Interview with SNAP Winner Russell Monk

Dara Vandor, WADDINGTON'S, March 12, 2021

  By: Dara Vandor

 

Waddington’s is proud to partner with the AIDS Committee of Toronto (ACT) to present the SNAP Photography Auction online from March 14-20, 2021.

The auction represents the winners and jury selections from the annual Photo Competition. These contemporary, lens-based works are selected from hundreds of entries by a blind jury of talented professionals working in the fields of photography, printing and framing. This year’s theme is ‘Together in Isolation.’ The jury challenged photographers of all skill levels to capture what it meant to them to stick together – or just hold it together – in a time when we couldn’t feel farther apart.

The winning photograph, “El Vinculo,” was made by Russell Monk. Monk has travelled the world for over thirty years, and his work has appeared in publications including the New York TimesGQEsquire, the London Sunday Times and Time. He covered the humanitarian crisis in Rwanda and Zaire for the Globe and Mail. His book, Amusing World, includes images from over 20 countries, and Monk has had solo exhibitions of his work in North America and Mexico. He divides his time between the historic town of San Miguel de Allende, Mexico and Toronto.

Waddington’s caught up with Monk via email to ask about his influences, his views on photography, and the one thing he won’t travel without.

Can you tell us about making “El Vinculo”? What was the genesis for this work?

“El Vinculo” was an image I made when I was shooting a multi-year project about my neighbors in my daylight studio in Mexico. My next-door neighbors are a large family and I have had a long and varied relationship with them. The mother and father of the family are more or less estranged even though they sometimes live in the same house. I really wanted to represent them in some way and in that state of being. But the mother would not agree to pose, despite my plan to have their faces covered in large masks that I got from a friend who makes giant sized puppets. So, I went ahead and found other models to, in essence, play the parts of my neighbours. The image was conceived and shot pre-COVID, but the idea was always meant to represent a form of being “together in isolation.”

What is your earliest memory of art? Did you always know that this was the path for you?

My earliest memories of art are painful. I went to an all-boy’s boarding school in England. At the age of 7, the art teacher would stand behind me and either slap me hard on the back of the head and tell me how “useless” I was and that “I would never be any good.” It may well be why I have almost never picked up a paint brush since and actually have an innate fear of doing so.

If you could photograph anyone, anywhere or anything, what would you choose?

That is a very tough question! I have always been drawn to remote and bleakly beautiful landscapes. If I could find one that had never been photographed that would be cool. Coming across anything or anyone that has of yet avoided photographic scrutiny is the goal, harder and harder as that may be. As for portraiture, it feels less and less appealing. Simply put, just about everyone is used to being photographed these days. It doesn’t feel like quite the special event it was, even as little as 20 years ago.

In a moment where everyone is able to take a “professional” looking photo on their phone, where do you think photography as a medium is headed? 

I am not a clairvoyant—if you had told me even 15 years ago where we would be headed, I am not sure I would have believed it. The “democratization” of photography is great on one level, but I do think the sheer ubiquity of images must herald a drop in the bar. How can it not? Photography is particularly suspect, I think. You can’t fake writing a book or even doing a painting. But apps like Instagram and the myriad of filters out there can create a plethora of “looks” in literally seconds, which I think diminish just how seriously one can take photography these days. But I also realize that this may just be an antiquated and slightly elitist point of view from someone who didn’t grow up in the digital world. And there are many advantages and positive things about digital technology as well. I can’t deny that. I make use of them myself on an almost daily basis!

Did you have a particular mentor who showed you the ropes or who made an impression? Is there someone who you go to for advice? 

I have to say that sadly I never really had a mentor to speak of. I wish I had. I do have one of my best friends, another photographer, Dan Boriss, who I have known for over 30 years – who I can always call and run stuff by – even when I might already know the answer. He can be grounded in ways I never am.

Do you have a favourite artist or artwork? Maybe something that changed the way you see art or was a major influence for you?

I love the work of the landscape artist Andy Goldsworthy. And I think it’s clear my influences range from Robert Frank, Irving Penn through to Salgado.

If you could sit down with one person in the art world, who would it be and why?

