• Features
  • ‘You are Masters of the Fish and Birds and All the Animals’ by Shane Rocheleau

    Shane Rocheleau was born in Falmouth, Massachusetts. He received a BA in Psychology and English from St. Michael’s College in Vermont, a Post-Baccalaureate Certificate in Fine Art from Maryland Institute College of Art, and an MFA in Photography and Film from Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU). His first monograph, You Are Masters Of The Fish And Birds And All The Animals (2018) and his second, The Reflection In The Pool (2019) were published by Gnomic Book.

    ‘My interest is not really what’s in the future of photography, my interest is in what’s in the future of the world and how photography can make it better’ These are words of a Fred Ritchin’s lecture in Foam, which I strongly believe is related to your work. What are your interests and how do you see the medium of photography?
    My most immediate interest as an artist is to create the conditions necessary to continue making pictures. Anything beyond the space, time, and means to maintain that practice feels like a gift. 

    There is so much in that Ritchin FOAM lecture! Like Ritchin, I want photography — and my photography — to make the world better. In his lecture, Ritchin points specifically at photojournalism, its casual (irresponsible?) use of “digital photography”, and at ways practitioners and propagators should self-consciously address and amend journalistic practices to establish credibility and, hence, the possibility for consensus and action. He highlights that in the past, we all saw and read the same journalism; we were unified, even in disagreement. It is a scary, impossible world to contend with if truth, trust, and community are eviscerated. (I fear his predictions have come to pass.) But I have no desire to document “truth” in the manner of a photojournalist. 

    If a photojournalist is the non-fiction writer of the photo-world, then I am the poet. I think good poetry uses imagery that’s accessible and democratic, even if that poetry is personal or diaristic. I’m trying to accomplish this in YAMOTFABAATA:  explore and reveal my and my country’s psychic heritage without disenfranchising any prospective viewers. Of course, that doesn’t mean I need not concern myself with credibility. I think my credibility grows with consistency, with doing honest, reflective, self-implicating work that viewers recognize reflexively as a mirror before both their selves and their culture. The truth I pursue emerges from honesty and openness, not facts, per se. 

    Conceptually, I’ve been primarily and persistently driven by one concern for more than a decade: the receipt and provision (or lack) of Empathy, both Individually and culturally. I first understood this upon reading Ovid’s Narcissus myth from his epic poem, The Metamorphoses. I realized the myth is less an early outline of Narcissism and more a cautionary tale about empathy and how desperately we each need to both give and receive it. Narcissus is no Donald Trump; he is a beautiful boy living in a Greek culture that lusted after and objectified beautiful boys (like mine does young, white, sapling-thin women, for example). When Narcissus kneels to the pond, he sees his alien face (modern mirrors weren’t invented until 1835) and observes that, 

    I reach, your arms almost embrace me, and as
    I smile, you smile again at me; weeping
    I’ve seen great tears flow down your face (…)

    Narcissus – only ever the object of lust – receives empathy for the first time in his life. That experience is so essential that he forsakes sustenance in favor of staying with his empathic reflection and ultimately dies. 
    Through my literary act of empathy, I arrived at a more nuanced understanding of the power and exigency of empathy. Humans subsist on it. This was a profound and important personal experience, and much in my life – as a person and artist – has appeared in sharper relief since. 

    To summarize and specifically answer the last of your question: I aspire that the medium of photography be a mirror to reveal something of substance about both the viewer and the world without, simultaneously — as Ovid’s The Metamorphoses continues to do for me. 

    When and where did you get your political consciousness from? 
    I don’t know that I’ve ever asked myself this question, honestly. I’ve thought, of course, about the content of my political consciousness but not its roots. Neither of my parents were particularly politically or socially minded, at least as I remember it. I’m a white dude who grew up in a very white, middle class place. I remember neither wealth nor poverty marking my childhood in any resonant way. I was aware of racism as a concept but not of its ubiquitous, vicious, intractable presence. My best answer is that my political consciousness arose out of my childhood contrarianism and all the arguing that nature spurred. Without knowing it, I learned to think about and parse even established truths skeptically; I may have also indirectly seeded my deep interest in empathy, as I slipped into and out of myriad, alternative viewpoints. Maybe contrarianism and empathy are its roots? Add a heavy dose of self-consciousness and you’ve fairly well sculpted my species of political consciousness.

    With that said, the following is my earliest memory of something like political consciousness: I must have been eleven or twelve years old.  Violent Gangs — always depicted as black men — were the hot topic on the nightly news, especially those in South Central Los Angeles.  I can remember asking my Catechism teacher some snide, immature version of this rhetorical question on the Catholically intransigent topic of good and evil:  “If young people in South Central Los Angeles are more likely to join violent gangs than young people here (Cape Cod, Massachusetts, U.S.A.) then I would be more likely to be a gang member (sinner) if I lived there, right?  Does that mean those born in South Central Los Angeles are more likely to go to hell?  Would I then be more likely to go to hell had I been born there rather than here?”

    On its face, this isn’t a terribly profound question, but I think it shows that the seeds of political consciousness had already somehow been planted well before I had any conscious choice about it.  Or, maybe this attempt at contrarian wittiness was actually the genesis of who I’ve become?  Maybe the chicken really did come first! 

    YAMOTFABAATA is a long-term project, right? Also, the title is quite long; can you share your thoughts about picking up this very intriguing title?
    The project took nearly five years to complete. I made the earliest photographs in 2013, began sequencing and re-sequencing the Spring of 2016, made the last photograph in December, 2017, and printed the book in March, 2018. 

