ALUMNI HIGHLIGHTS

Between Fiction and Non-Fiction - Alum I-Chuan Lee in conversation with Ann Collins

Between Fiction and Non-Fiction – About My Cambodian Film Project

李以全 I-Chuan Lee (b. Taiwan) is a multimedia artist based in New York City. He graduated from the School of Visual Arts with a MFA in Photo, Video, and Related Media in 2016. He works as a film maker, photographer, video art artist and illustrator. His documentary photojournalist experience in Cambodia, Nepal, India and Taiwan affects his aesthetic significantly and his work is often questioning the meaning of our lives.

Faculty member Ann Collins has been working in documentary film for over twenty-five years. Her editing credits include the feature documentaries The Heart of the Matter, Belly Talkers, The Charcoal People, and Sound and Fury, all of which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival before receiving theatrical and television distribution. Sound and Fury was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.

Ann Collins: What inspired you to choose child sex labor as the subject of your video?

I-Chuan Lee: It began when I was working on a project to raise funding for an orphanage in Cambodia where the children were HIV positive. The NGO I was working for had sent me to document the living conditions. It had a huge impact on me and although it was several years ago, I couldn’t stop thinking about the causes of their situation. My research led me to encounter the sexual exploitation of children, and I wanted to make a film to inform others.

AC: What is the translation of Srey Lia? Is it a little girl’s name?

ICL: Yes. “Srey” is a prefix in Khmer, which means “girl” or “female” and “Lia” is a common name both in English and Khmer. Everything in this film, including the protagonist, is quite symbolic. It’s my intention to reinforce that this story is not a unique occurrence, but one that reflects countless people in the real world who were represented by actors. However, I still wanted to personalize the character Srey Lia and use her name as the title of the film.

 Still from Srey Lia (2017)

Still from Srey Lia (2017)

AC: You cite Robert Capra’s Falling Soldier photograph as a work to which you have given a great deal of consideration. That photograph opens many questions for you about truth versus a kind of un-truth in art. After making this video, how do you now feel about Falling Soldier, and in what ways did that image guide your process?

ICL: In my experience as a documentary filmmaker there are certain things that can’t be gracefully put in a conventional documentary if we follow a moral code. We are forced to use title cards, narratives and interviews just so we can cover the historical material that is either missing or physically impossible to capture. This compromise often sacrifices other areas we seek to portray in the film. And I think the authenticity of Falling Soldier is the non-fiction-ness and the true-ness isn’t always positively correlated. When the topic is about a metaphoric narrative in which I have total control; if not more truthful, would at least be easier to make it emotionally accurate than making a conventional documentary.

AC: What other work inspired you as you conceptualized Srey Lia?

ICL: I like the narrative structure that Béla Tarr employs, especially the way he deals with space, framing and camera movement. Zbigniew Rybczynski’s Tango is also a piece about looping actions and a room. He understood how to choose the right visual effect techniques for the topic. Russian Ark by Alexander Sokurov helped me comprehend the connections between the cinematographer, audience and the environment from a different perspective.

AC: Watching a video is a temporal event; time passes while we watch it. In your video, time is manipulated in several interesting ways. It is continuous—the entire piece appears to be all one camera take. Yet within that take, the video goes forward and in reverse. What about your subject and your personal vision inspired this?

ICL: I wanted to make sure that the audience was “hooked” at the beginning of the film, and so I thought it would be more intriguing to show the “result” first. Then time goes backward as if we’re tracing Srey Lia’s early life. The camera is constantly panning to strengthen the sense of looping in a room. The panning direction also implies the passage of time. So when the panning stops and goes in the other direction, the audience expects something else will happen, as if the girl could break the cycle. But even her escape route is a descending spiral—like rewinding a clock.

 Stills from Srey Lia (2017)

Stills from Srey Lia (2017)

IChuanlee-3.jpg

AC: Your use of sound, particularly off-screen sound, adds a great deal to the viewer’s experience of the space within the frame. Can you comment on some of the sound choices you made?

