Q&A: Juan Madrid

By Zora J Murff | Published July 7th, 2016

Juan Madrid works as the digital lab manager at the Center for Photography at Woodstock in Woodstock, NY. He graduated with a BFA in Professional Photographic Illustration from the Rochester Institute of Technology in Rochester, NY in 2013. His photographic work is often tied to a sense of place and finding strangeness, nuance, and beauty in the banal. His first photobook, Waiting On The Dream, was published in late 2014 by VUU. He also self publishes his own work and the work of other photographers through the FLC, a publishing outlet he and Neal Danis operate. He has given a lecture at Yale College and has photographed for Society Magazine (France) and VICE.

This week, Juan and I discuss his series Waiting On The Dream which is a project based on the economic decline that hit Flint, MI. We also talk about how his work borrows from the aesthetics of documentary photography, the ethics applied to documentary, "project photography", and the fine line that is often blurred between fiction and truth. 

Strange Fire Collective: Tell me a bit about yourself. 

Juan Madrid: I was raised and currently reside in Catskill, NY. I obtained a BFA in Professional Photographic Illustration from the Rochester Institute of Technology in Rochester, NY in 2013. I started taking photographs in high school but didn't seriously start considering it in an art context until the end of my second year/beginning of my third year of college. At that point, I became enamored with photography as a way of seeing the world and have at times been both disillusioned and thrilled with what it can do. Part of that was going through the current academic system - my education at RIT was great, especially with regards to what was available on the technical side of things. All of my professors were instrumental in helping to push me to better understand my vision. In some ways I wish I had just had the drive from the get-go to just make photos without the need of the academic side of things, but I still think there was some value in going to college. 

SF: Can you give me some background about your series, Waiting On The Dream?

JM: Waiting On The Dream is a series of photographs made in Flint, MI. It started out a week before I went back for my final year at RIT - Brett Carlsen, a friend and colleague, said I should visit him while he was interning at The Flint Journal and check out the city because it shared some similarities with Rochester. I ended up going for a week as a way to get back into photographing regularly (I had worked ~60 hour weeks at a labor job that summer) and as a way to get away from my hometown for a bit, having rarely seen any part of the country outside of the state of New York. After the initial week, I spent a total of three months over a few different stays in the city, getting to know it by walking around and talking to people.

The series was originally planned to be a collaboration between Brett and I - it finally culminated in a newsprint publication of both our works this past spring. The VUU book was put together a year or so before the newsprint and features only my images - it uses Flint as a way of looking at post-industrial United States, whereas the newsprint is more directly looking at Flint.

SF: In looking at your images, I get a feeling of stasis, and in thinking about the series as a whole, I see hopeful moments but hope seems to hover out of reach. Even the series title, Waiting On The Dream, implies that the dream may never arrive. Are we supposed to see a dream deferred or a dream that is never going to come?

JM: A dream deferred rings true to my ears; I'm not so cynical yet as to say it can't arrive. The title is also intended to be somewhat critical - to wait can imply expectation, and I think unbridled expectation can all too easily lead to resignation. Accountability is necessary for dreams to become reality.

SF: Would you consider your series documentary? What do you feel are the implications of considering work, “documentary”?

JM: I would say that the series is informed by documentary photography but doesn't follow traditional documentary ideas/restrictions. There's no text and no captions explaining the photographs and I don't expect (and hopefully don't force) a viewer to accept the images as objective fact or truth. Also, the framework of documentary ethics has always felt restrictive in making photographs - I much prefer working with a sensitivity tuned by my own moral compass. Ethics can lead to a stranglehold on photographs, creating an "objective" falsehood that doesn't cause a viewer to question, instead accepting what is shown.

I think the idea of what documentary can be is shifting, but for the vast majority of people, it still implies this factual and objective basis that puts it on a higher pedestal than art. The term itself is also problematic in how it describes photography. All photographs document on a very surface level; beyond that, they lack the ability to transfer information or facts by themselves or really say much of anything. Photography is a reactive medium; it loses a lot of its potential when its used as a document, though that's not to say that all documentary photography flattens that potential.

SF: Your previous answer reminded me of a passage from Walker Evans’ and James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, in which while both men are visiting a farm, a landowner has two African-American males sing for them. Agee describes the men as coming back from church, and though they may be weary or disinterested in performing, are now obligated to do so. Agee states that he tried to communicate – through looks to them – that he is deeply sorry for this, even though the singing was beautiful and was glad to have had that experience. This passage brings me to the dissociation between written and photographic information. We can understand the depth of that situation from Agee’s description of it, but would we be able to if Evans only made a photograph? In my mind’s eye, I see a grainy black and white photograph of two African-American men singing to a crowd of mostly white people. I think we’d be able to make assumptions about that transaction, that these black men had to perform for a white requester, but the image has more potential to fall short than words.

JM: Photographs are born to fail, and in that, I think, is their beauty. Photography is a difficult medium; people demand a lot of it and try to force characteristics on it that I just don't think it inherently has. A particular idea that's been bothering me for a while is the idea of the narrative - photography can only begin to grasp at implying a story. It has no real power to tell stories. It's only a vehicle for the experiences of both the photographer and viewer.

SF: With my own photography, I often struggle with a similar sense of guilt. That in a way, I asked individuals to perform for me so I could attempt to relay their experience to an audience, but my audience and I have the ability to immerse ourselves in their situation, leave it, and go back to our comfortable lives while they cannot. Is this something that you experienced while you were making your work? Do you think this is something artists should concern themselves with while they make work in this vane (“documentary aesthetic” that bridges fact and fiction)? 

