An Interview with Sebastian Collett


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An Interview with Sebastian Collett

We talked with photographer Sebastian Collett about how to harness time, then set it free.

Mossless in America is a column featuring interviews with documentary photographers. The series is produced in partnership with Mossless magazine, an experimental photography publication run by Romke Hoogwaerts and Grace Leigh. Romke started Mossless in 2009, as a blog in which he interviewed a different photographer every two days; since 2012 the magazine has produced two print issues, each dealing with a different type of photography. Mossless was featured prominently in the landmark 2012 exhibition Millennium Magazine at the Museum of Modern Art in New York; it is supported by Printed Matter, Inc. Its third issue, a major photographic volume on American documentary photography from the last ten years, titled The United States (2003–2013), was published this spring.


Why do fragments of the places we lived growing up remain with us throughout our lives? How do we connect to those places and the people who inhabit them after we've left, after time has passed and we've changed, grown older? Sebastian Collett doesn't have all the answers, but instead raises more questions by making photographs that defy both time and place. His series Vanishing Point began when he returned to the small Ohio town where he grew up for his 20th high school reunion. Collett's quotidian subjects are frozen in luminous monochrome, on the cusp of becoming or vanishing, made to transcend their mortal coil and exist forever as afterimages filed somewhere in the back of your brain. We talked with him about the ways in which time can be harnessed, then set free.

VICE: Where did you grow up? 

Sebastian Collett: I grew up in Oberlin, Ohio, and a few years in France.

Where were the images in Vanishing Point shot? They feel as if they could have been taken anywhere. 

Most of the images were shot in my hometown in Ohio, although there are a few from other locations. And you're right—midway into the project I started to realize that many of the images had a "timeless" or "placeless" quality, any yet they were specific at the same time. I would say that they are about a very specific place, but it's a psychological or emotional place, rather than a geographic one. They survey an internal landscape.


What attracts you to this kind of landscape? 

I have a really deep connection to my hometown, and it's grown stronger over the years. When I returned for my 20th high school reunion, something clicked. It was as though a long planetary orbit had come full circle. I felt called to immerse myself in my childhood landscape, and in so doing, to reconnect with some parts of myself that I'd almost forgotten. It was an incredibly powerful experience, and it's still going on. Every time I return to my hometown, I feel a kind of energetic buzz, like I'm passing through a portal in time. I'm still my adult self, but I'm able to see through the eyes of the child that lives inside me. The process of photographing allows for a really interesting interplay of these selves. I find myself drawn to people who evoke specific emotional states or childhood experiences. Sometimes they serve as "stand-ins" for characters or archetypes from my past.  As I approach and talk with them, my adult self is steering the situation, but at the same time my child self is using the encounter to resolve and integrate these past emotions and experiences. It's a strangely healing process.

Is there a story behind the picture of the boy in the football jersey?

In most cases when I'm walking the streets and photographing, I got a strong "hit"—a clearly felt sense that I needed to photograph this particular person, and not that one. Often this happens from far away, before I even know what the person looks like. In the case of the football boy, I was drawn to the way the oversized uniform seemed to overwhelm his small body. He seemed so sad, fragile and tired, carrying the burden of this armor. I spoke to him for a moment, and learned that he was a student at Langston Middle School, which I attended when I was his age. The school was named after John Mercer Langston, Ohio's first black lawyer.


What does the title of this series mean? 

Finding the perfect title for a series is quite a challenge. I had many titles in mind as I worked, and I have a feeling that this title may evolve along with the project. In other words, I can see this project giving birth to several interconnected projects, with separate, yet related titles. Vanishing Point refers to the furthest reach of vision; the point where the future comes into view, and the point where the past disappears from sight. I think it speaks to the experience of traveling through time, and watching the present become past, and the past become present again. I was drawn to people at a pivotal point in their lives, and I wanted to catch them in a moment of transition. They seemed to be on the cusp of becoming or vanishing.

Sebastian Collett is a photographer living between the US and Berlin.

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