Snapshots, postcards and photos

What are our photos saying? What is their real subject?

Things have changed a lot since I first started playing with a camera, almost four years ago. I took a lot of bad shots. Felt tired and discouraged. Searched and experimented. Had small breakthroughs. Found myself in the right place at the right moment. Had moments of inspiration. Had tons of time with no inspiration. Had no time.

Then there was the whole rest of life. You know, the life that takes you for a ride that is sometimes slow and boring, some other times crazy and lighting fast.

The distinction between snapshots, postcards and photography is not meant to lecture anybody on what “real” photography is. Everybody photographs what the hell they want. Different subjects and styles makes sense to different people. There’s more than enough lecturing and dogmatism out there. I don’t want to add to it.

However, I think some differences matter. I’ve been around the photography world long enough to have a sense of what good, meaningful photography is. And what it is not.

My kid in a puppet theatre, watching two mousquetaires engaged in a duel.

Snapshots are the fast food of photography. It’s what you usually find on people’s smartphones, but there is also a lot of snapshot photography done with advanced and expensive cameras. There’s nothing wrong with snapshots, my phone is also full of them. They record moments of our lives. What can become annoying, at least for me, is the pretense of doing photographic work and presenting it as such.

If snapshots are a bit like fast food, postcards are like an expensive meal that you cannot really enjoy unless you talk about it to all your friends. It’s the chasing of spectacular places or subjects. It’s the kind of photography that generates countless almost identical shots of the same subjects photographed from the same angle. When I was still on Instagram account, I remember following an account that was posting collages of such similar photos. Depending on your mood, watching these can be either funny or depressing.

It goes without saying that there’s nothing wrong with photographing spectacular places. I wouldn’t have known about many of them without such easy access to postcard photography. Again, what is troubling is the pretense of depth and storytelling when all is offered, in the best case, is good technique. Sharp focus and good color editing are to be appreciated, but they do not replace or compensate for the lack of photographic vision and narrative.

The kind of photography I like (and aspire to do) tends to be personal and honest. Personal means that it’s based on a personal interest, problem, obsession. It’s not reducible to what others have done or to what others expect and like. Honest means that it does not try to pass as something which it’s not, or to take advantage of its subject.

Personal does not mean self-centered. Honest does not mean that we limit our creativity to showing only “what’s really there”. What counts is the photographer’s intention in taking a photograph. Is it meant to promote him or her? Or is it meant to uncover, explore, protect, honor something beyond us?

What are our photos really saying? Is it “look where I am right now”, “look who is posing for me”, or “check out how skillful I am with these highlights and shadows”? Or is it a way of documenting something bigger than ourselves, a way of disappearing in the shadow of a story that is worth telling?

As with everything else in life, things can be done in a way that continuously comes back to us, that is essentially about showcasing and congratulating ourselves. Or they can be done in a way that tries to witness, respect and honor the persons and stories we come across.

A journey through the old Brussels

At the end of a certain Impasse Sainte Pétronille, carefully hidden just a few steps from Grand Place, there’s an old brick and wood house that holds inside much more that it gives away at first glance. Weekend tourists may know the beer tasting tours that invariably pass by the pub downstairs. The pub where you can drink the amber beer produced by the monks of the Orval Abbey, in the south of Belgium, while patting the cat of the house.

But locals and people who’ve been living here long enough know about the cozy puppet theater upstairs, the Royal Theatre of Toone.

What is this place really?

If you’ve been to a puppet show as a kid, you have a good starting point. Now, imagine a place where shows address any age and no age in particular. They speak to the kid in you. They speak to the adult who has maybe forgotten how to be a kid.

It’s a place where dreams are made.

“All for one and one for all”. A scene from The Three Mousquetaires (September 2021).

It’s funny how we use puppets and masks to tell our stories, those that count for us humans. At some point, however, puppets come alive and tell their own stories. Incredibly similar to ours and yet strangely different.

The theatre room is small and cozy. Dozens of old puppets are hanging on the walls. After having served in so many plays, they are now facing the stage just like the rest of the audience. In fact, they are part of the audience.

Wooden beams, long benches, small scene covered by painted wooden boards. The smell of old wood. The moment when the lights go out. When the wooden boards move to the side and reveal the scene. People slowly settle down and stop their whispering.

After a few minutes, your adult, often cynical mind is swept into that spot of light on the small stage, where small wooden frames covered by colored pieces of cloth talk, fight, fall in love, or die. They are called Athos, Portos, Aramis, Carmen, Cyrano de Bergerac, Faust, Hamlet, or Macbeth. And they’re alive.

Nicolas Géal, the theatre director and the official Toone (a title which passes from one generation to another), was kind enough to sit down and chat about the puppets and the theatre. I could also photograph what happens not only front stage but also behind the curtains, as he and the puppeteers prepare the show.

