All photos of Ryan Muirhead by ©: Oli Sansom
An unhinged conversation between Ryan Muirhead and Oli Sansom
Content warning: self-harm, cults, death
"There is this very subtle micro-movement, and micro-energy, in people's expressions: they have little flicks in their eyes and they have just... little cocks of their head. And those actual intricacies and magical things disappear, when the camera comes out."
Ryan Muirhead: When you're being present and trying to shoot that stuff, and even doing a good job of it - the act of bringing the camera to shoot it, using old film cameras and manual focus, it takes a second to "get" it. And I want to use the gear I use - film cameras - because I am attached to them, and it makes me "want" to make something. This is the technology that I pick up and be all, "this is what I should make my work on." But in the images that I'm finding crazy, uniquely beautiful - I feel like I need the Matrix 360 rig. I need it shooting at 4,000 feet per second and I need angles I couldn't possibly sit at. Then going through the footage and being like, "see, It was right there." That seems to be the necessary mechanical way to get the images that I'm finding so uniquely beautiful.
But then that whole process seems disgusting and soulless.
I don't want to go through a monitor and scroll bar for an hour and be like, "Oh, that one."
Then I'm just like, "Gross."
I don't like that either. When you got into answering your questions (at the cafe - see Ryans image of me below), just little eye flicks and micro's, and I'm like, "that's a portrait of someone's unique energy." Then I'm like, "Now stop. Look out the window." I'll take a picture of it. Most of it was there. I feel like the sincerity of it was there. I didn't set you in a coffee shop and be like, "This is my Oli portrait." It really was born out of the like, "I'll grab 50mm lens."
And I'm quick about it.
I'd set the focus, exposure - everything, just under the table - just feeling the clicks and all that. And get it quick, but it's still not the micro things.
(Ryan is talking about this image he took of me at a cafe. Little did I know he wasn't paying attention to the content of my conversation, but waiting to take a photo. Fucker.).
The thing that made me want to jump in, also disappeared when we went back to shooting.
Oli Sansom: Because that awareness just takes a couple of fractions of those seconds, and then the person's changed.
Ryan Muirhead: What I'm frustrated at, is - I'll shoot and make something beautiful, and then stop and just be talking to the person. And then all their little shit is what's making it like that's what I would want to shoot. And then I jump back into it and get 90% of it. But it's always left with a little bit of - the thing that made me want to jump back in, also disappeared when we went back to shooting.
Oli Sansom: Google Glass, bro.
Ryan Muirhead: Oh my gosh, Avedon, who's probably my hero of everything - his quote is, "I hate cameras." If I could make my work with my eyes, that would be best case scenario. If I could push from my eyes. I'd rather be two inches from someone's face and just sit there and grab each other's faces and look like that, and then be like, "I can print that. I can print something that feels like we're one inch away." Because of the camera, they'll never not change the dynamic.
Oli Sansom: There's no way of designing them so that they're not just pieces with ugly fucking things in the middle. It's so jarring and intimidating.
Ryan Muirhead: I mean, and this is best case scenario. I'm like, "God, someone made this 50 years ago so we could be here having this moment." There's a lot of best case scenario in appreciating that, but it's still not us talking over the table. You know what my true dream subject is? Myself, not having to make self-portraits. Another me. I mean my dream subject would be me, but I don't mean self-portraits. To photograph myself as a separate entity. To be able to pull that out into two of me, and then - not like a twin, but then shoot me as me, not running back and forth from a tripod. To sit myself down and be "I know what you're super excited about and I know what you're ashamed of," and not control it in the way of self-portraits and like, "I'll do this and it'll feel like this." But to be "No, I know." And then just shoot that.
To be honest, I think that's kind of what I'm working on. It's another Avedon quote, is, "All my photos are self-portraits." I think that cliché rings true across everybody. But to try and pull something out of someone else - that when you look at it, you go, "That's me. There it is. There's my shame. There's my celebration. There's my excitement. There's my confusion. There's my joy." Not the general emotion either. Mine: like this looks like my shame. And it's not you. I think that's the powerful bonding exercise.
Oli Sansom: Seeing your humanity in somebody else.
Ryan Muirhead: Yes. I feel like I'm just talking in Pinterest memes. But have you seen that diagram that like, "True art?" And it's crushing self-doubt and unbelievable narcissism of "I'm Oli and I'm going to take a picture, and I'm going to interview someone - and you're going to want to read it. And this is out of my brain, and it'll be my beautiful pictures and my beautiful idea - and it should be in a book or a gallery, or people should look at this." The narcissism of, "I'm not giving you food that will sustain your life, and I'm not giving you shelter so you won't freeze to death. But I had an idea, and you should pay attention to this." That's pretty aggressive.
Oli Sansom: And if you don't, then you just don't get it. You mustn't get it.
Ryan Muirhead: Right. That's like aggressive ego. But then mixed with - it's not just for celebration of you, it's working out something that you think or feel - and taking it out of the thought realm, and into a material world. And that's like having a kid.
Oli Sansom: Yeah. And hoping someone else empathises with that kid.
Ryan Muirhead: Yes. I mean it's very, very dual-natured in that. That's what I mean. That's why I would want to shoot myself. Just to go for that with yourself. It's also the control thing. I wish I could lose control with myself. I wish I could be the subject of photos I want to take. Taken from someone that knew how to care for and exploit me at the same time, as only my own brain would.
Oli Sansom: What do you think about the role of something like DMT in that process then?
Ryan Muirhead: Yeah. A powerful psychedelic cannot just fuck you up, it changes your frame of reference. I don't know how to explain that different from fucking you up. You'd have to have taken it. But to say, "No, I'm still me, but everything's going through a different level of processing." That's not a very clear answer. It's so hard to describe that stuff. But I'm also terrified. I feel like one of my weirdest personality characteristics is being very open-minded and wanting challenging experiences so aggressively, but then being terrified of them when they show up.
