BLACKWATER RIVER: Robbie Lawrence talking to Kris Kozlowski Moore.
Kris Kozlowski Moore: So, how did you meet Sala?
Robbie Lawrence: We were introduced by the producer of the project. Both Sala and I have backgrounds in NGOs – I spent a year with the OECD in Paris doing reports on the beginning of the refugee crisis – and Sala also works a lot with the OECD. We met over Skype for the first time and it was fascinating going from not knowing her to spending almost a month working together on this thing. She’s great.
KM: When I first heard of the work, I couldn’t help but initially think of Sleeping by the Mississippi. After looking at the book, however, there are a lot of differences even though both ascribe to a more lyrical way of working as well as the obvious use of a river as a spine to the narrative. Was it a reference point for you and were you conscious of potentially making work in a similar vein?
RL: That model of working is a well-trodden one, so it’d be naïve to say I wasn’t aware of it, but it didn’t really serve as an influence. That approach is inevitably going to be there which is fine. And I think working in the South as well is a well-trodden path. So, subconsciously, you’re constantly going over the potential pitfalls of walking over that ground.
At the same time, it’s important not to get too worried about it. The challenge to myself was how can I re-visualise the American South? How can I approach it in a way that is true to how I see it?
KM: And what was the impetus for the work? Why that specific area and river?
RL: So, I was actually trained as a photo editor. And my initial idea was to commission a series of works (by writers and photographers) all over America with me creating the first one. I wanted to create a more even-handed depiction of the country at the time which stemmed from my interest as a photographer to always look at the middle ground, the more human component of a story and give a more holistic depiction of a place.
And the reason we focused on Savannah was partly that the producer I was working with, Angela, is from there and has a lot of knowledge about the place. She also knew initial groups of people we could communicate with which was an important first step. I think it’s also a really interesting place because Savannah itself is seen as a kind of liberal enclave within a right-wing part of America. I like the notion of a political schism within a very small area.
KM: Why did you feel the work needed writing alongside the photographs, especially given the texts were part of the work from the start?
RL: I think there are two arguments when it comes to writing and photography. Some believe that writing isn’t necessary and that photographs can stand on their own. But I think from a journalistic point of view, there’s a sense that photographs need some level of context. I wasn’t prepared to go into the work without a written depiction of the situation. And that connects with the idea that photographs always hold an element of subjectivity. As photographers, it’s okay to be fallible, to admit that you don’t hold the absolute truth and I think writing can go some way to acknowledging that. At its core, Blackwater River is still a journalistic piece and writing is key to journalism. I also write myself, so having writing as part of the work felt very natural.
KM: I definitely see the texts as necessary. Blackwater River is lyrical, it’s slightly abstracted, and so the texts ground the work in the real. It allows the work to function without it becoming too ethereal.
RL: I think that’s key. The images themselves are deliberately not didactic, and it was necessary to have some sort of connective tissue if you like. It wasn’t deliberate, but the portraits I was making became separate and observational. I really felt those images were a response to my own distance from the subject and how I was feeling then which was often quite nervous. I didn’t feel like I always had the right to be there, and I think that comes across in the images. But that’s okay. And Gregory from Stanley Barker picked up on that when he was making his edits. In the wider selection, there were more posed portraits, but they didn’t have quite the same feeling.
KM: Were you conscious when you made the portraits of that kind of tangible distance or was it only after when you went through the photographs that you saw this tendency emerge?
RL: I think in general with my portraiture I often look for more observational moments, those in-between moments. So perhaps it just naturally came from that disposition.
It’s really interesting looking at the project from where it started and where it ended. Initially, there was a real clarity about how I wanted to approach it. But it changed so much when I got there which is nice. I like the fact that the work reflects an experience, something that couldn’t have been pre-planned.
KM: I think it’s healthy to move in different directions as an experience unfolds. If you have a preconceived idea for a project, and you come out with that idea fulfilled, it’s not necessarily bad, but it is different, and I think being open to change is crucial. Jumping back to the texts, they’re placed in the middle of the book. They’re not an introduction, but neither are they in conversation directly with individual images. They enrich the reading but only after a time. I was wondering what the reasons were behind that placement.
RL: That was actually Gregory’s idea. And it’s a really nice one. I think it’s partly to do with this idea, again, of the somewhat abstracted images. After a slight tussle over the amount of weight the writing would have, he said, if it’s so important then why don’t we put it in the middle? By doing so, you’re leading the viewer into this world and then you’re contextualising it with the words of the people who live there. And the writing itself, apart from the introduction, is really just fleeting excerpts. Like the images, there’s a sense of not quite having the full picture. And then you get led
out by the second half of the images. What’s really interesting are the patterns that emerge through these snippet-like interviews; people from very different demographics saying very similar things. People repeating the same value systems, even though they actually might have very different political views or come from very different backgrounds.
