How do you, as a photographer, define success? And I’m not talking here about getting clear, properly exposes images, nor am I talking about returning from a vacation with pictures that help you remember and relive. No, I’m asking, why are you a photographer? What do you want to get out of it?
For me, success has almost nothing to do with receiving accolades or making sales, having a gallery show or getting a grant. Those are still all okay, make me giggle for a minute or two, but their effect wears off very quickly, somewhat akin to getting a bunch of likes on social media, so fleeting, and, I suggest, a very shallow way to measure your life.
This attitude might have something to do with my near-death experience 10 years ago. It might also have something to do with getting older and giving way less fucks. And, anyway, I don’t think those things (sales, shows, grants, pats on the back, etc.) were ever really that important to me. I am just stupid and stubborn enough to believe that what matters most is being true to yourself, discovering what that might actually mean, and then letting the chips fall where they may.
So these days I define success as applying myself and expanding my understanding through that application.
On the other hand, there are those photographers who define success as the attainment of popularity and profit. Yes, it’s thrilling to build up your biz and your rep, and easy to keep track of your progress: profile and profit. It’s even possible (though mostly improbable), if you are a certain kind of photographer, to produce commercial or personal images for money that have some kind of metaphysical value. But if you mostly want money and profile, if that’s what’s important to you, you’ll probably base your working methods and the look and feel of your photographs on achieving that, whether you know it or not.
Anyway, I understand what makes our world go ’round. And it’s usually not learning. Learning only seems to be good (useful) if it can somehow be monetized. Too often these days getting paid for adding baubles to the status quo seems to define success.
Of course you might wonder, if that’s the case, Tony, if you only do it for yourself, then why do you make any effort at all to distribute your work, why do you hype it, why go to the trouble and expense of mounting an exhibition and/or publishing books? Why not just keep it to yourself?
I could give you all kinds of rationalizations here but won’t bother, because that’s all they’d be, rationalizations. Really, there is only one answer to that question: ego. Everyone has one, and it takes a special kind to go out into the world, register your reaction to it and then want to share that reaction. Yes, I have an ego. I admit it.
Seems to me, though, that problems arise when you fall in love with your ego. Once you stop questioning what you do, once you begin to believe it’s-good-because-I-did-it, once that happens you lose perspective. And as a photographer (or artist, or person . . . take your pick) perspective is really all you have to offer.
And here we circle back to definitions of success. And for me the problem with the fame/power/money version of success is that it warps your perspective. And once that happens you become something else. Or maybe, just maybe, you become what you really are.
Ever since, or maybe because, I changed the working title of my new project my confusion has increased. I see that as a good thing. When you get lost you often end up in a place more interesting than the destination you set out for.
The shooting for this project was always more open-ended than was the case with the last 4 or 5 series I’ve done. The subject matter is way less defined as I comb the world for things and situations that resonate with my premise. I’m still wallowing in the process . . . searching, guessing, wondering. And at this point I’m afraid to look at what I’ve done because the only hope for this project will be through an edit and sequence that somehow makes sense of the sensless. And I’m not ready for that.
This approach reminds me of how I shot way back in the 1980’s (see the B&W pix above). And once again I am getting images that are beyond me.
I met with acclaimed Canadian documentary photographer Rita Leistner twice in the lead-up to her most recent exhibition, “The Tree Planters,” which opened October 21st in Toronto at the Stephen Bulger Gallery. Leistner spent the 2016 and 2017 planting seasons embedded with Coast Range Contracting, a tree planting operation in British Columbia. She is in the midst of this body of work, which will take her back to the bush for the 2018 and 2019 seasons. The work is a sort of homecoming for Leistner, who spent 10 years (1982-93) as a tree planter, sometimes as the lone woman on a team. Leistner has spent her lifetime defying gender stereotypes and proving herself in male-dominated industries.
We talked about the logic of return, the choreography of technology and bodies that it takes to get a shot, missing shots, crashing well, wrong turns, and crying in the cut block. Talking with Leistner is intense: she’s intense. It’s tempting to describe her as larger than life, as epic as the portraits she makes. She’s a no-bullshit, tell-it-like-it-is interview subject who looks you in the eye when she speaks. This is my conversation with the passionate, animated, deeply committed documentarian who—like me—loves a good chin wag.
