A Personal Geographic Luuk Wilmering

In the early sixties, my father took out a subscription to National Geographic. I was about seven, and we didn’t have a TV at home. This American magazine was my first acquaintance with other cultures and ‘the wonders of nature’. More accurately, the pictures were my introduction, because there wasn’t a Dutch language version of the magazine at the time.

The photos I saw depicted the harsh life of nomads in the desert or elephants slaughtered for their ivory or Australian farmers battling against dingoes. Everything was beautifully photographed which always reassured me because even if the reportage was gruesome at times, the photography nonetheless suggested that everything would turn out fine. And that coloured my view of the world.

 

For years I thought that documentary photography was an accurate reflection of reality, but I’ve come to know better. Information is a product you can sell, and it’s sold through ‘functional beauty’. Even if the subject is confrontational, captured in glorious, reassuring, alarming images.

In the third year of high school, a teacher taught us that the truth is a collectively sustained lie, and explained the role the media plays in that. It wasn’t his own idea which was perhaps why I found his position so convincing. And although it was a little trendy for the time, it also coloured my view of the world.

 

These days access to information is unlimited. There are hundreds of magazines and newspapers, and television swamps you with a plethora of stations. Every magazine and every TV channel has its own view of reality where truth is nothing more than a personal conviction. Information is the same as any other product: there is an inexhaustible choice of brands and styles – you can’t see the wood for the trees.

In 1982 I was in East Berlin when it was still communist. Over there, when you wanted to buy a new TV, the shops had two options, colour or black and white, and two styles, small or large. The bakeries sold either white or brown bread and the supermarket stocked just one type of coffee. It might have been very frugal, but it was straightforward too, which came as a relief to me.

 

Now I have two children; becoming a father changed my life completely. It brought me euphoric joys and new wonderment every day, but not always – sometimes I’m overwhelmed by fatherly anxieties that almost drive me mad. Children make you vulnerable, and I wasn’t before. In their boundless curiosity their stream of questions is endless, thirsty for information about everything, the trivial and the serious. They want to know how the world works, what lies ahead.

 

What should I tell them?