The International Photobiennial Ostend wants to warn visitors that some images may be perceived as shocking.

Joel-Peter Witkin, now 83, says he was marked by a car accident he witnessed as a child, in which a little girl was decapitated. Although his army service undoubtedly also contributed to his rather macabre oeuvre – he had to take pictures of soldiers who committed suicide or died in accidents. In the early 1980s, Witkin began his steady rise in the art world with exhibitions at Stedelijk Museum (Amsterdam), the Brooklyn Museum (New York) and the Guggenheim (Bilbao). His work is also part of the permanent collection of MoMA (New York), the Victoria and Albert Museum (London) and the Getty Museum (Los Angeles). Also worth mentioning: in the mid-1990s, the photographer was catapulted into the mainstream by music video director Mark Romanek, who in part based the instant legendary video of ‘Closer’ by Nine Inch Nails on his work.


Joel-Peter Witkin is preoccupied with spirituality and its influence on the physical world. The artist creates surreal scenes through which he seeks to dispel our preconceptions about sexuality and physical beauty. Witkin finds desire in the repulsive, and sacrality in the profane. For him, the complex duality of life is contained in a kind of shameless display of deformity for which he often collaborates with people society prefers to ignore. He begins each picture by sketching his ideas on paper and then perfects every detail before grabbing his camera. Once the scene is photographed, he spends hours in his darkroom, scratching and piercing negatives to finally arrive at a picture that seems made rather than taken – as if it were a painting. His reverence for traditional, art-historical iconography – Witkin is a big fan of Picasso, Balthus, Goya, Velásquez, and Miro – is undoubtedly also no stranger to that.

Joel-Peter Witkin