I was surprised when I opened the document of images you sent me in preparation for our talk. I wasn’t expecting these arresting portraits. Why focus on the tree planters in this way, and not tree planting per se?
The tree planters are the heroes of the project. For me, the focus is their work. There are many other bodies of work that show the cultural life of tree planting—the camaraderie at camp, the dirty gloves on the ground. It’s much easier to shoot a pair of gloves lying on the ground than to run around the bush chasing someone. But I love those other kinds of shots, too, and I take those kinds of pictures. I’m shooting everything. That’s the way I work: I’m going to amass a gigantic amount of stuff and this project will take many forms. There’s going to be a film. There’s going to be a book. I’m shooting stills, shooting video, flying drones, out there on my own, mostly, because I can’t afford to pay someone to do a three month assignment…
But you had assistants, yes?
I did: Marsha MacLeod the first season and Jade Brown the second season. These portraits can’t be done without an assistant, because my assistant is carrying the strobe light and we’re both running around simultaneously. To have the quality of light that you see in these portraits, I need that strobe.
How does the strobe light affect the subject? Doesn’t it make you too present, as it were, for the shots to be candid?
Oh they don’t even notice the strobe light—it’s too fast. And “candid” is the wrong word, suggesting that I’m shooting without the subject’s knowledge. I would call this “action photography.” It’s like sports photography, really—like shooting an obstacle course race. Subjects aren’t stopping or posing for me, but they know I’m there. It’s not staged, but it’s not candid. As a documentarian, I don’t want to get in the way. I don’t want to interfere with what my subjects are doing. And Garth Hadley, the owner of the tree planting company, has done me this generosity of welcoming me. I don’t want to interrupt his business; it’s all about production in tree planting. The last thing I want to do is slow down production. And that goes for the tree planters. They’re trying to work and I couldn’t be with them for months if I interfered. I work around them. And because I know tree planting, I can anticipate where they’re going to go next. I need to be ready before they plant their tree. I’m anticipating and dancing around the planter and my assistant is anticipating and dancing around me. I elbow her and point to where I need her to go and tell her to get on my right side, like, now. The planters are not stopping or changing anything they’re doing because I’m there. But of course they see me. I might be with the same planter for two or three hours. I’m anticipating where the planters are going to go and I’m running in front of them—backwards—to get the shot. My assistant is basically a human light stand that’s never still. We can’t stop to set up a light. That light has to be as dynamic as I am. It’s crazily physical.
Is your work as strenuous, as physical, as tree planting? It looks grueling.
Um, no. It’s highly physical but nothing is as physical as tree planting—at least, nothing that I’ve ever done in my life. And that’s precisely what I want to show, because there’s this idea of tree planting as fun—as a campy, communal party. I’m hoping that people who have tree planted will look at these pictures and feel it actually represents what tree planting looks like, what it feels like. I’m 53. I couldn’t plant trees anymore. It’s too hard—it’s too hard to plant 2000 trees in a day. I can barely do what I’m doing. At the end of the day, I’m just completely physically shattered. And yet I have to go home—to camp—and back up stuff and look at all my footage and make sure everything is working and get everything ready for the next day. Maybe I’m asleep by 11pm and then up again around 5am.
Did you—do you—keep the same schedule as the planters when you’re shooting? Did your days begin and end with them? Do you camp with them?
Oh yeah. It’s very remote so I have to be in the same place. I’d say I kept a similar schedule, roughly. I get up at 5:15am. The vehicles pull out at 7am. I lived in a tent for my first year of shooting—and for all my years of tree planting. When I went last year, I had a big tent for my gear, a tent for me, and a tent for my assistant. I had a generator because I have to charge all my gear. I have a 4-wheel drive Jeep because I need to be independent; I have my own satellite and aerial maps on my iPhone. And it was very challenging, working out of a tent with all the electronics. And it’s cold. It drops below zero almost every night. It’s really cold.
Remind me: where exactly are you?
