C.M.F — Hi Shane,
Happy to be doing this.
What’s your daily interaction with people and landscape like? How are you moving through the world? Who are you talking to?
S.R — To answer your last question first: I talk to very few people. I’m actually quite shy. I talk to my clients (I work in Social Services), my partner, my children, and, generally, with very few others.
I suppose you know the remainder of the question is anything but simple? Walt Whitman wrote, “I contain multitudes.” The possessive, royal nature of this assertion opposes my own experience of my self (selves); it feels too insular and solipsistic, hopeless, maybe. But that I am — at any given moment — in exchange with one or more of a multitude of possible selves resonates. So how do I interact with people, places, and things, generally? It depends on the self. Here are several overlapping answers, though.
I’ve transitioned fully (but for the time being?) to large-format photography and generally make pictures no more than five hours a week. During the other 163 hours each week, I’ve learned to temper the abiding photographic urge, to wear blinkers; otherwise, I can be overcome by all the unmade photographs. The 4×5 is just so slow and cumbersome; I can’t have it slung around my neck like a Leica as I proceed through the world. But I can’t fully temper the urge. Sometimes I’ll feel such intense grief for having missed some magical confluence.
But when I have my 4×5-topped tripod resting on my shoulder I rip the blinkers off my face. At worst, I just see better. At best, the world and its people move in different ways – interpretive dancers lit with celestial light, become musical, a photograph, disintegrate, then reconfigure into some new score. Maybe it’s like if a perfectly humdrum suburban street appeared like a swarming, breathing, undulating flock of birds? It’s so beautiful when that part of me is turned on. I can’t in those moments feel anything but hope.
As I’m writing this, it occurs to me that I shouldn’t evade receiving this music simply because I can’t possess (contain) it with my camera. Walt Whitman’s possessiveness may be discordant with hope and so may be mine. I think one of us just shrunk my head.
Then there’s my aspiration: I wish to be good, to bring decency and honesty to my interactions, to those momentary exchanges of energy and intention, knowledge and emotion, to mystical and mundane things alike. Again, this is an aspiration. I try — and often fail more often than I care to admit — but I work toward embodying someone good and active and honest. I try to conjure and share something concrete of this aspiration with my partner, Joanna, and my children, Mardi and Ian. I try to do the same with my clients: the persons with disabilities with whom I interact daily at my job; with road-ragers or the MAGA-hat-wearing customer simply waiting in line with groceries; and with landscapes, too. And while landscapes don’t desire or need such regenerative things in the ways a human being does, I benefit from the attempt; I see it as a practice. If I can bring empathy, understanding, and decency, and find the good and beautiful in every landscape, I’m better positioned to do so with all the kinds of people I meet. Lastly, I try to conjure and share this aspiration with myself. It’s probably here where I fail the most.
I think, ultimately, the aspiration is to interact vulnerably and without judgment, and to cull and raise from this openness a deep, active, and sustained empathetic and understanding self. The men from The Reflection in the Pool taught me this.
But it’s work. In some moments, I’m the one who says Fuck the world and everything in it.
C.M.F — The musicality of picture making is very interesting to me. The way you talk about trying to hear it, contain it, for a sustained specific amount of time. It seems to me that a lot of “The Reflection in the Pool” is about the quiet moments you’re sharing with the space around you and the individuals you’re encountering, the shyness but strong presence you speak to above feels active. It gets me to thinking about the time and space that is inhabited when making a picture. Here, you’re around at dusk, dawn, late evening, daylight hours. It’s curious. Can you speak to how you moved through making this work. Both at the time of origin and when you were compiling it for monograph form.
S.R — I’ll start at where you end: making this book did not feel musical, not for several years, at least. Over a period of several months in 2013, property development forced every last one of the men from where they had been living. Eventually, I lost track of Lee, Bob, James, Deano, and all the others. That’s when my photography for this project ended in anticlimax. I was left with several thousand of my and their photographs, some of their family pictures, pieces of writing, and other ephemera. I tried over several years to comb through, edit, and sequence, but I ultimately didn’t know-how. My mom compiled probably thirty family albums over thirty years. She did this very simply: all but the most egregiously awful pictures were systematically and sequentially placed in each album. She didn’t judge; each picture was its own kind of important. I suffered from the same kind of proximity: I have to judge to effectively edit, but most of the thousands felt in some way important. I couldn’t enforce the distance necessary, eventually began making other work, and abandoned this The Reflection in the Pool for several years. Unlike with YAMOTFABAATA, I didn’t do most of the editing and sequencing of this book.