    The very long title is an excerpt from Genesis. I have no memory of it landing in my project notes. When I began scouring them for title ideas it felt perfect very early on, but I resisted it blindly because of its length. Discussing possible titles with a friend one day he kept coming back to this one, and I would scoff. Eventually, he simply asked, “but is it the right title?” Yes, it’s the right title. I include the following three verses near the end of the book:

    26 Then God said, “Let us make a man – someone like ourselves, to be master of all life upon the earth and in the skies and in the seas.”
    27 So God made man like his maker. Like God did God make man; man and maid did he make them.
    28 And God blessed them and told them, “Multiply and fill the earth and subdue it; you are masters of the fish and birds and all the animals.”

    Imagery and narrative — be they textual, photographic, or otherwise — wield a distinctive power to propagandize and organize culture. Read the above verses, and one should, for instance, understand exactly why Jesus — a Palestinian Jew — has been so widely Anglicized, revised as an alabaster contemplative with wise, benevolent eyes. 

    America brands itself the Greatest Country on Earth. Its power and supremacy require images and narratives to certify, reinforce, and sustain colonialist, settler, and racist ideologies — ideologies so foundational to American identity that condemnation of racist American policing or banking policies, for instance, is often construed as anti-American. 

    Biblical passages such as “you are masters of the fish and birds and all the animals” have been used to justify and defend the enslavement of Africans and African-Americans, the genocide of Native Americans and their culture, Jim Crow laws and bigotry, and the sustenance of poverty in spite of great national wealth (to name a few past and ongoing American atrocities). I am disillusioned by religion, sure, but I’m yet more disillusioned by those in power and the ways they use the instruments at their disposal to maintain that power at all human cost. White men are still the overwhelming occupants of American places of power, and religious, fascist, and American mythological narratives (the American Dream, for instance; and, more clearly and presently, Donald Trump’s nativist, immigrant invasion rhetoric) are still used to ensure the maintenance of white patriarchal supremacy. 

    “Μy favorite photographic sequences feel musical. Sometimes notes should harmonize, other times grate, and, occasionally, drop in favor of silence.”

    The title, then, is an aperture into the book through which my reader can (re-)read those things my camera describes (musket balls, majestic purple mountains, and a bust of Patrick Henry, for instance). In short, I entitled my book You Are Masters Of The Fish And Birds And All The Animals to undermine the same American White Supremacy that verse has historically nourished. 

    Can you share some thoughts on the decisions you made with the Gnomic Book publishing house for the book designing, binding, paper selection? Seeing the empty-white spreads and I think it’s a brave aspect of the narration, separating the chapters of the book(?). How did you come up with these? 
    YAMOTFABAATA is case bound with an iridescent fabric covering, printed on a coated, semi-matte stock, with gilded edges. Jason Koxvold — the mad scientist behind Gnomic Book — and I spent considerable time discussing the prospective form; in some ways, the result echoes that of some of our favorite photobooks. But we also wanted the object to feel devotional, like hymnals or bibles. With that said, I had the pleasure of working alongside this master of design, and I have to credit Jason, ultimately, with the final appearance of this book. I could not be happier with it.  

    There are several intersecting reasons for the many empty spreads punctuating my sequence. The empty white spreads might challenge one’s expectations of a photobook. Initially, these spreads are, I think, an unexpected curiosity. As my reader moves through the sequence, though, the white pages may cease to excite, so three-quarters of the way through the sequence I flip to an empty black spread.

    Further, my favorite photographic sequences feel musical. Sometimes notes should harmonize, other times grate, and, occasionally, drop in favor of silence. The empty white spread is silence. Jacques Ranciere argues in “The Emancipated Spectator” that a teacher does not have knowledge that the student needs to know; rather, it is a teacher’s charge to create conditions whereby a student can explore and subsequently learn through their own explorations, experiences, and associations. Often, this condition is silence. I think the same goes for the artist/reader relationship. I wanted silent moments in the sequence that might serve to induce reflection. I haven’t yet fully articulated this last thought (and it only partly fits with Ranciere’s arguments); but, maybe I’m trying to break the fourth wall with the hope that the reader will encounter a mirror on the other side.

    What stage in the creation of this photo book did you like the most?
    All of it? None of it? An old friend once told me that art making is a year-long hangover followed by a day of drunken revelry. The lack of nuance aside, I’d have to say he’s right, except each individual aspect of making this book occasioned their own varietals of hangover and drunkenness. Each aspect intoxicated me at one point or another. 

    But so as not to be completely stubborn: I think I liked my days with my camera most! When I have my 4×5-topped tripod resting on my shoulder I rip the blinkers off my face. At worst, I just see better. At best, the world and its people move in foreign, exciting ways – interpretive dancers lit with celestial light — become musical, the possibility of a photograph, of profound beauty, disintegrate, then reconfigure into some new choreography. Maybe it’s like if a perfectly humdrum suburban street appeared like a swarming, breathing, undulating flock of birds? It’s so beautiful when that part of me is turned on. I can’t in those moments feel anything but hope. (And I know how profoundly fanciful that sounds.)

    Do you spend more time taking photographs or sequencing them?
    Principle photography for my existing projects has lasted no fewer than three years. Sequencing, on the other hand, has never lasted more than two years. In terms of actual time spent, what I do between the days with my camera and those days sequencing pictures is most consuming: the process of wet scanning 4×5 negatives, dusting, editing, and proofing. 

    One last thing, in your art making or perception of art in general, what would be the biggest difference between the early stages of your career and the present?
    As I’m sure you’ve noticed, I’m not terribly good at keeping it simple. I’ll try here. As I get older and continue to do the work of making, I slowly untangle what I truly want or need to say (and how) from the partnered peril of: what I think I should want to say and how; and, what I think others want me to say and how. My voice now is more uniquely my own than it has ever been, and I hope that trajectory continues. The process of clarifying voice is a joy. 

    More on his website