The 2014 PDN 30 award winner talks about the state of American culture, the melancholic nature of photography, and his new work on Syria.
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), will be published this spring.
The photographs we choose to publish from Benjamin Rasmussen's series HOME tell just one side of his story. Rasmussen grew up on a remote island in the Philippines but was raised by an American mother and a Danish father, and the series explores these three roots. In our third issue, we decided only to run pictures made in America, but for this interview we made sure to ask about much more. He was recently chosen as one of PDN's 30 photographers to watch alongside a few other Mossless contributors. His latest work on Syrian refugees, made with collaborator Michael Friberg, is slated to release later this month at TGIF Gallery in Brooklyn. We talked about the state of American culture, the melancholic nature of photography, and his new work on Syria.
Mossless: We both grew up far away from our parents' home countries. Where were you raised? Do you think that this distance drew you to photography?
Benjamin Rasmussen: I grew up in the Philippines, on the small island of Balabac, with an American mother and a father from the Faroe Islands, a small Danish protectorate in the North Atlantic. They moved to the Philippines to work as Bible translators when I was 1-year-old and I left when I was 18.
Growing up this way made it seem normal that three places and cultures so geographically, culturally and linguistically different all exist together. But when I would tell friends and family in the Faroe Islands or the US about Balabac, it always stuck them as so exotic and so distant. So I was drawn to photography by a desire to narrow that distance.
Your series HOME takes place in those three places. Did shooting them make you feel closer or further away from them?
I started working on HOME as a kind of cultural identity therapy. It gave me an excuse to examine these three places, cultures and peoples to figure out what they meant for my own sense of belonging. The process of photographing and showing the work also allowed me to introduce the groups to each other.
In the end, making the series both drew me closer and further away from those places. It allowed me intentionally interact as an adult with relationships and landscapes that shaped me as a child. And it gave me something to share with those people that made me feel more known.
But the act of photographing is also quite melancholic and causes me to feel very distant. It makes me an observer instead of a participant. That is why there are such strong overtones of romanticism in the work. A lot of it is about me desperately wanting to know what it would feel like to completely belong to one place and culture.
What are your thoughts on contemporary American culture, compared to what you experienced growing up?
I grew up in a place that was quite simple and harsh. There were no roads, electricity or phones. There were no doctors and lots of tropical diseases, so my parents had to teach themselves how to diagnose and treat illnesses and emergency injuries. Kids made most of their own toys and their own excitement. The focus was on the community and that was pretty much it.
What has struck me in the US is how everything needs to be large, complex and smooth. We believe in constant upward mobility and the pursuit of the financial American Dream. There is a strong cultural message that the most important thing is that we feel good, look beautiful and are always happy and fulfilled. And as photographers, there is a level of entitlement that since we created something, millions of people should see it and praise us and then give us money for it.
I think it [American culture] is exhausting but also have to admit that I am totally a part of it. It is a cultural force that sucks you in and becomes normal.
Za'atari refugee camp in Jordan from Benjamin Rasmussen and Michael Friberg's By The Olive Trees
Your latest work is on Syria. What brought you there?
I went to Joran with another photographer, Michael Friberg, to work on a project about the lives of Syrian refugees there. We had seen powerful photojournalism coming from the conflict. People were taking huge risks, getting great access and producing horrifying images. But they were all bang bang, all blood and guts. They showed Syrians either fighting or dying. They showed them in the post apocalyptic landscapes of Aleppo and escaping the country by moonlight and in dust covered refugee camps. But I didn’t come across work that showed them as individuals. They were always actors in dramatic pictures, but never real people. We wanted to add a different voice to the conversation with the work that we could create.
The finished project is an 80-page newsprint publication called By The Olive Trees made up of long form interviews with Syrian refugees that seek to explore what their experience has been like. The printing was completely funded by sponsors and a Kickstarter campaign, so now we are distributing them for free through people interested in the project passing them out in their communities, through our website and soon through a series of shows and talks. The publication will be launched with a show at TGIF Gallery in New York on April 19.
My personal motivation for the pursuing the work was a continuation of the themes that began in HOME. It is the first chapter in a much larger project with the working title Dispatched. The name has a twofold meaning. First, the project will look at how people respond when sense of place and community is under threat. And the second is to examine groups and stories that the mainstream media paid attention to for a short period of time and then moved on from. Dispatched will be a collection of stories at the intersection of these two points, each of which will be distributed widely using a variety of means. I am currently editing interviews and images for the second part of the project about the impact of Typhoon Haiyan on one small town in the Philippines.
Where is your paradise?
There is this little town called Gjógv in the Faroe Islands that has a population of 50. My wife, Abby, and I play a game once or twice a year where we imagine we get to curate whom those 50 people would be. Living in this beautiful and remote seaside town with 48 of my favorite people would definitely be my paradise.
Benjamin Rasmussen is a freelance photographer based in Denver, Colorado.
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