Obscura Journal Contributor Brileigh Hardcastle recently interviewed Obscura Community Commission artists: Natalie Sosa, Summer Wagner, Alize Jireh, Amanda “A.B.” Martinez, Heather N. Stout, Yogan Muller, Badir McCleary, Niall O’Brien, Jahnny Lee, and Matthew Reamer for the drop of the first Obscura Community Commission. Each responded to the theme “Two Years After the Storm,” a commission about the current state the United States of America. They discuss their process, and their projects which explore the pandemic, politics, environment, social and gender inequality, the police and more.
It's nice to be alive by Natalie Sosa
Natalie Sosa is a Mexican photographer making work that explores our everyday relationship to the urban environment. For Obscura Community Commission, Natalie traveled to New York to depict how the pandemic had affected a bustling city’s livelihood, while finding beauty from all of the dramatic changes.
BH: What did you learn while working on this commission?
NS: I gained so much knowledge during this commission. First and foremost, that good images require time and patience. Secondly, to have more confidence in myself while remembering to manage my stress and well-being as I put forward my best effort in the process. I also started paying attention to the uncomfortable opinions that others may have about my work and to try to see it from a different perspective. Such a one-of-a-kind experience.
BH: Obscura invited Jim Goldberg as a guest mentor for this commission, whose work is highly influential and committed to collaborating with subjects often neglected, ignored, or otherwise considered an outsider. What was your experience with the curatorial and mentorship component?
NS: This was the most important and enjoyable aspect of the commission. Having a mentorship with one of the Magnum photographers was both exciting and challenging, but it helped me see my photos from a different angle, which is something that artists must have in every process.
The Silent Hunt by Summer Wagner
Summer Wagner is a photographer from the Midwest, United States. Using the magic of photography they engages with youth, psychology, nature and spirituality. In this commission, they focused on capturing the experiences of boys and men and how they’ve adapted to the last two years in and out of isolation.
BH: This work is entangled with concepts including the human condition, our relationship to nature, spirituality, and the broader theme Obscura put forward. Through this vastness, your images balances a dream-like quality. In your experience, what was the most challenging part when making this work?
SW: The most challenging aspect of this commission was narrowing down the subject matter. There is so much that has happened in the last two years of the pandemic, it has encompassed every part of life, so the boundaries are vast. It was important to me to capture moments in the collection that show the appearances of COVID and its effects while also not being too on the nose. It's a challenge to capture enough information in an image, but not too much to where the image becomes redundant.
BH: Obscura is the first of its kind to commission photographers to produce work as NFTs. It’s both an emerging medium and space for artists that’s evolving with us as we speak. After two years of isolation and transformation, do you feel this commission has changed your path forward in NFTs as we enter this new world?
SW: The Community Commission is the first commission I have done as a photographer, and really sets a bar for what kind of experiences I want while making art in the NFT space. It's so refreshing to be challenged, creatively encouraged, and to build relationships all with one meaningful project at the center.
To Bloom In Isolation by Alize Jireh
Alize Jireh is a photographer and filmmaker who uses the camera to connect deeply with her subjects to capture a sense of raw beauty and uncover their stories. “To Bloom In Isolation” is a collection of intimate portraits that document the experience of loneliness and isolation that has been experienced collectively and individually over the last two years.
BH: This is a timely commission that reflects on numerous dramatic changes and events from the last two years. Let’s talk about your approach. How did you go about working on this commission, what was your process?
AJ: My process for this commission came very naturally as I asked myself what the most impactful part of these last two years of the pandemic have been, and with that came the answer of solitude and isolation. I delve deep into this subject by getting together with people and asked them how their experience of isolation was during these times. With their answers, we sat together and crafted an image or waited for the right moment to present itself that would encapsulate their relationship to their own isolation. Some of these answers were very positive while others were quite heavy, and capturing it all really made me appreciate our individual experiences and the value in sharing each one.
