55 x 70 in.
OtherPeoplesPixels: Your work seems to teeter on the edge between conceptual and documentary photography. How do you identify as a photographer?Regina Mamou: I identify as a conceptual artist working in photography with a practice that embodies the interests of a researcher and documentarian. I rarely photograph a location that I have not traveled to or spent an extended period of time investigating. I differentiate my work from travel or tourist photography in that I am cautious about taking photographs. My process is slow and methodical, as I am shooting in large format, using a Calumet 4x5 monorail view camera, and this technical process actually slows me down considerably. I appreciate the delay, however, and use it to my advantage. For example, when I was in Amman, Jordan, completing the project Mapping Collected Memory (2009–10) on a 15-month Fulbright Fellowship, I was studying Arabic intensively for the first 7 months. I used my off-hours to conduct preliminary research. During this time, I mentally plotted my shooting locations while driving and walking around the city, memorizing different points of interest. Much of the work occurred as an attempt to visualize these key locations before they ever became still images. As a foreigner in the Middle East, I felt nervous about depicting and representing a place, without having a personal relationship to it first. Most recently, I finished the project Pictures for Conceptual Living (2012), based on the utopian community of New Harmony, Indiana. I visited the town prior to creating the images, and I spent several months ruminating on the set-up of the images, as well as the area’s history, before returning to the location.
70 x 55 in.
OPP: What was your first experience as a photographer?
RM: My first experience as a photographer occurred as a teenager. I would often photograph a subject just to see how it would turn out as a still image. I really did not have a particular style at this point. I was simply curious about the technical processes of the camera. I made many errors with the equipment, but I was often more interested in my outtakes than my composed shots. Over time, my practice has sort of flip-flopped, so that my images have become meditative and composed.
OPP: You have dealt with the themes of memory and trauma in relation to geography and the body. It seems like your earlier work was more personal, in that you used yourself more often as a subject, and now you are working with more collective memories. I'm wondering if the video Trying to Remember (2007) was a transitional piece for you? In terms of timing and because it links trauma to location, it seems that it might have been a turning point.RM: Trying to Remember was definitely a turning point in my work. It was one of the last pieces that I made as an MFA student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Prior to this, I had spent most of my time producing still images and videos in domestic settings, e.g. my apartment or interior spaces, including underground pedestrian tunnels and warehouses. These enclosed spaces felt comfortable to me for a variety of reasons. There, I could take my time and configure the camera without being on public display. I could explore intimate and vulnerable subject matter in a private setting. My earlier work deals with illness, specifically an experience that I went through when I was in my early twenties. As I became distanced from this period in my life, the experience drifted to the background in my work. I think of Trying to Remember as my debutante piece in a way. I literally stepped out in a public space, and produced my first video in an outdoor setting. It was incredibly challenging, both mentally and physically, because I was self-conscious in my new surroundings, and it was brutally cold. Even though the piece only lasts about 5 minutes, it took me over an hour to create the work. So, it was an endurance piece in the sense that I was determined to produce this out of doors; I would not leave until I was satisfied, even though I was positioned by a major road, and anybody driving by could watch me. The concept for the video was completely improvised, and when I arrived on location, I realized that the discomfort and dislocation that I felt in a new environment, and a sense of confusion, could be played up for the camera. This sense of trying to reclaim familiarity in an unfamiliar situation aptly described my desire to seek out a new shooting style in my subsequent projects, and led me to completely shift my interests.
OPP: Could you talk a bit about the differences involved in shooting on site, responding to a location, and shooting inside with yourself as a subject? Do you prefer one way of working?
RM: Working inside with myself as a subject served me for a period of time: it was a necessary working process. But eventually, to put it plainly, I became bored with using myself as a subject. I felt that I had exhausted all of the angles, there was no nuance left in the process. I did not want to make self-portraiture my artistic oeuvre; it can be incredibly limiting and confining. Learning how to research a particular environment and planning an excursion to document a location excites me. There is more chance and spontaneity involved in the process. I cannot control an external environment in the same way that I can with my domestic setting, but this has been a positive outcome for me. All of these elements also fit with my current position as an adjunct lecturer at the Art Institute of Chicago’s Department of Museum Education, and as a study leader on international travel programs. I research and plan lectures for a wide range of adult audiences. I am constantly learning and expanding my knowledge about particular periods of art and making new connections with the museum’s collection. I enjoy connecting the dots between my work as a lecturer and as an artist, as there are many overlapping elements and threads here. Incorporating extended research into my artistic practice is a fertile source.