ICL: Sounds play a very important part in this piece. I imagined that being caged in a tiny room is like being blindfolded. While you’re desperately trying to understand what is going on, the visible environment is immutable, and all the information you can get is from your hearing. It’s also about our instincts and senses—about how animals listen. Hunters and those who are preyed upon listen in very different ways: the former is focused in searching for and evaluating its prey; the latter tends to listen to the whole environment, and to analyze and locate possible incoming threats. In this film, the audience is the hunted; to create this desperate and hopeless feeling, I installed a series of sounds that surround the room. I like the sound that the bed makes whenever the weight changes, which is indicative of the tedious aspects of sexual exploitation. It made this sexual abuse enterprise even more insidious.

AC: What was most challenging about the production and editing of this video?

ICL: The most difficult part was the storyboarding. Due to the consistency of camera movement and the manipulation of time in the video, I had to figure out a way to bring all of the elements together in the right order, not just to tell the story, but also to make it logical in reverse, to fit everything in given the interior limitations and to make sure each cut could be merged into the next sequence. I didn’t have much freedom when the storyboard was complete, since there was no way to change the sequencing and remain in the one-cut structure.

 Still from Srey Lia (2017)

Still from Srey Lia (2017)

AC: What was most challenging about working with young actors?

ICL: Surprisingly, it wasn’t that challenging. The only issue was in filming the exterior scene. Srey Neath, who played the younger Srey Lia, was frightened by a lunatic on the street and after a few shots she refused to go there again, so we had very limited footage for the escape scene.

AC: What kind of impact do you hope the work will have?

ICL: I do hope this film will help more people to understand that sometimes we don’t get to choose what we do, and that society is still far from an ideal one. Making someone think is good enough for me.

AC: Do you think you would have made this video if you had not attended the MFA program?

ICL: I probably would have tried, but it’s hard to imagine the outcome without the things I learned at SVA.

AC: Did you find a community of like-minded artists at SVA? A diversity of other styles? How did your fellow students and their work influence you?

ICL: I like the diversity; everyone’s working on their own stuff and we have the structure of the program that brings us together. It’s good that we’re from various backgrounds and perspectives—that helps us to expand the way we see our own works.

 Still from Srey Lia (2017)

Still from Srey Lia (2017)

AC: Are you able to say anything about where you are presently going with your work?

ICL: Honest answer: Trying to figure out a way to stay in New York and survive.

AC: Is there anything else you would like to say?

ICL: If you ever ride a motorbike in Cambodia, make sure you have insurance.

Srey Lia is a fiction film about the unbreakable loop of poverty, illness and prostitution. It addresses the shift from traditional human trafficking to modernized sex industry in Cambodia and many other places in Southeast Asia. It questions the essential exploitations in the industry when systematic injustices are undeniable. This film was shot in Cambodia with a mixture of actors, props and non-fiction sceneries and characters of the red-light district. Most of the shots are designed to be made into a continuous camera panning video in a tiny room in order to embody the circle of prostitution.

On Feelings, Politics, the Future and Being Hit in the Face by Marko Kovacevic

On Feelings, Politics, the Future and Being Splashed in the Face

Marko Kovacevic, alum 2016

 Splash by Marko Kovacevic   In the spring of   2017   I approached Marko to write for our “Alice”   publication  . It was to accompany a video he made for my class. I knew his experience with government red tape would prove insightful. Given the times we live, it is necessary to listen to those affected. When he makes a comparison of lovers and politicians we are given access and can   relate   to a universal need for   compassion  . -Randy West, faculty

Splash by Marko Kovacevic

In the spring of 2017 I approached Marko to write for our “Alice” publication. It was to accompany a video he made for my class. I knew his experience with government red tape would prove insightful. Given the times we live, it is necessary to listen to those affected. When he makes a comparison of lovers and politicians we are given access and can relate to a universal need for compassion. -Randy West, faculty

We live in trying times. Many smart people have tried (and mostly failed) to provide comfort, offer explanations or devise solutions. I wouldn’t dare attempt that. What I can offer are my thoughts in a meandering stream of consciousness.

