John Francis Peters is a photographer and editor based in New York. John’s diverse body of work ranges from the portraiture of influential personalities to essays on emerging culture and environments in transition. His personal and assigned projects focus on both domestic and international subjects.
How did you come across Brian Critton and what made you want to pursue this project?
I met Brian while working in Newburgh, NY. I had been researching a project on the city, trying to meet people living there who had stories to tell which may give context to the towns history. Newburgh is near to where I’m from in the Hudson Valley so has always been a place intriguing yet familiar to me. The town has a dynamic history, representing to me these forgotten parts of America with incredible back stories which have fallen into environmental disrepair and distinct social neglect. I found the high crime and poverty rate so apparent in Newburgh was mainly due to lack of opportunities for the towns residents especially the youth, extremely poor urban planning, discrimination and a shocking economic division.
So thru networking I had been talking with a bartender one day and he mentioned this kid Sergio who raps and writes poetry. I went over to Sergio’s apartment where I saw Brian with his guitar. We met and just got along real well, he told me his story about growing up in Newburgh, getting tied up in some crime and then going on to serve in Iraq. Afterwords he played me some of his music and it seriously sent chills. I immediately knew I wanted to spend time working with him on the project.
What were his thoughts about the project? Did you pitch it as a collaboration? Did he have any thoughts about photography or did he basically just let you do your thing?
Brian seemed really into the project idea about telling his story in context of Newburgh’s environment. I initially framed the project as more of a traditional documentary essay but I think a different kind of collaboration evolved over the course of spending time with him, sharing stories about our lives and learning how we use our respective mediums as a voice. He seemed to respect photography and spent time looking over my work to gain an understanding of how I’m practicing photo. I to spent time absorbing his music to better understand his artistic intentions and we would share new songs or images as fellow artists first. So as we began to trust in and understand our respective creative languages and support new ideas, I felt this project became more of a learning experience by two artists in collaboration.
Would you say that this experience and project differed from your way of working in the past? How do you think the collaborative nature of the projected impacted the way you photographed?
Yeah I do feel like this project pushed me to think and shoot differently, even more so than I expected. Going into any project I usually look for solutions which feel right for the subject matter and my sense of it at the time. A lot of things were happening at once, I was interacting with this complicated environment and learning about Brian but also trying new ways to visualize subjects which is part of a broader conversation I’m having with my work and how its audience receives the message. I wanted to take aspects of what I had most recently shot at Hospital Albert Schweitzer in Haiti and build off some of that experience… looking at each subject analytically and reflecting on it with an open mind, learning from the success and mistakes.
The collaborative aspect did develop organically and once honed in on seemed to bridge the perceived boundary between experiencer and experienced. I’ve slowly learnt that for myself this is a highly critical component to pay attention to and work with. I didnt want this work to be an object I would go to a from, it just didn’t feel like a traditionally approached narrative was happening. I wanted to make photographs and edit to a select few which I made thru a more reflective interpretation of my experience.
“the perceived boundary between experiencer and experienced.” That’s an interesting statement and something I feel that documentary photographers are confronting these days. They probably always have but it seems to me that more and photographers are coming to the understanding that they are apart of the story and not just an objective observer. It’s a tricky line to walk though. Is this something you’re thinking about, and do you feel that you’ll continue to pursue this line of thinking on future projects?
Its definitely been a gradual, natural process for me, rethinking this whole approach to subjects. How we develop our relationships to people and environments which we are drawn to or connect to comes first from being open to the many creative possibilities in just letting go. This is not just in regards to using the mediums devices or technology as a bridge or derivative gimmick, but in how aware we are to the present fact, that wherever you put yourself or find yourself, your part of the object in creation. It can be very hard to escape the structures or dogmas influencing our process but I personally will continue to explore and exercise this sense of awareness moving forward in my work.
Which photographers are you looking at these days? Are there others you think are exercising that “sense of awareness” in their work?
Lately I’ve found engagement and some noticeable similarities in regards to my current approach to visual communication mainly thru conversations with friends, some of whom are photographers, others whom are not visual artists and are exploring their minds and rethinking experience. I notice the similar pursuance of a bridge between in the internal and external worlds. This may stem from the infinite amount of confusion in our world and daily lives which can saturate and distort perception especially when we are faced with survival.
I may be projecting but it seems to me many are becoming more solidified into societal structures strategically based around speed and accumulation of information and matter while others are facing inward first to navigate the outer world and breaking away from these structures. Its exciting to meet with others interested in developing forms of awareness not related to technology.
How did you discover the ADP Workshp? Ross (Mantle) and I have been talking about the project over the last couple months, and one of the big themes that we return to is this idea of the photographers connecting with the community they’re documenting after the work has been completed so they can participate in the finished project. We’ve also talked about how bringing together a group of people in a physical space is an important way to help a project evolve. How did working with ADP help evolve your project?
Ross actually told me about the project to start and then invited me to participate after reviewing my portfolio. It sounded like a great opportunity to connect the Newburgh project idea since I had only begun to think about it before ADP. Participating with a driven group of photographers and artists is what I really needed at the moment, and still do. It was actually my first experience in a long term workshop. Meeting for a week in New Orleans to reflect and talk about the projects was absolutely great. It felt really comfortable just being yourself, asking questions freely and challenge each other without egos and snobbery.
That in itself, the organic, conversational aspect of ADP really helped me evolve not only this project but my photographic process in general. Coversationas might start about whats being looked at but often would dig deeper or pursue complexities surrounding the artist and work. Its the support network you connect with thats really its strength. You get that consistent critical feedback and insight into whats failing and whats working.
What advice would you offer a photographer when it comes to collaborating with their subjects on a project?
I think its really important to first get at the core of what draws you to a particular subject. If you grasp that foundation then you will find the energy to push beyond a mechanical approach. Also being open to building a project which first is a learning experience, without to much of a preconceived goal or derived theme in mind. You will find meaning thru total awareness and unguided experience.
Learn about the subject, the people or environment, with a fresh mind. I think we commonly go into projects with a lot of accumulated knowledge and navigate it using a map. But when you learn about a subject firsthand, moment to moment and share your own experience, another dialogue may begin. Some projects are more important than the images we make, the initial idea and end product. They have deeper meaning for us and the subjects we collaborate with. It may take further experience throughout our lives to understand that meaning and thats the true beauty in the collaboration.