Thijs Heslenfeld – Men at Work (Nil Sine Labore)

Copyright Thijs Heslenfeld published by Oost West Thijs Best

Heslenfeld appears to have traveled the global in search of men who are performing some unique work, or happen across a subject while in search of another.  In reading Thijs Heslenfeld’s introduction to his fourth photobook “Man at Work”, he raises a rhetorical question: “The question raised by each of these images: is a man’s identity based on his work, or is his work based on his identity?” Personally I find this question vexing and having universal appeal and depending on the status in life, economic conditions, geographic location or culture a person was raised in, will undoubtedly vary.

Tantalizingly, the answer to his question is not directly provided by Heslenfeld, but rather broadly hinted at. What is evident is a series of portraits of men who appear to be at or about their work. The portraits are placed in context with an extended caption from a brief conversation he has with his subject.

Heslenfeld does offer this observation:  In the wealthy, capitalist Western world, men seem to identify strongly with their work: they are what they do. So their existence seems to be based on their job. In less advanced countries, this is often quite different. Here it works the other way around: people tend to do work that suits them.

Reading this photobook, I find that the vast majority of Heslenfeld’s subjects are the later and that he gravitates to subjects who are doing the work that seems to suits them. Although Heslenfeld appears to be focusing mostly on one half of the equation, the photographs and body of work is still very compelling.

As a reader, we do have the vaguest hint of information about these men which has been provided by an interaction with the photographer and an out-take from a conversation. Interestingly, it seems to be enough to engage me, as though we have just been introduced and then I am left to finish the conversation. Heslenfeld’ tease is enough so that I find myself wanting to know more, while in some cases, I think I know more than enough. These photographs are filled with fragments’ and bits of random information that draw me, as a reader, in.

How can a man with such dirty hands and soiled face yet still keep his white shirt so clean? Can a man with such a sad-looking clown outfit and in the midst of poverty really bring joy and happiness as he portends? Might I trust a man in such conditions to weld a razor so close to my neck such that I might still walk away? How would I be smiling while working and living in such sad appearing conditions? Why does Heslenfeld keep photographing men while they hold such deadly weapons in such remote locations, especially when they are not exactly smiling? Can this overweight guy really be a Club Med aficionado?

The ending quote is provided by Benjamin Franklin “It is the working man who is the happy man. It is the idle man who is the miserable man.”

This hardcover book is very self-evident with the English title silkscreen on the front exposed kraft board and the Latin motto (Nothing Without Work) silkscreen on the back kraft board, with the exposed spine revealing the sown and glued binding. Book design and color printing was completed in the Nederland’s.

Update: The design of the book by the Dutch agency Koning Harder won a Red Dot Award, a very nice European design award. Nice.

by Douglas Stockdale for The PhotoBook

10 thoughts on “Thijs Heslenfeld – Men at Work (Nil Sine Labore)

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  1. Hi Frances! Thijis makes this statement in his introduction: “For me, taking a portrait of a woman is very different from taking a portrait of a man. The dymanic is very different, because maybe I’m male and they’re female. There might be an attaction between us (or not at all). Women will smile in front of a camera, or strike an elegant pose. One might proudly thurst her chest forward, another will grimace because she’s self-conscious about her teeth. Women live their lives differently from men, and they also look different in pictures – at least in they do in my pictures. That’s why the portratits in this series are of men. Not as a rigid decision – but more as a logical and self-evident story that wrote itself.”

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