Interview with Paul Seawright


Image: Paul Seawright (b. 1965), Void 2014, Pigment print 1/3 from an edition of 3 + 1 AP

Making News: Things Left Unsaid, a new exhibition by renowned photographer Paul Seawright opens here at The Model this Saturday, 04 April. I spoke to him this week about his latest body of work, a series of photographs taken in American television news stations.

Much of Seawright’s work reads between the lines of visual narrative. While most photography focuses on the subject itself and what we can see, Seawright’s work looks at things that are not easy to see. He describes this as the opposite of what photography is meant to be about.

“That idea with things being between the lines is also to do with things being inherently invisible, nonvisual, or inherently not easy to see. And that’s the kind of subject I’ve always dealt with,” he told me. “How can photography deal with anything that’s not inherently visual? That’s kind of the starting premise and therefore the project itself is about the things we don’t see or are left out and that would chime with all the work I have done in the past. The thing I’m trying to get engaged with is not actually in the picture.”

Reading between the lines is also what sets him apart from a photojournalist. What Seawright’s work has in common with photojournalism is themes such as conflict, violence and post-war landscapes. The principle difference is the language in which they operate. Seawright says that photojournalism is about providing answers to our questions and giving up the meaning, whereas photography is temporal. Seawright explains “When you look at an editorial photograph you look at it for a very short period of time, 10-15 seconds. In a gallery you are more likely to spend more time looking at it. Therefore, there is a slowness to the experience that is more important to how the work functions, and immediacy is something I’m trying to work against.”

Seawright’s approach and purpose encourages the viewer to ask more questions. So does he think that photojournalism should be more like this?

“To be fair, recently what I think you might call photojournalism is becoming more sophisticated. There’s space now for different kinds of photojournalism particularly because the market for photojournalism is diminishing. So, it’s changing, much more of it is online where you’re mixing different kinds of media together where one moment you could be watching a video and the next you could be listening to an audio piece. That has changed the way people consume photojournalism. I think the people working in that market have developed more sophisticated ways to deal with subject matter than they have in the past so I think that that’s an improved position, and I think artists are also flirting with some of those ideas as well. The boundaries are definitely blurring.”

In terms of his working process, Seawright says his work is not about responding to what he sees. “It’s not about me driving about in a car until I see something like some nice light or something I want to photograph. That is a very photographic way of working but it’s not the way I work.” Instead, his projects begin with a methodology that predetermines the location and the content of his photographs.

All photos featured in Things Left Unsaid were made in television news stations in America. “That of course immediately determines where you’re making the picture and when you get there sometimes there’s nothing to take a photo of. That takes a huge number of factors out of the equation right away.”

Seawright elaborates on this point by referencing the manner in which the media reported on the Gulf War in the early 1990s,
“There were these photographs of journalists outside hotels with all the lights and they might as well have been on holiday somewhere. They were all reporting from outside these hotels in Dubai and Kuwait and they were beautifully dressed, super clean and very false. That was the image of how television news was stuck trying to report that war and I was thinking of doing something with that.” The media tried to visualise something that wasn’t visual which led Paul to think about how the news has a veneer of truth and transparency “…when of course we all know that deep down it’s highly constructed and full of holes.”

Referencing drones, Seawright noted similarities between the technology of drone pilot stations and the technology of a television station. “That made me think there’s really now something to be done about the sheer idea of technology being at the centre of how we consume war from our sofas and being at the centre of war itself.”

While waiting to do an interview about his project, Volunteer, on a TV show in America, a news report about a murdered soldier inspired him to take a photo which would serve as a sketch for Things Left Unsaid.

“The idea originally was that I would wait until they talk about Afghanistan or Iraq and I would make a picture at that moment and so there was more of a performing element to it. That’s what I did, I made this one picture at the moment they talked about Afghanistan and Iraq. I thought that was great and I liked the picture very much and it worked.”

During a visit to a second TV station there was no mention of the war which lead him to think that the project wouldn’t work. “But I thought actually the idea with the technology could still work. Maybe then you do exactly the opposite, you emphasise the idea that they don’t talk about the war and that they’re not talking about the war for a reason.” Three years later when Seawright was making the project he noticed people hardly talked about the war in many cases. Encouragement from a curator further inspired Seawright to make a project out of the idea, “I got a researcher and we spent three months setting up a 6000-mile trip around America. Over five weeks I photographed 39 studios and that’s the project.”

Paul Seawright will join Director of The Model Megan Johnston and journalist Susan McKay in conversation at 6pm tomorrow night at the opening of the exhibition.