The Value of Experimentation and Losing the Fear of Failing
We spoke to João Linneu - one of our Online Education Program mentors - about how his experience working in the advertising world brought him to what he is focusing on right now, as a designer, educator, and founder of Void.
© Void. Front and back covers of the photobook Hunger & A Hunger Artist
Hi João, thanks for joining us! You seem to have had several positions in your professional career, working as a creative director, art director, designer and publisher. You previously were head of art at Saatchi & Saatchi’s São Paulo office and have worked on global accounts for Nike, Volkswagen and Pepsi. You have been awarded with Cannes Lions and D&AD Yellow pencils. Can you tell us how you ended up working in the field of photography and visual arts?
I studied communication in São Paulo and started art directing for advertising in the late ’90s. I was young at the time. It wasn't long before I felt like advertising was a job that drained a lot without giving much back (except a good wage). At some point spending all my “creative capital” on it was not enough. I was eager to do something non-commercial oriented.
Photography was an intuitive choice. My father was an amateur photographer for some period. He used to have a few cameras around and photobooks of Brazilian photographers. Also, in 2007, when I first met my wife, she also had a few photobooks and a Rolleiflex. It was an open door to the photography universe. I started reading and researching more about the field. I was also practicing and developing my own projects. Before moving to Lisbon in 2015, my last years in São Paulo were spent photographing, visiting photo exhibitions, and reading photobooks.
© Void. Spread of Marco Marzocchi's photobook Oyster
What are your first memories of being captivated with photography? Was there a specific moment when you realised that it was a medium you were interested in?
My father had Sebastião Salgado’s “Workers” at home. This book caused a big impression on me when I was a teenager. That is the first memory I have of a direct impact of a photographic work.
Another early milestone was an exhibition of the M+M Auer Collection in the Museum of Modern Art (MAM) in São Paulo. I had the chance to see works that were unlike any I’d seen before. They proved to me something that is now obvious, but at the time I had not yet realised: There’s no such thing as a “right kind of photography”. Until this show (2009), I was stuck in the concept of the genius artist that shoots with an analog Leica, never crops and is skilled enough to capture the decisive moment. The M+M Auer collection had Araki, Geraldo de Barros, Joan Fontcuberta, Robert Frank, Man Ray, and Christer Strömholm et al.
Not necessarily what I would call avant-garde in 2009, but that was the first time I’d seen their original prints. And I had this epiphany that I should stop trying to look for the “beautiful” in photography. It was the end of the little Bresson I had in my brain pulling strings and telling me how photography should be.
I am sure your experiences in the corporate and commercial world must affect how and why you work with photographers and their work now. Can you tell me about that?
On a superficial level, my experience in the advertising industry helps a lot when it comes to pressure and lack of resources. Dealing with tight deadlines, clients and self-expectations, teamwork, diplomacy, and how to overcome budget limitations to achieve the desired result. I also could say that almost two decades of design and art direction has allowed me a level of self-confidence. I have no fear of failing. And I have peace of mind to experiment.
Finally, in advertising, you have to tell a very specific story. Inside the constraints of a very specific brief. On top of that, you’re desperately trying to inject some human emotion into this ultra-specific piece of communication. In 30 seconds. After years doing it, one understands storytelling and ways of editing without redundancy. This learning is something very precious I keep from that industry.
© Void. Spread of Leif Sandberg's photobook Beyond the Mirror
In 2016 you created Void, a non profit organisation focused on alternative publishing, exhibitions and education. What do you mean by ‘alternative’ in this context?
Alternative is a way of stepping aside from any attempt to be an institutionalised “thing”. Or “organisation”. We started Void to have a space (physical and conceptual) that would allow the three of us (me, Sylvia Sachini and Myrto Steirou) to produce, show and distribute our own work without being dependent upon the main and consolidated means of production, display and diffusion.
Writing that makes me feel like a bit of a photo-Marxist. Which is definitely not coherent for someone that has a background in the ad industry. Void is self-taught in almost everything it does. From our exhibitions to the publishing endeavour. We prefer to experiment on things and try them our own way. Learning from failing, instead of repeating a third-party canned formula.
We have a space in Athens, though we have no ambition of being a gallery. We actually don’t even know how to be one. We do find it important to still do our shows, and curate them ourselves, but we don’t have the pretension that we are competing with “actual” galleries.