KM: Yeah, the texts seem to talk a lot about the land, and that’s definitely one of those more holistic issues shared amongst those included in the book. What role does the river play to the communities you visited?
RL: One thing we kept coming back to is that nature was rearing its head everywhere. It certainly wasn’t the initial focus and at the beginning we were much more interested in the domestic politics of the area. But then we heard about the hurricanes that have been ravaging the coastlines. We heard about empty riverbeds that were causing fishing communities to disappear. We began to feel this divide between the public consciousness of those in the city and those in nature and how the nature around the city was collapsing. The river is very much a part of everything there.
And I think for Sala and I, as outsiders, it felt like a subject we had a shared part in. It felt more comfortable to see things through that prism. It was interesting observing that part of America and how everyone we met (particularly gun-toters and hunters) was talking incessantly about the problems in nature. And the technical term for a river like the Ogeechee is a blackwater river. It’s a beautiful phrase, but it’s also emblematic of the feeling I had there; a dark undercurrent running through the communities.
KM: When did the turn to the land happen? Did you gravitate towards it because, as you said, it was a prism you could think and understand through or was it a sudden transition?
RL: I quickly realised that I didn’t feel comfortable making a comment on guns or like a subject like that. This was also reinforced by conversations I had with other photographers and editors after the project was finished. I didn’t have the long-term experience of living in America to fully understand that relationship. So immediately I found myself switching tack. We would work all day, come back, have a few beers and discuss what we had learnt, and it was a very quick realisation that we didn’t want to touch on these flashpoints. I was also just visually obsessed with the nature we were seeing every day. It has this very surreal, very murky atmosphere. I was constantly thinking about Hemmingway – who I wrote a thesis on when I studied literature – and some of his early short stories talk about the swamp and the darkness there. I found myself going back to that dissertation and thinking about those ideas. So visually there’s a darkness in the work, but maybe that was in my mind as much as anything?
KM: It’s interesting you see the darkness as much a mirroring of the place as it is of your state of mind. You seem very aware of your position to the work and the mood you were in making it. How were you and Sala received in the area?
RL: Really well. Southerners are really warm and welcoming. I also think having Angela was really good for navigating it all and her knowledge of how to approach certain groups was important. But often, we’d turn up somewhere after scheduling a meeting and suddenly we’d end up three, four, five hours later deep in conversation about the state of the country. What’s interesting is I’ve been working more in Scotland lately and I find it much harder there. In the earlier part of my still short career, I was more comfortable going out into the world as opposed to looking in, and that’s only something I’ve recently realised and dealt with. But yeah, the Southerners definitely made it easy for us. And Sala also had a really special way of talking to people; I always wondered how she would manage all of this material and create something out of it. I think she did an amazing job syphoning off the purest parts of those interviews and mixing them together.
KM: Do you think the dialogue was also ‘easy’ partly because you were allowing people to talk about issues that were deeply connected to them?
RL: Yeah, certainly people who are experiencing these problems first-hand, there was a feeling of us being someone who would listen. If we went to see a shrimping village, the fishermen were more than happy to tell us how the industry has been decimated in recent years. I think people tend to be less forthcoming if they don’t have something to convey. But I don’t think the angle of the questions Sala asked necessarily drove people to talk about the negative. What was nice about watching her was she allowed them to talk at length without cutting in with question after question. So these people almost lead themselves down those roads, and I think that’s good journalism.
KM: Once you made the turn towards the land, how did the political character of the area play into your approach? It seems an unavoidable backdrop.
RL: It came more in the editing process, I think. It became so apparent that I’d been dragged visually in a certain direction. Looking at the images as a whole, they weren’t what I had anticipated, and I think that came a lot from the experience of the place.
KM: But when you were making the photographs, did you feel that other themes prevalent to the area (crime, poverty and racism) impacted how you were looking?
RL: I think they did, it’s hard to say. But it’s interesting, I think it’s okay not to take that obvious photograph that directly looks at the subject. I’ve had a couple of interviews in which I’ve referred to this book called Photographs Not Taken. It’s a collection of essays by photographers who reference moments when they’ve not taken a photograph for whatever reason. And I always seem to use that as a kind of a template for my own process. There were moments in the making of Blackwater River where I found myself not willing to be quite on the nose as I probably had imagined I would be. I was always looking for an image that was emblematic of the stories we were hearing as opposed to necessarily the direct image. I don’t quite know why that was. Maybe, again, it’s essentially just my own shyness. In the context of this work, however, I think it was beneficial. In the end, the layout we had and the series of images we had felt much more pertinent to my own feelings about being a photographer.