In April 2015 I made a short video. The piece was fairly straightforward—a quick, rough and impulsive experiment in filmmaking or performance art that happened to hit upon something that was emotionally genuine and true. The short was an unauthorized music video for the song “Station” by a young English musician named Låpsley. If I am to be completely honest, the video owes more than a little of its emotional impact to this hypnotic song, which I was quite obsessed with at the time.

The video was about love. In a departure from my deliberately unemotional approach to making art, I created a very personal piece about how it felt to be in love with someone who didn’t love me back. How long would I keep coming back, enthusiastically craving something that was ultimately disastrous for my wellbeing? The original idea for the piece was to be repeatedly slapped, but the final video is far more nuanced.

And so, on a cold day in early spring, I stood at the open door to my backyard and was splashed in the face with water—some 50 times. The water was warm and steam rose from my body in the cool air. In the background, life goes on through flickers in my neighbors’ window; they are oblivious to the person getting drenched outside.

My eyes hurt from the water. Although I knew the splashes were coming, or perhaps because I knew, the expectation of each new wave was nerve-racking. I laughed uncontrollably—partially because of the ridiculousness of the situation, and partially out of desperation from the repeated water attacks. I showed the video in class and it had an odd effect: Some people found it funny and uplifting, others moving and sad. There may have even been a few tears.

Two years later, I was asked if the video could be featured in “Alice.” I gladly accepted. And there was a further request: I was also asked to submit a short text that addressed my experiences as an immigrant in the current U.S. political climate. Even though the theme of immigration is central to my actual art practice, the idea of such a text accompanying my atypical water-splashing video made me nervous. How did the two relate? Should it even matter? The video was one of only a handful of projects I’ve done that was unrelated to the immigrant experience. Or at least the intention was personal rather than political. There was, however, a very visceral, yet unconscious, connection that later became clear to me.

Like so many, politics have become increasingly personal to me; I read the news and feel anger and sadness in ways that I have rarely experienced outside the most intimate realm. Our current political climate is full of rage and spite, more reminiscent of a quarrel between vengeful lovers than of discourse among political opponents.

The day after the U.S. presidential election of 2016, I watched the euphoria of the previous day melt into scenes of stoic New Yorkers crying on the F train. That evening I met a stranger in a bar and we spent an intense, wild night together. The political insult felt so personal, a slap in the face (pun intended), and it had to be exorcised on an intimate level—to feel wanted and alive.

We (the people) have a peculiar relationship to the future. It does not exist, yet we see it vividly and treat it as something tangible—a precious object we possess. Breaking up with someone important has a strange effect on this vision of the future. A landscape of recognizable markers is replaced by a dizzying chasm. Suddenly, there are interruptions in our cognitive processes—thoughts and ideas cannot find their target. Our perceptions and identity, once anchored to an idea of the future, have become loose ends that dangle in the wind of uncertainty. So, too, does our political reality feel like a dramatic break-up.

Now, not to be the ever-gloomy Eastern European, I will say that this might all be a good thing, a great thing in fact. A vision of a brighter future can be a motivating source of strength; it can also be a crutch. Once free of the distracting protection of a fictitious future, we can truly take on the present. Since November though, both the present and the future seem unrecognizable and scary.

The U.S. has always been a better concept than a reality in my opinion, no matter what the people with the red hats think. But until November 2016 it seemed to be inching slowly and unevenly forward. To an immigrant, the future can often be hazy, conditioned by the next interview, the next visa, and the next status. I made a film about navigating the visa system, but since the election even that seems irrelevant; the immigration system itself is in question. I had been exploring the tedium of bureaucracy but suddenly I was afraid of far more dramatic situations—worried for friends who are asylum seekers or happen to be from the “wrong” country and rushing to a number of hastily arranged weddings at City Hall.

As a white European and a permanent resident in liberal New York City, my status is similar to that of a U.S. citizen. I am well aware of the privilege this position affords me. But last month on a trip abroad, I imagined the unlikely scenario in which my country, Serbia, caused a diplomatic incident and, after an angry tweet by the president, I end up on some list, suddenly unable to return to the U.S. I knew, too, that I would be relatively fine if this were to happen; for so many others, having to leave would mean disaster.