I am super intrigued by the French visual artist who goes by JR. He does some incredibly large projects that seem both technologically advanced and yet of the analogue world at the same time. He seems to be able to pull off high concepts on a large and very human scale. Not only would I like to watch him at work, I think I would like to be him!

What is your favourite photograph of any that you’ve taken?

There are a few. But two that spring to mind – a photo called “La Mueca” that I took in Mexico for a project about the Day of the Dead, and a photograph of a wind-blown tree on the Chatham Islands, which lie some 700 miles from New Zealand.

You seem to move effortlessly between commercial, documentary and fine art projects. Which is your favourite realm to work in? Do you find that they inform each other?

If I were to have any regrets, it would be that I ever took any “commercial ” photographs (except editorial for magazines). I was seduced by the money and the lifestyle a bit, and it definitely feels like I lost the plot for a while. But, as we know, regret is a pointless emotion. Besides, I probably could never have bought a Leica M6 if it wasn’t for those jobs!

I like documentary projects if I feel I have found something really worthwhile and can sink my teeth into it –which seems to get a bit harder as I get older. There is a kind frenetic energy required that I think is easier for the young(er) to pull off! As for “fine art” – I don’t think I have ever really considered myself to be an “artist,” let alone a “fine” one. This in all seriousness.

You divide your time between Mexico and Canada, and you seem to be on the road a lot (outside of a pandemic). What are some of the things you can’t live without?

My Kindle. Yes, I would prefer the real things, but to literally have a library in your bag is an astonishing thing to me. I don’t mind waiting anywhere usually, as long as I have something to read!

Favourite place that you’ve ever travelled to?

I love Latin America as a whole. I have a special relationship with Cuba. Mexico of course. Tibet is special, although I wish I had seen it earlier. India is crazy but a wonderful place to photograph. Albania is one of the strangest places I have ever been. And so many more, too numerous to list.

Tell us something that the general public wouldn’t know about you.

Hmmm. Tough one. Totally transparent – I have always had a bit of a love/hate relationship with photography. In my early days of dreaming, I saw myself as a journalist or a writer of some sort—without the camera in tow. Much as it has given me license to enter into unknown worlds, it had often also felt intrusive to me. I have envied writers, as they were able to just stand back and observe. But then again, their real work had only just begun. Especially the modern journalism types, Tom Wolfe, Bruce Chatwyn and the great Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski – who all combined news, travel, literature and a new hybrid form of communicating. But, having said that, I don’t think I would have had the patience for the actual “writing” part. I have also always loved cinemaphotography and often fantasized about doing that back in the day. I could tell you who shot which film, what cameras they used, even the aspect ratio. I was an avid reader of American Cinemaphotography.

What are you looking forward to accomplishing in the next year?

I think I have the right for my expectations to not be too high this coming year. Things seem to be improving and when we all get the vaccination, I think things will really start to get better. But I still think the rest of 2021 is going to be a difficult year in many ways. So, I am focusing on improving my Spanish, trying to write some new songs on my guitar and keep my eyes and ears open for new photo projects. Or possibly resurrect one that I started on Mexican cantinas, but that might be for another time! And hopefully take a motorbike trip somewhere soon!

Thanks, Russell!

 

ABOUT THE AIDS COMMITTEE OF TORONTO (ACT)

Proceeds from this auction will support the free programs and services offered at ACT, Canada’s largest HIV and AIDS service organization. ACT was founded in 1983 by a group of community volunteers with the mission to end AIDS in Toronto through sexual health education, prevention and outreach. ACT works towards a city with zero new HIV infections, zero HIV-related stigma and discrimination, and zero AIDS-related deaths while promoting the independence, dignity, health and well-being of those living with HIV and AIDS and those at increased risk of HIV. ACT primarily serves gay, bi, queer people living with HIV and those at increased risk for new HIV-infection. They offer counselling and support groups, social support programs and anonymous HIV-testing. ACT also offers programming for young people, women, and has a one-of-a-kind employment program to help people living with HIV and LGBTQ2+ folks find meaningful employment in their field after taking time to focus on their health. To learn more, please visit ACT’s website at actoronto.org.





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