JR: I’m with you on children being the best thing we’ll ever do. I mean, of course. Everything else is a two-dimensional crayon drawing. If we’d listened to the pragmatic, self-serving devil at our shoulder we’d never have done it. But then our lives would be cartoons. Still, how we embrace this particular epiphany is an entire library in the writing; obsessing over them is counterproductive (not to mention a little bit revolting). They don’t want us to be 100% available. It’s too much. We’re not doing them any favours by being at the bottom of their beds gazing up like beatified nuns every time they open their eyes. They want us to be engaged, yeah, but also productive, fulfilled, funny, stupid; ambassadors to the outside world. They basically seem to like us being happy, and not simply at the repeated daily revelation that they exist. Who’d want the spirit of two fully-functional adults rolled up into a ball and stuffed under their pillow every night? Gross. Winnie and Dusty are my secret license to explore everything that matters. It’s a conspiracy of naughtiness that only we understand. For them, a wonderful, weird universe replete with the extraordinary; for me, redemption, another staggering bite at the cherry. How I parlay all this into what everybody else gets to see? Well, I guess that’s part of the post-post-modern marketing of our lives as career adjuncts. Separation of Church and State is quaint anachronism.
MM: Yeah, tricky. Obsession of the kiddos is certainly not the right path toward finding balance. Veda is only 4 and she’s already needing her space from us. We all need space. Back to photography though… It’s important not to take yourself and your work so seriously. Just do the best you can, put your full heart into things whether you’re making a lot of money or losing it. And be nice and grateful along the way. Talent only takes us so far. While I’m proud of what I do, I certainly don’t think my pictures are changing the world. In fact, the most painful aspect of the reality you presented earlier about the boatloads of new photographers storming the shore when we didn’t fully need the ones we already had, is the fact that very few – myself included – are really doing anything with their creative voice to improve the world. Haven’t artists forever been the ones who’ve used their work to comment on and shed light on injustices? There’s really no one out there creating their version of Guernica. It’s not that everything has to have incredible meaning. There is a favorable result from creating something purely beautiful. But, I’d love nothing more than to see my peers, and those older and younger, use this medium as a vehicle for change. We don’t all have to be James Nachtwey dodging bullets; but let’s all do some personal work or pitch stories to publications where the end result has some impact other than a pretty book that someone likes to flip through. I don’t get it. And again, I put myself in that fold, but we live in crazy times. Perhaps fewer images of our friends on the beach and more stuff about social issues that need to be explored and unearthed.
JR: ‘Here be Dragons.’ territory. I’m completely with you. But putting the political cart before the horse is embarrassing. All this stuff has to come from truth. When we’re motivated by guilt or the urge to do the world a favour it tends to precipitate the exact opposite.
MM: Without a doubt. You say ‘come from the truth.’ I say, ‘follow your heart.’ Same difference, I think. The reality is that I have no idea how long I’ll be able to do this. It’s a luxury. I write this on the plane to a shoot in Brazil, then New York, then Minneapolis, then Chicago. I’ve been to the White House, I’ve drunk scotch with Christopher Hitchens in his parlor, met murderers in San Quentin, taken pictures while hanging off a boat in on the Chao Phraya while on a job for Apple. There are so many moments where I’ve had to pinch myself. That awareness is important, and to not take it for granted or feel like you deserve it all. The fact that any of us are able to make this thing work is remarkable. I remember my dad telling me he chose being an airline pilot because he loved flying; and how great it was to be paid for something he would’ve done as a hobby. That’s how I feel. It’s a tiresome, frustrating ride at times, but I never lose sight of how fortunate I am to do this and to make a good living.
Aside from your grievances with certain things, I think you’d feel the same about your experience with it too no? You were an incredibly involved rep, often traveling with photographers, actively playing a role in creative approach. Seems like everything goes to shit once someone starts to expect things and becomes removed from the fact that it’s pretty astonishing to be compensated and be able to sustain a lifestyle and raise a family by going around pointing your camera at things.
