How did the title come about for The Hawks Come Up Before the Sun?
I wrote a poem in college called “Glory to the Hawks” (the poem that accompanies the work), and I never thought much about it. Working on this project, I couldn’t help but think back to the poem I wrote. I was sort of experiencing a place come to life that had previously only lived in my imagination and on paper. I decided to use the poem and change a few things to better accompany the photographs. The title is sort of a derivative of the poetry. There is a clear relationship with light and the passage of light in the photographs (light to darkness), and the title reflects that. I kept saying it to myself and it felt right.
That’s interesting; certainly in the way that by referencing a poem you wrote years ago, it almost foreshadows a personal context to the work from the beginning. What role do you see literature play in the broader perception of the work?
I see this body of work within the hazy sphere of ‘lyrical documentary work’ and I feel that by having this reference to poetry, it really helps build the narrative of the work, dictating the poetic tone of the photographs and sequence. The poem really brings everything together for me. It’s nice that something I wrote around four years ago now has a completely new purpose and meaning.
So do you think the work is partly about a personal yearning for yourself; there’s a tangible difference between you living in a city and the openness of the environment in the work and whilst given the work does look at these communities, it seems to work inwardly as well?
I think a part of that may be true. This series has been therapeutic for me in many ways. It has been a way for me to strip everything away and go on these mini road trips periodically. The vast openness of the landscape and these environments allow me to clear my head a bit and really puts things in perspective. A lot of the individuals I photograph and meet live life in such a simple way, and aside from the motivation to make photographs, this has been a mindset and experience that makes me want to keep going back.
I really resonate with that; I think people are progressively losing the physical and mental space to really process certain things and there seems a real need for such landscapes which allow us to do that. I guess once you’ve found such a therapeutic space, there’s an attraction to keep on returning. Did you have some framework of a purpose with this series then, something more concrete or was it a more rudimentary curiosity? And since it was made over multiple years, did the meaning evolve during that time?
I wouldn’t call it a purpose as much as a natural connection to the different environments and individuals I am working in. I would like to hope that the photographs contain feelings of emotion and notions of the human condition that we can all identify with in one way or another. I very much operate on instinct and sort of just go with it. I didn’t have a purpose while starting the series and I don’t see the series serving a particular purpose now. I’m constantly drawn to these fringe communities that are so unfamiliar to me yet at the same time, it’s really refreshing and beautiful to have this feeling of vast openness and breathtaking landscapes. This relationship and tension is very important for me in the work. I think that over time, I gradually became more familiar with the surroundings and started to develop relationships with some of the individuals in the photographs that I cherish very much. It takes a lot of trust to allow a complete stranger to enter your world.
The people and landscapes that I initially saw a few years ago now take on a completely new meaning. And each viewer will have a completely different meaning than my own.
For sure, meaning is inherently fluid in photographs and I like that with a series like yours, this non-linear movement works on more levels than just time when you consider that relationships fluctuate which contributes to this accumulation of an unfixed and personal meaning. Following on from that in a way, can you see a change in the actual photographs over the years?
Each photograph is really different in terms of the time they took to make. The photograph of Angela and her two daughters, for example, was taken completely in the spur of the moment as the light was quickly fading. I pulled over, introduced myself, and made the photograph as quick as I could. I remember I had one shot left on my roll. Many of the photographs were made in this instinctual way. Other photographs, like the portrait of Joseph (the man with the Renegade tattoo on his chest), was made after we hung out in his trailer sharing stories for hours. I guess what I am trying to say is that each photograph has its own unique story and I wouldn’t necessarily say my approach changed or the photographs changed over time. Having said this, as the project began to take shape, there have been far less photographs I have tossed to the side, as I have a much better sense of what the project looks like and what type of photograph will contribute to the series
I think that’s often the case, gradually becoming more in tune with the direction of the narrative where as the beginning of such a process there’s this feeling of reaching out in a hundred ways, feeling out what works and what doesn’t. So how did you approach this series given that as you’ve mentioned, there wasn’t a defined purpose; it’s a work with massive scale in terms of time, landscape and potential avenues to engage with.