Jason Koxvold (the force behind Gnomic Book) convinced me to pick it back up again. I gave him several hundred photographs and ephemera. He narrowed down to a hundred or so and began making sequences. Once he and I felt the edit and sequencing took a strong, manageable form, I brought that musical sensibility to tighten the score up. Mostly, though, I have to give Jason credit for the editing, sequencing, and design of The Reflection in the Pool.
I can’t take credit for all the photography in the project, either. A third of the pictures in the book were made by some of the men with whom I spent time. It’s pretty strange to think about those days.
At the project’s genesis, I knew that most of us expend more energy finding ways not to look at the homeless; I sometimes still reflexively look away. Passing the same homeless men each day, I began asking myself, what would it look like to truly empathize? I realized that my own indifferent, ignorant behavior dehumanized and othered those suffering this social evil. The Reflection in the Pool is my attempt to reverse this behavior. I see active empathy as a road map to solving larger problems in my own life and, perhaps, in the divisive cultural lives of the American citizenry writ large. In setting out to make the work, I finally acted. These men were, quite literally, my neighbors, after all. They lived in tents three blocks from my comfortable apartment. One day, I parked my car near where they congregated, walked up to the group, and said “Hey”.
It was while making this work that I came to understand that my work as a person should be to become a better one. I’m not sure the ways I describe photographing above were fully manifest while photographing for this project. In some ways, what I describe above happened before and since, but it happened less during. Something else often happened.
While making this work I mostly forgot I was making. If I spent, say, six hours with Lee or Juan, I may not have even brought my camera. Or, if I did, it may have remained in my car. But if I did photograph, it wouldn’t have been for more than probably 30 minutes of those six hours. Mostly, I’d just hang out. Or maybe I’d go with Lee to the pharmacy to get Deano’s prescriptions; or I’d help duct tape a tent that had been ripped by a tree branch the night before; or I’d wait in my living room while Bob showered, or I’d sit in Juan’s tent and listen to stories. And so on. Because I became close with these neighbors — friends in some cases, more and more I would just drop by. As I said, in so many ways, this ceased to be just a project. I genuinely enjoyed spending time out there.
Maybe the musicality of making this work was like playing Dirty Three’s I Offered It Up To The Stars & The Night Sky in reverse. The project began as climax, with the psychological tumult, chaos, and discord of resolving profoundly unfamiliar, sometimes frightening characters and settings. As I spent more time with these men in their spaces, the music slowly calmed; the notes became gentler, quieter, and everything I did for this project became natural and normal. Eventually, the music nearly disappeared, like a foundation, and carried on like under the banal scenes of a contemplative film.
I’m not presently embedded with a group of people in a specific place; instead, I wander and explore. The persons and places I encounter while photographing are mostly unfamiliar and new, so that musicality of photographing now is often foregrounded in the process. Several months into making The Reflection in the Pool, the work, the people, the places — once strange and scary and other — became just another part of my life and routine.
In retrospect, that last part may have been the most profound experience I had making the work: I realized everything is normal to someone. This enabled me to understand empathy in ways previously unavailable to me.
C.M.F — I find it compelling that through collaboration this work found a calmer place. In turn uncovering an empathy that may have been reserved for somewhere else. Can you speak on collaboration within your work? What are your thoughts on portrait making? Subject viewer relationship?
S.R — Because my thoughts on portraiture and the subject/viewer relationship shift with each project, I’ll specifically address those questions with respect to The Reflection in the Pool.