BH: At one point or another, the last two years has taken a collective toll on us, and made us more mindful about our well-being, the current state of the world, and challenged our values in life. With such a heavy theme, how did you manage working on such a commission under the timeline you were given?
AJ: Working on this commission, especially in the time it came, felt perfect in every way. The timeline felt more exciting to me than anything else, because it meant I had to push myself to soak up the last moments of this very delicate time where we are all coming out of hibernation and are able to reflect back on our experience in these past two years. For me, doing this commission in the beginning of this year was therapeutic, and offered me a space to process what we all lived through over the past two years.
The Storm Within by Amanda ”A.B.” Martinez
Amanda Martinez is a Colombian photographer and director whose work is grounded in analog aesthetic with a passion for capturing the unknown. Amanda took the Community Commission theme personally, who has been isolated while battling cancer. “The Storm Within” documents her travels across the U.S. as she reconnects with friends and reflects on the past.
BH: Photography is largely a solitary practice, and this commission from Obscura comes after a time of extended isolation for all of us. Tell me about your experience working on a group project with the other photographers? How was your experience with the mentorship component?
AM: I enjoyed getting mentorship advice from Jim, it was really cool to experience. Being one of the younger artists of the group, I also got feedback on my work from from the other Community Commission grantee's who have been in the photography game way longer than I have. I also loved the one-on-one time with Carlos to see how my work was coming along and the community opinions with Mickey.
BH: It feels as though there is a new sense of community in photography that wasn’t as accessible as before. The NFT space has removed many barriers that were present in the traditional art world, for people to participate. How has this experience affected your path going forward in NFT photography?
AM: Before finding Obscura, I was a bit lost to the new space I was in. I knew the basics of NFTs thanks to my friend Matt, but I didn't really know where to go with my photography practice. Finding Obscura's Discord made me believe there was a space for me in the NFT world, and furthermore helped me gain connections with like-minded people. Moving forward I will continue to work on my photography and mint pieces that I believe will speak to others.
Lost in the Mists of Time by Heather N. Stout
Heather N. Stout is a multidisciplinary artist focusing on the American landscape through themes of history, politics, and the environment. In this commission, Heather travels through the snow, muck, and mud in rural West Virginia, depicting what’s left behind in abandoned places as they deteriorate and form with the land.
BH: I noticed you studied under Dr. Masumi Hayashi through digital photography’s ascent. The world has changed so much over the last couple years and now NFTs are on the rise, it seems as though your practice has come full circle. Let’s talk about the curatorial and mentorship component while making this body of work?
HS: I really enjoyed sitting in critique again. Masumi was always telling me that digital was the new way and that I’d have to accept that. Group critique is so common in university and something I've missed. It was excellent to meet and learn from Jim, Alejandro, Carlos, and Mickey. I felt as if I was in a master class where the outcome of the work bears a great weight and responsibility. Working with all of the mentors was super and provided skilled and professional insight...invaluable.
BH: After two years of solitude and separation, it is an incredible time for us artists to re-emerge and through this new medium. What are some of your reflections on having this experience with Obscura?
There is always so much to learn, no matter how experienced we are. Having the talented people behind Obscura helping to get this collection up has taught me so much. Coming from the traditional art world, this space is a constant re-learning curve. It is like starting over at square one while holding your experience in a well-packed bag.
Aphatos by Yogan Muller
Yogan Muller is a landscape scholar, photographer and instructor. Holding a PhD in landscape photography and epistemology, his science background informs his work with a focus on the Anthropocene. For Obscura, Yogan documented the precarious material reality of Los Angeles, examining the ways the pandemic had visually altered its state.
BH: “Two Years After the Storm” is a weighted theme with many events, pressing issues, and complexities surrounding it. How did you feel about working on such a commission under the timeline you were given?
