Disquiet is a response to becoming a father in a time of profound uncertainty. It is a metaphoric and meditative journey that tracks this shift in my life with a concurrent shift in American identity.
Amani Willett was recently featured in the books Street Photography Now and New York: In Color and is a long-term member of the influential iN-PUBLiC collective of photographers. His pictures have been exhibited both nationally and internationally, and his work has been featured in such publications as American Photography, Newsweek and The New York Times. He holds an MFA from the School of Visual Art and currently lives and works in Brooklyn, NY.
What made you decide to pursue your MFA?
Having worked in photography for over 10 years, I knew I needed to challenge myself to understand what I wanted out of the image-making process moving forward. I needed to understand which aspects of the photographic process were going to provide me with the passion, focus and drive to keep working.
I had never studied art or photography formally and felt that immersing myself in a new and foreign environment would be a wonderful way to challenge my perceptions and experiences and expose me to a wide range of new and exciting points of view. Luckily I was right – the school environment provided me with the critical engagement I needed to better understand myself and my relationship to my work and to help me understand what I wanted to communicate through my images.
Do you think you would have created a project like Disquiet without going back to school?
I don’t think I would have created a project like Disquiet without having gone back to school. I had hit a creative roadblock, and school was the right choice for me at that point in my career. It provided me with the structure, focus, critical feedback and chance for experimentation that was necessary for me to figure out how to shape my loose shooting style into something with the right balance of legibility – something that was ambiguous while also being concrete.
That said, I have mixed feelings about the recent emphasis on MFA programs – it’s almost seen as a prerequisite for art world success. I don’t think this trend is necessarily positive, as it works to build in more layers of elitism, exclusivity and networks into an already exclusive system. So while school was a good choice for me, it certainly isn’t necessarily the right choice for everyone. Nor do I believe it be thought of as a necessary step in an artist’s career.
How did the idea develop?
Disquiet started out as a feeling. It took quite some time to figure out how to take that feeling and transform it into something that satisfactorily represented the multi-layered idea that was in my head.
Two months before I started school I had a son. As a result, I was making lots of pictures about my family and the way this new experience shifted my perspective on life. I knew these images were an important aspect of what I was interested in focusing on, but not the whole picture. I found myself having an internal dialogue where my personal experiences of family were weaving, merging and converging with my thoughts about the world I was bringing my son in to – the economic trouble, political dysfunction, war and climate disasters. Ultimately, “Disquiet” became about capturing all of these experiences and feelings and condensing them into a unified statement.
I didn’t conceive of the project as a book from the beginning. At first I was experimenting with the idea of creating small groups of images that operated as sentences or even short stories. It was from there that I made the leap to envisioning the project as a book and a more extensive narrative. It might seem like a simple discovery, but since I had never thought about presenting my photographs in book form, it wasn’t a clear path to me. But once I began to think about my photographs this way, I knew it was a good match.
The book form emphasized the cinematic and narrative elements of my pictures and I was able to create a structure in which the complex threads of the subject matter I was interested in could be woven together. I was actually amazed how a book could command such a different kind of viewing experience than looking at images on the wall or on the web. The physical book offered a way to create another layer of control that influenced how the images related to one another. I found that there seems to be a desire for a viewer to make connections between disparate pieces of information when looking at a book and I tried to use that to my advantage.
The dichotomy between the personal and the public is really interesting. I’ve thought about that often and think you pulled it off well in this project. Which do you find more challenging? Photographing your family, or going out in public and photographing strangers?
Thank you. Each situation has its own challenges. I’ve been shooting on the street for many years so I’ve become fairly comfortable working in that environment. For me, the hardest part about working in public is maintaining the patience to keep wandering without giving up, because often the best pictures seem to materialize after I’ve pushed through a barrier of doubt and mental fatigue. To work most effectively on the street, I need to find a state of mind where there is a balance between having some idea of what I’m after while also being open to interpreting what I actually encounter.
I hadn’t ever worked on a project with members of my family. So this aspect of the project was probably the most difficult. The hardest part was finding the objective distance to know if an image was good or completely terrible. It’s often really hard to tell the difference between the two when you are so close to the subject of the pictures. I think this phenomenon is probably similar to the experience many artists go through from time to time . . . . They work intensely on a body of work, get so wrapped up in it that they lose the ability to see their work clearly and eventually need to step back for a period of time in order to regain focus. You have probably experienced this as well. Is that why you chose to step away from your “Genesee Ave” pictures and are revisiting them now after 4 years?
With my Genesee Ave project I never really felt the editing was done. I’ve been looking at the pile of photographs for the last four years and I think over time my perspective on them has evolved. This could probably go on forever but now feels like the time for some closure. Funny thing though is that during this latest editing I realized that these photographs are deeply connected to the photos I made in New York the first couple years I arrived. One set was about leaving, one was about arriving. So through editing I learned much more about the project. It just takes time.
How did you find the editing process with Disquiet? Having a book in mind must have impacted the way you look at and perceive the photographs.
You are completely correct – the editing process was ultimately about looking for images that would work together to best tell the story and convey the mood I was looking to describe. The process was entirely different than anything I had done before. It wasn’t about creating a book to house photographs, rather, it was about using my photographs to create a book and a story.
What’s interesting is that there are many images in the book that I wouldn’t consider hanging on the wall – much of their utility was derived from their descriptive ability and the way they could connect parts of the book to one another. This realization opened up a lot of new possibilities for what my images could be and how they could function.
At the beginning of the editing process, I started out with a lot of images, maybe 250-300 pictures. From there I began playing with sequencing. Once I had a rough sequence, I started to put the images into the book design I had settled on. Some pictures only worked as spreads, some only worked as small images and some simply did not work at all. I realized that I needed to go back and reconsider images that I had too easily rejected because once they were incorporated into the layout, they often had a totally different presence. Honestly, some images that I wouldn’t have thought twice about just worked in the context of the book.
Did you design the book yourself or did you work with someone? Were there any books that you looked at for ideas or that influenced you?
I did design the book myself but I was lucky enough to have input from both an amazing photo book editor and a photo book designer. They each had invaluable insight about ways to refine the physical aspects of the book as well as the sequencing.
Two books that have greatly impacted the way I think about photo books are “A Storybook Life” by Philip Lorca Dicorcia and “Winterreise” by Luc Delahaye. I love the way “A Storybook Life” combines seemingly random images into a cohesive whole. “Winterreise” is the smallest (in length and width) book I own. I love the way to small size creates an intimate experience similar to reading a novel.
You’ve made a rather big leap with your photography the next few years. Now that you have your MFA and this project completed, what are you planning on doing next? I know you’ve mentioned to me that you’re planning on developing a curatorial platform to showcase projects.
I’m excited to get to work on some new ideas that I’ve had on the back burner for a while. One idea I’ve begun researching is the life of a hermit who lived in the woods in New Hampshire – near a town I’ve been going to all my life. I think there may be an interesting way to combine artifacts, historical documents and landscapes in an effort to examine what propelled this individual to decide to live outside of society.
And as we have spoken about previously, I’m hoping to develop a platform for presenting complex, challenging bodies of image-based work in an online environment. I’ll leave it at that for now . . .
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