The person who inspired my “water” video is no longer a part of my life. While making the video I thought about the difference between a good person who, unknowingly, repeatedly hurts others, and a bad person who deliberately does so. I determined that, at some point, the distinction doesn't matter, only actions do. It took a while to understand this and even longer to accept, but after all my attempts and efforts to talk and understand, all the beauty had washed away and all I could see was the ugliness. In the end it was easy to walk away.

I understand people who contemplate leaving the United States. The idea of breaking up with a country that we feel has betrayed everything it’s meant to represent is very tempting. But this line of thinking is reserved for those of privilege—those who have a choice. With that privilege comes a responsibility to those who don’t. There is still hope that I can help things change for the better. I’m staying for another splash.

 

 

      

  
     
    
       
        
           
                
           
        

        

       
    
     
  


     

  
     
    
       
        
           
                
           
        

        

       
    
     
  


     Darlene is a young lady who is a pop star of sorts. As a portrait photographer, what I find most interesting about Darlene is Nick’s relationship to her.   When Nick and I discussed his fantasy character, he spoke of her as though they were the same person. I had just finished a yearlong project photographing trans men and was very excited to see how I would translate or render Darlene’s identity through my lens. The aim was to create a quasi-magazine spread for her – something similar to Vanity Fair or Rolling Stone – but I liked the idea of the pictures weaving a line between editorial and advertising, with a nod to popular imagery that we see in today’s media.       

  
     
    
       
        
           
                
           
        

        

       
    
     
  


     I wanted Darlene to look impeccable, strong, raw, and beautiful. I chose Calvin Klein underwear for wardrobe because it is one of the most recognizable sexy garments for a young generation. Calvin Klein chooses high profile models, actors, and singers to sell their brand, and I thought Darlene would portray this ideal perfectly.  As much as she's making a declaration in her Calvins, Darlene also deserves to be seen as an earnest lady. She has a story to tell, and I imagined that she would want to show us her chic side wearing fur and an up-do.  Watching Nick become Darlene was the highlight of this collaboration. Nick required little direction, and quickly understood what I wanted Darlene to exude – lips slightly parted, eyes a bit starstruck, an attitude of take me or leave me, but please want me. Within seconds he seamlessly transitioned into Darlene, and revealed the many facets of her personality – just the way she needed us to see them.   Melody Melamed       

  
     
    
       
        
           
                
           
        

        

       
    
     
  


    
 Initially I had no idea that having an alter ego would take me on a two-year photographic journey. My thesis project “xoxo, Darlene” began as an unspoken hought, and soon this imaginary friend developed into a full-fledged, realized identity.  
 Darlene became a part of me throughout my graduate studies, but it was this carefully focused photo shoot that allowed her inner star to shine bright. With Melody’s direction,  a make-up artist carefully sculpting my face and a lighting crew, Darlene became the brave woman and heroine I wanted her to be. With the support of my peers, the mfa photo department, and a lot of trial and error with makeup and dance moves, I can finally say that I not only feel comfortable in #mycalvins, but also in my life.   Nick Alciati

XOXO DARLENE

Darlene became a part of me throughout my graduate studies, but it was this carefully focused photo shoot that allowed her inner star to shine bright. With Melody’s direction, a make-up artist carefully sculpting my face and a lighting crew, Darlene became the brave woman and heroine I wanted her to be. With the support of my peers, the mfa photo department, and a lot of trial and error with makeup and dance moves, I can finally say that I not only feel comfortable in #mycalvins, but also in my life.

       POLICING GENDER  
 By Lorenzo Triburgo 
 What I have grown to despise about images also saved my life.  
     

