Through the Lens: Ian Brown
Ian Brown is interested in being interested. The award-winning Canadian photographer, who spends his time visiting American cities, capturing its people and places, believes that still images can be a very powerful tool for storytelling. “I have been lucky to meet some really amazing people and always try and take away some lessons or advice from each experience.”
A study of the human condition, Brown’s photography is a raw, honest, and ultimately a beautifully rendered look at the modern American frontier: the landscape and people that call the US home, but whose struggles and stories are rarely given a platform. “What interests me most is the opportunity for photography to inform commentary and possibly affect change,” says Brown. “Sometimes this involves marginalized communities and sometimes it involves the intersection of human and nature.”
Take Talia and Evan from Selma, Alabama, a couple who Brown photographed for his American Dreams project. Despite the couple’s circumstances, which became dire a week later when a fire destroyed their house and the shop attached (where Evan fixed equipment and vehicles for his small business), Brown says the two were “gracious and warm and open”, and hopeful for not only their family’s future but America’s too. As Talia wrote in her ‘American Dream Letter’:
“My American Dream is to love one another. To have peace and support each other, all of us a whole. For young Americans to finish school and make something of themselves. I want to be able to help kids that are being and also help the ones that are the bullies to see if we can change them… My American Dream is to be the best mother I can be for my kids, to love and support them to give them what they need to become the adults they should be. I want to buy some land out in the country and have a house built so my kids can play outside without me worrying about people shooting or something happening to me. This is the American Dream of me, Talia Hunter.”
Brown spoke to Us about the magical science of photography, the challenge of finding something interesting in the benign, and his relationship with the American Dream.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up mostly in Toronto, Canada. I spent a lot of time in the highlands and backcountry of Ontario, so I had a balance of city and wilderness.
When did you begin to take an interest in photography?
As a kid I always thought photography was magical. You could point a little box at something and press a button and then it produced an image. Film was always this really mysterious thing to me as a kid also. At the core of it, the science behind taking photos is really quite amazing.
How would you describe your work? What interests me most is the opportunity for photography to inform commentary and possibly affect change. Still images can be a very powerful tool. Most of my work these days involves something related to the human condition. Sometimes this involves marginalized communities and sometimes it involves the intersection of human and nature.
Who/what inspires you?
I think that most people have a story to tell. Ordinary people often have some extraordinary stories and conversely, in my experience extraordinary people often speak have some simple aspirations. It’s always a privilege to meet people and have the opportunity to photograph them and share time and listen. I’ve found great inspiration and lessons in doing this.
What’s your go-to camera?
I grew up shooting film and still love it. Digital is great for workflow and there are benefits to both I think. I shoot a lot of work on a Pentax medium format camera. It’s beat to hell but the lenses are very sharp and it weighs a ton - so you really feel like your taking a picture.
How much planning goes into your work?
It all depends on the project and what I have to photograph. I often do a lot of research for projects and in many instances I think it’s always good to go into a situation with some type of permission and invitation. This generally leads to more open subjects and people more apt to be willing to work together.
How do you approach the people you photograph?
I always engage with people when I photograph them and always ask peoples permission. I think for certain street photography just randomly taking images is fine - although I also think it can be a really selfish exercise for the photographer. I had an experience once in Ecuador where I watched a busload of tourists get off a motorcoach in a Andean mountain town. There was a market with indigenous women selling some produce and this gaggle of tourists just walked up and began photographing the women without any consent or regard for their personal space. Most of the women tried to cover their faces with their poncho’s but you could tell that this was the default experience for them. I remember wondering how the tourists would feel if someone had come up to them in a grocery store back home and just began photographing them with no regard. How would they feel then?
How much time do you spend ‘on the road’ photographing American cities, towns, and people? Well, I have a daughter so I can’t be away for too much. Also, for me there is a saturation point where I kinda burn out. A few weeks at a time is about max.
Is there a particular person or memory that has had a profound impact on you?
