Editing with Zora J Murff

From the series "Corrections" © Zora J Murff

We are talking to a range of photographers, photo editors, professors of photography, book designers and others about the physical process of editing images. Selecting, sequencing and laying out photographs - be it for a magazine, book, online site or gallery presentation - seems something of a mysterious process for many photographers and a process that seems perhaps hard to give words to. I haven't found much written about the process and that's exactly why I'm excited to see what comes up in this series.

We started the conversation with Rob HaggartAshley KauschingerJeff RichMiska DraskoczyKevin WY Lee, Aya Takada, the pairing of Jessica Dean Camp and Cole Don KelleyAmy Wolff and Daniel Coburn. Today we continue the series with Zora J Murff.

Zora J Murff is an MFA student in Studio Art at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. Zora attended the University of Iowa where he studied Photography and holds a BS in Psychology from Iowa State University. Zora is also a co-curator of Strange Fire Artist Collective. Combining his education in human services and art, Zora's photography focuses on the experiences of youth in the juvenile justice system and the role of images in the correctional system; specifically how images are used to define individuals who are deemed criminals, and what happens when these definitions are abandoned or skewed. His work has been exhibited nationally, internationally and featured online including The British Journal of Photography and Wired Magazine's Raw File. His work has also been published in VICE Magazine, GOOD Magazine and PDN's Emerging Photographer Magazine. Zora was shortlisted for the 2015 GOMMA Photography Grant, named a LensCulture 2015 Top 50 Emerging Talent, was a 2014 Photolucida Critical Mass finalist, and is part of the Midwest Photographers Project through the Museum of Contemporary Photography in Chicago. Zora published his first monograph, Corrections, through Aint-Bad Editions in the winter of 2015.

From the series "Corrections" © Zora J Murff

fototazo: Tell us a little about yourself and what area of photography you work in.

Zora J Murff: I am currently an MFA Candidate and Instructor of Record at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. I'm also a co-curator of Strange Fire Artist Collective. I have been working in photography since 2012, and finished my series Corrections during my last year of study at the University of Iowa. Corrections could be considered documentary, and its focus is on contemporary rehabilitation practices in the juvenile justice system. Currently, it comes as no surprise that I still find myself working with the the photograph as a form of representation in the criminal justice system, but my interest has transitioned into the idea of the picture being used as both a source of and challenge to stereotypes of people of color, the image essentially as image.

f: How do you select images to work with from a larger group? What criteria do you use?

ZJM: I created Corrections in a series of types: there are portraits, landscapes, interiors, studio images, digitally manipulated mugshots and scanned documents. For the sequence, I started by organizing the images into groups of types, looking at them in grids (starting on screen and then making small prints), and then taking out the less successful images. The less successful images could be either photographs that were poorly made, or ones that were similar to stronger photographs.

From the series "Corrections" © Zora J Murff

f: Talk with us about how you begin to organize and sequence the images that you have selected in relationship to each other - as well as to text if there's text.

ZJM: Obscurity was a key part of making this series, and as I was making the work, I noticed that my more subtle images were more powerful and more engaging. So I would try to match the power of pairings and sequences to my strongest individual images. If I felt that the idea was there, I would mark this sequence as successful. If it wasn't, then I would mix the images up and have another go at it. Text that I recorded from the kids about the crimes they had committed was important to the series, but due to limitations in the amount of pages I could have in the book, this was ultimately something I had to exclude from the final product (even though it is still present in some of the scanned documents).

f: How do you balance formal qualities in the photographs with the content/narrative of the series as a whole as you select and sequence a series?

ZJM: One of my biggest considerations was trying to capture the idea of recidivism, or repeated involvement with and movement through the criminal justice system. Repetition was very important to the process, and again I relied upon subtlety. The studio shots of the items kids come into contact with and the documents they created helped me round out the narrative of actual movement through the system. In the studio shots, the environment of the detention facility is erased, but still very much present as these are only objects one would come into contact with during incarceration. The blank backgrounds assisted in highlighting the "object-ness" of these things while also referencing the erasure of identity the individual experiences during incarceration. The documents assisted in the building of identity, illustrating the mindset of kids who have to experience such a tragic place and tumultuous time in their lives. Placing these types of images at specific points in the final sequence for the book helps with the idea of an individual cycling through the system.

From the series "Corrections" © Zora J Murff

f: What are common issues, problems and questions that unfold for you during the process of laying things out?

ZJM: One problem that I had was losing access to the kids and detention facility. Quitting my job as a Tracker and moving away from Cedar Rapids was nice in a way because I had a scheduled end date to the project, but once I began reviewing images for the book, if I noticed holes or wanted to revisit making an image of a particular person, I could no longer do so.

f: How do you know when a layout is done?

ZJM: I would say that a layout is complete when you feel that you've met the criteria you've set. That being said, it could be argued that a layout or sequence is never really complete. Specific to Corrections, I felt that sequence was done when I could enter the series at different points, get to the end, make it back to my starting point, and just continue looking through it. It was important to at certain times feel hope and at others feel that the individuals in this predicament would continue to struggle with it.

From the series "Corrections" © Zora J Murff

f: What are common mistakes you see in editing?

ZJM: I think sometimes we can be too literal when sequencing images together. Some of the stronger sequences I've seen are ones I can spend a fair bit of time with and draw something new from every time I revisit it – not unlike watching a cerebral thriller film and picking up on cues that you miss your first time watching it.

f: Finally, what is the best advice you've ever gotten about editing?

ZJM: Murder your darlings. I noticed while working on Corrections, it was difficult to let go of images of kids I had especially strong relationships with. If I made an image of an individual I had a strong bond with that didn't fit in the series, I had to recognize I could enjoy that image as a personal reminder of that person and the time we spent together, rather than an image that was meaningful to the series.

From the series "Corrections" © Zora J Murff