JR: I had an incredible ride. Photography put me in astonishing places and situations with Sian Kennedy, Chris Buck, James Smolka, David Barry, Michael McLaughlin, Henrik Knudsen, Rob Howard, Mark Ohe, Greg Miller, Constance Giamo, Andrea Gentl. And loads of others. As absolute equals. Some stuff was on assignment, most wasn’t. I’ve slept alongside these people in tents, huts, hammocks, boats, fields, shacks, by the sides of roads, in the backs of cars and the worst motels civil war Guatemala could offer. It literally took me around the world, gave me homes and children. Deprecating its contribution to my life would be utterly churlish. For the first 15 years we were like tittering schoolboys, viewing every offer, no matter how paltry, as an opportunity for naughtiness and adventure. We unashamedly piggied life on the back of work, and in the process both flourished. Photography’s like a panda; it only eats one thing. Curiosity. Without a constant diet of curiosity, it’s dead. So when you’ve reached the point where venturing away from your living room without a business class ticket seems like a hassle, or extending an assignment in Ulan Bator when nobody’s paying for the hotel doesn’t make sense; you’ve ceased to be a photographer. You might be a high-level technician, but your photographs – no matter how much money tech companies will pay for them – are shit. Because the only thing you are curious about is the day rate.
MM: One last thing, though. Can you hone in on a favorite experience along the way? Something a bit dirty maybe? Maybe some skin?
JR: Ha, skin! Well, one of the great things about photographers is that they’re all, in one way or another, geeks. Or nerds. I mean, think for a minute. True, right? And the few who try to be cool? Complete cheeseball embarrassments! So when it comes to skin, it’s always in the mix, but more as a wormhole to a dimension where weird shit happens; shit we can shoot rather than touch. So I was spared the ignominy of traveling with dudes who were looking to get fucked (the most boring people in the world). Still, skin was tangentially in play, particularly with Chris, David and Sian. I once spent a week trailing Bruce LaBruce around Paris with Chris. It was the period when he was obsessed with Cinéma Vérité – Wiseman, Pennebaker, Maysles Brothers – and had spent a fortune on some early-incarnation shoulder-held DV camera. Growing up in Toronto, Bruce had been a punk-rock hero of his; now the French were doing a small, underground retrospective of the early films. Chris decided that a documentary about this guy’s week in Paris would be a great idea. I’d be his sound guy. But this would be brutalist vérité: no concessions to artifice or auteurism. We’d sleep in the shittiest hotel close to where he was staying, be at his door before he woke and shoot till he passed out. Instead of alchemizing magic, we’d slowly extract it from the relentless sledgehammer of truth. Trouble is Bruce didn’t do or say anything of interest. I mean, he sat in the bath and played video games on his Japanese key-fob. He stood by the wall at one or two openings, had dinner at a friend’s apartment, visited Oscar Wilde’s grave in the drizzle and attempted a few limp bon mots. His efforts at being Andy Warhol in interviews were wince-inducing. The most interesting thing about him was that two dorks were walking backwards in front of him with a camera and boom mike. But Chris was so painfully committed, so dogged. There had to be something, we just needed to trust the camera and time. And if, in the end, it just looked like a lonely middle-aged schoolteacher taking a short winter break in la Ville Lumière, then maybe that was great, right? Right? After a week of seamless, witless uneventfulness even Chris’s resolve collapsed. We took Bruce to a hard-core leather bar. Knock on a steel door and a little window slides back to reveal a face like a furious, mustachio’d shar pei. Bruce was in leather; more Joan Collins than Tom of Finland. Chris and I were probably in Dickies and ironic Salvation Army t-shirts. But for some reason they let us in. It was really dark. Naked men were strung about the room in harnesses, bound at the wrists and ankles, their faces to the walls, spotlights trained on their exposed anuses. Cocks everywhere, like after hours in the sausage shop. I ordered a drink and smiled like the Queen Mother as a gagged gentleman was thrown over the bar next to me and rigorously, serially ass-fucked mere millimetres from my Caipirinha. Bruce sat on a barstool, legs crossed, hands in lap, his mouth a puckered asterisk. We did a quick tour of the dungeon, which was like a Francis Bacon rendering of a Stasi torture centre with shades of abbatoir, concentration camp and 1970’s English public lavatory. And then we left, got an early-morning croissant on the way home. The film exists. It was whittled to a merciful hour which nonetheless feels like watching all 14 episodes of Berlin Alexanderplatz in a single sitting. Ask Chris.