From top to bottom: 78 rpm (1s) (4s), 78 rpm (2s) (2s), 78 rpm (4s) (1s)
28 x 66 in.; each image 20 x 24 in.
OPP: You've mentioned your 2009-2010 Fulbright Fellowship to Amman, Jordan. Why did you choose this site?RM: I was born in the Detroit area to an Iraqi father and American mother. This experience has shaped my interest in learning the Arabic language and traveling to the Middle East. My extended family immigrated to the United States during the First Gulf War from 1990 to 1991. They had temporarily lived in Amman after leaving Iraq. I have childhood memories of my father watching CNN’s coverage of the war and calling his family in Amman after they had just left Baghdad. I grew up hearing stories about and seeing media coverage of the Middle East. I listened to the language between members of my extended family. But, I had never visited this place. I didn't have my own perspective and memories about it. After graduate school, I decided that it would be important to visit Amman and to live there. I wanted to have an extended experience with Jordan, not just as a tourist.
OPP: Tell us about the project you completed there called Mapping Collected Memory.
RM: I became drawn to the concept of forming my own perspective and memories in the Middle East. As I began studying the Arabic language and researching my proposal for the Fulbright, I came across “Urban Crossroads,” a regular column written by Mohammad al-Asad, the founding director of the Center for the Study of the Built Environment (CSBE) in Amman. In one particular article by al-Asad, “Amman Street Maps: A New Frontier,” he details the process of navigating the city using visual aids, as opposed to formal house numbers and street addresses, which were only recently implemented in the city in 2007.Through my Fulbright project I developed Mapping Collected Memory (2009–10), a project based on navigating Amman using verbal directions and visual aids. When I arrived in the city, I sent out a call for participation through various art organizations for informally guided tours of the city, where I could learn about popular and unusual landmarks and points of interest in Amman. I would document this process through video, and later, I would return to the locations to document the landmarks, and to make portraits of my guides. So, you see, the project was conceptual in nature, it was an ephemeral experience of navigating the city, a process that could only be traced through documentation: the product of these guided tours became the photographs and videos. The conundrum of this action is that the imagery explicitly speaks to my experience of the city, not necessarily of my guide’s actions, as I am deciding what to photograph, how to compose the images, etc.
OPP: Did the resulting project end up in line with what you proposed? What kind of unexpected things changed the project as you went along?RM: In some ways my final work lined up with what I had proposed, but in other ways it did not. Mainly, I had not considered that Amman is more of a driving city than a pedestrian city. I had conceived of the project around walking tours, and I realized that most people did not walk from their starting to ending points; they drove or took a taxi. So I had to fit vehicular transportation into the project. I shot a lot of video footage out of taxis, in addition to walking around. Also, I shot most of my work starting at 4:00 a.m. on Friday mornings, which is the start of the weekend in Jordan. The reason being that I was incredibly self-aware when I was using a large format camera and wanted to be able to take 20–30 minutes to compose an image. As a result, the light usually indicates that the images have been taken at sunrise, and the spaces are very still and unpopulated. I think this is an interesting contrast to the city, which is normally bustling and full of traffic during the day. It imbues the images with a sense of calmness that I didn’t necessarily experience on a daily basis.
OPP: You've also done some curatorial projects. Was this something you set out to do or something you were invited to do? How does curation fit into your art practice as a whole?RM: The curatorial projects that I have participated in, both in physical space and cyberspace, were invitational opportunities. I have really appreciated these experiences to curate, which leaves me with a newfound appreciation for the amount of work that goes into producing an exhibition. For example, I co-curated with Scott Patrick Wiener, Remember Then: An Exhibition on the Photography of Memory at Harvard University. This was an incredible learning experience, and a challenging one. For Remember Then, Scott and I were both abroad at this point; he was in Germany and I was in Jordan. The exhibition coordination was complicated, as we were working with 20 artists based in the U.S. and abroad, and we worked out most of the details via Skype. But I learned a lot about the process, many dos and don’ts. I have found that being an artist has its major advantages as a curator, since I think about how I would want my work to be treated or handled in many situations; I am able to put myself in the artist’s position. I have been wearing a lot of hats over the past two years – curator, artist, writer, lecturer – and all of these roles have contributed to developing a wider, more diverse and informed practice as a visual artist; one always informs the other.
To view more of Regina's work, please visit reginamamou.com.