ON ‘BELGIAN AUTUMN’ PHOTOBOOK BY JAN ROSSEEL
by Peter Waterschoot


1982, 1983, 1985. 
This story happened while the world was listening to Agneta Fältskog, 10CC and David Bowie. The Challenger straddled the stratosphere, and Apple brought out its first computers while in most places people still needed to change ribbons on typewriters. At that time, Belgium was fully in the grip of a series of murderous attacks at supermarkets very near closing time. Television Mayhem. Strangely enough, the loot didn’t seem to be the real objective of these attacks, given the unlikely amount of deadly violence used upon the customers (the gangsters went in and out, while shooting wildwest style, even at the parking lot). Those who were unlucky enough to be present around that unfortunate time ended up heavily wounded or dead. So did the father of the author of this photobook. He went out to buy a pack of cigarettes but never got back home.

The author – Jan Rosseel claims that the oeuvre he has constructed around these historical facts is certainly not auto-therapeutic in any sense. He had dealt with it long since. It was mainly the mystery around these killings which triggered him into this photographical opus. He started it already as a 2nd year student at the academy of The Hague. But what about this criminal case, the mystery around it? The gangsters were never caught, and even worse, all of the detectives and journalists working on this dossier have always been, and still seem to be, after so many years, clueless about the possible motive. Some conspiracy theories circulate (extreme right infiltration in police forces etc.- but, this should not be taken seriously). 

Members of the Brussels police force © Jan Rosseel

Jan Rosseel claims not to blame the criminals but rather the Belgian state which at that time was inapt in handling this baffling case. Evidence got lost (e.g. even a getaway car got destroyed). Moreover, the ( literally) ‘million-pages-case’ apparantly needed translation from French to Dutch upon the apparantly very indespensable move of the investigation from the flemish-speaking part towards a French speaking county. Imagine the loss of time. A Belgian senator once said. “ In a million pages case, even if it would be brought to trial, it wouldn’t be hard for any lawyer to identify thousands of mistakes, so there would never be a verdict …”. A quote to be found in one of the last pages of the book.

Confabulation
Two books lying on my desk right now. Christian Patterson’s Redheaded Peckerwood and Jan Rosseel’s Belgian Autumn. Both books have a similar approach, they both start from historically documented criminal cases and -being artworks- succeed in transcending reality by mixing up the elements of the real story and thus bringing it at the narrative level of a fiction. Lots of plot-openings and strong associations are created in which the photo-reader can loose him/herself. Jan Rosseel calls his own technique 'confabulation’. Our memory fills in gaps with other information held to be true.  Calling his photobook a confabulated history is audaciously choosing for balancing the thin line between truth and fiction. Jan Rosseels whole oeuvre now seems to tilt towards  confabulated historical journalism. In a new project he is digging into a different era, - a few years further back into time, with a project/story on the Moluccan train-jackings  in Holland - 1977.

According to witness accounts, one of the assailants in Braine-l’Alleud wore a mask depicting French president François Mitterand © Jan Rosseel

Piece of evidence found in the Brussels-Charleroi Canal © Jan Rosseel

Approach
The book contains landscapes, archive material and photographed items (still life). All objects and landscapes are sought for. The object are arranged, staged. Functional in serving a narrative. Not all of the objects in the book are actual case objects. Jan Rosseel drew inspiration from different stories and different angles. But, some of the objects are indeed real evidence, which he was allowed to photograph. 

The book collages these different pictures into a precisely mould notebook-like  fictitious investigation file. The bookdesign has a nice double-folding linen cover flapping open and thus showing 'open back’ binding. 
You enter the book through dark woods, these are the first pages. In a manner of speaking, the viewer  is driven, nervously,  though pitchblack pineforest. Headlights. Streetlights. Fog. Something is terribly wrong. You think of buried bodies. A shoveling. But maybe you have watched too many series on TV. On one of the next pages you see three cops leaning against an 80’s Renault R4, their faces made unrecognisable with a black dot. There is something humourous going on here. How strange in this context. This sardonic tongue in cheek tiptoeing goes on with two, in the book loosely inserted, arms-magazines and car-magazines ( e.g. A magazine on the 80’s VW GTI ( the notorious getaway car in these crimes –the police didn’t have such turbo-speed-power (yet) – fancy the R4 chasing the VW ). This specific kind of humour  certainly does counterbalance the seriousness of the overall theme and brings about a paradoxical 'fraicheur’.

Brussels-Charleroi Canal in Ronquières © Jan Rosseel
In 1986, some bags filled with weapons were dredged out of the Brussels-Charleroi canal near Ronquières. The weapons had been used by the Gang of Nivelles and were dumped in the canal in 1985, shortly after their raid in Aalst.

Another unsolved Mystery.
Belgian Autumn is a dark, compelling, wry, bittersweet photobook. Nothing grainy. The selections, the photography and the design are crisp-clear and stark. It has a strong backbone. Probably due to the long time it took to come to this point in the processus. A well kept secret is the fact that there has been a predecessing self published edition of 28 which not too many people have seen. They were all sold immediately. Rumour has it that a certain mr. Parr would have some in his possession. But that might be just silly hearsay. They were -quite sexy- bound in a rubber band and contained -almost- the same material as the now published Hannibal edition. Our advice: get your copy of the latter and have a blast comparing it with the firstborn edition here at display in this movie

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LINKS 
Jan Rosseel
Belgium