Sunday, 24 March 2013

This time, an interviewee

An artist friend of mine, Christine Hall (see her wonderful work at wanted to interview me. Here it is! So if you would like to know where I am from, or what drives me, or why I went the indie way in publishing, and the mondo large scale photo project I am hoping to do, here it is. If not, look away now.

Photo Cheryl McFadden
Christina, you have an interesting background. Can you tell us about where were you born and where you have lived? 

It is certainly, possibly slightly different to most people. I was born in Germany in 1979 to German parents. My father happened to be in a pub one night and overheard a couple of fellows speaking about a wood factory in Guayaquil, Ecuador that was failing. He placed himself squarely in front them and introduced himself as being the man who can change their circumstances.

So we moved to Ecuador. A few years into our sojourn at the Equator, El Nino happened and effectively destroyed everything; the factory, jobs, and houses. Thus, the time came to look for pastures anew where there were jobs. So we ended up in Malawi, Africa for three years, as that is what the contract stated. After that: Washington D.C. 1987. Imagine my shock coming from Africa and finding the sheer volume of food and, well, simply, ‘stuff’. The sprawl found just within a supermarket was jaw dropping. More than one kind of peanut butter. One gazillion cereals. Toys. Kids not wearing uniforms in school. Snow. MTV. Bon Jovi. My most favorite band at the time.

This is where we stayed until I graduated from high school, apart from a year in Germany when I was 16.  Upon graduation, I returned to Europe. Paris, one year. London, twelve years. At one point during those twelve years, in 2005, I came upon the Salton Sea. That changed my life and its trajectory quite substantially.

You recently completed your photojournalism book, Portraits and Voices of the Salton Sea. Why did you choose the Salton Sea and the people it involves? What was your inspiration?

Everything that I read on the Salton Sea and saw in the papers and online did not match my vision. There is “something” about this place that grips me. It is hard to define in words. There are others who also keep on coming back repeatedly who understand this draw. It is a feeling in the gut, it is an indescribable drive, which may appear to others as a strange obsession.  

I see beauty, not just the rawness, the decay. I emphasize the human side of the Salton Sea, not the wasteland it is oftentimes referred to. I have met and continue to meet people who have fascinating stories to tell, insights to give, each different, each unique. I am inspired by the place, the landscapes and the stories. I felt an obligation to put together a book because of this uniqueness and because I had gathered such interesting stories that I wanted to share.

Do you have plans for a new book or new projects?   Is this book part of a series?

I have a dream to continue working on this project but expanding it, by looking at other lakes which are in the same or similar predicament. I plan on putting together an Atlas of the World’s Drying Lakes, which would showcase photographs of the areas. This would include interviews and portraits of the local people, as they are the ones most affected. There would be scientific charts, maps, and explanatory texts. 

My wish for this is to be accessible to everybody, that those suffering by the water crises have a platform to speak out. It would be a book that is inter-disciplinary, mixing science, photography, geography, sociology into one. “Portraits and Voices of the Salton Sea” mixes those components. I like this format and thus want to continue to expand on it.

You are a self-published (Indie) Author. Why did you choose this route?

Punk Music and the Punk Scene. The Do-It-Yourself ethic. Nobody is going to do it for you (certainly in most cases). So best get to it yourself. In London, I was involved in this scene by way of being in bands, organizing and promoting our own shows, designing our own flyers, and recording our own music. It is so very powerful, the idea that you can do it yourself. You do not need to wait around to have someone approach you. 

So when I was looking to publish this book, I did at first look around and wanted to work with a local publisher. However, as the costs were too high for me, I took the route of self-publishing. I am glad I did. I learned more about publishing and I like having control over my book and distribution.   

What three books would you recommend?

My favorite: William DeBuys, Salt Dreams. It is a big book on the Salton Sea. Read it slowly; savor it, like a piece of chocolate that melts in your mouth. His way with words and language is astounding and it brings to you the history and science and incidences of this area in rich velvety tones. The photographs by Joan Myers that accompany it are also beautiful.

