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The FADER Double Vision Photo Special

October 28, 2009

For this year's Photo Special issue, The FADER showcased the work of Victoria Sambunaris and Peter van Agtmael, two photographers who have traveled the country extensively to document its people and places with exceptional eyes for the details that reveal the spirit of America. Sambunaris' epic landscapes subtly focus on humans' necessary struggle to balance preservation of the land with our need for its resources, while van Agtmael's photos strive to bring us a transparent record of the mostly unseen people and places he's encountered on his many travels. Although formally very different, both artists' work is connected by a deep curiosity about this country and its people. In the Double Vision section of our site, listen to van Agtmael discuss his view on America in a randomly ordered slideshow of his photos, including outtakes from the magazine. And take an up-close look at the eagle-eye perspective of Sambunaris' photos with Zoomify, a digital pair of art binoculars. After the jump, read a conversation between Sambunaris and van Agtmael about their approaches and the current state of documentary photography. We got them some beers before they talked, so you know it's how they really feel.

The FADER Double Vision Photo Special

Victoria Sambunaris: It’s interesting that photojournalism is almost always people’s introduction to photography, and then the more you get to learn about photography, a lot of people reject the simplicity. It’s a strange thing about photography, how everyone is a critic, especially of photojournalism and yet it’s got a lot of meaning, it all kind of links back to the initial seductions of photography. That’s what photography was invented to do, photographing the extraordinary.

Peter van Agtmael: The thing that photography taught me, and that I find really beautiful and amazing about photography is that I had a much more firmly-rooted identity and idea of the world, say ten years ago because you have this construction you’re given as a child of what the world is and what it means to be a child and you learn it from books and you learn it from your parents. And then as you grow older and you see things for yourself, the world becomes a lot more complex and you see there is no singular truth and if there is, it’s not acknowledged widely.

VS: I heard a story when I was out in Idaho trying to shoot a phosphate mine. The mine manager was telling me that some Californian—it’s always a Californian—bought a big house and property near the mine and decided that the mine had to go, a not in my backyard, kind of thing. The guy started a coalition working against the mine, which has given them all kinds of trouble. The town is very protective of the mine because it supports the entire town. And the Californian is probably using Round Up on his big lawn, which comes from the mine. It’s the irony in all of this and a recurring theme throughout my travels.

PVA: Everything is sort of based on the fact that everyone in the world is afraid. You do what was done before because it probably worked. And if it worked, then why mess with it because there isn’t some global collective empathy. It’s like, What’s going to work?
I’ve always been interested in this notion of ‘compassion fatigue.’ Susan Sontag for example wrote this whole book about war photography, essentially, and how the war traffic of pain becomes cheapened by this glut of imagery and these are all just ideas but ideas stated as fact, and they probably have some elements of validity to it. Everyone is so confused about what to think, and people cling to ideas because it seems simple but in fact I think its easier to embrace chaos. There are no answers, so why worry about it?

VS: But what’s so interesting is when I’m in the middle of the country and there’s an immediate reaction when people see my New York license plate They immediately impose their ideas of what a New Yorker is onto me, and it’s really based on media, television, movies—New York’s a hysterical place, there are shootings, everyone’s crazy. But when I’m here in New York, the same attitude exists, there’s a fear of going out into the middle of the country. The same fear exists. It’s interesting to be in both of those worlds.

PVA: You realize how cheap what man has created is. No matter, even if you get a Frank Gehry building or something like that. What the winds have shaped over millions of years is always going to be infinitely more beautiful than what man can construct. So if you start with that notion that anything man constructs or invents is fundamentally not as beautiful or pure as the universe itself…

VS: Observing geology, you can’t help but think how small we are on the Earth, and how our time here is so fleeting; it’s just a second in geological time.

PVA: Human history, too.

