Scott and I began sharing pictures with each other when we met at the University of Washington – a practice that ultimately became Dvafoto – and we’ve always been interested in what we call “photo battles”, instances of photographers publishing similar photographs either from the same event or the same place shot years apart. One classic example is the pair of photographs of a boy on a tank in Chechnya taken by James Nachtwey and Christopher Morris in 1996.
Perhaps our contemporary, collective déjà vu is trigged by the news cycle’s constant hunger for images. Photographers, after all, do sometimes document annual events — at the same time and place, year after year— as if nothing at all has ever changed, or ever will change, at that location.
Documentary photography, meanwhile, raises its own breed of déjà vu. Photojournalists often travel together and work side by side at the same event, documenting the same moment—seeing the same things, taking the same pictures. Even when working independently, photographers are not immune to conscious (or subconscious) mirroring, and the 20th century has provided a litany of masters—Cartier-Bresson, Klein, Evans and Frank come to mind—who have influenced entire generations of image makers. After all, we all want to pay homage to our forebears and our heroes. Is it so surprising when, paying tribute, we veer into imitation?
You probably already know Christopher Morris‘ work. One of the founding members of VII, his conflict photography is unparalleled and his recent work on American politics, including the book “My America,” has redefined visual coverage of the White House. You might not know that Morris has been making videos in addition to his still coverage of American politics. Emotionally resonant and forceful, these videos look like none others produced in the 5DMarkII-fueled push toward moving images in photojournalism. The videos resemble Morris’ still work, but their use of music, black and white imagery, and tone make them something altogether different. He’s released four videos, all worth watching:
Christopher Morris recently started a thread on lightstalkers to discuss his videos, and the response was varied. Make sure to read through that thread. The discussion there is interesting and touched on many aspects of Morris’ video work not covered in this interview (if you don’t have a lightstalkers account, email me), and I thought Morris’ videos would be a great subject for one of our periodic interviews here at dvafoto. I was delighted when Morris agreed to the interview. The discussion, conducted over email, is below. Our questions are in bold, followed by Morris’ full responses. If you’re reading on the front page, be sure to click through to the post to see the full interview.
dvafoto: What are you showing us with the videos? When “Dear Leader” first came out, the title (equating Bush with Kim Jong Il) and the tone and the video itself suggested to me a critical portrayal of the previous administration. Now seeing a similar tone in the Obama videos, it strikes me that you aren’t focusing directly on the man in the office, but the office itself and its theater and cultural baggage.
Christopher Morris: I’m showing you what I feel. Each one of these has a very distinct clear meaning for me. As for the viewer? That’s something I’m not quite sure of. This is the beauty of this whole process. They are whatever you want them to be.
I seem to remember you speaking or writing about what would become “My America” as appealing both to the Bush administration’s supporters and detractors. From the same photos, one side saw images of patriotism and strong leadership, while the other saw demagogy, jingoism, and blind, wrong-headed faith in a politician. Have you gotten the same reaction from your videos? From your coverage of Obama? How do you feel about this emotional ambiguity? is it your goal?
Each one of these short films has a distinct meaning for me. I know exactly what I’m trying to convey, what mood and emotion I’m trying to bring out of the viewer in each one of these… The exciting thing about the whole process though… is the emotion that I may want to convey… will actually with some, be the complete opposite or even something that I’ve never even thought of.
Your lightstalkers thread called your videos “experiments,” why are they experiments? Will they become more than an experiment for you? What got you started shooting video? How do you fit in the video shooting with the stills and deadlines? What influenced the style of your videos?
Here I’ll give a short synopsis of each of the Obama works and how they really came about. The first one I did was “The New Leader“. I didn’t wake up and think oh I’m going to make a statement about the Presidency today. It really started as I was sitting in the balcony of Capitol Hill while the President was about to step out to address the Nation on his Health Care Reform. I had been loaned one of the new Canon 7d’ cameras to test the day before. So literally 5 minutes before he came out, I decided to attempt to shoot some video of him at the start. Still images from a balcony 100 feet away of someone walking down the center aisle really do not make for great photography. So why now shoot video instead.. Later the next day when I put the clips into my laptop. I was stunned, with the whole quality and the mood of the images. In the next few day’s the President left for Wall Street to make an address on the Economy in New York. Basically here is a man that is trying to sell the nation on Health Care, the Economy, the War. The urgency of everything. This is what I’ve attempted to convey in “The New Leader” short.
All of this was really just an experiment to test out the 7D. There were and still are many parts that should be edited out. This is why on returning to DC in November, my initial plan was to attempt to record some more clips of the President to re-edit into the film. Then on Veterans Day, Obama was to visit Arlington National Cemetery and deliver a speech. This time using the Canon 5D, I basically shot non-stop from the moment the motorcade left the White House until it returned. Right away during the drive I could sense how visually stunning the motorcade footage was, with the added historical importance of the President’s visit, and that this couldn’t be edited into my earlier video. It would stand on its own [“Obama’s Burden“]. What struck me is that roughly 10 cars in front of me is the President in his limousine looking out at the constant and never ending tombstones of our war dead.
And then in December, Obama was to fly to West Point to address the nation on his decision regarding Afghanistan. Hence, “Obama’s War.” The choice of the music here is really interesting. What I do, is while playing one of the clips, I will cycle through some songs to see if anything fits the mood I’m attempting to convey. Having already downloaded some music files from pumpaudio.com, I had something in mind. By mistake I inadvertently played this Russian folklore song called Jolly Talk, by DrevA. For me it was perfect, here was this Russian voice taunting us with her simple words. Taunting us, for now it was our turn to send our young cadets to Afghanistan. The same thing Russian cadets were doing 30 years before. As for the images of the C5A cargo plane, they were shot the same night at an Air Force base near West Point. They are from the window of the helicopter as we taxied for take-off. For me they represented the planes that would carry the young cadets to war. They had almost this coffin like quality to them. (more…)
With the next interview in our ongoing series we’re talking to photographer Donald Weber who is based in Eastern Europe and is with the VII Network. You should quickly see why he and I have connected, given our overlapping interests … Continued
In in a thread over at Lightstalkers thanking people for their comments on his (remarkable) video The Dear Leader, Christopher Morris mentioned that he has a new video out (and, probably, more to come as he just finished a two-week … Continued
Time magazine has published a number of photo essays on its website covering the final days of both Barack Obama and John McCain’s presidential campaigns. Christopher Morris brings his signature style to John McCain’s Final Push and John McCain’s Long Distance … Continued
Just stumbled upon the new issue of Gary Knight (et.al.)’s newish magazine rethink-dispatches titled Beyond Iraq. In a nice twist for us here at ДваФото (dvafoto .. meaning ‘two pictures’ in Russian) the brilliant and enlightening main photo essay for … Continued