Fifteen years ago, Jacqueline Hassink photographed the desks and conference room tables of Europe’s largest multinational corporations. The resulting book, The Table of Power, was included by Martin Parr in his catalogue of the most important photobooks of the 20th century. Today, Hassink is taking another look at the headquarters of the top 40 European companies, as identified by Fortune magazine. She spoke to Guy Lane about tables, meanings, power, and the enduring appeal of the project.
GL: It’s 15 years since you published the Table of Power (1993-5) – what importance does that work still have for you?
JH: Over time, as the project got older, I started to realise that the concept and format of the book was still very strong, and that I was still intrigued by it, even though I made it myself. Also it was the starting point of my photographic artistic work – before that, I was a sculptor. Certain structures that I used in the Table of Power are connected to later projects. It provided a very important framework from which I developed projects like Mindscapes and Queen Bees. So it’s a key work for me.
The meeting table of the Board of Directors of ArcelorMittal (©Jacqueline Hassink)
Why did you think it was timely to undertake Table of Power 2?
Well, it was quite obvious that when the economic crisis started at the end of 2007-8, the way society looked at – and valued – corporations changed. People had enjoyed an enormous amount of materialistic satisfaction from them; and then, all of a sudden, when the downfall came, those corporations become the enemy and were regarded in a very negative way – for good reasons – but it was a fascinating thing for me to observe. Then I started to think – how has the European economic landscape changed over those 15 years since the first book? Were the corporations from the first project still active? Are they still in the top 40, or have they disappeared? Would the banks – one of the main reasons for the downfall – let me in? How would companies like BP – perceived in very negative ways after the oil disaster – respond? So with these different shifts going on, I really wanted to try it again.
What were the main changes that you have noticed between working on both projects?
For the first project I sent letters by fax… and I would get official letters in reply; and it was really hard to get the details of the right people to contact at the companies. Now it is done by email. And if you look at boardrooms over the past 15 years, there is now much more use of mobile phones and computers. These rooms are very expensive and technically advanced: the wiring that is inside those tables is unbelievable. They have lighting systems that can accommodate overseas video conferencing – they’re almost like spaceships! So, when I did the first project there was more of a wall between the world and the corporations. Today, because of the internet, finding information and making contact is much easier. But then to get in is a totally different story – it takes months!
The meeting table of the Board of Directors of British Petroleum (©Jacqueline Hassink)
Do you think, although certain contact information is more readily available, that these companies are more or less secretive?
They are probably more cautious. A lot of those corporations were really reluctant to let me in – especially when I approached them in the summer of 2009. Many of them – maybe 50% – said, ‘Come back and try again in spring 2010… because maybe the economic climate will have changed’. At the Royal Bank of Scotland for example, the guy said ‘I wouldn’t even dare to ask the CEO right now, but if you ask in six months things might be a little easier…’ At Credit Agricole in Paris, where they have a very luxurious 18th century boardroom, I was told, ‘We cannot show this boardroom table to the world because it is totally inappropriate for our clients.’
You completed the first Table of Power using an old camera of your father’s, and you have said that you knew little about photography. Would you describe yourself now as a photographer?
No – I still think that I am an artist, not a photographer. I was educated as a sculptor and I think like an artist. If you look at the work of Martin Parr – he’s a photographer: the way he looks at things, the way he perceives things. I think, for me the starting point is not photography.
So what is the starting point for you – research?
Yes – ideas, looking at the world, and coming up with more concepts about it. For example, in the Car Girls project I was interested in corporate identity [reviewed on foto8.com in 2009] – in the way huge corporations, global players, operate on a local scale. Of course I used photography, but I wasn’t trying to make beautiful pictures of car girls – that was not the idea.
You have referred to your projects as exercises in ‘mapping.’ What function do you think the maps would have? What use would they be for people?
Well, I think that mapping can open things up a bit. Before I did the first Table of Power nobody had ever showed the boardroom tables of the largest European corporations; so it was an interesting moment for people to see the centres where all these decisions were made. I think the same applies for this series. Mapping gives a much clearer view and an understanding of a whole structure – it helps people to understand these phenomena, I think.
The meeting table of the Board of Directors of BNP Paribas (©Jacqueline Hassink)
How much do you think these boardroom tables can tell us? For example, BP maintain that their table is a functional object chosen for practical reasons – so what can we learn from them?
Tables can tell us an awful amount – there is so much information that can be retrieved from them, and from the questionnaires that I submitted to the corporations. They can talk about corporate identity, the management style of the CEO, the power structure within the company, and what kind of message the corporation wants to send. You know, BNP Paribas has two boardrooms, but they wanted me to photograph the one where Napoleon proposed to his wife. In terms of power and what it represents for this company, and what they want to reveal to the world by allowing me to photograph that particular table, you can’t get a better example than that. On the other hand, ThyssenKrupp’s new boardroom is very simple – nothing fancy, just a black table with some chairs around it. There was an arrangement of beautiful orchids on it, but they took it off. I couldn’t believe it how minimalistic it was, because ThyssenKrupp has a very long history in Germany, and is a very traditional company. But the boardroom didn’t connect to that history – I find that very interesting.
The meeting table of the Board of Directors of ThyssenKrupp (©Jacqueline Hassink)
The thing I’ve tried to do in both projects is more a pure mapping: gathering, organising and showing information. What a lot of journalists, and certain magazines, try to do is use these photographs for their own story – I’ve been approached by Communist publications, and media working on negative stories, for example. But I don’t want to get into that political arena, even though people might perceive the work that way, because then I am lost, and that’s not what I’m interested in. I’m interested in the complexity of information – in the taxonomy that creates an identity. I’m interested in power and tables.
Texts by Michiel Goudswaard, Jacqueline Hassink, Annegret Pelz, Jeroen van der Veer
Design by Irma Boom
publ. Hatje Cantz, Jan 2012