Central and Northern B.C.—often at high altitudes. And so the cold is brutal. I had been thinking about getting a trailer after that first, incredibly grueling season of shooting, living out of a tent. But I didn’t want to be the asshole photographer with a trailer. I wanted to live like the planters as much as possible. But then I realized that some of them had trailers and the foremen had trailers . . . so this year I bought a camper trailer and it has helped a lot, largely because it has a propane heater in it. In the morning I can wake up and turn on my propane heater and get ready: I make instant hot chocolate and instant coffee with Coffee-mate: that’s my thing; it’s what I get up for! And then I get all my gear sorted and prepared. I have to be ready to go by 7am. And my assistant makes the lunches. That doesn’t seem like a big deal, but it takes at least 10 minutes and every 10 minutes counts.
I’m always curious about the question of access. For this series, how does it work?
Access is a huge issue in a project like this, of course. I have a really big “in” because this tree planting company that I’m shooting is owned by one of my old tree planting buddies. I also have a reputation as a tree planter and a photographer. Both of those things help. And as I would with any subjects, I treat the planters with enormous respect. They’re the most important people in the room. That respect and that trust is everything to access. I’m good at getting access, at gaining trust, because I’m very honest, upfront, and approachable. And I’m genuinely interested in the subjects, or I wouldn’t be doing this. People respond to that. They know I’m interested in what they’re doing and that I’m passionate about it and that I’m working as hard at my job as they are at theirs. I introduce myself to each person; I tell them about my project, about what I’m trying to do with it. I ask them to come and talk to me—let them know that they can ask me anything. And that’s true—they can ask me anything. Same goes for you, by the way.
Okay: Let’s talk cameras. How many cameras do you use?
I have my medium format for the stills. It’s a Phase One camera, so it shoots super high res for these gigantic prints. I want to make prints that are suitable for a major gallery. The work is so hard to get, so expensive to make. It’s not a dress rehearsal. There is no point in doing at anything but the highest level possible. I knew it would be a number of years in the making, and I thought: I’m going all in. I’m making the best possible pictures I can because I’m not going to go back and do it better, later, say when I’m in my sixties. I can barely keep up with it now. No dress rehearsal: I’ve got to get it now. For video, I’m shooting on a Sony A7SII, which is beautiful, does 4K, and is easy to use. I’ve had a couple of DP buddies for a couple of days here and there to do some work on the ground with me—Scotty Wilson and John Price. And I have a DJI drone—I’m on my second now, slightly upgraded. I crashed the first one. They crash remarkably well. I’ve managed to fix that one so now I have a spare. I’ve learned that drones are meant to crash. That’s been really fun, learning to fly a drone: nothing makes me happier than learning something new. It’s the nature of being a documentary photographer who works in long-form tradition: you have to learn to do it all yourself. So those are my main cameras, along with a smart phone that I use for my Instagram. I got an Instagram account two years ago, partly because I had a 22-year-old assistant and she set it up for me. It’s really easy to use now that I know how!
Easier than a drone!
Oh my god, exactly. A lot easier than a drone! And a lot easier than a Phase One camera, which took me a long time to figure out how to use properly—to get everything to the sweet spot—to get my flash and my camera working together in such a way that I’m getting exactly the picture I want. Because I’m shooting fast-moving subjects, with sync strobe, there are a lot of technical limitations. It’s super high key. So, technically, things have to be working perfectly. I would say that until this particular Phase One was invented (and Hasselblad now makes a similar one), I couldn’t have made these pictures, this way, because I need to be at f22— I need really large depth of field. I also have to use a fast shutter speed: 1/500th of a second. I need a leaf-shutter camera to use at that kind of sync speed because your average Canon DSLR syncs at 1/250th of second. That would blur—it wouldn’t work for what I’m doing. I need a super expensive leaf shutter lens that I can only get with medium format. I wanted medium format anyway to go big. And of course sometimes it’s not bright out, so in order to still shoot with such a small aperture, I need to be able to up the ISO. On this camera, I can shoot at ISO 800—super high for a medium format digital camera. And it looks stunning. With my old Hasselblad, I couldn’t shoot over 100 ISO or it would look like crap. And I use a portable 500 watt Profoto strobe—it’s like the Cadillac of lighting.