I have so many immersive experiences with people I don’t think there is one that stands out above the others. I have been lucky to meet some really amazing people and always try and take away some lessons or advice from each experience. There’s a quote I heard one time that I sort of thought was insightful/wise: “It’s always better to be interested than it is to be interesting”.
What influence, if any, has physical distance (living in Canada) had on how you view America? Has your perception changed at all?
Well, I think living in Canada offers a unique opportunity in the world in terms of our relationship to America. We’re the next door neighbour and are hugely influenced by what happens in the United States. At the same time there are very big differences. Distance often offers clarity, so being able to spend time in the US and Canada makes the pros and cons of each country more evident. The US can be a very insular place depending on where you are. I think an understanding of a broader context and narrative can be very helpful when it comes to photography.
Do you think your personal experiences have informed the direction you’ve taken creatively?
Yes, without a doubt. I’ve had lots of life lessons that have helped keep the creative compass, so to speak, in the right (hopefully) direction.
What were your feeling towards and ideas of the ‘American Dream’ before you explored the American experience through your 2007 project, American Dreams. Did it change along the course of the project? What do you think it would look like today?
When I first began exploring this project in 2006-2007 it was in the lead up to the Obama/McCain election. It was a great time of change in the US. As a outsider I was always intrigued with this idea of the “American Dream”. It was something that seemed indoctrinated in the mythology of being American. It’s actually not something that exists, not in any formal way. It’s not written into the Constitution or in any document. It’s really just a concept that was co-opted to be understood that if you worked hard you could achieve prosperity. I think this was an interesting construct and began asking people to write down - analogue on a piece of paper - what their own “American Dream” is or what it meant to them. I had no specific expectation and people could interpret and write whatever they wanted. It immediately became clear that the idea of the “American Dream” was far more complex and personal than thought. What people wrote - and continue to write - is really remarkable. In the intervening time since I began this project - a full decade - I think that the overall themes that people write about, and ultimately how they feel, is more anxiety, fear and uneasiness about the entire idea of what America is.
Bruce Gilden has said that Detroit is a city that “suffers and yet has kept its soul”. What was your experience like photographing the city for your Prairie and Pavement series?
I think that is partly true. Detroit is a work in progress. I spent time between 2008-2015 photographing the city and for the “Prairie and Pavement” series there are no people in the images. This is done intentionally. I have some other work I’ve done that is more portrait based and I know a bunch of people in Detroit and have made friends there. I think that some of the sheen of cool things that are being reported on in Detroit aren’t really relevant to the everyday people who live there. There has been a lot of press on hipsters opening cafes and people renovating buildings, which are all positive things but I don’t think they address the deeper and broader challenges for people who have lived and worked in the city and have real roots there. It’s a complicated place but there is certainly a raw truth to those who live there. I think anywhere where people have to endure their circumstances to some extent ends up making people pretty real and open and honest.
What do you hope to express through your work?
I don’t have any expectation with my work. I think once it’s produced and it’s out into the world then it becomes something else. You have to give it away in some sense. Some people will connect with it and others will think it’s boring or crap. I’m not a quote person per se but there is a Ricky Gervais quote that I always liked: “It's always better to create something that others criticize than to criticize others and create nothing”.
What do you find so appealing about the American landscape?
I don’t know if I find the “American” landscape more appealing than other places other than it contains Americans, who are often the really interesting element.
Favorite place to shoot?
Ahh tough question. I like anything. New places are always cool but sometimes the most challenging place to photograph is our own backyard because it’s so familiar. I like this challenge to find something appealing or interesting in what otherwise seems benign.
If you weren’t a photographer, what would you be? A writer, but that is unlikely :)
Song of choice for your American road trip?
So many. Depends on where and what time of year. Bon Iver is always good for wide open mid-west long drives. I like old school hip-hop and on a recent trip through Texas listened to a lot of the Lumineers and some Johnny Cash.
What’s next? I have the next 10-12 months to complete my "American Dreams" project before it's published in 2020. It's a really big undertaking to photograph people and also get them to write down what their "American Dream" is - in any meaningful way. I have another project on the impact of the opioid crisis that I'm working on also.
You can find out more about Ian Brown and his work here.