JM: I experienced it to some degree while making photos in Flint. I've always had a certain awkwardness in making portraits of 90% of the people I ask - it slowly dawned on me during college that it's asking a lot of people to have them perform for the camera in some way. I'm still working through those notions and whether or not experience can truly be relayed to an audience purely through a photograph - if anything, I think a photograph can transmit some of the photographer's own experience but context is necessary to bring it even somewhat close to the actual experience (whether that's through writing or some other contextualization) and that photography by itself is not a medium for expressing someone else's experience. I do think artists should be concerned with these ideas - photography as a medium is already exploitative and I don't know if it's healthy to continue to heap more exploitation on top of that by attempting to speak for those who aren't so easily heard within our society.

SF: This is probably a daunting question, but how do you think we as artists can help bridge the gap between being exploitative and helping individuals be heard?

JM: I think photography can't help but be exploitative – the level of exploitation varies depending on the situation and context, but it's always there whether it's benign or malignant. One thing artists need to do is be aware of this exploitation – either own up to it or don't do it. And if you're going to own up to it, be willing to defend yourself with good reason. I don't personally believe exploitation is always a negative – we're living in a society where often it's an option afforded to the privileged (keeping in mind that there are also varying levels of privilege). One way artists can help soften this exploitation is to provide economic or social compensation to any communities they may be working in. Whether or not this is always feasible financially is another issue; however, I do think giving time to organizations in the community in some form is the least that can be done. Another way is to give attention to other artists or non-artists using photography who lack the resources to be heard.

I also think something that can potentially cause a social change is educating people on visual culture. Photography in general is still not respected as an art form (unless it's tied to conceptual work). In it's purest form, photography is about seeing and showing others how to see; the art world tends to ignore it because it can't be sold and the world at large uses photography as a language in a much different way. Changing how people utilize and understand visual language could go a long way towards minimizing exploitation, if not eventually leading to it's demise.

SF: You say that you don’t expect (and don’t want) to force your viewers to accept your images as objective fact or truth. That being said, do you think we are still able to garner some sort of truth – whether it be about a locale or its inhabitants – from these new series that borrow from documentary photography? 

JM: I don't honestly know. Photographs alone can only scratch at the surface. I think that many of these new series tend to all blend together, so I'm not so sure that they're speaking to any specifically individual truth. I can't say whether or not they're capturing a locale or its inhabitants accurately, but I don't think the most truthful or even interesting photographs are ever really about a specific place. It gets tiring when everyone is photographing in the same way and essentially saying the same thing, which seems to be the trend of American photography for a while now.

SF: Late last year, Blake Andrews wrote a blog post titled “Docutrinity,” in which he attempts to unpack and admonishes this trend in fine-art photography that borrows from documentary trends (examples he uses are Thomas Gardiner and Ben Huff amongst others). He breaks it down to this: 

“…so long as it has a mix of salt-of-the-earth types willing to stare broodingly into middle distance, forested vistas, access to an airport, and a strong whiff of pathos. Maybe the photographer lives with the locals, or frequents their watering hole, or whatever it takes to develop access. Photographer returns home with a carefully calibrated mix of landscapes, portraits, and interiors shot on color film. Usually the tool is a view camera, although a smaller body is allowed so long as it's a Mamiya 7.  The inkjet results are printed nice and big, mounted in the squared white frame du jour, no matting, with slightly desaturated color palette to match, then sent off on the exhibition circuit, where they present a statement about the place. Or about America. Or a nostalgic nod to the industrial cycle. Or something. The landscape/interior/portrait combination is something of an unholy docutrinity in contemporary straight photography. It's the photo two-fer, a way of expressing inner ruminations under the guise of outer world documentation. The photographer takes on the role of scientific explorer. Go out, trap some images, report findings to the photo community in the prescribed mix.” 

I suppose I ask this, because of the aesthetic of your work could reside under the framework Mr. Andrews has provided. What are your thoughts on this “trend”, and do you think this aesthetic can bring something to the table as far as engaging with race, gender, sexuality, income inequality, etc.? If so, how?

JM: Any aesthetic, if used in an intelligent way that makes the work sing louder than it would otherwise, can engage with important social issues. I don't think Mr. Andrews is wrong in calling out this trend - that aesthetic coupled with the notion of the project photographer has led to an over-saturation of well-made, albeit boring photo projects that don't really engage the viewer in a demanding way. It becomes something for consumption rather than contemplation. And I think beyond the photographs, how one attempts to disperse them is equally as important as the aesthetic. Whether the aim is the walls of a gallery, a photobook, or any other form of exhibition, how do the photos engage with people in a way that makes them more aware of the world around them, the systems that make that world up, and their own role in that world, along with the effects on others? I don't know if I've come to an answer to that quite yet, though I think that's the next big step for the photo world and the art world at large - being more self-critical and aware, and figuring out how not to be compliant and reductive. It just may not be possible on that scale, in which case, it will always come down to smaller movements that don't garner widespread attention that end up causing the biggest changes. 

SF: What's next for you, Juan?

JM: I'm currently working on a collaborative book with Alejandro Cartagena, Carlos Loret de Mola, and Freddy Martinez – it's been a really wonderful process and we've got the book at about 90% where we want it. I'm trying to work collaboratively more often (in tandem with making my own work); it's a great way of influencing your working process and bringing more to the table. With any luck, Free Lunch Vol. 2 (a publication of contemporary photography Neal Danis and I curate, design, and publish) will be ready to be published by the end of September. I've got a handful of other little books/zines that I have to finish up and publish. Other than that, I'm working at getting more freelance/editorial work.

Juan Madrid published his book Waiting On The Dream through VUU Books. You can purchase a copy here. The newsprint collaboration between Juan Madrid and Brett Carlsen, Welcome to Flint, is available for purchase through Free Lunch Cartel. 50% of sales will go to Flint-based charities.


All images © Juan Madrid