Interview: Carolyn Drake

From the series Wild Pigeon © Carolyn Drake

Carolyn Drake is a photographer working globally on personal projects and assigned commissions. Between 2007 and 2013, she pursued two long term projects in Central Asia. The first – Two Rivers – explores the shifting borders, histories and life systems in the geographic spaces between Afghanistan, Iran, Russia and China. The second project, Wild Pigeon, is an amalgam of photographs, drawings, embroidery and texts made in Uyghur areas of western China. It explores the boundaries of photography while telling the story of a culture being disrupted and reshaped.

Carolyn is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Fulbright fellowship, the Lange Taylor Documentary Prize, and a World Press Photo award among others. In 2013, she relocated from Istanbul, Turkey to Water Valley, Mississippi to begin a new body of work.

From the series Wild Pigeon © Carolyn Drake

fototazo: In your new project Wild Pigeon you experiment much more with how you approach presenting visual material than you have in the past, including having your subjects draw over your images or use them as materials for collage as well as exploring video and audio interviews with your subjects. In your statement on the project, you state it was in response to "Feeling the limits of my own viewpoint."

Why, at this point in your career and with this particular project, do you think that you came up against the feeling of those limits? Is your feeling based in the specifics of this project, a changed understanding of the limits of photography more broadly, or some of both?

Carolyn Drake: With this project I found myself trying to tell a story about people who are forbidden from describing themselves to the broader world in their own ways; who speak a different language than me and have different religious and intellectual experiences; and who live in a place that is changing rapidly, not by their own choice. I had to ask myself how to make meaningful work considering all of these conditions. The experiments were a response to these deliberations.

I found myself looking at historical writings and photographs of the region while I was making the work. There was very little material created by Uyghurs and quite a bit created by people trying to colonize Uyghurs. That seemed like a problem. It seemed important to try to bring Uyghur perspectives into the work.

I decided also that when it comes down to it, for me photography is an exchange, and the work should reflect that. The collages and sketches were a way to bring Uyghurs into the creative process and create a kind of visual dialogue between us. The meaning, if there is any, lies at the intersection of our views.

f: You've recently turned your project Two Rivers into a self-published book with the writer Elif Batuman and the book designer Sybren Kuiper. I believe this is your first time working in a collaborative effort. How did doing so inform your own understanding of your working methods and your photographs?

CD: I often work with magazines where there are many collaborators, but this was my first time working with collaborators who are independent artists. They each interpreted the work using their own methods – Syb using the materials of a designer and Elif those of a writer. Maybe it was opening that door to collaboration and to mixing mediums that led me to the visual experiments in the Wild Pigeon project.

From the series Wild Pigeon © Carolyn Drake

f: For those considering self-publishing, what did you learn from the process, perhaps that you wish that you had known before you started, that you might share with them?

CD: I learned that you can't rush a book, that they are extremely expensive to produce, that there is a global audience for photobooks, that mistakes can be beautiful.

f: What have you come to see as the strengths and limitations of the photobook as a vehicle for photographic work generally after having created this project?

CD: Books are not about one single image, they are about the collection of images folded and sized and sequenced and printed for effect. Unlike an exhibition, it's easy to return to a book for multiple readings. Books are less temporal and more intimate and more accessible to a geographically dispersed audience than an exhibition, and more physically tangible than a website. I guess the main limitation I can see is size. You can't stand back and behold and be overwhelmed by a photobook the way you can an exhibition that covers the walls of a room. You could say that books are more interactive. The reader navigates the work.

f: Take us out shooting with you. If we were there with you as you photographed, what would we see? How do you move, interact and work through photographing a situation?

CD: I'm persistent, quiet, always looking around. I'll spend ten minutes with the camera to my eye and then step back to consider another perspective. I listen a lot and ask a lot of questions, but then try to find a way to let people carry on. I spend a lot of time waiting, questioning myself, revising plans, trying to remain flexible. I've seen my approach changing lately, though. I've started thinking more conceptually, especially with my latest project in Ukraine, sketching out ideas in advance. But I like to remain open to chance still. There's something about the unexpected moment that I think I will always be drawn to.

From the series Wild Pigeon © Carolyn Drake

f: You've created work located in a range of concrete spaces – Ukraine, Central Asia, New York City, and now you're now living in Mississippi and working on a project there.  Do you think that the movement every few years is a vital part of your working process in terms of keeping inspiration present and your vision acute? Are you ever tempted to begin to divide one location through a string of projects created there instead of multiplying the different spaces you have worked in?

