© Yali Harris
We’re incredibly excited to announce our next book project: “The Middle of Somewhere” with Sam Harris. We’re pumped to be working with such a fantastic and inspiring photographer, and to shape his beautiful work into a book.
THE BOOK IS NOW READY FOR SALE HERE!
Thank you to The Photobook Museum for allowing us to start the creative process within their space. Ideas are stirring, dummies have been made, and we hope to bring you this baby by June 2015.
Your journey in life thus far seems fictional: born and raised in London, you got your start in music, photographing bands, album covers, editorial portraits and features. You married, had children, and traveled the world for years (India, Thailand, Australia, etc) with your family before settling in rural Australia. How did your photography evolve as your life took different turns?
Well… it evolved and changed a lot. Something I thought would be quite easy to achieve was actually very difficult for me. I wanted to start a family diary, I felt my family was a truth I could hold on to and work with. You see, the music industry had changed a lot during the late 90’s. All the small and mid sized labels were being bought up by the few giant corporations, like EMI, Sony and BMG. When I started out around 1989 there was so much creativity and passion. We all worked together to create exciting work, inspired by a diverse range of great music. It was exciting and stimulating. However, as these funky little record labels were bought and relocated to just another floor in a glass tower, every floor looked the same. All the creatives, the mavericks, started to leave and move on to other stuff. They were replaced with staff that were more interested in the cult of celebrity. Times were changing…! This is just before Big Brother started on TV, you know. I remember once I went in to a label to deliver a job and the press girl wanted to look at my contact sheets. She held the Lupe (magnifier) in the air and sort of waved it at the contact sheet. I had to show her that you must place it on the surface of the contact sheet. I thought to myself, jesus… this girl is going to edit my work? They were more into the drug scene and flashy cars you know. It was the beginning of a process that led me to leave everything, to abandon my career.
When we got to India I started shooting but I wasn’t happy with my work, I realized I had to undo old habits, strip back my formulaic way of working, forget everything and start again. I wanted to reengage with the kid in the darkroom, that loved to experiment passionately. But it wasn’t easy! It was much more difficult than I could have ever imagined. On many levels. Really it was only when we migrated to Australia, in 2008, that all started to click and I found my rhythm. That’s when my first book Postcards from Home started to come together.
I should also say at the same time we left London (2002), I also decided to go digital. Of course the quality wasn’t that good and the cameras back then were very slow, but I didn’t care. I was excited by the freedom it offered me. Like a never ending Polaroid. The combination of a digital point and shoot and a laptop was extremely seductive for me. You’ve got to remember that at this time no one was really traveling with laptops or shooting digital. I thought about Walker Evans’ Polaroids and thought well… ‘fuck it!’ I can always drum scan a small print.
Things just didn’t really go to plan. The camera let me down a lot and I was always missing shots and more to the point I didn’t know how to translate what was happening around me into interesting photography. There are some nice photos from those times but I was in a constant struggle. Photographing small children is pretty difficult, if you want to make interesting work… and then my wife Yael became pregnant with our second daughter Yali, which was not part of our plan. Once Yali was born I had two children, my family had to take priority. We had no money… I felt lost and sometimes I thought I’d really fucked everything up. But I had to keep shooting. Photography is all I know, really. Looking back I can see that you have to get lost sometimes if you want to find new land. And that’s what happened.
You live in rural Australia with your 2 daughters and wife Yael. Tell us about life there.
We live a pretty simple life. What I like to call a low overheads lifestyle. We live in the forest about 7 km from Balingup. It’s a small town, actually a village. Population about 500. But it’s a fantastic community. Diverse with people from all over Australia and all over the world living there. Lots of artists and musicians, many people have built their own homes. It’s great. There’s always parties and a good social scene considering. You know, whenever someone throws a party we all bring a plate of food, so there’s an instant banquet. Many people live out of town, scattered around in the forest. Our place is quite small but outdoors there’s heaps of space. It’s an outdoor lifestyle (even though I seem to spend increasing large amounts of time in front of my laptop). Our place is solar passive, so there’s lots of glass on the north face (so we catch the winter sun). We also have a composting toilet and collect our own water. The girls have good friends, they go horse riding… we’re so lucky. I mean a friend in town has a bunch of horses and she needs to keep them all active so she takes a group of girls trail riding. We live in a paradise…
How did this project begin?