YM: Yes, it is weighted a theme but I think that it reflects the reality of our tumultuous time marked by mounting environmental pressures. Scientists have been warning us for decades that, if left unmitigated, climate change would cause pandemics, wars and famines. These conclusions and their emotional dimension never quite leave me. I was absolutely thrilled to be given the opportunity to develop a new body of work that tries to respond to all these notions, and to do this under the tutelage of revered photographers was an absolute blessing. In addition, the fact that I live in L.A. made responding to the theme and the aforementioned notions relatively easy because, for a lot of different reasons, L.A. is a paragon of the Anthropocene.
BH: Let’s reflect on your experience with Obscura and working on this project. Do you feel it has shifted the way you approach NFT photography?
YM: Looking back, I've been approaching NFT photography slowly and with an open mind. What struck me right off the bat was the joyful energy and genuine support of the community. WHO WE ARE and Two Years After The Storm have been exceptional occasions to learn, grow and engage with the talented masterminds that created this groundbreaking space for photography.
Someone You Know by Badir McCleary
Badir McCleary is a photographer, consultant, and curator holding an M.A. in Arts Business and Contemporary Art from Sotheby’s Institute of Art. He uses a documentary approach to capture the world around him. “Someone You Know” uncovers stories about the impact that the pandemic has had on people and places in Los Angeles, and other cities.
BH: This group project challenged everyone in different ways around a topic that has affected all of our lives. What did you learn about yourself from working on the Obscura Community Commission?
BM: I discovered that I actually can see the shot before its taken. When I am out, I am constantly seeing scenes in my everyday life and it helps me prepare when I have to make a composition.
BH: “Two Years After the Storm” is a weighted theme with many events, pressing issues, and complexities surrounding it. How did you feel about working on such a commission under the timeline you were given? - reword
BM: Very comfortable as I have been shooting that them of work since the start of the year.
It’s one of the first times I have time to work on my own project, and for it to be this meaningful and connect with other photographers on a certain subject. It’s a new experience for me because photography, especially street photography for me is like an individualized project. I got a lot out of enjoying the conversation and everyone pushing for a common goal. I’m usually more of an individual but it made me feel like I had a team to fall back on.
POIGNANT by Jahnny Lee
Rooted in a documentary practice, Jahnny Lee travels around post-pandemic Los Angeles, searching for images that draw out a poignant connection from the subjects he encounters in everyday life. For this commission "Two Years After the Storm," Jahnny documents the aftermath of the storm throughout LA while showing the change in human interaction that comes with it.
BH: This commission meets an an intersection of different changes in our life, the fleeting separation and isolation we have all faced, our re-integration with each other and into the world, all in addition to the new world of web3. What was your experience with the curation and mentorship aspect? Do you feel it has propelled you into a new direction?
JL: The process of working on this commission and mentorship definitely inspired a pivotal change on my perspective on photography, as well as the integration of web3 components.
BH: The commission calls for works in response to a complex theme filled with history, numerous social issues and other events. Given the limited time to produce a strong body of work, how did you feel about taking on such a challenge?
JL: I felt very inspired to work on this project as I have documented similar themes in the past. But with the timeline it definitely forced me to more precise with my thoughts and my overall process.
Border Lord by Matthew Reamer
Matthew Reamer is a Los Angeles-based photographer and director explore the experience of life through a documentary lens. His contribution to Obscura’s Community Commission examines American life in 2022 with a focus on California’s Imperial Valley, considering the social and environmental issues that surrounds the land.
BH: How did you go about working on this commission, what was your process?
MR: I knew I wanted to approach it as I approach most of my personal work, which tends to be a mixture of place based portrait and documentary style shooting. I initially had a number of ideas for locations, but time constraints pushed me to keep it fairly close to home and I wound up settling on California's Imperial Valley, particularly the places closest to the border with Mexico. I made a few trips there from LA during the course of the commission and mostly spent my days exploring and shooting, letting the narrative build itself.
BH: What did you learn while working on this commission? Was working on a body of work along other photographers a new challenge for you?
MR: My practice tends to be quite solitary, so this commission was helpful in making me more of a team player. Also, I tend to create sprawling, unfocused bodies of work and this commission helped me reel it in, commit to a theme and see it through.
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