  
     
    
       
        
           
                
           
        

        

       
    
     
  


     In The Secret Paris of the 30’s, Brassaï reflects on his collection of photographs that depicts prostitutes, pimps, queers, and other “vagabonds” who surfaced after sunset. Among these photographs is “Lesbian Couple at Le Monocle” from 1932, showing a butch-femme couple sitting in a lesbian bar, which was shot from slightly overhead using his signature harsh flash. Brassaï bestows upon us his uninformed insight about the figures he represents, “Obsessed by their unattainable goal to be men, they wore the most somber uniforms; black tuxedos, as though in mourning for their ideal masculinity.”   Brassaï unknowingly created a lineage—his photograph was a lifeline to me as a young artist grappling with my female masculinity. I have known for a long time that I wanted to write in homage to “Lesbian Couple.”  As Jack Halberstam wrote in The Queer Art of Failure, this other reading of Brassaï’s photographs wholly undermines his ignorance.  “The photographs tell more than Brassaï can ever narrate: of inventive transgendering, the careful remodeling of the ‘heterosexual matrix’ by butch-femme couples reveling in the possibilities that Paris at night offered them in the 1930s, and of darkness, the shadow world within which the inauthentic, the unreal, and the damned play out their shadow lives.”   When I first saw that butch-dyke-masculine-female-gender-queer figure, I understood. It turns out we exist. As do the likewise invisible gender-queer-feminine-ladies. Though I deride the thought of Brassaï wandering into a lesbian bar, and then writing about the psyche of the people he hit with flash, and I despise this urge that is propagated and justified by photography, I marvel at photography because it brought me to the mythical creatures—my ancestors. In this way, my passion for photography is forged with my very existence.   Brassaï’s photographs weren’t the only ones that saved my life. I again experienced the unfamiliar sensation of sisterbrotherhood/existence/history/lineage through the 1999 exhibition Inverted Odysseys: Claude Cahun, Maya Deren, Cindy Sherman, which brought Claude Cahun’s self-portraits to the United States.   In contrast to Brassaï’s photographs, Cahun provided a historical lineage of self-representation. The morphing presentations of the self freed me from the dominant framework in which I could only see myself reflected through Brassaï’s lens as “Other.”  Simultaneously, seeing anyone who looked like me in a photograph resulted in a pang of loneliness—my newfound solidarity, my mythical ancestors reaching me through time—made me keenly aware of my isolation. As I have learned, it was not necessarily a bad thing (again see The Queer Art of Failure). My interest in the specific alienation of a queer existence can be found as thread running through my artwork.   My current project, Policing Gender, is an installation that addresses the loneliness, danger and fear of queer existence that are perhaps nowhere more perceptible in the U.S. than in the prison system.  While researching the prison system for this project, I was reminded of my initial glimpses of the mythical creatures. On a visit to a historical penitentiary the mug shot of Daisy Parsley hung on display. And yes. Here was another of my ancestors. Only this time, the punishment for female masculinity wasn’t to be insulted by a brash photographer. The punishment for Parsley was extended prison time and forced assimilation. The reality of gender policing washed over me.       

  
     
    
       
        
           
                
           
        

        

       
    
     
  


    
 Displayed alongside Parley’s image was a letter to the prison warden in which Parsley makes it clear that she/they was being targeted for being gender non-conforming. And, today, gender variant youth are given longer sentences than their counterparts. Like Parsley, they need to demonstrate “good behavior” in order to be released. As in 1946, good behavior today is conflated with so-called gender-appropriate behavior. Incarcerated youth are subject to rehabilitative programming that often determines their release date. Trans and gender nonconforming youth have been punished and detained under the pretense that their inability or refusal to demonstrate “gender appropriate” behavior, such as walking “like a man” for young transgender women, is obstructing their rehabilitation. 
 An inordinate number of people in the U.S. are having their bodies taken from them, especially transgender women of color. And we, on the outside, are all benefiting from it in some way.  “You must always remember that the sociology, the history, the economics, the graphs, the charts, the regressions all land, with great violence, upon the body.” (Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me)  Working with the prison abolitionist organization, Black and Pink, I became pen pals with 32 LGBTQ-identified prisoners in Oregon. A number of them are now my friends. These are people shuffled out of sight and shuttered out of reach. It is this absence upon which I reflect in Policing Gender. Fabric, on set, lit for a portrait. Waiting for a subject.      