VS: Initially my intent was the place—going to a particular place, working there and discovering it. But now I have much more intent and focus. In the past, I would hear about something that would draw me to a place like Ross Perot Jr.’s industrial transport depot on the Chisholm trail or maybe just needing a change of landscape like going from Texas and the Mexican border up to Alaska the next year. Wondering about Alaska, a need to discover Alaska, what is Alaska, where is Alaska, what’s the pipeline look like? Then driving there and hearing on Canadian Public Radio that the Bushes are invested in goldmines, so I go to a goldmine in Alaska. It wasn’t that precise. I’m just trying to discover this country and understand it more, trying to embrace it, trying to be optimistic about it. I love the transient nature of my work. I love entering a particular world, and learning about that world, and being able to leave and not become a part of that world and I feel like we do all need to belong to something, whether academia or religion or some kind of social circle and I feel that I don’t want to belong, for the first time. As a child you’re always struggling with that, with wanting to belong, and right now I don’t want to belong. It’s not work that a lot of people can relate to. It’s kind of dry and I accept that. I love what I do, nothing makes me happier than being able to do it. It’s not about having money in my pocket, I’ll do whatever it takes to get on the road. In the first few years I was teaching, not because I really wanted to teach, but because I needed some money in my pocket so I could leave for a few months a year and go make the work. I racked up debt on my credit card to do it. You do it because you have to do it, right?

PVA: I don’t have any doubts. I wish it was more financially sustainable sometimes. I wish I didn’t have to go to Afghanistan sometimes to make the money I need to live. The first few months of this year were such a wreck in terms of making money, doing something new because everyone wants to put you in a box. Oh, I’m a war photographer. Maybe that’s who I am at my core, but I like a lot of other things and want to do a lot of other things, and I want to live a long and prosperous and happy life and war doesn’t go hand in hand with a long and prosperous life so I’ll continue to do it but I don’t want to do it to the point that it ruins my body or my mind. My work will always be about America in all its forms.

VS: In the past, I needed to be here September through May while teaching but now I don’t, I’ve got no commitments, no responsibility but I need a little cash in my pocket to do it and then you can just go, you disappear.

PVA: What else can you do? But it’s nice to have some structure. I think about teaching sometimes just to have a period of time when you’re doing something where you know there’s a guaranteed paycheck coming in. Eventually that may have to be a choice, but right now I live at my grandparents’ place, so its okay.

VS: I feel like I haven’t even touched what’s out there, I really do. I feel like there’s so much to do. I could spend years just traveling the border, making work about the border and then I start to feel like I need to revisit some of the places I’ve already been—like Alaska, it’s enormous.

PVA: I was in Alaska once just for a week for an assignment and I didn’t see anything. The states that I’ve spent an amount of time that where I feel like I covered the place…I know zero. None of them. Maybe seven or eight that I feel I’ve spent some time in.

VS: And all of these places keep changing. Like Wendover, which is a constant in my life, it keeps changing and it looks different every time.

PVA: How did you find that place?

VS: I drove across the Salt Flats in Utah and ended up in Wendover and then I went back to do a residency there with the Center for Land Use Interpretation so I lived in this trailer on the salt flats on the Utah side next to the Enola Gay hangar. The border of Utah and Nevada goes straight through the town and on the Utah side its convenience stores and cheap motels and on the Nevada side, its casinos and sex shops and stuff so it’s a really intriguing place because of that border. It’s all about borders, isn’t it? Why can you drink in Wendover on the west side of the town, and on the east side you can’t? The border goes straight through the middle of town. You can’t gamble on the Utah side, either. I don’t think there’s even a bar on the Utah side. You have to buy a membership to drink, and even when you do buy that membership you only get three ounces of alcohol in your drink. One year I was in Nevada in some bar and this guy was like have you been to Silverpeak? And the next day I was in the car driving five hours to Silverpeak, and it ended up being a good tip.

One thing I think about a lot is how we are overly saturated with images, whether its television, internet, newspaper, billboards--you’re constantly looking at pictures, hundreds everyday and I think somehow its neutralized us a little bit in the way we look. We want spectacle, instant gratification from images, and so maybe we’re not thinking as long or hard when looking at photography.

PVA: Everyone takes themselves so seriously. It’s just fucking photography.

Posted: October 28, 2009
The FADER Double Vision Photo Special