It took me more than a month to make my first photograph. I did not want to parachute in then parachute out. Further, I wanted to show something more unresolved and complex, not merely the cliché of the homeless man on the street-corner flying a desperate sign, face hollowed and emotionless. I don’t feel compelled to point fingers, but suffice it to say that I looked hard at projects by other photographers that elevate despair and disappear complexity. I’ve also loved Hunter Thompson’s gonzo journalism and work like Mike Brodie’s A Period of Juvenile Prosperity, but I think I saw a third way, perhaps one more akin to Doug Dubois’ My Last Day at Seventeen (though that work had yet to be published). While I got in deep sometimes — and sometimes dangerously deep — I did not become like Thompson’s gonzo persona, nor was I ever homeless as Brodie was a part of the culture depicted in his book. Each person represented in my book understood who I was (as much as that’s ever possible): that I was an artist, a professor, a father, a photographer. I tried to never get so deep that I all but erased this truth. Becoming homeless for the project felt disrespectful of their condition, and pretending felt worse.
I took great care to make the picture-making process a collaborative undertaking — to make pictures that granted each man his dignity and humanity — and to avoid certain clichés. It seemed a natural progression that their voices should suffuse the work, but I couldn’t find a way to effectively teach any of the men how to use my 4×5 camera (and this was the only option: it’s the only camera that I own). Enter the disposable camera. Eventually, it became a given that disposables be on my person. I handed them out to anyone who wanted to participate. If asked, I would simply say, “make pictures of anything you want to see, you want me to see, or you want others to see.” With the vernacular images peppered about the book and the title essay written by David Harryman (a shipbuilder who had been living rough for more than a year when I met him), I think the pictures made with the disposables give voice to persons we generally forget have voices, viewpoints, narrative, loves, losses. They are good pictures made by forgotten but deeply human people.
Over time, they shared from their lives, and I shared from mine. I think the mutual transparency and vulnerability led to the contraction of those predictable power dynamics into something with more parity, sometimes into friendships. When I made a portrait, the sitter had some understanding of how the picture would be used. With this understanding, each was able to make a more informed decision about participation. Unexpectedly, though, many of my portrait subjects in The Reflection in the Pool began to request portraits in specific places, with certain props or people, and to use posture and emotion more intentionally. I always tried to prioritize their requests. The power dynamic never fully contracted, obviously, but over time I ceded some control and the men exerted more. On Lee’s suggestion, I photographed him drinking beer with his brother, Julian, in their hometown an hour south of Lee’s camp. Juan wanted me to photograph the tattoos on his eyelids – which he hadn’t seen simultaneously in years – that read, “Game” and “Over”, respectively. James asked that I make a portrait of his daughter, who lived with his ex-partner. Deano suggested he pose holding the communal cat, Kitty Kate, on his lap. Bob, an ex-pastor, asked that I make a more regal picture of him wearing the old gold embroidered blue stole he used as a pastor. David wanted that he be seen reading and later that his gun be visible (a gun which I don’t believe worked as anything more than a caution to potential threats). I learned so much about their individual experiences and reactions through this collaboration and consequently faced the limits of my empathetic-imaginings.
It turns out merely imagining myself in their shoes can be a distinctly solipsistic, limited, objectifying form of empathy. No one responds like anyone else. I learned about each of these men by allowing them to show me and teach me, by having relationships and accepting difference. My imagination isn’t powerful enough to conceive of the range and complexity of each man’s experiences as homeless — nor, more fully, as human; I learned that real empathy requires that I acknowledge this deficit of my imagination and accept that I can’t truly understand. Otherwise, I default to stereotypes, black and white thinking, and — most dangerously — righteousness.
I can’t imagine being both righteous and calm. What I can imagine is that each of us needs love and acceptance no matter the outward expression of this need.
C.M.F — Ultimately, I feel this really amounts to a really compelling discussion surrounding the humanity in picture-making. If you could change anything about the project would you? What is next for you in picture-making? Where is the humanity you’re looking for?
S.R — Suffice it to say, I want more humanity in all our projects, in all our endeavors, in all our politics and discussions and relationships and battles and day-to-day everythings… And I really appreciate that you find some humanity in our discussion. Thank you. I appreciate your thoughtfulness.