You speak very passionately about light…
I am very passionate about light, about lighting. A lot of photographers hate it. You know, Cartier-Bresson, in The Decisive Moment, said something to the effect of using artificial lighting is a crime against the nature of a photograph, the nature of reality. I studied with photographer Arlene Collins at ICP because of her reputation as a master of lighting—she had been a student of Lisette Model. Ruth Kaplan, whose incredible “Bathers” photographs are currently in the front room of the Stephen Bulger Gallery, was also a student of Lisette Model. Model trained, among other people, Diane Arbus. And of course Model is not as well-known as Henri Cartier-Bresson but I would say she’s at least as influential. Larry Fink, Kaplan, Arbus, and everyone who followed them—documentary photography with a focus on, say, more composed portraiture—is all Lisette Model. She trained so many photographers. The fact that everyone’s heard of Cartier-Bresson and no one has heard of Lisette Model is the rampant sexism in our industry—in our whole culture—at work. She was easily as important as Cartier-Bresson, if you ask me. Wait: not even if you ask me. She just was. So, Model taught Collins and Collins taught me about lighting. She also taught Naomi Harris. You can see some of the things Harris and I share, stylistically. You’ll hear many people who don’t use lighting say that its use means that the work isn’t “real” or “true” documentary; usually, those people simply don’t know how it works, how to use it. With lighting, I’m trying to create a specific aesthetic, and it’s not going to be everyone’s thing. I’ve been doing it my whole career, and was often dismissed as someone who wasn’t “journalistic.” What does that even mean? I’m not staging anything. It’s completely reportage, in that sense.
I think you just raised my next question. I mean, I’m looking at these portraits of other people and I can’t help but read them as also, and necessarily, autobiographical. The story you are telling is also autobiographical—in a way that runs deeper than the fact that you used to plant trees, too.
Absolutely. And this has been the struggle with making the film, too. How do I tell a story about others and attend to the autobiographical without losing the nuance and the subtlety of how that identification works? I’ve taken a couple of wrongs turns, for sure. I’m hugely invested in the stories that I tell—I’m not a detached journalist. At the same time, I don’t want this work to be all about me and my journey. Tree planting is widely considered a coming-of-age narrative. And people like me who were part of the first generation of tree planters are now in mid-life, or older. And mid-life is another new beginning. I feel like I’m coming-of-age into the next phase of my life. So visiting these young people, I see the parallels, the connections; it’s part of the appeal of this story. Talking to them is so inspiring. The lessons that they’re learning in the field, I’m re-learning, re-living.
Literally, you have to plant one tree at a time—there’s no other way to do it. But that’s also a great metaphor, isn’t it? “One tree at a time” applies to photography, to the difficulty of the kind of photography that me and many of my colleagues choose to do. To show this work is also to show the work of photography. One day at a time. One picture at a time.
It’s amazing how we need to learn the same lessons repeatedly, isn’t it? Often the simplest things prove the most complex.
Simple things you can grab. I like going back to the simple, because it’s about process. About moving. And that’s part of what this project has been—going back to the physical, going back to the forest. I find I miss being in the cut block (that’s the term for the area authorized for re-forestation). Everyone cries in the cut block. This is incredibly difficult work: it’s long and it’s hard and it’s buggy and it’s muddy. It can be miserable, lonely work. But it’s also incredibly beautiful, and can feel completely freeing, full of joy. The cut block is extreme—it intensifies the emotions, whether happy or sad or disappointed or proud. The cut block offers you the time and space to embody these emotions. And, really, to cry. Sometimes, out there, I feel like the luckiest person on earth.
Is there a specific image in this series that exemplifies this mantra, “everybody cries in the cut block”? That illustrates the simultaneity of the difficult and the liberating?
For sure. One day I took a photo of this tree planter, a woman named Jennifer Veitch. She’s an awesome tree planter. And she was leaping over top of a mountain and you can see mountains in the background. It’s the shot of a lifetime. And when I looked at it on my computer, it made me cry. It makes me cry just thinking about it—I’m crying now.
This image makes me think about my sister tree planting and me tree planting and my whole life of fucking sexism. I’m 53 years old, and I’ve done all of this fucking work, and I’ve just spent an entire three months in the bush working so hard with all this gear and all these logistics. And with 25 year olds next to me acknowledging how hard all of this is. Then I go on the internet and there’s a post about Nikon and how they got 32 guys to test their cameras? How great an opportunity is that for those photographers? It gives them such a leg up. And, really, they couldn’t find any female photographers to test their equipment? Really? It’s not about “Oh I feel hurt because Nikon’s sexist.” It’s more like “What the fuck: I’m trying to survive in my career. Could I be working harder? And then I have to look at this?” And inevitably I read the comments about how women simply turned down the chance. Yeah, right. Nikon offered you a free camera and money to go test their equipment and you said “oh no thanks” probably because you were menstruating or you had to take care of your kids or you were shopping or for sure you had something more interesting to do than advance your career? What a lie, first of all. And it’s like, “Oh fuck off.” We still have to listen to this?
