.
Needless to say, she asks the kind of questions that family members and friends ask when a loved one suffering from addiction dies. “Why did you get addicted, why not me? What happened that made you become addicted? How does addiction feel? Could I have done anything to prevent it?” As understandable as such questions are, they can’t really be answered.
“With this book I am breaking the taboo”, she states. “The book reflects my feelings, thoughts, and memories during my search for answers to the questions I could not ask Hans anymore. I visited Berlin, studied family albums, and talked to many people who dealt with addictions.”
I’m not sure whether photographs can reflect feelings, thoughts, and memories; I tend to believe it is the other way ’round and that we bring our feelings, thoughts, and memories to the photographs. Moreover, the photos in this tome come without captions or other additional information and so I often did not know what I was looking at. And, since I knew almost nothing of Hans, this was a pretty frustrating experience. In a portrait of him I sensed a profound sadness, in another shot that showed him with (presumably) his father he seemed not very different from other babies. Other pictures I did not know what to do with respectively how to place them, a horse photographed resting on its hind legs (was it of importance to Hans?), for instance, or a dark forest (should I read into it that Hans felt lost in the woods?).
We all deal with the loss of loved ones with the means at our hands. That a photographer would resort to taking pictures in order to come to terms with the death of her troubled brother makes sense. Yet that Vivian Keulards does not really provide relevant background of her brother’s life, leaves the reader of this tome guessing. And, while this is very probably the only thing to do in such a situation, her guessing (and that of her family) will of course be very different from the guessing of the interested reader who needs more information about Hans than offered in this tome.
In addition to the images there is also a text by Ralf Mohren. It is entitled “Looking into the sun” and is, as far as titles go, one of the worst ever, if you take it literally, that is, for you will turn blind if you head this advice and practise it long enough. What Ralf Mohren, who has been to Narcotics Anonymous meetings for over twenty years, however means is: Confront yourself with reality, it is the only remedy there is. I couldn’t agree more.
Thankfully, Mohren doesn’t provide answers to “why-questions” (there are no answers to why questions in regards to addiction; nobody knows why some people get addicted and others not) but offers some sound addiction-knowledge as well as thoughtful observations. I very much warmed to this statement: “Feeling your feelings, really feeling them, requires great courage and an open mind.” For this is exactly what addicts (and very probably all of us) want to avoid.
Most photographs in this tome radiate emptiness and hopelessness, yet that is only (partly) what addiction is all about. Reading Mohren’s text gives you an idea of how complex addiction really is. Sadly, such complex issues do not lend themselves to images without words.
I think Vivian Keulards’ “To Hans” a very personal book that might mean a lot to the photographer, her family and friends of Hans. To my mind, it is a kind of self-therapy. In order to really appreciate it, I would have needed information on Hans’ background or, in case it is not known, how come it is not known. Differently put, this book would have been the ideal topic for pictures with words.
PS: I thought it peculiar that my review copy came accompanied by a few selected captions (on the side, not in the book) and upon inquiry was informed: “We wrote them just in case as some media prefers to write captions to the images.”
One of the four captions provided, I’d like to share for I think it most useful (it refers to the cover): “Hans was about 15/16 years old in this portrait. This was the stage in life where I had the feeling things changed. He took a different path in life. This is the age were his addiction to gambling started. A few years later he was one of the first recovering at the GA (Gamblers Association) in Eindhoven (Netherlands) in the 80’s. In this period of time they discovered that you could be addicted to different things than only alcohol and drugs. Later in the90’s he struggled with a new addiction: drug.”
by Vivian Keulards
Schilt Publishing, Amsterdam, The Netherlands, February 2020