CD: I don't actually view these movements as jumping from place to place every few years. It's more of a progression of one thing leading to another. The work I did in New York led to Ukraine which led to Central Asia. I actually spent seven years working in Central Asia, not exactly a short amount of time. That said, yes, I have worked in a broad range of concrete spaces over the last ten years, and I think Two Rivers consciously pushed that idea, that feeling of movement, travel and flow. I'm not sure yet whether the next work I do back in the US will have the same feel. That work is still in the very early stages.

f: This is a business question: you've had a lot of success working in the editorial market, a market that many say is losing its ability to offer a living. Is that an impression that you share? How have you been able to develop your presence as an editorial photographer and how have you been able to establish and maintain strong working relationships with photo editors and writers?

CD: Most likely, I get editorial work because I make personal work. I would feel frustrated and constricted if I only did assignments. I like shifting between the two. Assignments often put me in situations that I wouldn't have chosen myself, but end up providing ideas and experiences that feed into my other work, and whatever money I make doing editorial work goes straight back into personal work. I have a few other ways to make ends meet besides the editorial jobs: occasional workshops, lectures, print sales. Writer relationships: extremely valuable. We share ideas and commiserate and challenge each other.

From the series Wild Pigeon © Carolyn Drake

f: A second question on working in editorial photography in relationship to your "personal" work. Ultimately it's a question about how a photographer maintains control over their personal presence in their work.

If we assume all work somehow reflects the self – through showing our viewpoint, ways of seeing, cropping and selecting of compositions as well as objects and people of importance – personal work affords us the space to allow for that self to be seen very presently. I understand that a lot of editorial work and editors themselves demand a more limited perceived self so that the subject can be seen first instead of the photographer. How do you navigate the varying requirements for presence of self between the two different ends of your images?

CD: Thats a keen observation. I enjoy seeing my work published in magazines, but I don't see it as a reflection of me. Editors often edit my work differently than I would. Some editors consult me when deciding which images to use and some don't. I am almost never involved in choosing the title that prints across the image that opens a magazine story. That's just how the editorial world works. But I can pull some personal images out of these assignments and use them in my own way later. Or if not, I just view it as a job, an adventure, an experience. It becomes difficult when the story feels like its aiming to fit into a template or fulfill a stereotype. Then I struggle to find a way to push the story in another direction and hope that the editor appreciates that. I try to avoid jobs that expect melodrama and cliché. Sometimes that's wishful thinking, and more and more I think there's something to be said for celebrating cliché, or at least acknowledging and repurposing it.

f: In your biography you state that you're interested in "the ways that history and reality are purposefully shaped, revised and re-imagined over time." What types of conclusions or current thoughts do you have in your investigation of those interests in terms of the malleability of history and reality? To what extent can they be shaped? How and by whom? What is photography's role in that process?

CD: I grew up at the end of the Cold War. There was a lot of fear of the Soviet Union and nuclear war, this distant enemy that was a constant topic of conversation, but nobody really knew. When I turned 30 after 9/11, there was a new war and a new enemy, but as I saw it, the same kinds of storytelling codes were used to describe them as during in the Cold War. I felt manipulated, I wanted to find ways to think about the world that resisted and defied these polarizing and politically manipulative stories.

I remember reading Orlando by Virginia Woolf in college. It's presented as a biography, but is actually a piece of fiction, inspired by real people. You see the gender of one character invented and reinvented over and over as you move through time. I found it compelling, a work that takes these seemingly fixed presumptions about gender, and presents them as fluid. And it blurs the line between fiction and history to the point where they become wholly intertwined.

Politicians, courts, laws, economists, doctors, teachers, journalists, scientists and authors shape perceptions of reality, and so do artists. Photographs can be part of any of their narratives. I'm drawn to the moments and places where these narratives and their authors are shifting, puzzling, ambiguous.

From the series Wild Pigeon © Carolyn Drake

f: Can you tip your hand as to what you're working on in Mississippi? How has it been to be working in the US after many years abroad in terms of the types of issues you are considering, the logistics and realities of making your images and your overall approach to making work?

CD: Each place has its own challenges. In the US I'm no longer dealing with a language barrier, but there are a lot of people who are anxious about their image and how it will be presented. And there is a lot of mental baggage I carry around with me that I struggle to shove off as I work and edit. My new work will not be limited to Mississippi, but I find that it is a good place to live to be able to keep seeing the US as an outsider. I like to feel like I'm viewing things from the edge, not from the center.