The digital world has truly changed the way we interact, create and connect. As artists it has opened up unlimited possibilities in how we express ourselves and how we spread our message to the world. There are many individuals who resist the technology revolution and stick to their old way of producing ideas. They are comfortable with what’s comfortable. But, what would happen if we broke out of our comfort zone and embraced the uncomfortable? What new things could we create, learn or share with others?
Francisco Diaz and Deb Young are two artists that have full-heartily taken their differences, in gender, artistic expression, location and culture, and broke down the invisible barriers separating them to create the cutting edge, “International Collaboration Project.”
The moment I laid eyes on their collaborative montage photography I felt as if for the first time since art university I was face-to-face with work that truly spoke to me. I have always been passionate about narrative art photography. My two favorite photographers, Duane Michals and Francesca Woodman were my two first loves. Their work exposed me to the possibilities of using photography as a means of capturing the inner corners of my conscious and unconscious mind.
I love all kinds of photography but it is conceptual photography that provokes a hyper sense of wonder and curiosity.
Frank Diaz sums up a lot of these emotions when describing his and Deb’s Work.
“A lot of what our work is about that beauty and that tension. Trying to find a way, a visual language that gets as close to that real sense of the balance of the potential for beauty and the potential for suffering that exists every single day of our lives.”
Here is our interview:
When we were talking a little bit before about the process. I want to know how you got to know Deb and how the International Collaboration Project began?
It’s a big question actually, recently Deb and I were discussing this. We see our meeting as very destined. A few years back she had a very serious life threatening illness and while she was in the hospital she decided her passion was going back to photography.
Now, unknown to her on the other side of the world, I was getting back into photography at the same time. As a few years went by, she working in New Zealand, and I was working here in the States, when a friend of mine said, “Hey, you should be on Facebook. I was thinking, “Nah, I don’t need another job!” He keep bugging me until I finally went onto Facebook. He gave me ten names to start off with, photographer friends of his, and one of them was Deb. When we became friends I started to look at some of her work and she began looking at mine. I realized I liked her thinking. Her work was very different; she was doing a lot of street photography and I was just doing all art photography. I liked Deb’s sensibility– the way she was thinking about street photography. I was never really a big fan of street photography but I liked the way she was using grain; her gray-scales.
Deb is a very spiritual minded person. She is all about how we as individuals develop and grow. We started talking about this revolutionary concept in photography, which was, as a male/female duo collaborating eighty thousand miles apart, but seeing if we could work in real time as a form of international cooperation.
She loved the idea. We weren’t sure how it was going to manifest itself. It took us about eight months to talk it out and understand what we were talking about and then we called it, The International Collaboration Project.
I love that you brought up that Deb is a very spiritual person because when I was viewing the work it did invoke a very spiritual part of myself. I saw symbolism and things that were mirroring what was going on in my own life. One of the pieces, for example, is in the Playground Series. As a parent observing the image of the little children in bubbles, I thought about how we protect our children so much these days. We assist in creating a distance between them and their environment. What were your intentions when you created that series?
The interesting process is that we don’t use models and we don’t use set-ups. A lot of other montagist work this way. We go out and we shoot random snaps and then we archive them. When we come back to them we begin to discuss what our themes are. One of the things that started happening was, we were fascinated by playgrounds.
We created the series as a kind of metaphor. We live in a world that is highly strategic so social relationships, a lot of them, reflect this low degree of integration and meaningful interaction. So we started to focus in on how all this starts, this sense of alienation when we are children. We focused on the playground as an inversion of the notion of play, where they’re playing but there is this underlying tension that’s going on. That something threatening may or may not be happening.
The Playground Series
The International Collaboration Project
I have to be honest, recently I have been looking around and observing the adults in my life. I started to think, “Aren’t we all just little kids and the becoming an adult thing, just sort of happened?” I couldn’t help but wonder how many of us are walking around trying to heal our inner child? Trying to heal from moments in our past.
When I look at these photos, I couldn’t help but think that these children represented young adults in conflict. They were playing with a constant suspicious look on their faces, like they were wanting to play but they were reluctant to play. As if they were asking the question, “What’s the catch?”