KM: What role did you see shadows play in the work? For me, they’re one of the most explicit characteristics of the book. Did they stem from that visceral atmosphere you’ve been talking about as well as a more direct reference to the river?
RL: Shadows relate to the notions of otherness and suggestion that I love in photography. I love images that force me to think a bit more, those images that require the viewer to do some work, you know? I’ve had some really interesting conversations with people about the project and with such varying degrees of responses. It’s always surprised me what people read into it and I suspect it’s partly because there is the opportunity to fill in the blanks.
KM: I can see that, and I think that’s part of my experience of the book as well. Do you think the shadows were also influenced by your education in painting?
RL: I’m always influenced by painting. After high school, I studied painting for a year in New York before I did my undergraduate in literature, so I’ve always had this parallel with painting and writing for most of my education. It always seems to come back to painting one way or another.
KM: It’s undeniably evident in your photographs and it’s definitely contributed to how beautiful the book is. Saying that, were you ever conscious of romanticising the experience? Partly because of these painterly influences but also because I think when you visit somewhere new, there’s always a kind of novelty involved, regardless of how difficult the issues you’re faced with are.
RL: Definitely. I’ve had some difficult conversations with photographers about that. It’s tricky. There’s a very fine line between using visual codes to convey a message and relying too much on beauty or perceived beauty. I usually try to leave that up to the viewer. And as you said, that’s why the writing is so important for the book because it grounds it in reality. Also, within the edit, I think there are images that pull it away from that possibility of romanticising. There’s enough realism within the book that allows it to exist as a slightly more abstract work. If it was all beautiful and all shadows, it would lose its message. But it’s something I’m always conscious of.
KM: I thought the same about the more concrete moments in the work, and it only reinforces how fundamental Sala’s text is. It holds the book on that edge.
RL: Yeah, I genuinely think that if the photographs sat on their own without the text, it wouldn’t work…
KM: The play between light, shadow and colour is one of my favourite things about Blackwater River. For me, it’s a bit like an uneasy dream. I was wondering why you saw an emotional reading of the landscape and those issues as important.
RL: I work a lot on my own, and even when I was working on this project I spent a lot of time wandering off. I think it comes back to this reoccurring idea of the work being reflective of my state of mind. And I often feel melancholy when I’m alone in nature, I think it’s a Scottish thing.
KM: Blackwater River was made over three weeks which is, in reality, a fleeting moment. Your whole experience sounds quite poignant, but also transient. How do you think that timeframe affected the outcome of the work?
RL: I certainly think the brevity of the experience led to that broader brushstroke approach. Because for me to feel like I could really comment on something specific, I would need much more time. There’s a reality as a working photographer who tries to carve out periods in my year where I can work on personal ideas and, for better for worse, that time was pretty hard in terms of that. The work feels very much in the same mood. I didn’t vary hugely in my feelings about the place at the time. In fact, the initial feeling I had at the start just kept being consolidated every day.
The last day that we were there we visited a Vietnam veteran who lived in the swamp. He was a really fascinating character. His excerpt in the writing is really beautiful. But he summed up how I was feeling about the entire time, which was a kind of wistful sadness. I never wanted to make any generalisations about the state of America because I don’t think any one part of America is emblematic of its whole. I’m very conscious that Blackwater River is about that singular place at that time.
KM: I think the work is a lot richer because of how self-aware you are. The book is an impression of a place and it doesn’t attempt to be a definitive statement. And that impressionistic character ties into the transient sense of nature in that area because of these issues of degradation and loss.
RL: Agreed, but importantly I’m not trying to use that approach as a way of absolving responsibility. I do feel that weight. I had a lot of concerns about publishing a project like this, but I’m glad that the response has been generally positive. I really didn’t know how it was going to be taken.
KM: And now with the work published, how do you see the book in relation to the conversations it touches on? It’s innately tied up in social and environmental discussions, so do you wish for the work to have some kind of agency in that regard?
RL: It’s a good question. Should a photobook function beyond its covers? I really like Mark Neville’s approach to that; he made a book called Port Glasgow which he then gave back to the community it looks at, and that was the only place it ever went. That’s what should happen more. When we’re out of this current situation, there’s a part of me that wants to take it back to the Savannah and continue it in some way. It
feels important to centralise it back in its place, and I think that’s a responsibility that we have.
Interview by Kris Kozlowski-Moore June 2020
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