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Tuesday, 30 November 2010

An Interview with Timothy Archibald

Echolilia, Timothy Archibald's collaboration  with his son has been in development for many years and I am a big fan. It shows childhood in a way that resonates with all parents, and captures the worlds that children inhabit physically and emotionally.

Timothy has likened the promotion of Echolilia to pushing a rock up a hill. Well, this autumn, the pushing finally got some rewards when it was featured on a slew of big-name websites. Echolilia has a subtext about autism, but it goes way beyond that - but it was autism that helped sell the project and get the project attention from beyond the photoworld. I think Echolilia still has some way to go before it reaches its rightful peak, so with that in mind, I thought I'd ask a Tim a few questions about the project. There are some really illuminating insights in the answers so read through to the end; this is a basic lesson in how to start, continue and realise a project.

How and why did you start the project?

In the fall of 2007 my son Eli was 5 and he really was driving my wife and I crazy. Strange behavior we couldn’t make sense of, massive temper tantrums that would brew like storms and explode all over the house, and complaints and concerns from teachers and day care providers…everything in my life at that point was all about Eli. “What about this? What doctor said that? We read in some book…it sounds like him a little…maybe its this?” All of our time was spent trying to figure out Eli. I couldn’t understand him and his motivations, probably feared him a bit, and time with him wasn’t like….enjoyable. I had always used photography projects as an escape from my real life- I used to like infiltrating subcultures that were different from me and learning about them, photographing them….photography was always an escape from my own life. Here I think I was just at the end of my rope, and started taking photographs of things he created, photographs of him, of the evidence of him and his behavior around our house. I thought maybe I’d see something or get at something. I don’t really know. But in writing they always say “ write what you know “. Here, this domestic chaos was what I knew, so I tried to photograph it.

How did it evolve - what were the key moments of realization?

The project was so wrapped up in our every day life it didn’t seem to have a moment of clarity, when it all seemed to be mapped out and we knew how to make it good. Almost the opposite of that happened…its almost like it was best when we were all in the dark and just exploring.

 One point that gave it power was when it started to feel like something we both were contributing to, rather than me just photographing him. That was early on…he really didn’t have interest in just being the subject, he needed to be involved.

Looking backward, it seems the best images were created when he and I were the most desperate, we were trying to make images amidst the most trying times, the times when his behavior was the worst, or was the hardest to make sense of. It’s like there was a bubble when we were making images, he was giving input on the shots and the poses but neither he nor I was too self conscious about what we were doing. That window seemed to yield the strongest images. As the project evolved, he and I became more in sync, more of a collective creative brain, and then its almost like we had to fight from repeating ourselves or fight to find new things….we had to work harder, we had to fail more, throw more images away. But when the project started, in the more desperate times, the good images were emotionally darker…more grim, not really positive, just really feral. So I think they are the better images, but I think as the project evolved the emotions got to be more positive, more universal, more maybe about childhood, what its like to be a child, rather than about my struggle with my kid…so I think the project evolved to be about a spectrum of emotions. Now that its done and is getting a lot of attention, I think these images that were less grim have allowed the project to be more accessible to people, they allowed it to kind of speak to more people and be more about “everything”, rather than just about one thing. A friend had always said to me “ the more personal you make it, the more universal it will become”. I never really knew how to go about that, but I think it may have worked out that way here.

What role did autism play in the project?

Autism…it always was the love / hate part of the project. When I started shooting it we didn’t know Eli was on the Autistic Spectrum, we just knew he was different and there was a mystery, a conflict, a question I was trying to figure out. What was the question? I guess it was “What is up with my kid?” or “How do I relate to this kid?” or something like that. So that was the fuel that really powered the project. It gave us something to figure out, something to make pictures about. After we got the diagnosis of ASD, I was pretty determined not to use the term to introduce the images. Either I was uncomfortable with it, or I didn’t want it to limit the project to being like “concerned photography” or something like that. Which it isn’t. I don’t really care about Autism. I care about relationships, individuals, personal connections, you know? So…showing the photographs to other photographers I’d use the term. But in public, I’d never use the term. I didn’t want it to be thought of as something only of interest to a small audience interested in this medical thing. But I did find that when it came time to give the book/series “the elevator pitch”, the quick sentence that would get a viewer or editor interested in the project, whenever I used the word it seemed to connect with people. It just answered all their questions and allowed them into the images with a little bit of necessary knowledge.

