Please join us in an interview with Harris Mizrahi.
- Thank you for taking the time in discussing your work. Tell us about your project and what the work is about.
"Inside Out" is made up of photographs I’ve taken over many long and short road trips through the United States. I meet my subjects at small bars, motels, on the street, and often by just knocking on their front door.
- You grew up in New York City where you currently live and work. How have your journeys away from the metropolis have influenced your work and personality?
At some point shortly after I finished high school I started getting into classic country music and listened to Marty Robbins almost obsessively. The songs are short stories about the west and the imagery so successfully stuck with me and fascinated me. It became its own grand mythology. While I was in photo school I was also assisting some photographers on days that I didn't have class. One photographer I was working with liked my photography and my interest in country music and offered to have me come with him on a personal shooting trip through west Texas. I was there as a fellow photographer not an assistant. Only after I started doing trips of my own did I realize how generous this was of him, to let me into his process like that.
That trip was revolutionary for my work. We would shoot all day and much of the time through most of the night. It was the most amazing feeling, to spend all day hunting for images and turning over stones. There were possibilities everywhere! We only stopped photographing when we couldn’t keep our eyes open any longer. I don't think I had ever gotten a high like that from photography or anything else before. Even after a full day of shooting I couldn't sleep at night because every time I closed my eyes I would imagine photos we took that day. Structurally, I learned to step back and see the whole of a scene, which is something I still work on today. Before this I was doing mostly street photography. I was always trying to get as physically and uncomfortably close to my subjects as possible and I think that can lend itself to street photography but here the environment was so obviously a character in the story I wanted to tell. I didn't know what exactly that story was but I knew it had a feeling and the spaces around the people were just as important to that feeling. I also found that often in taking a step back the picture may not deliver the same immediate blow that a close up may but it tends to linger a bit longer by allowing more narrative to creep into frame. I learned to be more subtle in my picture making.
- Your portraits are both graphic and poetic possessing an intimacy which denotes your connection with the subjects as well as their environment, having the "insider’s" perspective. What is your approach and process in connecting with these people?
The lack of structure and planning in my process is part of what leaves me open to receive the unexpected. I typically won’t plan route or have a destination. I follow my instincts, which over time have become more sharpened and refined. I was recently listening to an interview with Gregory Halpern. He talks about what attracts him to want to photograph certain people. He said that he looks for people who are contradictions. That resonated with me and the way I work. People are so complex and I’m always looking for that trait in a person that can defy cliché and expose fragility; it shows that they are human. People are not one sided and they can usually sense when a photographer is treating them as such. I just try to be as genuine as possible. It’s easy to make a photograph that makes fun of someone and people can feel when you are trying to make that kind of picture. I really do love the people in front of my lens and for those moments it’s deeply personal for me. I’m always giving part of myself in return. It is the only way to make these pictures. As a photographer you have to show that you are willing to be vulnerable as well.
- You are exploring both public and privates spaces reflective both on the landscape and the characters. How you were received in the particular communities and did you find it difficult to connect and get access? You are miles away from NYC so you must have some interesting stories.
When I first started doing this type of work it was more difficult to glide into situations where people could fully drop their guard around me. Developing the courage to approach strangers was ninety percent of the battle. When you, as a photographer are nervous, the strangers you’re approaching will figure that they too should have cause to be nervous about you. The other ten percent was again, being totally genuine in my intent to make a photograph of someone with love and not malice. However, every so often I am still received with suspicion and hostility and that can be hard to shake off and I do fight to work through that. Often times the access I get comes from putting in time. I have revisited a lot of the people and places in my photographs many times before coming away with the image that ends up in my edit, although that is not always the case.
- Overall the work is consistent but what I find intriguing is the fact that although each photo complements one another, individually they extend the narrative; there is so much to decipher by looking at the photographs. What are the elements and stories that lead to the moment of creation?
