What excites you most about photography?
I like to look. I mean really look at things. Actually, let’s just call it what it is, I like to stare. When I was young, my parents would take my sister and I to the boardwalk and we would hang out on benches and just watch people walk around, get arrested, pick each other up, etc. Photography gives me the ability to stop all that action and just watch it for as long as I want.
Can you describe the collaboration between you and your subjects in He Opened Up Somewhere Along The Eastern Shore? And why this title?
The two main protagonists are Patrick and Steven. I grew up with these guys. Patrick is my best friend and Steven is his younger brother. I had been photographing Patrick for many years, but didn’t start photographing Steven until we took a road trip during the winter of 2007 to see Patrick for the New Year. During the car ride, Steven started to open up to me about his experiences in the Marines and his feelings/vulnerability surrounding the death of his best friend Josh, a childhood friend of mine as well. When I first started to photograph Patrick I was trying to make pictures which described our friendship. This incredibly close connection between two men. One straight, one gay. I could never figure out how to do it right or even if there was something even photographic to find in the first place. When Steven shared his story, I started to think back to all of the stories Patrick had shared and realized that was the story I could tell. One about men, realizing the armor, the camouflage they had been wearing —the one they were told would protect them— wasn’t going to really protect them from death, their feelings, the shortcomings of their life in relation to their expectations, etc. I shared this with them in one form or another shortly after we started making pictures together. It was during the weekend I made “Steven in a bed of flowers” that Steven decided to open his archive and I found the images he had made in Iraq and the dancing video he had shot. In many ways, that’s when the true collaboration began. He knew I would not only find them interesting but somehow also realized that his pictures would be an integral part to the story I was trying to tell. As for the title, it came about when I was talking with Larry Sultan, my main advisor in graduate school. We were discussing the project and I said, “Somewhere along the Eastern Shore, Steven suddenly opened up.” He stopped me and with a smile on his face he said, “Listen to yourself, that’s your title.” I reworked the structure slightly and removed Steven’s name and have loved it ever since.
With this series, you were one of the runners up of the 2009 Aperture Portfolio Prize. How has your work benefited from this?
Being shortlisted for the prize was totally surprising and has been an amazing experience. Getting the chance to do a limited edition print with a publication, no, a force in photography like Aperture has been a dream come true. It also validated the project in a way. I had received a fair amount of praise for it beforehand but being recognized so publicly helped me feel secure that I was on the right path.
What do you look for in an image, what catches your eye?
I look for the things hiding in plain sight.
Can you tell me more about your series I slowly watched him disappear?
I slowly watched him disappear is a part of a larger project called He which also includes He Opened Up Somewhere Along the Eastern Shore and a few new projects I have just started making pictures and videos about. In many ways, it’s the beginning of my investigation into the way the American military “builds a man.” I met Sharrod, my subject, during my last year of graduate school. My father had asked me what I planned to do during my winter vacation and I said that I would like to meet someone who was currently going through the same NJROTC program that Patrick and Steven had completed. He replied quickly that the son of one of his coworkers was actually going through the same program at my old high school. Sharrod, his mother and I scheduled a meeting and the first picture I made of Sharrod is actually one of my favorites: Sharrod (balcony). I am now two years into the project and plan to continue photographing him until he graduates from high school in June 2012. I am currently concerned with the following questions in I slowly watched him disappear: How will Sharrod orient himself in the uniform he has been given? How does fantasy, imagination and play inform the construction of a masculine identity? Sharrod’s mother said that she no longer recognized her son when he puts on his uniform, will Sharrod get to a point where he no longer recognizes himself?
How do you find inspiration on a daily basis?
I talk to my dad almost daily. He’s taught me a way to be a man that I will forever treasure. Specifically a way of being a man which allows for incredible self awareness and the sharing of very emotional experiences. When I don’t think I can go any further, my father and I talk about life and I realize that this work is not only necessary, it is the only way I can be truly understood. (Believe me, realizing that is incredibly motivating and inspiring.)
A strong feeling I had while looking at your work is that you always seem to maintain some sort of outsider position, even when photographing your own family. Is this something you’re conscious of?
That’s a really insightful and interesting observation. It’s not something I am consciously working towards. I think the camera or any appartus we put between us and the thing we are watching, places us at some kind of a distance to that event. I am not the kind of photographer who makes pictures every day. In fact, I can go months without picking up my camera so when I do, I am pretty focused on finding whatever it is I am curious about that day. Perhaps that is why there is this outsider position? I don’t know.
You have an MFA from California College of the Arts in San Francisco. How has studying within a postgraduate program help you develop your own photographic practice?
When I left my undergraduate program, I had the tools to make somewhat sophisticated pictures but I had no idea why I was attracted to what I was attracted to. It was during graduate school, where I had to really start defending my “eye” that I realized the worth of a postgraduate program. I was not having to defend the cropping choices I was making or color balance, no, I had to defend and organize where and what I was pointing my camera at for the first time. I realize now that everything was already there during and after undergrad, it just needed some shaping. Graduate school helped me figure out how to shape what I was making and my advisors and peers helped me find my way down a path that will hopefully keep me curious for the rest of my life.
Is there a photo you didn’t take, but wish you had?
I traveled across country via a hop on/hop off ticket from Greyhound during the summer of 2003. When I found myself stranded at a bus station in one of the square states, a kind drag queen (out of drag, of course) brought me to the local (gay) bar for a beverage while I waited for the next bus heading West. I wish I had of made a picture of the bartender and the drag queen. They were incredibly sweet to me.