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A different outlook on the world

A different outlook on the world

When art meets science

Who: Lex Borghans, professor of Labour Economics and Social Policy at the School of Business and Economics

Series of photographs: In almost every picture 7, Erik Kessels, on exhibit in the Van Abbe Museum in Eindhoven until 17 November

Target group: students of Economics

A woman points a gun at the camera, people around her are watching. It is the subject of a series of photographs entitled ‘In almost every picture 7’ by Erik Kessels. “He didn’t take the photographs himself,” says economist Lex Borghans. “This woman visits the shooting gallery at the fun fair in Tilburg every year. When you hit the target, you receive a photograph of yourself, she has kept them all.” Kessels put the photographs in order and saw more than just a personal document. “You see the Netherlands through the years. The background and the stance are the same, but the clothes, glasses, and ages change.”

According to Borghans, what Kessels does is seeing something different than others do. “There is a documentary on him, ‘De kijk van Kessels’ (available on, which made a great impression on me. He discovers patterns, sees something universal in what others would regard as trivial photographs. That is clever.” Even in Kessels’ own photographs, he seeks beyond what is normal. “He observed, for example, that people only photograph their children when something nice is happening. So he made a series of photographs of minor mishaps, including bloody noses and bruises.”

Borghans thinks that scientists should have a similar original outlook on the world. “That is the starting point of all scientific research: seeing something that others don’t see. It is not just about making the right analyses, however important that is of course, but also about having the courage and the creativity to do it differently. That side of science is essential, we must look at the world in amazement.”

To give an example, he refers to a congress that he attended recently. “It was about obesity. An American researcher had analysed a popular cooking book. It was one hundred years old, but updated and republished time and again. He discovered that the ingredients for the recipes that had been in the book from the beginning contained more fat as time went on and the quantities of the ingredients had increased.”

Borghans also urges his own students to have an open mind. “I teach a subject together with Trudie Schils, in which students have to create their own economic model. Open a window and look outside, is what I then say. There is something economic about everything. One of the students analysed the arrival times at a party. Arriving late is cool, but if you get there five minutes before it ends then you’ve missed the party. What is the best time to arrive? That is the economic view that you are looking for.” 

In this column lecturers recommend art that throws a different light on their field than textbooks do



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