Nicolas Géal, Toone VIII, showing some of the oldest puppets in the small museum of Toone Theatre.

Who is Toone?

Toone is the diminutive of Antoine in the Brussels dialect. The founder of the Toone Theatre was called Antoine Genty. It all started around 1830 in the Marolles district. Toone does the voices of the puppets, surrounded by six puppeteers. The configuration of the puppeteers’ booth does not allow them to work with the same puppet throughout the show. Therefore, the puppeteers do not do the voices of the puppets. Toone performs all the roles for practical reasons. He also does female voices, hence the parody aspect.

Behind the scenes, the puppeteers prepare the show. José Géal, Nicolas’ brother, demonstrates a technique while speaking about the balance between realism and hyperbole.

What does the world of puppets mean to you?

The world of puppets represents all my childhood and my family. I grew up in this universe. My whole family revolves around the planet of puppeteering. However, one does not necessarily become Toone from father to son. It is a popular and adoptive tradition. Toone is indeed enthroned by his predecessor and by the public… because, without an audience, there is no theater. As Racine said: “The main rule is to please and to touch. All the other rules are made only to achieve the first.”

Nicolas Géal with Woltje, the mascot of Toone Theatre. Woltje appears in most shows in the role of a funny and resourceful little guy with a big mouth and a big heart.

What is the audience of your shows?

Our shows are aimed more at adults curious to discover the specificity of Brussels. Toone Theatre is indeed unique in its kind as it was a popular mode of education until the beginning of the 20th century. People came to Toone’s to keep up to date with cultural news. Now they come to Toone to see a parody and have fun.

Pulling the strings. Rehearsal before the show.

What do you do when something unexpected happens?

Sometimes you must improvise during the show. Puppets can get tangled up, lose their head (literally or figuratively), come on stage too early or too late… The puppeteer can also end up handling the wrong puppet. One day, a small dog walked across the stage.

At the end of the show, all the puppets come on the stage to dance and salute the public. The puppeteers show their faces as the public applauds and cheers. Toone descends in front of the stage with his usual half-innocent, half-naughty smile. “If you like it here, please go tell your friends. If you didn’t like it here, it stays among us.” It’s not just a joke; it’s almost an incantation, a signature phrase at the end of every show. A way of saying goodbye in typical Toone style.

The puppeteers salute the public at the end of the show.

Downstairs, in the small estaminet with Spanish pink brick walls, blackened beams, and tiled floor, there’s an inscription on the wall by Jean Cocteau. It reads:

“There are too many frozen souls out there in order not to love wooden characters that have a soul”(Il y a trop d’âmes en bois pour ne pas aimer les personnages en bois ayant une âme)

I couldn’t agree more.

Of humans and puppets

The old puppeteer looks tired. As always, after the play is over he bids farewell to the people in the audience. He thanks them for being there. He is still using his puppeteer voice when he tells them, with a smile: “If you loved the play, go tell your friends about it. If you didn’t love the play, let’s keep it between us.”

He is one of the few who keep alive a tradition started in the 19th century: puppet shows for kids and adults alike. The shows build upon famous plays and infuse them with humor and contemporary references. Stories of deceit, tragedy and murder are told with a smile, but it’s not the smile of indifference and cynicism.

It’s funny how we use puppets to tell our stories, the stories that count for us humans. At some point, however, puppets come alive and tell their own stories. Stories that are incredibly similar to ours and yet strangely different.

The theater room is small and cosy. Dozens of old puppets are hanging on the walls. After having served in so many plays, they are now facing the stage just like the rest of the audience. In fact, they are part of the audience.

Wooden beams, long wooden benches, small scene covered by painted wooden boards. The smell of old wood and dust. The little funny speech of the master puppeteer at the start of the play. The moment when the lights go out. When the wooden boards move to the side and reveal the scene. People slowly settling down and stopping their whispering.

You enter this room and you look around and there’s a cynical voice inside wondering if you’ll be able to make it through the play. If your adult mind will still be able to access that state of grace, carelessness and play. To enjoy the show.

And you know what? It happens. After a few minutes you’re swept into that spot of light on the small stage, looking at small wooden frames covered by colored pieces of cloth. They are called Athos, Portos, Aramis, Carmen, Cyrano de Bergerac, Faust, Hamlet, or Macbeth. And they’re alive.

It’s all so real. I can feel the hard wooden bench I’m lying on. I feel the puppets just above me. It’s dark outside. And there’s that unmistakable smell of old wood and dust.


“There are too many frozen souls out there in order not to love wooden characters that have a soul”(Il y a trop d’âmes en bois pour ne pas aimer les personnages en bois ayant une âme) – Jean Cocteau