Same goes for our publications. Sometimes we take decisions that many would call stupid (sometimes they might actually be). ‘Meat’ is a good example. We wanted Olivier Pin-Fat’s book to be a beast. A book that you feel the intensity and complexity. All decisions led to an economically unfeasible book. To produce it in any print-shop would cost an amount that we didn’t have. Plus, it would lead the book to cost a little fortune that nobody would pay. So to do it, we endeavored for an in-house production. All the books were hand-bound. The complexity is such that we decided to add to the book the information of who bound, the date and for how long. We have been hand-making ‘Meat’ for one year now, and it is still not fully bound. This is a bit of the “alternative” spirit. We want to do something, and we will experiment and try it our way.
© Void. Cover of Olivier Pin-Fat's photonook Meat
What made you decide to prioritize educational activities like workshops and laboratory collaborations in Void?
I attended a few photography workshops myself. They were important to my creative development. It’s one thing to study something in theory. It’s another entirely to be with someone you admire and ask the questions you cannot ask of a book.
It is important to engage with people you admire. Learn from the source. And, it is also a chance to “kill your father”. Break your myths. This is something important to creative growth. Deconstruct the myth of the creative genius. You'll see there are a lot of doubts and sweat behind the creative’s job. Even for the so-called geniuses.
Promoting workshops is a way of fomenting those chances to more people. Doing so in Athens is also a way of doing it out of the usual and saturated market of central Europe.
Photographers are able to submit their work to VOID to be considered for the COOP project, a ‘cooperative co-publishing experiment’ as you call it. Can you tell me a bit more about it? Why did you initiate it? …
Void always funds its own projects. Photographers get a small percentage of copies of the book. Although recently we’ve been proposed more projects than we can afford to do. Some photographers proposed that they would pay for the whole printing of the book, and we could keep almost all copies. A common formula in the indie photo publishing market. But we would not feel comfortable working this way. So we had to turn down many projects we’d like to publish.
A solution we found was to do the project in a cooperative form. Void offers assets as design, editing, communication, stocking, PR, and all costs related to it. The photographer bears the printing costs. The artist has 70% of the copies. Void, 30%. That simple. But it’s important to say: it is not an offer of service. We won’t publish a book that we were commissioned to. Only the ones we choose to do, submitted to us in the open call.
This COOP idea was an experiment and we are evaluating how it worked. If all parties are happy, we will do it again in November. Perhaps not with exactly the same terms, we’re still waiting for some feedback.
© Void. Front and back covers of the photobook Hunger & A Hunger Artist
… And what kind of works are you looking for?
People who know Void might believe we are just interested in gritty and dark sorts of work. That is not true. We appreciate and are very interested in these, but aren’t limited by them. Naturally artists with such similar style ends up approaching us, and some that don’t relate to it, don’t. This ends up shaping a bit of our style through a sort of artistic Darwinism. In the end, we like a good old story with a personal and poetic touch. In any given style or aesthetic.
A collaborative approach seems to be an important approach and aspect in what you do. Why is that important to you?
A bit of a creative promiscuity enriches a body of work. You get out of your routine and are dared to do things you would not do without a different point of view. Collaborations are chances to question and broaden the understanding of the things we take for granted.
What, in your opinion, is the value of the photobook today?
The “today” in the question is tricky. Is the word that makes the question to be a reference to the ongoing photobook phenomena. And about that I am honestly a bit lost. As probably everyone that is part of this scene. I don’t have the needed distance to formulate an accurate point of view.
Though, if the question doesn’t have the “today”, I would say that the photobook is the best platform for photography. At least the most democratic. If you know “The Family of Man”, it is very likely due to its catalogue: printed and distributed all around the globe. Unless you were lucky enough to have been in New York in the 50s.
I would say that the power of the “The Family of Man” exhibition made it famous, but the catalogue made it immortal.
Is there any kind of advice you can give to photographers and visual artists out there who are keen to further develop their careers?
I don’t think there is any one-size-fits-all advice to be given. What works for one might not work for you. But I do know what does for me. Working hard. Working focused. Be guided by intuition. Embracing the accidents and mistakes. And not fearing failing. Remember Samuel Beckett. He had real good advice on that last point.
© Void. Exhibition space in Athens
To book a portfolio review or a long-term mentorship with João Linneu, visit our Online Education Program. All applicants to the 2019 Women Photographers Grant can enjoy a 20% discount on all bookings until 10 November.
Talking About Education is a monthly feature where we reflect on current opportunities and practices to form and develop yourself as a photographer. To learn more about our live one-to-one educational program, please visit phmuseum.com/education.