I’m going to show you this picture of Jennifer. Look at this picture of a phenomenally strong, beautiful woman just fucking killing it. And I got it. I was fucking killing it, too. This, right here, is what drives me.
I asked Don four questions, must have caught him in an expansive mood. The first answer came through and I thought to myself, fuck this is long.
Then I started reading, looking at how I could cut it down to a manageable length. There was nothing to cut, it was all smart and interesting, it all flowed together, nothing was redundant. Same goes for his other three answers, too.
He talks about how he became a photographer, how he does what he does, making photobooks, leather jackets, rolling around in the sand and lots more.
So I suggest you make yourself a coffee, get comfortable (but not too comfortable, if you know what I mean) and read on. . .
Your history is, correct me if I’m wrong, in photojournalism. What made you decide to walk away from that structure and to begin to tell stories in other ways?
(Okay here we go…. sorry a little long but I think background is useful.)
It’s true! My story is rather circuitous, but there was nothing I wanted more than to be a photojournalist as a boy. I would feverishly devour any and all newsmagazines, completely fascinated by the pictures.
I had the “benefit” of growing up in the 80’s, and being able to witness through news media the tumultuous history as communism collapsed, the explosion of Chernobyl, refugees fleeing East Germany in 1988, the Berlin wall of 1989, the execution of the Ceaucescu’s live on TV over Christmas Eve, Boris Yeltsin on top of a tank in 1991, and ultimately the disintegration of our greatest “nemesis” (as politicians and journalists would have us believe). I realized then what a romantic life these photographers must have. Globetrotting, in faraway places I could barely pronounce, these were swashbuckling heroes in leather jackets. I wanted a leather jacket, too. So, I have a very intense interest in photojournalism, it was the only kind of photography that mattered and the only kind of photography I wanted to do.
However, I met a roadblock in my journey to dashing hero, when, in 1991, my high school photography teacher actually said (true quote) “You suck as a photographer. I highly recommend you apply elsewhere than photography school.” And so I listened to him. I ended up at art school, the Ontario College of Art (OCADU now). There, I studied everything, a wide artistic history and experience that suddenly opened another world for me. It was here where I became deeply fascinated by architecture, and upon graduation, I naively got on a plane to The Netherlands and went to ask for a job with Rem Koolhaas. I knocked on the door, gave them my portfolio, and oddly was offered a position. I stayed for a few years, this was 1996. But it was also empty; suddenly I was behind a desk more concerned with office politics than being in the world. As a Canadian boy in Europe, I picked up a camera that I bought from a friend.
Having this camera ignited in me such a desire again, there was an electricity that I felt through my hands when I picked the camera up, it forced me to wander the streets, to look through a viewfinder gave me such freedom of expression and a resignation of that romance. I wanted to be a photojournalist again.
Fast forward a few years, I ended up freelancing as a photojournalist for a number of years in Toronto. Slowly, my client base built up and I was working for all Canadian and foreign publications, I was working across the country and in foreign places. On one of my assignments, I was in Kiev at the height of the Orange Revolution in December, 2004. It was here where the first break from the limitations that photojournalism imposed in terms of telling a story, was discovered. For a few days in a row, I was taking the same photograph: people waving flags, shouting, the ephemera of the protest crowds, politicians on stage. I suddenly realized my photographs were useless, they were just a part of the daily effluvia that all the other photographers were contributing. Why was I there, what was I offering to this incredible story? Not much, except my presence and contribution to the stage managed revolution for media consumption.
During one of my many nights on the main square, a Ukrainian man tapped me on the shoulder and asked what I was doing; it was difficult to answer as I had no idea. He said to me: “If you want to really understand what’s happening in Ukraine, you need to go East.” That was the moment that changed my life, and my photographic outlet. I went with this new friend, Vova, with whom I am still friends. He showed me a completely different view on the world, one of traveling and living with ordinary people who had endured much, and survived everything. I began to see the modern state as a primitive and bloody sacrificial rite of unnamed power. I also understood the personal stake one has in storytelling; photojournalisms objective ideals was a fallacy and I began to see it.
