I come from a really small town just north of Chicago. I spent a lot of my teenage years in Chicago in the punk DIY scene, which revolves around people putting on music shows in their apartments and abandoned buildings. I didn’t have a lot of friends in high school, and compared to the small, suburban upbringing I had, becoming a part of this scene felt like a way out. I was exposed to a whole new world.
I go to a college in Vermont and it’s similar to that small town I grew up in. It’s in the middle of nowhere, and people don’t leave campus often. It’s a rigorous school with a lot of artists and misfits who are really immersed in their work – everyone is usually up all night working and then partying together on the weekends. We’re with each other 24/7 and everyone knows everything about each other. It’s enough to drive you insane but it’s also amazing. I’ve never had relationships with people the way I do now.
Most of the people in my work are my friends and repeated characters. I have an abject fascination with these people because I see them all the time. It is voyeuristic – which is somewhat just the inescapable nature of photography – but it’s very much about my own discovery of these people, who I find strange and awesome in equal measure.
I had someone message me on Instagram recently to ask how old I am because my photographs seemed overly sexualised to them. I was shocked because the people in my images aren’t posing, they’re just living and I’m living with them. It’s always just felt like an extension of ourselves. I think people will often look at photographs like this and think ‘How did you gain their trust to let you take pictures like that?’ but that’s not how it unfolds at all. You just have a camera wrapped up in your experiences, and I feel like that’s the most honest way you could take photos.
Nan Goldin is probably my biggest inspiration. I think that’s partly because I really identify with her world – she was also from a small town and then at some point just merged herself into her tribe of outcasts and the LGBT community. There’s a real alignment there for me because there’s a lot of drag and dressing up and people who are really open with their sexuality and their gender in my world too. We’re both photographing our scenes from within them.
The Ballad of Sexual Dependency was the first photobook to really have an effect on me. The way it’s structured and the way the characters are presented is so beautiful. In the text at the end of the book, she explains how some of the people you’ve seen in it are now dead, and that she has gone on to struggle with addiction and depression too. So you go through the whole book and get to know those characters and build up affection for them only to find out that they met a particular fate and that’s really powerful.
Corinne Day’s Diary blew me away the first time I saw it. I felt the same direct connection to the pictures that I felt when looking at Goldin’s work. Day especially has a knack for photographing herself in a way that I feel I’m not able to yet. I have to take more pictures of myself. Taking pictures of the people around me feels so natural because moments just play out before me, but to turn the camera upon myself is less candid and more posed.
One of the most frequent comments I get on my photos online is people asking about the people that are in them often. They’ll say that they’re following these people like they’re following a weekly television show. They want to know about them, and that’s just how it works when you’re someone who is photographing your world so intensely and consistently.
You elevate the people you know into characters who others want to invest in.
I spent some time working with Ryan McGinley last year, and I’d be going through his pictures and seeing the same faces appear again and again, and then occasionally I’d meet those people in person and want to say, ‘You really exist! You’re not just a character inside of pictures!’ Reconciling that is a really interesting process. Of course photographs are only representations, but I think if you have enough of someone you tend to be able to start building up a really honest individual storyline for them.
I take a lot of pictures of my boyfriend, and I take a lot of my friends, and I don’t really know if one is more intimate than the other. That word, intimacy, is important because I feel it, deeply, towards all of my subjects. A photobook is perfect for conveying that because the very experience of a photobook is more intimate than displaying your work in any other way. With books, especially ones you’ve made yourself, it feels like handing over your diary, it’s so incredibly personal and exposing. But if it’s not personal for the artist then how are the audience expected to have any sort of connection to it?
There’s a poignancy in discomfort, for the audience and the artist. It’s a form of expression. In our hyper social media focused world, everything is so controlled and curated, but that means we miss out on so much of what is real and engaging. That’s why I’ve always felt that the best photobooks are the ones that tear down the walls. The ones that feel candid and completely open and make you feel that it’s ok to show the vulnerable parts of yourself and your world. And isn’t it beautiful to see other worlds? You only have your own experience otherwise. I post my images online, I’ve made a book from them, I want people to engage with these images and feel like they can relate to them somehow because the stuff that I’m feeling and depicting is only human experience – love, sexuality, friendship, loneliness.
Cameron Schiller 2015-2017 is essentially a 60 page visual diary of the last 3 years of my life. I start the book with a picture of me and I end the book with a picture of me, but I’m not in it anywhere else. I initially looked at it and felt like maybe I wasn’t in it enough, but then I realised that I am because it’s all me; the people I photograph say something about me too.
This is my first real book, but I’ve been making zines for years. I worked with some of the subjects of the book to create smaller zines out of material I didn’t end up using in the final edit. I printed them out and got my friends to write all over them and I’ll be giving those away alongside the main publication.
Self-publishing is an important industry to be a part of because you have complete control over your product which equates to artistic freedom. It’s liberating, proactive, you don’t have to rely on anyone else, and there’s a whole community of DIY publishers that are out there to support you. I chose Blurb to make this book because it was the best service I found that would let me self publish in the most customisable way possible. I was able to create a perfect customisable layout, and print cheaply which was important for me to be able to sell to a larger audience. I wanted to be able to have an object that is accessible. The young people I imagine would want to buy my book wouldn’t want to spend a lot of money on a photobook unless it was by a big name, so this way I can sell to more people and really get what I do out there. For that reasonable price, and due to the control I could have over all the details in the design process, I am now more than satisfied with the outcome: a thin, almost magazine-style book gorgeously displaying my images exactly how I want them.
Printing on demand is another feature that made me choose Blurb because I can order as many photobooks as I need, which is great if you don’t know how many you’re going to sell. I also really like how it offers a retail service where you can set up your book for sale on the Blurb site once you create it. This allows another outlet for sellers to reach a larger audience and an online community selling their work.
I tried to edit the book so that the images worked together in an experiential way – stylistically and thematically. I didn’t want it to be jarring for the reader. It’s only when I started making my own book that I thought about how some of the artists I love have placed images in their own book and that’s the key – you don’t want the viewer to be thinking about image placement unless its in a positive way. It wasn’t a conscious choice, but the whole book feels as though you’re being carried through one night and one party that represent the whole three years – that’s the arc of it. It starts quietly, the middle is more of a party and then it dies down again and there are shots in bedrooms towards the end.
I made this whole book myself, but I’ve been constantly showing it to the people around me along the way to ask their opinion, and in that sense it’s been a really involved experience. I feel like it’s a book about me because I made it, but for the people that are in this a lot, it feels like a book about them, because its their experience too.
Text by Joanna Cresswell Sponsored by Blurb: This feature was made possible with the support of Blurb.