When I began this series a few years ago, I actually had no idea I was creating a series in the California desert. It was always a romanticised dream of mine to designate a certain period of time to travel across the United States and make photographs of the American experience (Alec Soth, Stephen Shore, Joel Sternfeld and Mark Steinmetz being some of my biggest inspirations). As you can see from the series, I didn’t make it very far (haha). I wanted to initially explore the California desert and make my way from there. I found it fascinating that I I felt so much emotion exploring areas I had never known to exist, only a few hours from where I grew up. This feeling of vast openness after all my city years was something very beautiful for me and it kept drawing me back. Throughout the process, I’ve always wanted my instinct to dictate the photographs I’ve taken and the roads I’ve chosen to go down.
It seems like it effectively was the start of your originally intended journey, but then you found something in that landscape and the narrative centred itself around there. Those places just outside of your dominant environment can be some of the most interesting; I think they are often overlooked, past without thought but at the same time they aren’t far enough away to warrant this perception and attraction of the unknown. I presume this is another reason why perhaps you felt some relation to the environment since it was much closer to home than you realised…The photographs themselves hold a lot of weight independently but perhaps even more so as a sequence. Were you conscious of reflecting individual narratives but also collectively as a community and a landscape?
I truly believe this project won’t be finished until it is in book form (hopefully this year). The sequence and collective narrative is what really makes the project come to life for me, and this certainly had an affect on the balance of the photographs and the editing process. There are a lot of photographs I have a strong connection to, but they don’t make the collective narrative stronger so they aren’t part of the final work. I think it was really important for me to go through this process to understand the work and connect with it in ways that I hadn’t necessarily before.
I totally agree, I really see the importance and value in process and the directions that a collection of photographs can take when compared with the object of a singular photograph. It’s definitely a hard balance to play between the drive of a collective narrative versus attachments to specific photographs. Would you want the work to be materialised in any other form apart from the book?
Yes, definitely. I was fortunate to have a solo exhibition with the work this past year as part of an award that was given to me by Wake Forest University, my alma mater. Printing the photographs in a larger scale and hanging them on the wall really allows you to engage with them on a different level, and I think that just like working with the photographs in book form, this is an important process to go through. In October, one of the portraits will be on display at the National Portrait Gallery in London as part of the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize. I’m pretty excited about that.
I think presenting work in an exhibition provides a really interesting extension of the work into a physical and spatial context. I’ve always seen the series as distinctly poetic, there is a certain warmth to the series which is perhaps your relationship with each person being somewhat visualised and theres a tension between the lyrical nature of the photographs and the reality of these peoples’ lives…
Thank you, that is what I am hoping for. I’d like to hope that the lyrical nature of the photographs makes it a poetic experience for the viewer. I don’t like giving everything away. For me, it is very important to have this poetic quality and to allow the viewer to form their own ideas and interpretations based on the little that I give them. Poetry really helps paint some of these pictures, especially when connected with the imagery of the photographs.
Although I’m guessing that the ‘poetic warmth’ of sorts in your photographs was something that was developed, how were you received at first by the people you were photographing? There often seems to be a built in wariness to outsiders taking photographs of a community, especially in today’s context.
Everyone is different. Most people are tentative to trust me in the beginning, but I’ve found that honesty goes a long way, and I try to relate to the individuals I meet on a humanistic level. It’s important for me to find a common ground. It’s definitely a challenge, but that makes it all the more sweet when I am able to make a beautiful portrait. Some people from these desert communities admire what I do, most people call me crazy. I have chatted with some people for hours on several different occasions, and they still won’t let me photograph them. And that’s cool too. It’s all part of the process for me.
And lastly, I haven’t heard the term ‘Black Eyes’ before, you may have to shed some light on this for me?
You may have noticed that in the portrait of Grant, he has bruises under one eye and an eye patch on the other (the 9th photograph in the sequence on my website). He told me the story of how he almost lost one of his eyes in a bar fight, and that this was not uncommon amongst him and some of his close friends. He referred to them as the ‘Black Eyes’. The irony is that most people who look at the photograph associate him losing an eye from some sort of army combat (hence his shirt). Grant was never part of the army, he just likes the shirt. He is also one of the most gentle and kind people I have ever met.
Interview by Kris Kozlowski-Moore