So it was never a conscious choice of walking away, but instead a gradual pulling into the realization that we are beholden to structures of “documentary decorum” that has no relationship to meaningful communication. Who says a picture needs to be told in a certain manner, from where does this logic originate? Why do we kowtow to these standards when we don’t even understand where these strictures were formed? I also became disillusioned with a tightening of media hegemony – an aspect that is never discussed in photojournalism whatsoever. In our current state of affairs, media is consolidated under a few global corporations that are beholden to shareholder value and profit, galleries trade economically off exclusivity; the bottom line is the only line that matters. Photography should be an act of moral resistance in a professional world, rather than the enslavement to a market driven, commercial ideology.
And so I realized I could cleave myself from industry norms (at least attempt) and find a source of freedom to exist in a manner that is true to the story itself, and not the industry definition of aesthetic decorum. I am not interested in aesthetic superiority. I just want to tell a story that has power and resonance beyond my own myopia.
Okay. I take it that this thinking led you to Interrogations, which I see as being rooted in photojournalism but is really something else, less formulaic, more pointed. How did Interrogations lead to War Sand, which seems to me to be a complete break from the tropes of photojournalism.
Yes, in fact War Sand in a way began as a direct reaction to what was created in Interrogations. Near the end of that project (Interrogations) I began to feel uncomfortable with the complicit ways of photojournalism and documentary, not in terms of the visual but in the terms of the standardized methodology of interaction and even our purpose in creating this kind of work in such a specific way. Interrogations was called that very title for a specific reason, stretching beyond the obvious content of the book, but I began to interrogate my own methods and thoughts on photography, the interrogation of how we consume images and the interrogation of an industry itself. So I was not just indicting a corrupt system of police authority, but also indicting myself in a fragile relationship between photographer, subject and audience. I really hate the word ‘subject,’ the fact that this word is standardized language in the profession is troublesome; it is totally a clear example of the political nature of photojournalism, the complete and utter power imbalance between “us” and “them.” The fact we make these distinctions led me to a place where I never wanted to take another photograph of humans in such a manner again! It was here when I began reading parallels into the economy of images and our role in this economy. Large, corporate media was running rampant over journalism, and the calling siren was “We are changing the world,” when in fact we are just complicit in the infrastructure of capitalism. I cannot reconcile nor understand how we can create so-called socially engaged work when in fact we, as photographers, are just pawns in the capital economy; they need us for cognitive capitalism. Not sure why we need them! Anyway…
I believe in Interrogations and understand my own moral and social commitment to the work, but it certainly led me to reexamine everything I thought I already knew. I was looking to break from a mould of photography created by others. This is also reflected well in Interrogations; I tried to make the images as straightforward as possible, straight, direct, no compositional hijinks. I wanted to be as direct and “less” photographic as possible; so many times when I look at photojournalism and documentary it is more about the prowess of the compositional skill of the photographer and irrelevant to the story being told.
So these are all the tumultuous things happening in my head. At the same time, I love photography, I love the simple act of exploring an idea and seeing where it goes. Rarely do I really know what I do, I set out and over the course of time, the idea unfolds, we dig inside, the instinct takes precedence and we are just moving forward on taste, smell, touch, sound, etc. It becomes a tactile, material pursuit that leads to intellectual inquiry.
War Sand is an example of this naivety in a way, where I just wanted to attempt to make something without a camera, without surrounding myself in a political gesture, of freeing myself from the economy of photography and exist outside that sphere. To seek other ways to find a way forward. My very first trip I did not in fact even bring a camera; it was totally liberating. I walked the D-Day beaches up and down, just gathering sand samples not even sure what would happen. But on my last day, I was packing my stuff up in the rental car, when I just saw a beautiful image, something that struck me as a ‘photograph.’ So I took out my iPhone and made a snap. Suddenly, I remembered what I liked, I thought of Gary Winogrand who said, “Sometimes I just take pictures to see what they’ll look like.” And that’s what I like to do, too. Just take a picture, how is it transformed once the light transforms itself, what happens with my act of seeing and the transformations of that space in front of me? It also became fascinating as the image I just made did not reconcile with the images I had anticipated of what Normandy would like. This, in turn, led me to research old WWII images of the locations and also see the transformations of history as imposed by time; geologic, cultural, social.