I’ve been fascinated with family documentary for a long time. David Perlov was a film maker. At some point, I think in the late 80’s, Channel 4 in the UK, they had this film week and every evening they showed another episode from Perlov’s ‘Film Diary’. He filmed his daughters and his wife at home and on trips, as well as clips of news from TV and random stuff out his windows. He narrated over the film. It was quite slow, very poetic and I was hypnotized. I think that was when the seed was sown. That and the books I was reading in my twenties. Autobiography of a Super-Tramp by W.H. Davis, The Sun Also Rises, Hemingway, Down and Out in Paris and London, George Orwell and the Beats, Keourac and Burroughs and all that stuff. A lot of that work was very personal and diaristic. I am drawn to intimate, personal stories. I think a lot of us are.
The project began in 2002 when we left London with one-way tickets for India. We had some money saved for a house deposit, but we decided to use the money to create a different future for ourselves. I’ve already spoken about the process during our travel years. Eventually we migrated to Australia and that’s when it all started to gel, started to come together. There’s a photo with Yael hanging the washing in a red t-shirt, with her arm going diagonally across her face. That was a sort of eureka moment for me. It was one of those happy accidents that is something I love about photography. Yael was hanging the washing and I thought it would make an interesting shot so I grabbed my camera and walked up to the washing line. I had something different in mind but as I took the shot her arm went up across her face. When I was reviewing my images it struck me, that there was something about that photo… it was like a key for me and it unlocked a lot I’d been struggling with. The moments in-between the moments. To allow myself to be looser, the ambiguity and it even has the diagonal which always seems to appear in my work. That’s when this project really got its legs, so to speak.
You’ve been photographing your family for years now, and your girls have grown up in front of the camera. How do they feel about it all?
Well, I think they’re all very supportive of my work. It has been part of our lifestyle for a long time now. Yael has always encouraged me, supported me, and really is very involved. We edit together most of the time but she doesn’t really like to be photographed. The girls have grown up with me photographing them. Mostly they don’t mind. However they have their moments, as we all do. I try to respect that but sometimes it’s a fine line. As Uma is getting older she is more conscious and sometimes asks me not to photograph her. It’s always a balancing act and the ground is always shifting. Nothing stays the same. Which is part of the challenge but also keeps it interesting for me. Otherwise I think I would get bored.
What have been some of the challenges of documenting your family?
Shooting in the same small house year after year is one challenge. How to keep things interesting and different. I mean once I have a photograph with the orange check cushions in it, it starts to become a problem for me when they appear again, it sort of kills the shot. Really I’d be happy to change the house every year from that point. Also the ON / OFF is a constant challenge. I’m always busy doing something else when something magical seems to happen in my periphery of course I reach for my camera, but if it’s my turn to cook or do the washing up or bath the kids (when they were smaller) it can create tension. Yael has to be very understanding, very forgiving. Sometimes that creates problems, especially as the time of day when the light is most seductive is that busy time when you have a young family.
What have been some of the happy surprises?
Mostly it’s the happy accidents. Often I like to shoot loose and play games, take chances with my camera, not really looking through the viewfinder too much, very much from the hip. Even when I know I might be throwing away a good photo opp, the odds are against me, maybe one in 50 pay off, but when they do, there is that magic that I could not get if I thought about it too much. It’s instinctive and experimental.
The images you’ve made are intimate and nostalgic almost, yet universal in that everyone can relate to some aspect of them, whether as a child, mother, father, daughter, sister. Why did this project appeal to you, as a photographer and/or father, and how do you feel about the lack of “sex, drugs, & rock n’ roll” that your previous photography had?