Do you think that made a difference to how Echolilia was received?

Yeah, for sure. I think that photography people would engage with the project simply as an intriguing collection of photographs. I think that the wider non photographic audience really could only engage with the work once the word Autism was used. And really, for things like Time, NYT’s, and Discover Magazine to grab on to the project, they needed a science hook that allows the pictures to speak to others, not just us, the photo nerds out there. A lot of this early attention and public use of the term “Autism” made me cringe. I’ve always tried to make it clear that Eli has a big vocabulary, goes to public school, and is just on a different channel. And the media have gone out of their way to acknowledge that in these stories as well, but I think I’ve always been trying to dodge it a bit. But now, really, after all of this attention, you do a Google search on “Autism” + “Photographs” and some mention of the project surfaces…so the cat is out of the bag.

You mention that making and promoting the work was like pushing a rock up a hill - how did you motivate yourself to continue doing this?

You know, I did say that…and I forgot what I meant by that. Because really, the project had some magnetic qualities that people seemed to grab on to in a surprising way, so now it kinda feels like a ball rolling down a hill. But its been 3 years of shooting and then a year of trying to do the book and by then you are sick of all of your photographs but no one has seen them yet in the book form so you push thru, trying to get that done. Then you have a garage full of books ( in our case, self published ) and you need to convince people to look at it or buy it or throw you a bone of sorts and by that time it is easy to want to give up and just start a new project. That is when you really feel like you are pushing a rock up a hill.  I did have a friend who said when I was hiring a designer for the book and wrestling with that “ You know, really its all about making motion videos now. You be better off if you ditched this book thing and put your energy into making a movie”. And commercially, he probably was correct. My answer at the time was “Oh, just let me give this thing it’s due, let me finish it, you know?” There is something to be said about following the arc of anything- a project, a relationship. If you don’t follow it to its end, it may haunt you. So, this I wanted to finish and follow the arc of. And getting this one in front of the public changed it immensely…or changed the way I thought of it, and others did too.

You suddenly got a huge audience outside the photoworld - how did this happen and what was the difference between the non-photographic audiences and the photographic audiences?

It was kind of a series of co-incidences. TIME called and wanted Eli and I to do a series of photographs to illustrate a story on childhood mental health and they wanted it to look like ECHOLILIA.. Their idea was to get us to do those photographs for the magazine, and then they would do an online book excerpt from ECHOLILIA. It was a smart pairing that they pulled of well. NYT’s LENS had been interested in it and agreed to do it differently, as a story written by Jane Gross, a writer who wrote extensively on Autism. Somehow both media monoliths agreed to do it…they each had their own spin on it. That got it in front of the masses.

Getting the body of work in front of the non photo audience was really eye opening and changed everything.. It was the story in the New York Times LENS blog that gave the project it’s other life….it really changed the way I viewed the project because there we got to hear from the viewers, the masses had a voice.

