Chris Sisarich is a phenomenal photographer. All of his work haunting, it has a quiet mystery to it. I want to see it in person. No, I want to stare at in person. I think I might fall in. Which I wouldn’t really mind. Read his interview:
What part of New Zealand are you from?
Born in Wellington. Now live in Auckland.
New Zealand, ‘Aotearoa’. Is an amazing place to be able to live. A creative hub at the bottom of the South Pacific. We have a very strong and unique sense of our identity. And as a people are not afraid to express it regardless to what is happening around the globe. New Zealand was born out of a pioneer spirit. A can do attitude. I think that’s reflective in our work ethic and attitude and the work we produce.
Tell us about your most recent trip to Africa. The majority of the subjects seem to be men, is there a particular reason for this? You mentioned that the people of the area are beautiful, colorful and resilient, what cultural similarities were particularly surprising to you? What differences caught you off guard?
I went to North West Africa with World Vision to shoot in Mali & Niger. That part of Africa has been really struggling because of a lack of rain. In real terms the crops suffer and the wells dry up. Crop yields have been extremely low. The people are subsistence farmers. So rely heavily on the land to provide the essential food stocks for their families. Low crop yields and no water has dramatic effects of their living conditions. Children become malnourished, with 1 under the age of 5 dying.
World Vision are putting in wells, gardens & irrigation systems. Essentially helping to set the people up so that when droughts occur the people have other means of getting water and feeding their families.
I went up with a film company called Exposure and our role job was to document the need and also capture the positive work that World Vision was implementing.
I photographed both the men and the woman. But this particular body of work ‘Face of the Land’ seemed to speak strongest only showing the men. So it was a conscious choice I made. Although the woman do a lot of work around the villages, the buck stops with the men. They are the head of the households and the elders in the village. It’s the men that have to carry the burden of providing for their families.
Humanity is wonderful. That I came from a completely different culture, literally from the other side of the world made no difference to the people I met. The fact that I was another person. Someone that they could share a laugh with, or a meal. The fact that we’d come so far to help in our own way meant something to these people. And we were able to bond in a very simple uncluttered and unencumbered way.
Not sure that anything caught me off guard. But we in the west have a lot to learn from the way that these people live community. In the west our communities are so fractured. We build our houses, with fences almost hiding from community. We put our older people in homes and forget about them. The reality is that human beings were born for community and unity.
How did the trip affect your personally? What did you learn about yourself? What was something that really caught you by surprise, that you didn’t expect to see there? After returning to New Zealand, what did you notice about your home that you had not been aware of before?
Trips like that particular one to Mali & Niger are quite arduous. Physically, mentally and emotionally. The place is hot and dusty, the travel tiring. I had very little contact with my family back home. Some of what I saw was extremely sad. But so much of what I uncounted was very positive.
So it’s the whole range of emotions.
I didn’t learn anything new on that trip about myself.
I tried to keep a very open mind before going. I didn’t want to go there with preconceived ideas. I’ve travelled a lot through 3rd world countries and nothing ever surprises me. What I suppose did surprise me was the resilience, and contentment & just general happiness of the people in the midst of a dire situation. On the verge of famine the people were very positive. I wonder what kind of response a situation like that in a western 1st world country would look like. In saying that I think humanity on a whole is amazing at adapting to situations.
I have always been acutely aware of how materialistic, impatient and self obsessed we are in the western world and coming home from a place like Mali And Niger to New Zealand at Christmas time only reiterated it.
I think something all of us can relate to is going away on a summer holiday to a little bach. A simple little cottage somewhere, no cell phone, no TV. Just the wonderful basic’s like books and board games, conversations, etc And how beautiful, enjoyable and fulfilling the simple life is.
Where in Abu Dhabi are your photographs from? What emotionally were you attempting to communicate from such an eerie, lifeless depiction of the town? You said that additions seemed to be picked from a catalogue, did you feel a dissonance seeing such manmade structures in the middle of the stark, silent desert?
Abu Dhabi is not a big place. And is one of many states in the UAE.
It’s a fascinating place. The city as we know it is only 40 odd years young. Risen straight up from the desert sands. 45 years ago the place wasn’t much more than huts made of reeds. They traded pearls and lived nomadic lives.
There has been an obvious huge influx of money into the place. That influx of money has meant huge economical growth, and also a big growth in population. In the context of history this growth has happened extremely quickly.
The city has life, it just doesn’t have much soul in my opinion. The personality of the city is garish and extravagant. There is an opulent expression of peoples wealth without subtly. I’ve always found that to be quite unattractive and even repellent.
Responding to what I was feeling, the pictures I captured reflected that.
Some of your photography from the Egypt Desert looks downright alien. What is it like traveling to such a lifeless and dry world? Do you feel like an outsider? How has your view of the world changed after traveling to such different places?
Coming from a place like New Zealand which is extremely green and picturesque, & going to a place like the Middle East is quite visually thrilling for me, and your right it is somewhat alien. It’s such a contrast and the antithesis to New Zealand in many ways.
The landscape, the history, the weather, the politics, the religion, the language, the culture. I did feel like an outsider.
What I love about that, is that my senses become so much more heightened. I’m so much more aware. And as a photographer this is fantastic. I was constantly seeing so many things that I wanted to capture.
The challenge for me was to try and collect my visions and thoughts into something that was cohesive. Something that spoke to what I was experiencing and encountering.
As a kid we had a series of encyclopedias that always captured my attention. I was fascinated by the pictures especially of these far away and very foreign lands and peoples. I think I have always had an understanding and appreciation for how the world is made up of a lot of very different people and places.
Tell us about your series ‘Night’. What did you learn about shooting in the dark that you would not know if you only shot during the day? How does your approach to a photograph change when there is natural light versus unnatural light?
I spent many years in the South Island of New Zealand trying to capture the landscape. But was constantly disappointed with what I was getting. I was repetitively coming up with what felt like the chocolate box picture. Yeh they were pretty landscapes. But clichéd and I’d seen them so many times already. It was very frustrating. I really wanted to try and capture something new. I realize now the problem was that I was trying to capture images from photographers whose work I liked. But then one day I came across a shipping container sitting in the snow.
It was a moment of realization. Almost like my eyes had been opened.
There was a few things that struck me.
1. It was so out of context. What’s this one container doing here ? where has it come from ? etc
2. That the scene had been simplified. The superfluous and distracting elements stripped away.
And this is what shooting at night is like. Scenes are simplified. That thing we so often strive to do with our pictures is done for us. Images become more graphic, color speaks louder. All the messy distracting background swallowed by the black of the night
I don’t think of lights at night as unnatural. Because they exist. I see them as an ambient existence.
I think of strobe as an unnatural lighting source.
I often use the way a street light illuminating a scene or a car as reference for how I’ll light something.
What are you working on right now? What are you really excited about?
I’ve just recently had an exhibition in Auckland. The last 4 months I have been very busy on a whole bunch of commercial projects shooting here in New Zealand and Australia.
I’ve just put together a new photographic portfolio which is a departure from the traditional portfolio that I have been showing. That was quite a big process. I’ve been showing that which has been exciting.
I have a couple of ideas for my next projects.
One idea is based around a group of people and their land. Land that has historical and spiritual significance to them.
The other idea is something I can’t talk about just yet…. And is still very much in the planning stages.
Would you rather be a tiger or a wolf?