  
     
    
       
        
           
                
           
        

        

       
    
     
  


     Jail cells have been pictured, caricatured even. The tiny living quarters are known. Subconsciously, if I photograph inside a prison, the dank, dark, concrete spaces, the bars, the locks, the thick doors and tiny windows, the food trays being slid through an opening smaller than a mail slot—an association will be formed. These icons signify criminality. There are too many visuals that link those spaces to violence and danger. Instead of creating more of these images, I worked with my pen pals to record the stories of their incarceration that accompany the photographs in Policing Gender.   Through these relationships I have come to know the frailty of my freedom, while recognizing my privileged position. Grappling with this knowledge I portray flight. The aerial view is precarious; flying without direction by way of a balloon.  Like Brassaï, the camera operator who captured Parsley’s mug shot had no idea it would inspire a 21st-century queer artist. This subversive appropriation of meaning that may only be possible with a photograph continues to shape my life.

POLICING GENDER by Lorenzo Triburgo

In The Secret Paris of the 30’s, Brassaï reflects on his collection of photographs that depicts prostitutes, pimps, queers, and other “vagabonds” who surfaced after sunset. Among these photographs is “Lesbian Couple at Le Monocle” from 1932, showing a butch-femme couple sitting in a lesbian bar, which was shot from slightly overhead using his signature harsh flash. Brassaï bestows upon us his uninformed insight about the figures he represents, “Obsessed by their unattainable goal to be men, they wore the most somber uniforms; black tuxedos, as though in mourning for their ideal masculinity.” 

 

Place as Social Practice

by alum Peter Svarzbein, from the 2015 issue of "All the Best, Alice."

Home is a concept filled with memory. The big third-grade classroom seems much smaller when we visit years later. Similarly, nostalgia can inflate history and give exaggerated power to our past. With this in mind I began a project about my hometown, El Paso, by looking at and celebrating those symbols of the past.

I never thought I would go back home and establish roots there again in any meaningful way. Being home has allowed me to view it differently: not as something static, but as something pliable and, in a sense, infinite.

Photo & Video Sharing by SmugMug

The El Paso Transnational Trolley Project began as my graduate thesis project at SVA. It was a yearlong ad campaign that focused on imagining a streetcar running between El Paso, Texas, and Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, based on a streetcar line that operated there from 1902 to 1974. The project is a love letter to El Paso, the city that raised me, and a city that was experiencing enormous stress and hardship due to frayed relations with its sister city Ciudad Juarez. The objectives of the project were two-fold:

  1. To imagine a better future. Without this goal, it’s almost impossible to have a better future, and I felt it vitally important to begin a conversation about those values that make this border region distinctive and special. And in so doing to demonstrate the necessity of continued advocacy for border crossing.
  2. To represent the unique environments of border cities, and specifically the El Paso del Norte Borderplex. The reality of living on the border, regardless of socio-economic circumstances, is that at some point those who live there have the desire and need to cross the border. I felt this story of the border had not been told, that people were accepting simple-minded and stereotyped views of this territory between two countries.

Photo & Video Sharing by SmugMug

This trolley project took on a life of its own. The evening I returned to El Paso I started taking portraits. In the first two months, working with friends, I began to photograph simple portraits in Juarez and El Paso as well as Las Cruces, New Mexico. They were black and white images that I transformed into a mosaic of a vintage El Paso PCC streetcar. The mosaic included more than 2,000 portraits, a time capsule of the region in 2011—a year during which almost 3,000 people were killed in Ciudad Juarez. The mosaic was created as a symbol of hope. Its faces were our faces, here on the border, and I wanted our real selves to be represented, rather than leave this narrative to others, outsiders, who feel competent to tell my community what we look like and how we conduct ourselves.

