After an absence of the “Tuesdays wtih…” feature, I am bringing it back with a fantastic photographer based in Bangkok, Thailand. Jason teaches photography at a prestigious university in Bangkok all the while photographing his travels and life in South East Asia.
I love his photographs for their frozen moments in daily life; he takes the ordinary and makes it extraordinary.
Currently, he is working on a project called “Chasing the Ghost of Karl Marx” which is a photo-journal about contemporary culture in the formerly communist world.
ep: Could you please describe your creative process?
Jason: In answering this I feel it’s important to mention that photography differs from other forms of visual art in that its process is much more strictly governed by its technological nature. That is to say, with drawing, painting, sculpture, etc., the tactile element of creation plays a strong role in the creative process. One gets into a kind of “creative zen” as the brush hits the canvas. With photography, it doesn’t work that way; the creative act is in the conception stage, being able to visualize and reason through a project mentally. Once that’s finished, the act of actually making photographs is more of a technical challenge than a creative process, figuring out how to make the images one takes match the images in one’s head. This is even true outside the studio, shooting in the field, it just occurs more quickly.
So as a photographer I find that the creative process occurs entirely mentally; when I hit bursts of creativity I’m not actually making anything, just working through the ideas. I spend a lot of time in my own head, so this can occur at random times, but often after the second nightcap my inner monologue becomes an inner dialogue, and that’s when I start really sorting through things. I imagine that I must look quite ridiculous, pacing rapid circles on my patio deep in thought mumbling to myself but not actually doing anything. Anyway, that’s how all the creative part happens, that’s where the hard work is: walking laps around the house, thinking about things. After that it’s just taking pictures.
ep: What is your favorite piece you created and why is this your favorite piece?
Jason: I’d like to say it’s the project I’m working on now, Chasing the Ghost of Karl Marx” – a collection of photo essays examining how influences of communism, capitalism, and indigenous culture all manifest themselves in the daily life of people living in formerly communist countries. It’s a lot more overtly socio-political and photo-journalistic than my usual work, and I’m enjoying the change of process. It’s a nice challenge to put aside the control freak tendencies that kept me tethered to the studio for so long, and to finally be shooting out in the real world.
More generally, I would I say I vacillate between disgust and self-adulation when I reflect on any of my work. Inconsistent as this schizophrenic attitude might be, I feel it’s an almost requisite part of being an artist. We have to sometimes be look at our work with the investment and scrutiny of someone bent on seeing its every flaw revealed, while other times stand swollen with pride and confidence. I suppose I shouldn’t generalize, but I really feel that all of us do, or ought to, feel this tension about ourselves as artists.
ep: If you could travel back in time, what advice would you give to yourself 5 years ago?
Jason: The same advice I often give myself now: one never regrets taking a picture, but one oft regrets not taking a picture – if you think it’s worth taking, then take it and take it now. Also, don’t take that two year break from making art, and your stomach hurts because you’re allergic to yogurt.
ep: Apart from photographing and teaching, what do you like to do?
Jason: Collecting postcards and kitchen experimentation keep me pretty busy in the off-hours, if they aren’t filled up by reading old science fiction novels.
ep: How did you start in photography?
Jason: I got my start back in high school, when developing one’s own black and white film and making prints in the darkroom seemed like an unbelievably speedy and empowering process – something my students today still can’t quite believe (That’s right, everyone born before 1990, wrap your minds around that! That’s where today’s college kids are coming from!)
But seriously, yes, I was introduced to photography back in a black and white film class in high school. At the time I think I was as much attracted to being able to hole up in the darkroom for hours on end, shutting out the rest of the world, as I was to photography itself. (As a brief aside, the tactile “creative zen” I referenced in answer to your first question – if there was ever a part of the photographic process where one experiences that, it’s when working alone in a darkroom for hours on end. It’s still not quite the same as what one experiences drawing, painting, or sculpting, but it’s the closest our medium has to offer. Without wanting to seem a luddite, I confess that for that loss I do shed a tear that the darkroom is no longer a part of our process). Anyway, back to the question, I was lucky enough to have the fortuitous combination of a knack for the subject and parents who were extremely supportive, to the point where they encouraged me to pursue studying fine art in college. The rest is… the rest.
ep: What inspires you/where do you find your inspirations?
Jason: You know, as I think about the question, I realize my answer is very different now than it would have been a few years go. Undoubtedly, in the past I would have answered that I was most inspired by raw creativity in whatever form it comes. That is, I was inspired by the creative work of others, particularly the work which was most unique to it context – the novel most different from other novels, the film most unique from other films, the macaroni and cheese most different than other pasta dishes, etc.
While I still find creativity of this type an inspiration, I find as I grow older that I’m increasingly moved by other people’s persistance and ambition as much as their creativity. When I see artists, regardless of their talent, regardless of the payoff, simply persisting in their art, I’m inspired. The struggle to get up every day and keep making art is a tough one. It’s so easy to say, “I worked a long day,” “I taught a tough class,” “I deserve a break.” When I see people who resist that urge, and just fucking make their stuff – I love it. I don’t even care if it’s good. People who keeping working at their art have a quality that doesn’t come easy to me, and I admire them deeply for it.
ep: What is your favorite book, and why is it your favorite?
Jason: You’re trying to reveal me to be the nerd that I am, aren’t you? I’ll give you three for the price of one: 1) Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond. The author is one of those rare and precious macro-thinkers who can aggregate knowledge from a wide variety of disciplines to create new ways of understanding common topics – in this case, the entire history of human civilization. 2) The Harafish. Naguib Mahfouz is able to write about the human experience in way that transcends time, culture, and class like no one else. He remains the only author who has made me hurl a book across the room in anger and run after apologetically to retrieve it. 3) Dune, by Frank Herbert, because it’s fucking awesome.
ep: What is your comfort food?
Jason: Whiskey soda, blueberry bread pudding, fried plantains, toad-in-the-holes. Three of these four remind me of childhood, I’ll let you guess which.
ep: Do you have a favorite quote? What is it and why is it your favorite?
Jason: Looking at the content, not the source, “Skepticism is a virtue in history as well as philosophy” – Napoleon Bonaparte. I would add to it, “and in everything else, as well.”
ep: What’s in your freezer right now?
Jason: beets, spinach, kale, Johnny Walker Black, and 4×5 film. …okay it’s not Johnny Walker Black, it’s cheap Thai whiskey.
Thank you, Jason, for taking the time to do the interview with me. And I look forward to seeing more of your fabulous photos!