Totally! It’s interesting because what is the symbol for childhood, it’s innocence, it’s about the future, happiness, truths, gullibility. All of these things are part of our childhood. But, as we are putting together this playground series we start to realize, “What has been the end product of all of this?” It has been a world full of alienation.
As we mature we start to feel disconnected, we start to feel separate, we start to mistrust. So we start to become this inversion of what we started out as. Where play starts out in one place and then become this suspicious activity.
Now, again, I will have to say, when you look at the series you can look at the pieces and you can determine that there is nothing strange going on, or you can determine that there is. Deb and I spend a lot of time putting in clues in each image so that you can go one way or the other, depending on your outlook, “Is the glass half empty or is it half full?”
That really speaks to me in regards to what you said earlier, where you take a lot of time to come together and create these images as a duo. You own experiences, and then her experiences really influence that process. How do you bring both your experiences together? How do you decide?
Well, it’s part of the uniqueness of this project that we’ve set up. We spend a lot of time in discussion. We video chat quite a bit and during that time when we are working on a particular series, whether it’s the playground series or the Folk Tale series, or even the new Suspicion series. We talk about what it is we want to accomplish and in that discussion is actually when we find out how culturally different we are. For example, I’ll refer to “Fireflies” and then she’ll say something like, “I want them to be all rugged up.”
“All rubbed up?” I’ll question. What she means is, all dressed heavy in clothes for when it’s cold outside. So we start to bump up against these cultural differences but what happens is, as we discuss, over time, we start to see where those differences are and we begin to work with them as best we can.
In your previous series you work with, and focus on, children, but in your new series you have a drastically different them happening. Can you tell me what brought this topic forward?
Well, it’s funny, we wanted to work on a couple of things, one is, we wanted to have ourselves as part of the imagery in a series and so we decided to do a domestic series where a couple starts to, for whatever reason, become suspicious of each other.
This happens in many relationships where there is some sort of turning point in the relationship. Where the individuals start to look at each other differently. Mistrust starts to seep its way into the relationship. We look at each other and thought, “Can we do a series that takes place in a home and where we are the couple?”
The series is in its infancy and we are just really beginning to work through it. It’s a stronger because it’s a more serious topic. How relationships can sometimes degrade and how you pull out of that.
I’m really fascinated by how you both come together and create these images because a lot of artists working collaboratively can really clash with their differences in creative opinions. Do you ever come to a place where you both don’t agree with the other?
We do have moments where, in a given piece, she or I may do something where the other doesn’t think it’s a good choice but I have to say that this is where I often talk about the destiny of relationships. It’s that whole background of coming from flexibility. We really look at each other and we respect 100% the other person’s point of view. I don’t know where that comes from because we’ve only know each other for two years, but it’s one of those things where we are old souls who feel they have known each other for twenty years. We trust each other’s point of view, sensibility and we really rely on the fact that the other is bringing their best game to each piece.
I work a lot with the idea of connectedness, how we are all connected to everybody and everything. As you walk through life you start to see it showing up everywhere. When you tell the story of how you met Deb and how you feel that it was some sort of Destiny, do you find since you’ve started doing this experiment with her and this project as a whole, you’ve become more aware of this in your consciousness.
Yes, actually an important reason we’ve created the international collaboration project was about this whole sense of connectedness. What the project is really saying is that things get in the way of us actually being what we all really are, which is that we are all connected.
So a way of us to bypass that creatively is to do this project, which allows us to reinforce our connectedness, our created connectedness. So far it reinforces my relationship with Deb and I think she would agree, has grown dramatically and our sense of other artists and other art photographer’s has grown dramatically as well.
We’ve pulled in other artists as well. One from France and another one from the U.S to work with us. So we have produced other works that are both Deb and myself, as well as, another photographer from another part of the world. What we are seeing is that, if you can emphasize the connectedness and the desire to be creative together, so much and flourish.
When we meet each other especially, and we share a common vision and common understanding, it’s really exciting, don’t you think?