Photographer Peter Svarzbein at the trolley depot in the desert near the airport of El Paso, Texas. Peter ha s great project going to revive the old trolley line from El Paso to Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. Check out his The El Paso Transnational Trolley Project at http://elpasotransnationaltrolley.tumblr.com/LA FRONTERA: Artists along the US Mexican Border© Stefan Falkehttp://www.stefanfalke.com/

The final border breached with the El Paso Transnational Trolley Project was the wall between politics and art: In February 2012, the project turned into a real-world grassroots campaign when we started collecting not portraits but signatures in an attempt to save the vintage streetcars eroding in the desert. We secured almost 2,000 signatures from citizens and that support resulted in El Paso city representatives supporting a project for an intra-city rail. A sketch in 2010 transformed into a shovel-ready plan in 2013, which was funded by the Texas Department of Transportation in the summer of 2014.

Photo & Video Sharing by SmugMug

Photo & Video Sharing by SmugMug

Social practice in the arts can be defined as work that exists outside of galleries and that focuses on initiating change in ways that are more than merely aesthetic. El Paso and its border region is a space constantly in negotiation with itself and the governments of Mexico and the United States, as well as the Municipality of Chihuahua and State of Texas. For me, going home was a chance to see my work and my life evolve and coalesce, where my concerns of dialogue, understanding and development stopped becoming a project and became my life’s ambition. This has led me to run for the El Paso City Council. As lines continue to blur among artistic genres and mediums one thing has become clear: We need fewer politicians and more artists in politics.

Photo & Video Sharing by SmugMug

A History of Violence or: How I Learned to Stop Trusting Photography and Start Seeing

by alum Daniel Johnson, from the 2015 issue of "All the Best, Alice." All images by Daniel Johnson.

We’ve read over and over again about technology changing everything, the end of photography, and how the sky is falling. And it’s mostly true. Things have changed, and they will continue to change. But we have passed the time where you could have a conversation just about cameras and photographs. As photography becomes more and more a part of our daily language, there’s more of a need for us to really begin to question the power of photography.

Photo & Video Sharing by SmugMug

With distance no longer a limiting factor in the creation of communities, where an image lives digitally really changes how an image is digested. Context has now become one of the main catalysts in the democratization of content. What’s really changed is the way we look. And that we’re always looking. Yes, photographs are everywhere, but so is everything else. Instagram, for instance, started as a photo-sharing app, and now it’s hard to imagine the service without text posts or videos.

Photo & Video Sharing by SmugMug

Our digital lives are rich with content. We have tapped into a persistent rush. I think this makes it especially important to think about what photography is doing for us. The engagement that we have with a photograph is limited to a few seconds before we’re moving on to the next, liking, reblogging, or favoriting. The tricky part isn’t just that photography is constantly in transition, it’s that the platforms are too. The technologies that build contexts are in a constant state of flux with updates and upgrades and OS changes and new hardware, and on top of that most of us are still using outmoded systems to judge photographs like view cameras and 8x10” sheets of film are still relevant to photography today. We’re a part of an image-literate society with a value system that’s about as nuanced as the difference between a grunt and a groan. And somehow we still think it’s OK to rely on photography to relay the extremely delicate and complicated realities of people around the world.

Photo & Video Sharing by SmugMug

Let’s talk photography. While mostly recognized as immediate and technological, photography is a process that materializes in steps (especially today’s digital images); the photograph isn’t complete just because the shutter closes. Everything that happens after a photograph is made, the writing and rewriting of data, image manipulation, sequencing, printing and framing is just as important in the creation of the photograph as the technical process that actually made it. This is one of the most important lessons I learned in graduate school that really changed the way I thought about photography. My expectations changed, beauty and truth were decentered, and I became more interested in the why and how of a photograph than the what. Photographs were no longer just photographs but facades supported by systems like culture. They couldn’t be the autonomous images I once thought they were. They were markers of status, indicators of prejudice, manifestations of racism, reflections of narcissism, and symbols of sexism, among other things. Photography had lied to me. And now, I could see the seams, the pixels, the noise, the structures and patterns that held the images in place.

