The discontent of photographer Philip de Jong

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“Ethiopia, Ark of the Covenant” at The Garage is photographer Philip de Jong’s first exhibition in several years. Image courtesy of the artist “Ethiopia, Ark of the Covenant” at The Garage is photographer Philip de Jong’s first exhibition in several years. Image courtesy of the artist

Visual artist Philip de Jong won’t content himself with creating beautiful work. In fact, he avoids contentment altogether.

“At some point as a trained photographer your job is to make anything look good,” he said. “If people describe my work as pretty, I feel insulted on some level because all it means is that I was present for something beautiful.”

Though de Jong cares about compositional finesse and “how light interacts and illuminates,” his artistic effort is a search for photographic connotations and annotations, hints of the “shared human experience.”

“A picture is what it is, it’s accurate, but the truth of a picture is extremely subjective,” he said. “I’m trying to harness some sort of visceral experience.”

The Charlottesville native believes discomfort often predicates such insight. After graduating from Ohio University with a master’s in photojournalism, he moved to Lake Tahoe with his wife and worked as a freelancer and a ski instructor. The lifestyle, he said, was “poverty with a view,” and it spurred creativity.

“There were a lot of divisions among the people who lived out there,” de Jong said. “A lot of relatively young people looking to do work on the edge.” He exhibited shows at galleries around town and even set up an artists’ collective to motivate sales between the haves and the have-nots.

Eventually, though, de Jong and his wife decided to start a family. “We were [both] raised with a certain amount of responsibility,” he said. “[We knew] that if we didn’t have a real career, there was an underlying guilt.” So they came back to Virginia, and de Jong set aside exhibitions.

“Discontent drives all of us, right?” he asked. “But Charlottesville is a very content place. We don’t have any edge. There’s no bite.”

Despite his new, more traditional lifestyle, de Jong continued his search. During his work as a photographer for Ethiopian Airlines’ in-flight magazine, he saw and sought to capture realities beyond the attention of tourists and international media. 

In “Ethiopia, Ark of the Covenant,” a current exhibit at The Garage (and his first in several years), de Jong explores what he described in his artist statement as “contradictions everywhere”: modernization versus subsistence farming, deforestation versus dynamic landscapes, a dilapidated chapel that claimed to hold the true Ark of the Covenant.

“Ethiopia is a really proud culture, and they’re getting influenced from China, India, Brazil, and very heavily from the U.S.,” he said. “They came out of a really awful Communist situation. They know who they are but can’t explain who they are.”

But de Jong can’t ignore the limitations of his own perspective. “As a journalist, I have a tendency to oversimplify things,” he said. “I enter the story and then I exit. I’m not so foolish as to believe it’s purely objective.” 

So where does de Jong’s truth come from?

“I think a lot of it happens after the fact,” he said. “There’s a lot of editing and waiting to understand the story you’re telling. You really don’t have a perfect view of it until you’re out.”

If critical evaluation is the source of his “few projects that have a voice and body together,” it also causes his resistance to comfort, to ease and easy imagery and the ethos of Instagram.

“I don’t really want to be part of a system that is just visual throw up: it lasts for an instant, it exists and then it doesn’t,” he said. “You want it to have meaning and impact.”

Philip de Jong’s exhibit “Ethiopia, Ark of the Covenant” will be on view at The Garage through September 28.