Peter Funch is a New York–based photographer from Denmark whose new series, Last Flight, is a investigative portrait of life in Atchison, Kansas, at the moment of an explosion. Working with a local photojournalism school, Funch planted 15 cameras at different locations in the small town to record what was going on at the exact moment of the implosion of Amelia Earhart Bridge, a recently condemned structure named for the town's long disappeared favorite daughter. Funch is interested in creating a document that provides no definite answer, rather a set of unanswered questions that require the viewer to piece events together into an unclear narrative. Under a billboard-size print of swirling gray smoke in Funch's Greenpoint, Brooklyn, studio we talked about his perspective on America as an outsider, the possibilities of documenting a liminal space, and the symbolic power of a bridge being blown to bits.
Vice: Tell me what your show at V1 Gallery in Copenhagen is about.
Peter Funch: The show was called Last Flight,and it's based around an event in mid America, in the middle between A and B in America. It's based around the implosion of a bridge. They were taking down a bridge because it was too old, no longer safe. I was fascinated by this event because it is a scenario in between two states of being. It's a bridge to becoming a ruin, so it's in a transitional state.
What interests you about transitional states?
It's about becoming something new or something different, something we can't define. It's about finding a new way of looking at things or defining things. There's not a word for what state the bridge is in now. It's not a bridge, it's not a ruin, it's something else. I photographed this event from many angles in a very small town in America, and then photographed a lot of other elements, objects, people, and events to illustrate that same in-between state.
There was another dimension to the bridge; it was named Amelia Earhart Bridge because the bridge is in the city where she was born.
She was born in this town?
She was born in this small town called Atchison, Kansas. She disappeared in 1937, and in 1939 when construction of the bridge was done she was declared dead. So, in a way, she also went through that same transition of becoming something else; first she is a pilot and then she becomes the myth. So she's also in a transitional state.
You photographed the instant of the bridge imploding from many angles at the same instant, with the help of a local school.
Yeah. I came to Atchison with four people, a producer, and two camera assistants. Then I had help from a college that had a journalism program. There were 26 students helping me out, releasing all these cameras at that moment when the bridge was imploded.
How many cameras again?
I had 13 cameras and two drones with cameras; 15 cameras all photographing that same event.
So you had many photos of the moment that the bridge goes down, but then you also did investigative work photographing archival materials in the town.
Yes, I went back a number of times. I tell the narrative story of the moment when the bridge was taken down, but it's also the narrative of Amelia Earhart, and the evolution of this city, becoming smaller and smaller. It is also about change in a way that hasn't been defined. I'm trying to have all these narratives overlapping each other. It's involved the passage of time in a small town, this small society that is quite isolated.
Why is photography a good way to talk about that kind of transition?
I'm leaning up against investigative journalism: a very well researched journalistic approach to photography. My background is in photojournalism, and I've been tearing that apart in my own way. I like the tradition of the way you tell a story: You can research, you can tell some aspect of truth. You can really frame it in a way and hold the hand of the viewer and tell a certain story.
Photography is a moment where you don't get the before and after. I imagine a film of this event being a straight narrative, but it seems you are doing something more complicated and nonlinear.
That's my fascination with photography. It's all about breaking those rules of how you usually understand photography and how you usually use narrative. It's very much about the Cartier-Bresson approach to photography; it's the moment. Photography can also not be one moment but many moments.
This story is about America, but you are from Denmark. I think Robert Frank believed that he brought a more objective perspective to America than Americans could have on it.
The whole story about being an outsider, being an immigrant is definitely something I work around. I love being the stranger. I don't think I'm objective at all; I'm just observing things in a very unromantic way, as little nostalgia as possible because I don't have the reference of being born here to be nostalgic about.
So it's a book and it's a show and the show was installed in a nontraditional way. It reflects the in progress, in between state that you're talking about.
I see so many photo shows where the two dimensional aspect of photographs takes over: it hangs on the wall and that's it. I wanted to integrate the gallery space a little more. Since the project is about transitional space, I was thinking about demolition and renovation. So I started adding these temporary walls where you see the aluminum, you see the cheap plywood. I also added images lying on the floor and standing up against the wall, as if they are about to be put up.
So it's a lot of things that add up to an unclear answer on purpose it seems. It appears in flux, in a plastic state. What are you chasing? What are you hoping the pictures are grappling with?
I have always loved the idea that when you go into something you are never going to find the answer. It's not a treasure map. You're not going to find the gold or anything like that. It's not a one-liner. As a viewer you can approach or understand the story in the way you want to, you can read the text and get information about the relation between Amelia Earhart and the bridge and understand something out of that. There are so many ways in and so many ways out.
It would seem that photojournalism usually provides almost an answer, a document of something.
Photojournalism is usually framed to understand a conflict. It is good debate and good conversation, but I am not saying there is a clear answer. It's always going to be your understanding of the pictures.
It does put some of the work onto the viewer, to investigate. You are asking people to look at things in a more active way.
I think it is nice to challenge the viewer, to expect a little more of the people watching it. My last project, Babel Tales, was such a very blog-friendly project. It was everywhere because the approach was almost gimmicky in terms of concept.
There is still something about Last Flight where at the heart of everything there is an explosion. There is a hook, y'know?
Sure, it's almost like a Hollywood trick. That's part of why I've always been fascinated by these kinds of events. You have this thing that looks ostensibly very beautiful, but it tells the story of that moment where we're not quite sure what's going on, that's not defined, that doesn't have a word.
Last Flight: An American Anthology will be on view at V1 Gallery in Copenhagen, Denmark, from July 30 to August 9, 2014.
Peter Funch is a New York–based photographer from Denmark. He studied photojournalism at the Danish School of Journalism and has shown his work internationally.
Matthew Leifheit is photo editor of VICE. Follow him on Twitter.