Because it is my truth. Even if I sometimes superimpose my own childhood ideal or fantasy onto / into it. It’s very much a diary and I’ve always loved that in film, paintings, and books. It just made sense to me. I rejected a lot about my lifestyle and the industry I found myself in. I didn’t want to contrive anything anymore, just record my own experience through the prism of my daughters growing up. At least we would have a family album. So it felt real to me when everything else felt phony.
Sex, Drugs and Rock ’n’ Roll… funny thing is it always looks so much more glamorous from the outside looking in. Sometimes it can be a lot of fun, but ultimately it’s quite sad and boring. I mean don’t get me wrong, I love a party and I’m very social. I love music and live band culture is in my DNA, but growing up in London I was exposed to a lot at a young age. At a certain point in my late 20’s it just became too repetitive. I need to keep things fresh, I get bored otherwise and then I become destructive or distracted. I am a classic day dreamer and India and the traveler scene there became more interesting to me. I tried doing both for a while but every time I came home to London, I noticed more and more, the bombardment of crap. I mean adverts when you get off the plane, adverts on the train or in the taxi. Junk mail on your door step. I wanted something else, a stronger connection with nature and I was thinking about Uma and how she would grow up in London. I wanted us to spend time together as a family, to slow down and actually be present to each other. I knew I did not want to be a part time dad. I wanted to hang out with Uma and do drawings, play games, go on adventures, see stuff, everyday. Experience life… especially when they are young. It’s so important, the formative years. Uma lived out of a backpack from the age of 2.5 until she was 7. That was a priceless experience for us as a family.
But yeah photographing small children is very challenging after the rock’n’roll grit. That was one of the challenges for me, I mean it’s not Anders Petersen (whom I really admire) but that’s what pushed me, the search to deal with that until I could find my own voice. It was a real struggle, it took me years, maybe about 6 years… so I guess I am also very tenacious. I used to do long distance running at school. I guess I learned that at school. Maybe that’s all I learned at school. That and how to dodge whatever ruck was kicking off after school.
Why is it important for you that this project be made into a book?
For me, the photobook is the ultimte destination for photography. I love a good exhibition but ultimately it comes down, it’s gone, but a book lives on. I love how the reader can engage with it any way they choose, make their own edit, simply by how they read it. Backwards, forwards, jumping here and there. There is always something new to discover. Even after owning a book for years, you can go back and see things with fresh perspective. It’s a tactile experience, you can really engage with a photobook. The feel and look of the paper, the weight and size… all these elements come together and take the viewer on a journey, like a movie but you have more control. But it’s not passive like a movie because you have to engage. So of course I’ve always been making books. When we were living and traveling around India I even bought an Epson inkjet printer and lugged it over the Himalayas and down south. I wanted to print pages and make a book. I didn’t think about the humidity though.
Tell us about your hopes for the book.
That’s quite difficult to share, it’s in my minds eye and I have some solid ideas. Making a photobook is a process, a journey, ideas change and evolve. I hope people engage with it and take away something positive.
What are your tips for those looking to start a family project? Are there things you wish you knew at the beginning?
Patience, it’s a long journey! Allow yourself to evolve and change from what you think it should be. Be open to change, don’t be afraid to be yourself, experiment. For me, editing at least 6 months to a year after shooting is very helpful as it creates distance between myself and the work. I can be more objective and less emotionally attached.
Live with your work. Once you’ve edited a batch put selects up on the wall. After a while something you really liked may become less attractive and vice versa. You’ll also notice relationships between images that can help inform the way you shoot fresh material. Always have a camera handy, be present, shoot all the time. Keep everything, don’t delete anything! Often, years later, photos take on new meaning and as your eye evolves you’ll find great images of value. Do it from the heart. If your motivation is money you will fail. Go to festivals and meet other photographers also shooting family. It’s extremely enriching, motivating, and educational.
pictures © ceiba, Sam Harris, Reimar Ott