When the world wasn’t much bigger than a thirty-minute ride in the back of my parents’ car, I remember people being critical of those who moved across the border of our neighbouring country Belgium. These were rich folks, or at least they aspired to be, the others supposed. I didn’t understand much of it, only that they must be smart, as they were able to buy a bigger house and a fancier car by, in theory, moving just a few exotic kilometres away. Something to do with taxes, people said. I recall seeing pictures of these supposed mansions and being disappointed; it looked just like home, no ornamental pillars, eternal sunshine or prancing pink ponies whatsoever. I still don’t understand much of it today, but for different reasons. I’ve since learned that this phenomenon is called a tax haven and that it involves much more than one border, a short stretch of land and an actual, physical house.

Paolo Woods and Gabriele Galimberti were drawn by this same question: what constitutes a tax haven? For two years Woods (NL 1970, grew up in Italy) and Galimberti (IT, 1977) worked on ‘The Heavens’, a photographic documentary research project that sheds light on the obscure workings of seemingly exotic tax havens and the so-called offshore world. Given the publication of the Panama Papers and the Lux Leaks scandal earlier this year, the duo proves their nose for current affairs.

Woods’ and Galimberti’s interest was awakened as they were bent over a map in Woods’ Haiti home. Galimberti casually remarked that after a pretty good year the Italian government would claim half of his profits. I should hide it, he joked, upon which they observed that the notorious Cayman Islands were only an hour away. Could he actually pull it off? For that they needed to unravel the workings of a tax haven, about which the duo only had vague notions, even though the subject makes the news every day. A bigger challenge, given they’re photographers, was how to picture a phenomenon you can’t see.

“Many James Bond-movies were filmed on locations where tax havens are located. Long-legged beauties, mysterious wealth and spies travelling the globe set the tone. It gave the fast-growing off shore world a sexy touch.” – Nicholas Shaxson ‘The Great Escape’, The Heavens, 2015

For over two years the duo travelled to thirteen different tax havens to capture associated phenomena, places and people. It included a lot of fact checking, “not because we’re nerds, but to avoid getting into trouble with any big companies’ lawyers”. Part of their research was setting up The Heavens LLC, incorporated in Delaware, USA with the same company Apple, Bank of America, Coca-Cola, General Electric, Google, Walmart and 285.000 other companies. It was done in twenty minutes, no papers required.

tax havens
A man floats in the 57th-floor swimming pool of the Marina Bay Sands Hotel, with the skyline of “Central,” the Singapore financial district, behind him. Singapore

In a visual language borrowed from glossy annual reports and interior magazines, this is the image they present us with: shiny shoes, flawless rows of safes and post boxes, a tropical skyline (a forest of overtly designed but empty skyscrapers littering Panama’s coast), rooftop swimming pools, a moon speckled sea where a single yacht is anchored (waiting to bring Donald Trump Towers’ guests to a deserted island). Men with motorised hobbies, meetings with take away coffee, ugly carpets and comfy chairs, men and women in business uniforms. Singapore Freeport – part of the Singapore Diamond Exchange headed by Belgian Alain Vandenborre –  built with extra solid foundations to be able to carry the tons of gold, diamonds that pass through each year and more art than you will find in Firenze. Flipping through the book is looking at surfaces and shells. It’s looking at nothing much, except for the occasional outstanding view. Tear sheets collected by an ambitious young man with big dreams and a lack of scruples. It’s playing James Bond, only the villains look stunningly uninspiring and they hardly ever get caught.

The duo learned the proof is in your pantry, your bookmarks, your wardrobe: Starbucks, Chiquita, Lays, Gillette, Amazon, Google, they all make use of ingenious, questionable, but legal ways to pay less tax and make more money. Unless you’re a hermit, there’s no escaping it. Billions of private and corporate dollars are stashed in tax havens, “often legally, to escape financial regulations or to reduce their taxes, draining the resources countries can spend on education, health care and security.” During the Vietnam War the USA even attracted blood money from Africa to finance the conflict, implicitly approving of armed conflict.

What lingers besides that dazzling world of polished make-believe is a pit in the stomach. Can a book like this change anything? Maybe not, but it does challenge you to a thorough reflection on today’s society. And although some Barbie-esque villa’s and palm trees are involved, I can now say for sure that a tax haven isn’t exotic at all. Thanks guys, for a depressingly good book.

‘The Heavens. Annual Report’
Paolo Woods and Gabriele Galimberti
Dewi Lewis media, 2015

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