From there on out, it was just a deluge, something had broke inside of me, where I could combine the gesture of Interrogations – which is really about creating work that subsists as a triangle of author, viewer and participant – and the thrill of curiosity. What happens if I do this? What happens if I do that? It doesn’t matter – I can always choose to discard it, or use it, later on. What matters is just becoming a part of the thing I want to say. I also felt liberated because I worked from no commissions, in fact I told very few people in the early stages. I never asked for an editorial assignment, nor did I want one. I made no attempts to gather shows, or anything. I won a few grants, but the expenses were low and allowed me to carve my own niche – on my time, in my voice, in my manner. I was not beholden to anyone and therefore true freedom arose; I could do what I want because I chose to step outside the confines of the dominant industry.
Tell me about the reasons you decided to self publish War Sand. Plus, I’d like to know a little about your bookmaking process.
Actually, Johan Hallberg Campbell and Eamon MacMahon and I have started a little venture called Polygon, it’s about trying to find ways around dominant modes of creation and distribution in photography, to seek an alternative way. We are trying to make things that we just want to make with as few stakeholders as possible. It ultimately is about freedom. We chose Polygon because a polygon is a multi faceted shape, it can twist and bend and deform, conform or just generally determine many ways to be. Modern photobook publishing today is ridiculous in how publishers are asking photographers for tens of thousands of dollars – how is this sustainable? What happens is we begin to trade off ego and vanity and a desire to publish. Publishers have a legitimacy of credibility, but beyond that I do not understand why they exist, especially if the business model is based upon asking the content provider for the money to create the thing you are supposed to do! I would love to hear a case study of photobook publishing at Harvard University Business School – they would laugh us all right out there. So, what we attempt to do is create a system where yes, we actually strive for profit, in turn creating another opportunity to make something, and again, and again, and again. Yes, it is part of a capitalist economy, but it is also created in a financially feasible way where the next project is beget by the previous. It is nerve-wracking and anxious time to do this, but we also feel that they only way forward as artists, creators, thinkers, photographers is to step outside the given structure and begin to form our own.
Can you elucidate your process, the nuts and bolts, of putting together War Sand?
War Sand is a great agglomeration and compendium of my total working methodology, I think. It was a great fusion of the organic, intuitive approach mashed with just a fierce curiosity of the war. I am constantly reflecting back on my process, seeking out other “things” – in terms of research, reading, watching movies, whatever, everything that is usually tangential to the project I am working on, but not necessarily dictated to by “facts” and “knowledge.” What I mean by this is, I like to consume all kinds of information, somehow it gets distilled in my head and I go from there. What I love about photography, and why I loved working on War Sand, was because it was just me and the elements. I would get wet, the salt breeze, the sand, the sea, light, clouds, sun, rain, everything. Crawling over sand dunes, driving up and down the coastal roads, probably hundreds of kilometres walked, I was becoming fused to the landscape. And when this fusion happens, an almost spiritual communion with the land occurs – we have conversations. What can I be, the land asks me. I am able to file multiple things in my brain and then bring it together through connecting dots and making relationships.
I also begin to think in “book” format – I can “see” the product without it leading to a final, definitive, form. I think it is dangerous to think of end results, instead a process should empower you to make decisions. That being said, I pretend I am flipping through a book – it gives me a sense of rhythm, timing, pace, etc., and I can then make connections with the pictures. For example, when I first started with the microscope images, I imagined how they’d look in a book, and realized here that the work needs to unfold slowly, that a “narrative” can be controlled and elucidated through that act of flipping. There are also certain brainstorms and brainwaves that occur, which usually happen whether right at that moment of photographing, or within a quick period after I am back. I always put the photographs away, and try not to look at them to quickly, I want to forget about them and be surprised. So that usually happens within a few months; while I am looking at the photos I can see patterns begin to emerge, to get a sense of what is working and what needs adaptation. Then, it is time for another trip, and the process repeats itself, with a slow refinement. Eventually, I know exactly what I am looking for, I can see the clarity of the images and it allows me to easily make images. In this case, I had been reading some work by Susan Schuppli, with this quote: “In forensic imagination, every encounter is capable of being retraced.” that was such a powerful encapsulation of what I was thinking but wasn’t able to express, and here it was in a distilled, clear quote that brought so much vividness to the photographs. That is why the images in War Sand look the way they do, I had this instinctual understanding that it was about the layers of history accumulating and transforming over time, that our sensibility of being a human is our relentless march forward, and Susan expressed this for me.