I have an attention deficit, and I’m selfish and solipsistic (of my many selves, of course). Two years was about all the attention I could pay to this very serious and enduring humanitarian issue. It exhausted me. (I have some truly impressive friends that can focus for a decade or more on an issue simply because they know it’s right and necessary.) I slowly lost contact with all the people represented in The Reflection in the Pool, and this became my reason for finishing. I took the out. Of course, I didn’t need to: I see homeless people everyday. I think if I could maintain an artistic interest — even if in spite of myself, my lack of focus — for longer than two years, I could’ve then made something more meaningful and impactful. If I could change anything about the project, I’d change me, honestly. I gave a lot to this project, but I didn’t give Homelessness and its casualties enough. (Homelessness is evil. It needn’t exist.) I doubt I’ve done anything to blunt its future.
Though I didn’t mean for it to, my newest project extends my search for a new and deeper empathy. For the last few years, I’ve been making pictures of my neighborhood: Lakeside in Richmond, Virginia. I began by looking, as a documentarian. But I changed while making the work. How I see my neighbors has changed; how I understand myself has changed. In Trump’s divisive America, I think it’s of dire importance that we each acknowledge how easily we could each be someone else. Reflecting on the new work, I wrote the following in my journal:
No Trespassing. Beware of Dog. Violators will be prosecuted. Private Property. Keep Out. Scaffolding for an anti-humanity, for loneliness – or aloneness – likely both; for fear, fear of other. Other becomes more generally defined. Everyone is eventually othered, leaving You to mumble your new language as you shuffle the dusty turns of your shade drawn little home.
I began making pictures in Lakeside because I was so shocked by all the signs telling me I’m not welcome. Most yards present with one or two; some yards have such signs posted every four feet. I wanted to know what kind of person needs those signs. In the past, 90% of persons I asked would consent to a portrait. Here in Lakeside, my percentages flipped. Homeowners would watch warily as I walked by. I’ve even been threatened with explicit violence for making pictures there. Over time, I grew reticent to photograph, then scared. After several months, I made few pictures beyond my fence; soon, I only made pictures inside my home. To some extent, I became the paranoid behind the signs — he whom I had observed curiously — and got to know him: the You from my journal entry. We’re all products of our circumstance, with far less control than most of us would like to admit.
The humanity I’m looking for is always in me. It’s in my ability to expand my understanding of the breadth of what I could’ve been, could be, might become. I could be homeless or a paranoid or a bigot or so many other things, perhaps all at once. The more I embrace that I am many and could be many more, the more I can understand people: I’m no different. I’m just the human born into my specific set of conditions. Born into another’s, I’d likely be that other. That’s humanity. We’re many, each of us capable of being any if we’re not careful.
The work is to know this and become an agent in my own creation and in the creation of a better humanity. I think it starts with empathy.
Thank you, Christian.
Shane Rocheleau’s The Reflection in the Pool is available now through Gnomic Book. For more information visit — gnomicbook.com
Gnomic Book is an independent fine art imprint founded in 2016 and based between Brooklyn and Upstate New York, with a focus on developing challenging projects by emerging artists in small, high-quality editions that explore the notion of book as object.
Shane Rocheleau was born in Falmouth, Massachusetts in 1977. He received a BA (1999) in Psychology and English from St. Michael’s College in Vermont, a Post-Baccalaureate Certificate (2005) in Fine Art from Maryland Institute College of Art, and an MFA (2007) in Photography and Film from Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU). He has taught photography as an Assistant Professor of Art at St. Norbert College in Wisconsin, as an Adjunct at numerous institutions, and presently serves as an Adjunct Assistant Professor at VCU. He currently lives and works in Richmond, Virginia.
Christian Michael Filardo is a Filipino American photographer living and working in Richmond, Virginia. Filardo uses their camera to record everyday nuances, later grouping images to create narratives from the mundane, intimate, and quiet. Filardo writes critically for PHROOM and is a co-founder of the Richmond based art space Cherry. Gerontion is their first monograph, designed and published by Dianne Weinthal in collaboration with the artist’s vision. Released at the Los Angeles Art Book Fair April 2019.