Zed Nelson is well-known for his immersion into his projects, and using his commitment to photography to explore political issues in depth. His project Gun Nation explored the huge, white, middle-class, suburban American society that buys and sells weapons. In the latest installment of the Beanshoot Questionnaire, he talks about his recent book Love Me, an incredible project that documents the pursuit of particular ideals of beauty in our society.
What initiated your interest in photography?
I found myself in the countryside, aged 10, with access to an old Pentax camera. I started taking pictures of the local inhabitants - people, cows and stray dogs. I enjoyed the reason it gave me to go on an adventure. Later, as a teenager, I remember seeing shocking political images from the civil rights movement in the United States, and photographs of the ‘Kent State Massacre’ – the shooting of unarmed American college students by members of the Ohio National Guard (taken in May 4, 1970.) Even though it had happened fifteen years previously, I was shocked and gripped by the visual evidence of injustice shown in these photographs. The students had been peacefully protesting against the American invasion of Cambodia during the Vietnam war when the soldiers fired 67 rounds, killing four students and wounding nine others. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was politicized by those images.
How would you describe your practice and how has it changed over time?
My recent work has developed over time and strives to be more complex, thought-provoking and challenging to accepted thinking. If there is a conflict, rather than depicting men with guns and acts of violence, I want to question why there is such a conflict, who created it, and who profits from it.
The notion of being a ‘documentary photographer’ is increasingly problematic to me. The implicit suggestion is that to document is to provide a reliable, truthful account of a situation. This is a tall order, and often in this genre we may simply reinforce stereotypes and miss the important underlying issues.
So my work has become more ‘conceptual’. Funnily enough, this to me has become an absurd word – sometimes mis-used in ‘art photography’ to suggest ambiguity, work with no clear point… detached images of things that may or may not really mean anything. For me - for something to be conceptual - there must be a concept. Something that drives the work, a point, a message, or at least a structure or presentation that is thought-provoking. I am increasingly interested in the point where documentary and art photography merge. Where the work is really about something, but is also reflective and thought-provoking.
In Love Me (my latest book project) I employ a wide variety of photographic strategies and techniques – stylized portraiture, landscapes, studio still-life and documentary. But the documentary element has been pared down substantially, and the work has become more composed and considered. I also included text: statistics, traditional proverbs, historical notes, philosophical statements, quotes, excerpts from novels, image captions and even a poem.
Who or what inspires you?
My inspiration comes from a variety of sources… from Muhammed Ali (who refused to be conscripted to fight in the Vietnam war and was stripped of his world champion boxing title) to a mountaineer who paid $60,000 dollars and spent 6 months in training to climb Mount Everest and turned back near the summit (while the others continued against their better instincts and perished in a freezing storm). These were acts of courage, even though neither involved seeking glory. I’m inspired by people who follow their instincts.
What keeps you motivated to keep on making pictures?
A sense of enquiry, adventure, knowledge and a need to understand the world. A desire to have a voice in the world, to express thoughts and ideas.
How does your practice relate to your every day life?
It IS my everyday life. I photograph things that interest me, I photograph in places that interest me, and I photograph people that interest me. And I choose subjects I want to know more about or understand, or things that I feel should be discussed. And then there’s some paid work, just to make a living. And that pretty much takes up my waking hours.
What is your latest project?
‘Love Me’ is my most recently completed long-term project – a new book and exhibition. The project reflects on the cultural and commercial forces that drive a global obsession with youth and beauty.
I had a growing sense of our culture reaching a fever-pitch of self-consciousness, driven by an industry that breeds insecurity in order to sell us a ‘cure’. Our basic human need for acceptance and the ultimate need to be noticed and loved has been exploited, and we have created a world in which there are enormous social, psychological and economic rewards and penalties attached to the way we look. The book explores these ideas.
[Ed.’s note: Zed’s 2009 book project Love Me can be viewed here and the book can be ordered on Amazon here.]
How important is working collaboratively?
I always feel I would like to work in a more collaborative situation…but I’m still trying to work out how to make it happen.
Where do photographers go when they die? What about their work?
They go a a special place where cameras are no longer necessary, and instead you can record a moments vision with a blink of your eye. Oh, actually, we have that already, its called memory. OK, it’s a place where there is no email, no downloading, no scanning. And ‘facebook’ means stopping reading a book for a minute, to look up at someone’s actual face, when they ask you a real question.
Regarding work, that can live on - that’s what’s special about photography… an image’s potency increases over time. I love the historical aspect of photography.
What is your favourite…
…piece of kit? Mamiya RZ-67.
…picture or photographer? I’m a fan of Joel Sternfeld. His ‘Renegade Elephant’ is a very moving image.
…time of day? I like late afternoon, in warm sunlight.
It’s interesting and off-beat, and has unexpected surprises.
…lab? Labyrinth Photographic, they still know how to process and print film.