MOSSLESS: What are your thoughts on contemporary American culture, compared to what you experienced growing up?
Benjamin Rasmussen: I grew up in a place that was quite simple and harsh. There were no roads, electricity or phones. There were no doctors and lots of tropical diseases, so my parents had to teach themselves how to diagnose and treat illnesses and emergency injuries. Kids made most of their own toys and their own excitement. The focus was on the community and that was pretty much it.
What has struck me in the US is how everything needs to be large, complex and smooth. We believe in constant upward mobility and the pursuit of the financial American Dream. There is a strong cultural message that the most important thing is that we feel good, look beautiful and are always happy and fulfilled. And as photographers, there is a level of entitlement that since we created something, millions of people should see it and praise us and then give us money for it.
MOSSLESS: Timothy, for your series Boonville you visited six different towns with that name. How different were the towns to each other?
Timothy Briner: Remarkably similar. They were different from each other in the sense that each one had their own special something that they identified with. For example North Carolina’s Boonville was built on tobacco farming, upstate New York’s Boonville had logging, Indiana’s Boonville was a mining town, and Boonville in Missouri was built on the Missouri river, so they identified with the river and shipping. But they were more similar than they were different. Oh, and Boonville in California had weed.
MOSSLESS: Joe, I wanted to ask about about your series Native Son. Are the pictures of your hometown?
Joe Leavenworth: The work stems out of my relationship [to the town] which is kind of abstract and rather ambiguous to me. I was born in Decatur, Georgia, in ‘85, adopted at birth and raised in Connecticut. I began thinking a lot more about that, getting older and thinking about my biological mother and father. I’ve always been aware of it and my [adoptive] parents were very supportive. There had been this letter that my biological mother had written me, that I knew about but was never really ready or prepared to read. It was daunting. I don’t know, I knew it would open up something, and I didn’t know what that would be. I ended up reading that, and that kind of propelled me into beginning this relationship with traveling to Decatur and spending time traveling throughout Georgia where [my mother] had grown up and spent a good part of her adolescence and ultimately where I was born and left rather quickly.
MOSSLESS: You’ve said that you like to adjust the surroundings of your subjects, which isn’t typical for documentary work. What effect does it have?
Lara Shipley: I don’t consider myself a documentary photographer. I am a storyteller who is striving to find the best visuals to describe my perspective on my experiences. Portrait making for me is about using the body and the surroundings to invite a narrative, not to describe a situation as it actually is. I believe as an outsider it would be arrogant for me to suggest that was even possible. The effect is that the portrait is a mixture of my subject and myself. I am the narrator, the unseen presence in all of my images. I feel this to be the case with all portrait makers and am in dialogue with a long line of artists who position their subjects and alter surroundings (such as Dorothea Lange and Alec Soth), but I would like my role to be explicit.
ML: Do you feel it sets your subjects outside of their personal realities?
LS: Simply the act of making a portrait is going to set a subject out of their realities. All portraits are a performance for the camera. I want my subject to have some control on how they are perceived (I never costume) and I strive to make an image that reflects the version of themselves they offer to me. But people are extremely complex, more complex than a portrait can contain. I wear make-up every day. Would a “real” image of me be one with or without this mask? I’m not sure, but for me what is more interesting is this malleable fantasy we create about ourselves and other people rather than the raw god given material that is our bodies or the mess of our untended surroundings.
MOSSLESS: The smoke from these wildfires bring these landscapes out of reality and into some kind of dreamscape. Do the scenes look as picturesque in person?
Young Suh: I am seduced by these scenes. Or, rather, I am seduced by the disappearance of them. The scenes are picturesque, but the disappearance of the landscape is sublime. I think the notion of the sublime implies blindness. It is an overwhelming sense of loss.
MOSSLESS: What are your thoughts on photography on the internet?
Carl Gunhouse: As for the sheer number of images overwhelming the medium, which every photo panel seems to devolve into nowadays, I think it’s silly. Writers aren’t complaining that the number of emails on the internet is somehow overwhelming their medium. I think if you can’t tell the difference between art and your friends’ instagram, then you’re probably lacking some basic understanding of the medium.
But personally, I don’t know. I think it’s great that people are taking and looking at so many pictures. It certainly has increased the level of visual literacy and interest in the medium. Remember in the Times in the mid 2000s, when Thomas Friedman kept going on about how technology had made the world flat and any day China and India were going to take over the world? Well, I think the internet has done well by photography; you have access to so much art online. I think there is less polarization about, say, being a straight photographer or a conceptual photographer or whatever subgenres you want, because the pie is so big now that there is room to be Christian Patterson without having to fight for eyes with, say, a Lucas Blalock. But every once in a while, I start going down the rabbit holes of Tumblr or photography blogs, and I become painfully aware how much good photography is out there. And even if I am feeling good about what I do, I can’t help being aware that I am just one of many, and it can make me feel awfully mediocre.
MOSSLESS: In Simulating Iraq, American soldiers and civilians play the roles of Iraqi insurgents and civilians for training purposes. Did you ever ask the participants how they felt about the roles they were playing?
Claire Beckett: Yes, I often asked participants about what they thought of their roles. I was fascinated to find that most participants absolutely relished the roles that they played. For some, it seemed like a case of play-acting, like high school theater wrought on a grander scale. For others, there was a fascination with Arab culture and language. I was surprised to learn at one facility that the female civilian role players were spending their own money to purchase fancy Arab-style clothing on the internet. I think that it made them feel glamorous. Among the soldiers there often seemed to be a bias towards playing the “bad guys,” typically identified as “jihadis” or “terrorists,” because it was exciting. The bad guys generally ran amok, used unique weaponry, and got to blow things up. Of course I am generalizing, but this is the spirit of things that I observed.
MOSSLESS: How have cultural changes in the last ten years affected you personally?
Eva O’Leary: Ireland has transformed completely from the country I knew as a child; it’s almost unrecognizable. I grew up amid the Irish banking boom of the 90s, a time of rapid growth and unbridled spending. For a brief time, it was the second richest country in the world. Last summer I returned to visit my family for the first time in 4 years. The contemporary landscape is different from what I remember as a child. There is a clear feeling of betrayal in the broken promise of capitalism. I’m left wondering how could a country that survived colonization, famine, and poverty be taken down by capitalist excess?
Harry Griffin: My mom, a secretary to a plastic surgeon, lost her job last month. She’d been working there for 10 years and got fired for trying to save a life. Seeing her struggle as a 55-year-old single woman is fucked up. This is a seriously flawed system for people without trust funds.
MOSSLESS: If you could change anything about the way photography is taught, what would it be?
Sean Stewart: I would stop cheating young artists out of a future. I think there are a few overlooked paths to forging a professional life out of photography. The raising cost of higher education and the fact that so few jobs are available just doesn’t add up for most people. If you really want to do something great, invest in your equipment, travel, and make work you really care about. There are technical concerns and philosophical hurdles to overcome that can’t be done alone in a room, so surrounding yourself with artists and sharing work is extremely important. The internet is probably the most important tool to learn.
MOSSLESS: Do you consider your work to be documentary photography?
Morgan Ashcom: To me, the word documentary implies a primary concern with things as they are: concern with the social landscape, psychology, politics, history, or activism. I don’t think of my work in that way at all. I am a photographer, and that’s it. Elements of the scene at Skatopia provided some useful dramatic material, but they serve a different purpose in West of Megsico than they do at Skatopia. The resulting photographs and their sequencing came from a mixture of imagination, observation, and my experience. I work like this because I am interested in looking at photographs in a way that includes the most possibilities. That is, I like them to appear as facts, while at the same time suggesting something beyond the visible world.