Brendon Stuart

By Kate Nemeth

On the wall of the Student Center at the International Center of Photography, four
or five black and white photographs hang above the Macs set up for student use. The
photographs are dark and rife with the most modern American imagery; planes, towers,
men in suits, protestors… It is the work of documentary photographer Brendon Stuart, a
California native and ICP student whose most notable project to date examines the many
concerning subjects of the Occupy Wall Street movement.
If you meet Brendon, you can bet that his sympathy lies with the 99%. But
his objective to document the movement, “without trying to put a spin on it” is best
observed by a multimedia piece that hangs out down the hall in the Student Center. A
grave soundtrack, created by the artist, accompanies selected photographs that, without
pointing fingers, serve as a reflection of the various notions of human capability. The
difference between destruction and creation when it lies in one’s hands versus another’s,
the meaning of power and the necessity of questioning who has it, and most importantly
the overarching cry, “How did we get here?” are all alarmingly present. Another piece, a
tent in the symbolic shape of a pyramid, rather explicitly calls into question the problem
of money.
For all the wondering the world has done regarding the meaning of Occupy Wall
Street, Stuart’s work is not so much a relieving answer to what the movement is or what
it has accomplished, but rather an examination of a paradoxically perpetual moment, and
the historical American impulse to protest for the sake of the truth and equality. This is
the first time Stuart will be exhibiting his Occupy Wall Street work, on October 19th at
gallery alternative Salon Ciel. On the heels of the 2012 Presidential Election, it seems
like the perfect time for Stuart to exhibit his photographs and recollect the imagery,
subjects, faces of Occupy Wall Street so that we might examine what the movement
means to us, and to America, one year later.

How did you get into documenting the Occupy Wall Street protests?

Brendon Stuart: Well, I was definitely interested in what it was about- what they were protesting. I mean, I agree with a lot of the qualms about how things are going politically and economically… I was interested in seeing something that was being done seriously in
terms of protesting. When I heard that it was going to start I was in New Mexico, and I
saw on the news that the group of girls got penned up and pepper-sprayed- that was the
first big thing that hit the news, and I just remember saying, “Dude, I need to be there
right now.” As soon as I got back I went down there.

So you are a documentary photographer?

BS: I am definitely documentary inspired. But my work… the projects don’t lie completely in straight, hard reality.

What do you think about the end of the movement? Or if not the end, then the fact
that it lost the initial fire that it had?

BS: It’s hard to come to any final decision. A lot of people would say that it’s
over and there are aspects of it that are. But it isn’t a matter of “over”. It is a matter of
changing. And what it has done, most importantly, is it has caused observers, in terms
of the average American, to think differently and pay more attention to what is going on
upstairs; how politics are being run, where the money is going, how the federal reserve
really operates… It opens up a lot of big questions. And it opens up the issue of how the
media portrays what we see of politics. It’s not just political. Like I said it’s about many
things that are going on that are kind of screwy.

You made this tent. It seems like more of an interactive piece. Can people go in?

BS: Yeah. Now the idea of making the tent wasn’t mine, it was the idea of a few folks
who also go to ICP and this group called Sombra. They are interested in taking concerns
like art photography and documentary work and exploring new platforms in getting it out
there and seeing it displayed. People were setting up tents in Zuccotti Park and to build
a tent surround it with images of OWS seemed like a good idea. I came up with this idea
one night, because we didn’t want it to be random images all over the tent and we wanted
there to be some kind of symmetry to it, and the dollar bill, the pyramid on the dollar bill
seemed so relevant, so symbolic of what all of OWS is about. It’s all about money, and
the misuse of it, the hoarding of it. And so I guess it wasn’t a difficult revelation when we
decided we would, you know, put they eye on top of it and see where it goes from there.

Other than OWS what kind of work have you done? Have you traveled a lot for
your projects?

BS: Yeah, actually. My other main project, which is in a lot of ways bigger than
this one, has been traveling around the country, photographing America from the
perspective of riding the Greyhound bus. The people, the landscape, it’s very Robert
Frank inspired, and that’s how I started it off. Who are the people who still ride this form
of transportation, which was at one time the main form of transportation, before airplanes
took off? Who are these people now? More often than not they are economically
disadvantaged people. The project stemmed from my final project here at ICP when I was
photographing the Port Authority Bus Terminal. The next logical step was to take it out
of the city and go around the country with it.

What was Port Authority like?

BS: Gritty. Depressing.

Were you there with the commuters at 7AM?

BS: Sometimes. I wasn’t supposed to be there in the first place. That’s the thing about
this project-I haven’t gotten it out there because it’s a legal issue. Ever since 9/11 you’re
not allowed to photograph in bus stations anymore. It’s a national security issue. So I’ve
been photographing on the down low. I haven’t shown it to the Times or anything. I don’t
want to get it out there until I’m ready to show it to Greyhound, and until Greyhound is
ready to be like, “Yea, we’re into this”.

It’s something you would have to acquire the rights to.

BS: Yea, but the project is also about traveling around the country on the bus. It could be
Peter Pan, it could be the Chinatown bus. This project is slightly, not autobiographical,
but sort of a photographic journal. It’s not just about the American landscape and people,
but something about me as well.

There’s something about documentary, where, if you have your eye in it and your
hand in it then it is also about you.

BS: It’s unavoidable. When you put something into the category of “documentary”
you’re giving yourself rules that cut you off to approaching things in certain ways. And
as a photographer, by nature, you have a perspective. You have a viewpoint, whether
physical or how you’re thinking about the situations. That’s always what I think of as the
contradiction of unbiased documentary work. You’re always going to have a perspective.
There’s no getting around it.