I am constantly struggling with how much context to provide with these images. For me, one of the most exciting parts of reading photographs is the experience of making up my own stories and bringing my own experiences into someone else's work. I love that the meaning of an image can evolve and change every time I revisit it, particularly in the context of a book. I want people to be able to have that sort of experience with my work and I think the more stories I provide there is less of a chance for the meaning of the images to remain fluid and transcend the actuality of the occurrence. My intent is not for these pictures to tell the truth about a person or an encounter but for them to have the ability to convey truths about the complex and often fragile human condition.
The cohesive aspect of the work has a lot to do with the way I make a portrait and the respect given to the frame and subject and I also bring my own unique experiences and emotions into the picture, as is the case with any photographer. Another and equally important aspect is the editing process. Out of the thousands of pictures I take, only a small handful of them make the cut. Often I’ll have pictures that I love but don't quite yet fit in to the story, so I keep them in the back of my mind and the next time I come back with film Ill try to bridge that gap in the narrative and add a new element and narrative to the story. It’s always very exciting whenever that happens successfully.
- Looking at the images I am getting the feeling that although the photographs are about the people and the place the work is also about you and your life experiences and possible concerns. Is this the case and if so elaborate a little further?
I began working on "Inside Out" as an excuse to escape. Battling Bipolar Disorder, with its deep depression, and seductive mania I would drive as far as I could from home before tiring, much of the time with no intent of returning. Sometimes I would stay on the road for a couple of days sometimes a few weeks and other times I could travel hundreds of miles only to return right back home that same day. Emotional exhaustion still proves to be an essential ingredient in the making of many of these photographs. The trips are a form of therapy where my own state of vulnerability and want to be accepted allow me to sympathize with and photograph the people I meet, with honesty and an intimacy not typically awarded to strangers. Inherently, when photographing strangers there is a suspicion of the other present on both sides of the camera. As a photographer I am soliciting my subjects vulnerability and in return must openly cede my own. As I result I am allowed into people's homes, to share their dinner and rest a night on a spare bed. In that way the pictures are very much about me.
- Considering the narrative qualities of your work, what are the photographers, authors, or films that have influenced and inspire you?
Andrea Modica was an instructor of mine at Drexel University. She is one of those photographers that each time I open up one of her books I am blown away by how much is newly revealed to me that I didn't see the previous time. Her photos also have a still breathlessness about them yet at the same time the frame seems to be vibrating with energy ready to explode. I’m a fan of American realist authors like Phillip Roth and John Cheever. I like their ability to extract extraordinary stories from mundane subject matter. I try to go see movies at the theatre as much as I can. I love the experience of being in a dark theatre with the big screen A good film will take over you for those two or so hours. Recently I saw “Embrace of the Serpent” and “The Fits.” They are two very different but incredibly fresh films that tell stories and reveal meaning with subtlety and seductive visual storytelling.
- What advice would you give to students and emerging photographers in order to create a successful body of work?
I would tell them to just keep creating, to do it because you feel it in your bones that you have to. Its important not to get too hung up on the details of what the project will look like when its complete. You lose the chance to surprise yourself and that is one of the most rewarding aspect of art and photography; it’s the rare occasion when your own creation surprises you. You must also be a strict editor of your work.
- Is this project completed or you have future plans and additions? Although not on your site I find the work from Mexico you post on your Instagram feed, interesting and of a different style and tone. Talk a little about the concept behind that project.
I am still making work for this project and do have some plans in the very near future to get back on the road and make pictures. The work from Mexico is much more journalistic in nature. The pictures are made with a 35mm camera and are composed more quickly than my other work. I was visiting Mexico City and spent all day walking the expanse of the city taking pictures. I didn't know what I would emerge with but I knew I didn't want to have pictures that looked they were taken by a tourist. However, I hardly speak any Spanish so I can’t make the same type of portrait that I can when I'm driving through the US. Although in many cases I am still talking with my subjects it’s more difficult to establish a connection and trust so you have to figure out a different way to work. Sometimes that was pretty frustrating but in a way it was also very freeing.