I also find that the more you go deeper and open up your sources of discovery, strange discoveries can be made. It’s also about trusting yourself, to allow yourself to figure something out, and not worry if it is valid or not. I have so much scrapped material, but I think when it works, you discover great little details. For example, I was working with an idea about dioramas when I stumbled upon a photograph of Hitler looking at a scale model; through this image I realized that model making and dioramas were an integral part – and still are – of war and conflict and how wars are waged. So I was able to connect my idea with the dioramas to a point in history that, although esoteric, still has a relationship back to history and back to WWII.
Another stage when I am working is I love to share my work with a few select people, and one of those is my great friend and closest artistic collaborator Larry Frolick (who sadly passed away from cancer this summer; I miss him terribly as he was so bold, so visionary, so carefree in his thoughts). It is important to have someone like the in your life, to inspire you, to tell you you are an idiot, whatever, as long as there is a truth being shared, you are able to reach into your own artistic consciousness and allow it to surface, any crazy idea. The other person whom I trust implicitly is Teun van der Heijden, who designed Interrogations. But he is more than just a designer, he is a shaper of ideas, able to clearly discover a form for the massive work that I have. I like to write him emails and get his thoughts – I knew when I was ready that he would also be ready to tackle this beast. We started the process about two years ago, and he has been steadfastly developing the book alongside me. This is the first time, however where I didn’t have a dummy at all to share, just all these “piles” of information that I wanted him to see, and sort of begin to figure it out from there. There was so much material that I felt overwhelmed in the dummy phase, and I wasn’t ready to be consumed by a “book,” I just needed Teun to go away and see what was there and begin to shape it. I knew what all the parts were, I just had no idea what the shape was. Eventually, and actually quite quickly, we discovered a form. At this point it wasn’t about adding new work and new ideas, but refining what I had and filling the empty holes. By this stage, it was more about consolidating conceptual ideas, refining the images and then digging into the details.
There are I guess two phases, the great accumulation of work, then the refinement of that. I am not one to sit at my desk and seek a way forward in terms of the idea, it is usually fragments, bits and pieces, scraps, floating in my head. I then go out and shoot – what does it look like, what will I see? What happened when it transfers from a view to a material reality? What happens when images start exiting beside each other? I love this phase of work, it is a constant battle between the processing of thought and the “mechanization” of those thoughts into concrete shape. White collar vs blue collar, pondering vs action, etc.
Anyway – back to the book… I had a structure in mind (due to many conversations with friends, etc.). I knew that it was about time and scale, and that it needed to be structured from macro to micro and the last half of the book it essentially explodes into a miscellany of narrative; film, stories, science, folktales, etc. Most people assumed it would be the opposite way, that we start within the grain of sand and explode out, but I imagined in my head as if I was flying, similar to 2001, when Dave goes through to infinity, we zoom through this world and slowly we focus in on the specific shape, there it is – its a grain of sand, that’s it, that’s all we are in the end.
I assign myself “slogans” or “pitches,” effective questions which sit in my consciousness and offer me a way to measure clarity. For example, D-Day, from myth to micron; D-Day – told through a grain of sand; a granulated history; the transformations of history through narrative. When you have this knowledge, it is so clear and simple and straightforward that you do not get lost or muddied by concept and technique, but rather focus on the purity of the idea.
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1/ In preparation for this Don sent me a PDF of the book: War Sand. I was struck by the complexity (and, in a way, the simplicity) of the thing. The images from War Sand displayed here just scratch the surface (no pun intended) of that book; its ingenuity, depth, beauty and breadth take the breath away.
2/ These days, besides continuing to photograph, Don is teaching at the Royal Academy of Art (KABK) in The Hague, The Netherlands in the BA photography department, where he is developing a new Masters program called Photography & Society. He has just finished his book, War Sand. He is also working on a smaller project, Monumental Propaganda, about the remaining monuments in Ukraine after their program of ‘de-communization.’ Don lives in Amsterdam. _____________
Thank you for your time