So what are your other projects?

BS: I love the relationship between fact and fiction and what we consider to be real
and what we take for granted as fake. Truth is often subjective. I have another project
called “Chasing Meteors” and it’s basically… Well I have a fascination with Montauk,
NY and its not because I like surfing, but because there is this old abandoned air force
base out there on the point, and there’s a lot of, I guess you would call them ghost stories
about the place. A lot of people don’t take them seriously, and some do. I don’t know
what to think of it either way. But what interests me is that it doesn’t matter. The ghost
stories are basically that there were secret government experiments going on in the 70’s
and 80’s with mind control and even crazier shit. A lot of people swear that they were
witnesses to this. I met a couple of these people and it has left me not knowing what to
think of it, and not wanting to come to any final decision with it. I love question marks.
We always try to figure things out and come up with an explanation for everything and I
think sometimes it’s better being left with questions.

In your Occupy work do you think that the people you photograph have a
dedication to something that is at the moment unanswerable?

BS: I don’t think it’s unanswerable, but I think we’re in a difficult spot where a few
people have too much control over what everyone else sees and reacts to. We live in a
time where information is so readily available. We can find out on our own where money
is going. That stuff is accessible, more so now than it ever has been.

It makes it a lot harder to process what is happening.

BS: That’s the thing. You’ve got different, incongruous stories, aspects of the same
thing. You’ve got mainstream media that feeds us things, adds to us not knowing… There
is so much information out there that its impossible to add up.

It’s hard that you can learn as much as you want, gather as much information as
you can, and then not know how you are going to be able to do anything about it. What
are your routes as a citizen to be able to inflict change? There’s this aspect of “What
now?”

BS: I don’t know where things are going at this point. A lot of Occupy on some
level has lost a certain amount of steam. You know there hasn’t been enough change
and things aren’t necessarily improving, there’s no indication that anything has gotten
better… It makes me wonder if things are just going to keep getting worse until people
have no choice but to realize, you know, something has to change.

The movement is supported by a very specific type of person and it’s generational
in the same way that the civil rights movement was generational. Right now we’re at the
beginning of a new wave.

BS: Maybe OWS isn’t really the beginning. Maybe the Civil Rights movement was
the beginning and OWS is a new wave of the same idea. The thing is, it doesn’t take
a lot of smarts to realize what is not working. The easy part is not paying attention, or
not thinking that there is anything you can do about it. That is the big mistake. Most
Americans are under the impression that it’s something that is a good idea, but don’t

Do you think that your eyes were opened?

BS: I didn’t really pay attention to news much before I started with documentary.
I started keeping up with all of it and I realized that a lot of what I was seeing on the
news was… I don’t want to say bullshit but I feel like, especially with OWS, seeing how
swayed the media was in depicting the movement negatively. The Times wasn’t covering
it, and when they did, it was negative. The bigger the corporation, the more negative the
spin. So being someone who was there and saw what was going on, and then saw how
it was being covered in the news, that confirmed my thoughts about how bad everything
really is.

That’s how I felt about it. I remember basically everyone I knew had some
criticism of the movement and I was kind of disappointed because, at its most basic,
OWS is this kind of amazing thing that happened when a lot of people decided that they
didn’t want to be lied to or taken advantage of anymore. So there is this conundrum of
how the movement was seen and what the movement was, and then how could it change
anything?

BS: I also have this restaurant job that I do. You know I don’t make a ton of money
from my photography. And a lot of people who come in do have money. And when
I brought it up with people who would come in, you know I would say that I was
photographing and their response was, “Oh, those guys… bunch of whiners!”

When you were picking your images that you were going to use to show, what
drove you to chose them. What did you get caught up in when you were behind the
camera?

BS: I wanted just to be there. Be present. And photograph it however I saw it and treat
it as my own photographic journal or diary. I’m not trying to put a spin on anything, I’m
just trying to be there, and often I am photographing the press as well. That’s something
that interests me. With news photography, you try to frame your photo in a way so that
there are no other press lenses in the photograph in order to portray a certain reality.
But the reality is on the other side of that camera there are like five other photographers
photographing the same thing. Why lie to yourself and say that’s not there? When I edit
I go for what graphically works first. But I don’t go in with the intent to shoot something.
I’m going to be there and whatever happens happens. I mean that’s what documentary is
supposed to be anyway.

Before you print, what kind of touch ups to you do?

BS: Contrast. This project, and most of my black and white work, tends to be
dark in terms of the mood and in terms of how it is printed. There are a lot of B&W
photographers that print really dark, and I think that can be overdone and force a mood
upon a subject.

Do you think you force a mood on your photos?

BS: I don’t think so. If I do it’s not intentional. The best stuff happens when you
stay open. Stylistically this work is a bit darker in terms of the actual images. There is
a lot of black, a lot that you can’t see. Which I find interesting because it plays into that
whole reality/truth idea and question marks. Usually the type of photography that is more
interesting to me is what you cannot see. David Lynch is a genius with that stuff. Twin
Peaks, what made it so good is that you came out of it going, “What about this?”

Where are you going to go with the OWS work? What is the next step?

BS: I think I am going to put together a book of the Occupy work. But I’m not
interested in making a lot of money and publishing. I just think I’ve got a good selection
of images at this point. Occupy was something I felt very incidental about and inspired
by and I think one of the biggest feelings was being down there and feeling that it was
something historic. Feeling like something was going on. Seeing so many people that
just really cared. I’m excited to see where things go at this point. We’ll see after the
election…

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