Cadillac Dreams, by Marc Reisner to understand the mentality behind water rights, water policy and the development of South-Western US. The updated edition was published in 1993, but to understand what is current, one needs to understand the past. This book does it exquisitely. Did you know that Mulholland of Mulholland Drive fame was responsible for stealing the water from Owens Lake?

To choose just three would be doing injustice to the many books that have touched me in so many different ways. Three photographers: any book featuring the work of Francesca Woodman, Dorothea Lange, and the recently discovered Vivian Maier.

Three authors: “God of Small Things”, Arundhati Roy and “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle” and “Kafka on the Shore” by Haruki Murakami. Anything by Paul Auster especially “Moon Palace”.  

I have seen your large camera; do you carry it with you at all times?

I don’t. That is my ‘serious’ camera for ‘serious’ situations. Sometimes it is just nice to carry my ‘little guy’ with me: a super cheap, simple, not so great Nikon Coolpix about 5 years old. It does the job. I have used photos taken with that camera on my blog and other online places that I use regularly. But, it is not good enough for larger exhibition prints. 

I do miss my beloved Pentax ME Super, my film camera, which I mostly used in conjunction with slide film. But the costs of developing and getting the images to CD is too expensive. And it’s not like there is a photo lab nearby. Once I start earning more money, I will start shooting film again!

What are some photo tips for us point-and-shoot photographers?

Keep your horizons straight…. unless the non-straight horizon is part of the story.

It doesn’t matter what camera you use as long as your camera serves you in what you need it to do for you.

If you are looking to learn more about photography and become more heavily involved, it is pretty important to learn the techie stuff. And to do so and if you can, I highly recommend using a film camera at first. It teaches you about light, reading light and understanding light as well as what aperture, shutter speed and ISO and what they actually mean in a way that digital does not. Though some would disagree with me on this point.

Photograph regularly and often. Ask yourself, what is the story that you are trying to tell.  What is the purpose of your photographs? Sometimes the purpose is as simple as presenting a little glimpse into your world. At other times, you are expressing yourself in an artistic manner by using the camera as your tool. Or you simply wish to take snapshots of your child as they are growing up in the world, to create a frame by frame story book of their life. A memento mori.

There are no limitations to what you can do with photography – outside of the physical limitations of your camera – there are only the limitations that you place on yourself. Everyone has a story to tell. It is a matter of wanting to tell the story visually and actively clicking the shutter speed, editing and presenting it to the outside world.

What kind of feedback are you getting from your book?

Surprisingly I have been getting a lot of positive responses. To many who have bought it, the Salton Sea brings memories from when they were younger and visiting it during the heyday. They know what it was like when it was described as “America’s Riviera”. They went swimming and waterskiing on that very body of water that nowadays, most people would be too scared to touch. (Unnecessarily scared). 

Others tell me that they had no idea that this massive body of water existed out here. They are surprised that there are people living out here. They are even more surprised to learn that it needs saving and that there are people dedicated to saving it. Generally, the feedback has been one of surprise and thanks.

If you could work on any project right now, what would it be?

I would be in three places at once, working on two stories, both to do with water. The first two stops would be the Aral Sea and Lake Chad, to photograph and document those areas in the same way as I have done the Salton Sea. They would be the start of the Atlas of the Drying Lake of the World.  There are many more lakes worldwide that I would like to visit to include in this grandiose project.

Secondly, Amman Imman – Water is Life. This non-profit organization has been building boreholes in the Azawak in Niger for the indigenous tribes so that they have access to clean water, locally. Previously the female children and women traveled up to several miles to fetch water. This water was often very dirty and diseased explaining the high rate of infant mortality: Only half of the children will live beyond the age of 5 and a high number of them are dying from water-related illnesses. My goal is to document the building of the wells in a village in Niger to highlight the importance of them and how they change the quality of life.

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