When you are working on something, its always hard to judge your motivations, hard to figure out what is driving the project. I’ve always had an interest in photographers who made “weird” photographs. Les Krims, Arthur Tress, Roger Ballen, Joel Peter Witkin, Ralph Eugene Meatyard, all of these photographers who’d fall under some similar umbrella of “weird”. This is the work I always had a soft spot for, even though my work didn’t really look like that. With ECHOLILIA, I thought that my interest in those photographers work was pretty evident in my images…this project kind of paid homage to that type of work, and I didn’t really know if I was driving it in that direction, or if the subject matter pushing it in that direction….I just didn’t know. When the work got in front of other parents with kids on the Spectrum, I was kind of preparing myself for the worst. I just didn’t think others would relate to the work. What I got was letters from around the world, privately and on the LENS blog, of parents saying that they are seeing their own kids in my photographs of Eli. They were saying essentially that these scribbled notes, these body movements, these curious stares, were things they see every day going on in their homes. A few parents sent me photographs, casual snapshots they took of their kids that looked like they could be stuck right into the ECHOLILIA book and fit in without anyone noticing! One mom had photographed notes her kid wrote and hung around the house, her son laying naked on a bookshelf, he son hiding behind a clear plastic tube….I mean it was all the same data. I hope to be able to share the stuff on my blog, but need to respect the parents’ privacy for now.

Has the input you have received from viewers of Echolilia changed the way you see it (could be good, could be bad, is probably a bit of both)?

Oh, the input has been great…I mean knowledge is power, right? But it has been good and bad. The one thing that it made me realize is that I really may not have done anything special with this project at all. I think that I really just operated a camera and a scanner in a rather elegant manner capturing things that parents of kids on the spectrum are seeing every day! I just happened to be the dad, there in the house, running the camera.

But the sense of familiarity that people are seeing looking at the images seems to be creating some sort of good vibe out in the world. People relate to the images, feel like it acknowledges what they are living but in a poetic way, there always is good that comes when people relate to the stuff. I have done projects that didn’t inspire such benevolence….but in this case it caught me by surprise. I always thought these were just images of my reality, not anyone elses’ reality.

One thing someone did mention on the NYT’s letter section was that people shouldn’t romanticize the images. The story of a dad building an emotional bridge to his Autistic son is a very attractive one, but the reality of the relationship, how challenging it is on a daily basis, how it can still drive me crazy, is something I wish the project acknowledged a little more. The other week things were really challenging at home with Eli, and I found myself telling my wife that I wanted it to be more like the photographs were: dreamy, romantic, quiet, poetic, organic, this whole inner emotional journey where I was in control and he and I were equals.. She laughed and reminded me that it never really was like that. That was a fiction made out of the conflict….and it made some intriguing photographs. But the reality was always harder and messier.

So who is your publisher Echo Press?

Oh, there is no publisher. Echo Press is just me and Eli. We hired a designer, hired an ad agency copy writer, layed out the book and took it to a printer to crank out 20 copies. That is our publishing deal! It also explains why the book is so expensive. But this is something that seems do-able these days….so we wanted to try it. In 2005 I was promoting my first book ( Sex Machines : Photographs and Interviews , Process 2005 ) which had a mainstream publisher,  I realized how hard it was to sell photography books. We’d do these big events- exhibitions in NYC, slideshow lectures at bookstores around the country, and still it was so very hard to sell any books. The events were a great cultural experience and were well attended, but as far as moving the books…it almost seemed unrelated! I recall flying to Chicago for a lecture, had a good audience had a great time, and the bookstore sold 3 books. I felt sorry for these wonderful people who chose to publish the book! So with this, I figured I’d just try it myself, keep it small, and every sale would mean something. My son would be involved signing the books, making a buck off of each one…it would just be different by design. So here we are. We just printed 30 more. But still the sales are tiny compared with any book published by a real publisher.

So what are you going to do next? Working on anything now?

Yes! The next project is called “Commercial Photography” and it essentially means I’m going to try to figure out how to make a living again with photography. These personal projects always take over and become this creative tidal wave I get happily absorbed in. After all this internal digging, I’m looking forward to the simple pleasures of working for a living as a photographer, making the pictures people tell me to make. And truth be told, these personal projects for me need to bubble to the surface…I just can’t execute them, and for now nothing has surfaced. But I’m waiting….

NYT Link:


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Can emotions be fictional?SRE