Photo & Video Sharing by SmugMug

I believe that there are times when photography, in spite of its failures, still really means something. The photographs coming out of Ferguson, MO, following the shooting of the unarmed teenager Michael Brown, for example, are one instance where a set of photographs was able to capture our attention in a way that really mattered. But even those images were subject to the limitations of photography. The same photographs, once placed into the world, were only a couple words away from portraying looters rather than nonviolent protesters. The narratives built by these images depended heavily on external information, information that could not be communicated through a photograph. The reality that the photograph projected was limited. It could not show the whole story. It did not show every angle. It was specific only in its lack of specificity. The cold war of image that played out on the national news front underlined the violence that is implicit in photography. This is a violence that is about control: a deep historical violence that privileges those in power and others everyone else. The subjects of the photographs are powerless to assert their personhood; they are subjugated. The real violence in these images was not what was shown but what was taken.

Photo & Video Sharing by SmugMug

“To photograph people is to violate them, by seeing them as they never see themselves, by having knowledge of them that they can never have; it turns people into objects that can be symbolically possessed. Just as a camera is a sublimation of the gun, to photograph someone is a subliminal murder - a soft murder, appropriate to a sad, frightened time.” -Susan Sontag

ANDREW HARRINGTON: DEAR GIRL

Dear Girl,

I write this to you now but I know five words in its a futile venture, you will never read it. What was said couldn’t be taken back, what happened was a mistake and I’m going to work on coming to peace with it. I know my words cut you and even when it was happening I couldn’t stop and I am sorry for that. I don’t seek to justify but I feel like I owe you a better answer than my hung-over apologies the next day.

deargirl1.jpg

You see, I can remember the first time I saw you as clearly and intensely as some of the more traumatic parts of my life. I was working at the coffee shop at our school, a morning shift with clay just as an excuse for free coffee and breakfast. The clicking of high heels on the slate floor caught my attention as soon as you rounded the corner and headed in my direction and all I could do was stare, the yolk of my breakfast sandwich dripping down my fingers and landing on the counter. You were wearing an airy white blouse tucked into an intensely tight black skirt that had a slit up the side to reveal even more of the fishnet stockings that clinged to your legs. You drank your cup of coffee at the counter looking at me through your oversized glasses, your lipstick left ruby red prints on the glass that I washed off after you left as Clay was going on and on saying ‘I’m going to fuck that girl so gross’ blah, blah, blah. All I wanted to do was take you to dinner and look into your eyes and kiss you if you let me. But yet before I got the chance to smile at you and talk to you more than a handful of times you ended up in the bed of Clay and it wasn’t just a one-time thing.

deargirl4.jpg

ALUMNI SPOTLGHT: IVAN CORTAZAR

IVÁN CORTÁZAR
Tesoros (excerpt), 2013

My grandparents have been married for 60 years. Tesoros is a documentary of their real life relationship, juxtaposed with a fictional story about platonic love, starring them as actors. 1 fiction + 1 documentary = 2 love stories. Tesoros is a mixture between a modern fairytale and the bittersweet reality of love.

Tesoros – Trailer from Ivan Cortazar on Vimeo.

Iván Cortázar, a 2012 NYFA Fellow, was born in Bilbao, Spain. His short film Una Historia de Invierno won the 2005 Black Maria Film Festival Citation Award and has been screened internationally in numerous festivals. His 2009 Artium Museum Fellowship project, They Sleep Beneath the Water, won first prize for video at that year’s Pancho Cossío Art Competition, and his latest film, Desastre(s), has been screened in more than 75 international film festivals, winning 12 awards. He is currently writing his first feature film and developing an interactive children’s book.

ALUMNI SPOTLIGHT: SHARON MOONEY

The booth is where time and existence transform. Within its confines, Rebecca is in tune with the sounds, smells, and demands of this closed off world. With her own realist take, she discusses its beauty, nightmares, and future at the historic Music Box Theater.


Sharon_Mooney.jpg

Sharon A. Mooney is an LA-based video artist who hails from Richmond, Virginia. Her neo-realistic work in documentary portrait, narrative, and animation has been screened internationally in a variety of festivals and galleries. She currently is a faculty member at Loyola Marymount University’s School of Film and Television in Los Angeles.