Oh Yes! I have to tell you that it took Deb and I about 8 months to figure out how we were going to work together. When we did the very first piece, and then entered it into a competition and it was accepted, we were very excited!
Then we worked with another French art photographer, Agnes Courrault. We’ve done a few pieces with her and they took are very exciting pieces. It’s thrilling!
When you are working with photography, because you mentioned before you came from a painting background, what is it about photography that you love the most? Especially when doing a collaboration such as this.
That’s a really good question, Cara. For both Deb and myself, photography is something that is, “Of the moment.” The way in which we work has strong similarities to the way in which one might paint, meaning. In painting you might sit down and do sketches and create something, you work with your hands. We don’t just snap an image. We do, what is now being called, “Cinematic Narrative photo montage. We are montagists. One image that we work on could have as many as 20 to 30 separate images in it. A lot of what we like about photography is more about the way in which, “We” do photography.
Most photographers who are not collagist or monagists, which is most of the world of photography, they go out into the world seeking that unique moment to snap. Deb and I, we’re not trying to find the unique moment. It’s a very different way of thinking about photography.
I think that is why I really responded to your work because as a photographer for many years I really felt as if I was using the camera as a paint brush. That it was somehow a piece of equipment that helped me get the idea in my head out into the world. I was more doing it from an artistic perspective. It was never fully about technology. Of course I knew the technical aspects of photography but those parts were secondary, it was always about the concept behind the work.
Somehow I would always just teach myself what I needed to know in order to get that idea out of my head and into the world.
Well, ultimately we see ourselves, especially in the International Collaboration Project, as conceptual artists. Everything is based on theme. I will tell you this, though. When I was back in art school doing my undergrad, a lot of the professors there thought photography was really just a crappy art. It didn’t have the control and the conceptual depth that they felt the history of painting had.
Even myself, when I went back to photography, and then digital photography, it took me a while to figure out how I was going to make this a little bit more in depth. To me, just taking a snap, that’s great, it’s dependent on what’s out there in front of you. So essentially if what’s out there in front of you is good then your snap will be good. For Deb and myself there is no, “out there in front of us.” What we create is totally made up, is totally ours.
It looks coherent, it looks like we took a snap, but it’s not, there is nothing real about it what so ever.
Your work is getting a lot of rave reviews, and I can see why. There has been a lot of international attention as well. How do you feel about this and why do you think people are holding onto this unique concept. What do you think is so inspiring?
First off, we are thrilled. On the other hand I think there are a couple of things. One, you have to understand what we are doing is we are charting this whole new territory. How many collaborators do you know that are male and female? I can think of one other duo.
So it’s not a common element.
Number two, how many are collaborating on the same work but living thousands of miles away from each other? That alone is a remarkable element in this whole process and that’s one of the things that has captured a lot of the attention that we’ve been starting to get.
People are asking, “How the hell do you guys do that?” We have embraced the digital era wholeheartedly. We think there is so much that can be accomplished in such a positive way and this is to us a big first step in saying, “Oh my God, boundaries don’t matter anymore.” Individuals and how they work together matters but boundaries don’t matter.
It’s incredibly innovative and it is a really great way to embrace the digital era because I think that if you started photography like I did, learning on a medium format camera, and then you have to transition to this 2 megapixel (because I remember the first one we had access to had only 2 megapixels), you think, “How is this going to work?”
I think many people experienced a lot of resistance at that time. I love how you two took it to the next level. People will try to copy what you do but I think the thing is, it’s not about the technology. What you two have created is really about what you have said previously, a connectedness, a trust, a spirituality. That’s not something that can be copied. It’s something that is unique.
I have in the past tried collaborations with other artists and that was with proximity being close. They lived a town or so away, so we could go to each other’s studio. Even then we were so focused on simply collaborating on a work but we weren’t focused on the development of the individuals and how they came together.
With Deb, we’ve versed the process, we looked at each other as individuals first, what we liked about each other and how connected we felt toward each other and then out of that came the work and this amazing idea. Had we not felt the hand of fate in there, had we not felt connected this never would have taken place. It’s not just an international project, this is a heartfelt concept that we really believe in. Out of that has come something unique and revolutionary.