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