Meet Santiago Mostyn: mover, shaker, photograph maker

Calhoun ’04

Q What was your favorite picture book or fable growing up?

AWhen I was 3 my father sent me, for my birthday, a copy of “The Family of Children,” a book of black-and-white photographs that aimed to be a survey of childhood all over the world, through different cultures. I had no conception of adulthood at that point, so the children in this book became, over these first years that I spent constantly leafing through the photographs, something like contemporaries or even friends. I would place myself with the other children — in Beirut, or provincial Canada, or the Sudan — and managed always to fill myself with whatever straightforward emotion the image tried to dictate. Excerpts of poetry were interspersed with the images, but because I was still learning to read, the stories came straight from the images, and were complete.

QDid your work naturally assimilate into the academic world when you were at Yale?

AI tried to make some photographs about the strangeness of Yale culture, but they weren’t very successful. The pictures I made there, and the process of making them, were more of an escape from the artificial pressure of papers and deadlines and social engagements.

QHow did New Haven as a location (and a semi-permanent one at that) affect your work?

ASouthern Connecticut is a weird place to drive into and get lost in, and traveling by car at night into the endless strip malls to make dull pictures of parking lots, dozing for a few hours in the backseat and coming back into New Haven at sunrise was always a good way to balance out the unreality of campus life.

QDo you think about your photographs as portraiture?

ASome of the more successful pictures are portraits, yes, but to enclose them in a term like portraiture suggests a simplification of the subject, a flattening out of the image, whereas for me the goal in making these photographs is not just to describe gestures or physical form, but to get at a depiction of the emotional space between myself and the person in front of the camera. The process of getting behind the camera and using this picturing machine puts the operator at an automatic distance, but I usually know the people I travel and make pictures with quite well, so it ends up that the tension between photographic disengagement and deeper intimacy that comes across in the better pictures tends to parallel my own position in relation to the social world as a whole. Sharing this double resonance of empathy and alienation is for me an important reason to be making these pictures.

QHow do notions of folklore and storytelling influence your artistic process?

AFolklore is intrinsic to the process. I grew up in cultures (in Africa, in the Caribbean) that value storytelling, humor, political satire and all variations of oral history far more than the written word or printed image. There are always narratives running through the images that I’ve been making, peeking out and suggesting themselves. They are purposefully inconsistent or discreet or sometimes even absent, these narratives, the goal being to hold back from giving the reader or viewer a too-neat package to consider. All of history is loose ends and so much of contemporary mass culture is clickable and downloadable and comes inevitably to a pleasant, repetitive conclusion. The effect of this cultural acceleration, in which everything is available immediately, feels like a stretching out of present time to indefinite ends, and an occlusion of the tangible sensations of past and future — history feels less relevant, and the future more vague and uncertain — so it feels healthy to resist this by making work that is understated and deferential, and that points to threads of cultural history, American or otherwise, without tying them together.

QDo you consider your photography to be American in its subjects or themes?

AOutside of the largest cities, American culture is very much based on storytelling, on the success and failure of individual heroes, and in that way bringing my own cultural background into play when working in America has been really symbiotic. The photographs made on the Mississippi River and in the South and Southwest are arch-American. They are made from an up-from-nothing perspective of the great American dream.

This summer I found myself in the very middle of the country — Indianapolis, Indiana, the Midwest — walking at midnight down a long strip of road called the Meridian. It divides the city into exact halves, east and west, and I was walking south toward the next town. The few characters that happened onto this road as I was passing and spoke with me as I walked were each in turn in awe of a stranger moving at that time of night through the worst part of town. But without exception, and almost without prompting, they told me the story of their lives, always: “I was born in a very small town, I went through this struggle, these ups and downs, and now I find myself here on this road with you. Isn’t this a funny life?”

QWhere do you keep your camera when you travel? Do you always keep it with you and ready for shooting, or are there times dedicated to taking pictures?

AThere is usually a period of the year, three or four months, in which I’m traveling and photographing regularly. I’ll always have my camera on me, but will never take pictures with the intention of “catching” a moment or an expression or a gesture. The photographs are deliberately made, and even the most spontaneous images are never quite snapshots. To take pictures without consideration, to just “see what you can get,” belittles the medium.

For the rest of the year I will usually be writing, printing and looking over and over at the photographs I made, trying to arrange and make sense of them.

QWhat else do you usually carry with you?

AAs little as possible, as I’m often walking for long stretches of time, or hitchhiking, or going off on tangential adventures that a lot of baggage would inhibit.

QWhere do you place “photographer” in your identity queue?

AI’ve never been told what photographs to make, or paid for making them according to any criteria other than my own, so in a certain sense I don’t even consider myself a photographer. I make photographs and videos. Image culture is of central importance to my practice, but I’m by no means a professional. In fact, questioning what items make up my “identity queue,” and the order in which they may be placed, is itself a bigger part of the process of making images than the production of photographs itself.