Oli Sansom: Like being driven in car without a seat belt, where the driver is drunk on wine.
Ryan Muirhead: Yeah. A part of me really likes that. Because it's like, "Right now, you are going to have a chance to feel something and react to something that you get almost never," and I treasure that kind of stuff. And then the other part's terrified.
Oli Sansom: A friend of mine got into base jumping. The whole thing with base jumping is it's one of the only experiences where, for starters, you're in a clique of people where injury or death is a more known quantity when the collective circle is somewhat intimate - and you're signing up for that. But it's the most adrenaline-generating experience you can get - if you're into extreme physical sensation. Because you could argue that love is another extreme sensation.
Ryan Muirhead: I guess that would be another difference, is that I don't think my attachment is to physical sensations. There's a lot of horrible points about that, that I feel my most clarity in terrible situations. That delivering bad news - in a very weird way, is one of my favourite things to see.
Oli Sansom: You delivering it, or somebody else delivering it?
Ryan Muirhead: Me delivering it.
Oli Sansom: When do you get to do that then?
Ryan Muirhead: I've done it a couple of times. When I was young, a guy in our neighbourhood was trapped in a waterfall. They were sending in LifeFlight, like real serious. I found out - it was before cellphones and everything, and they were like, "You have to run over to his house and tell his family." I don't mean that I am glad bad things happen, ever. It's not a sick thing like that. In moments like that, you get to see people where they're not curating themselves - where it really falls apart. That energy to me is tangible, palpable - intoxicating.
I've shot births and I've shot deaths, and I've shot people telling me stuff they didn't want to tell me. And I've shot people in the middle of bad news and stuff like that, and the level of like, "There they are." The level of not managing the "this is how I hold myself. This is how I look". When that is gone, because you've just found out someone you know died. You let go of, "I'm managing how I talk and how I react to you." And to interact with that, it's like, "Oh God, you never get to see this. This is the one second out of a billion you have to live to see another one like this." And I can tell, and I want to make stuff from that space.
I feel like I have a laziness too. I look at Mary Ellen Mark's work, and I'm like, "That's what I would want." But I feel so exploitative seeking it out, that I just keep hoping I'll end up in those scenarios more naturally. My fantasy is shooting people in the '50's and '40's, when it's like camera awareness didn't exist. Where you could get into a scenario and be like, "Oh, I'm an artist," and they're not thinking like, "What's happening?"
Ryan Muirhead: I'm nostalgic for something I never even experienced. Or maybe that's all nostalgia. Did you ever read that Antoine D'Agata article. I'd be amazed if I didn't send it to you. "The Simple Desire to Exist". It's the best photography interview I've ever read. Because it's such brutal stuff, but he's so ... I really can't do it justice. He's just very transparent about it. It's the ultimate social unacceptable everything. You've just got to read it. I cried on a train in Rome reading it, because it was so...
All of our words that imply meaning have become buzzwords. Sincere, honest, raw, vulnerable, authentic. Those words are pointing to actual things of value, and they've become coded into being bullshit. But the concept hasn't of being viscerally involved with something and being a unique human being and making something.
That concept isn't gone.
But describe it. Raw, real, authentic, interactive, meaningful, personal. Every word I just said - gross. Gross. But in this interview, it's like that has actually survived. You read it and it's not like a puff piece for meaning and significance. It's like, "I am in the middle of this, and I am a person who has been through things and is making things - and it is a reflection of those things and it doesn't suck. It cut through our current culture of meaning, down to actual meaning again. It was very powerful.
Oli Sansom: When was the interview done?
Ryan Muirhead: 2007 or something. He's French. Blind in one eye, half blind in the other eye - and like dying of a heroin addiction, and photographing it. And not in a like, "I've got an Instagram account" way. In a "He's in Magnum, it's in galleries," and he hates that he has to even put the work out, basically.
Oli Sansom: That reminds me of David Bailey a bit though.
Ryan Muirhead: I know a guy that assisted him.
Oli Sansom: David Bailey or Antoine?
Ryan Muirhead: No, this guy, this French guy. He had a conversation with him of like, "If I die, you'd better take my camera out of my hands and photograph it."
Oli Sansom: Amazing.
Ryan Muirhead: "If I die in front of you, you'd better shoot it." It's easy to romanticise that when it's not you. It's horrifyingly beautiful, and not in a, "Here's something shocking in black and white." He did it. He captured the essence of dying of this thing, into images. In a feeling way, not in an amazing image story way. I wouldn't put his images in my top 20 favourite photographers, but also my number one, because I'm like, "Oh my God, he doesn't need me though." It's not about me liking this. It's that this is his version of this thing happening.
Oli Sansom: This is a real reality, not a ...
Ryan Muirhead: That's what I mean. I mean we're back to the Instagram discussion. It's like living authentic.
Oli Sansom: Which is one thing I love about that. The people that are living authentic and putting out or producing work that fits that description, it's nice knowing that - for a lot of them, we're not going to probably see it for about another 20 years. Because they haven't subscribed to that medium.
Ryan Muirhead: I mean that just instantly makes me hate my own work. Give up. Why do you need your workshops? Why do you need your Instagram following? If that - look, you just described something of value to you, what is it? Are you too afraid to do it?
Oli Sansom: It makes me think - one of the most satisfying and powerful things to do, might be like a Zayn Malik - and just disappear, even for a little while.
Ryan Muirhead: Who's that?
Oli Sansom: He was the first descendant from One Direction to start his solo career. But just breaking out of this thing everyone's so used to - Instagram, Facebook, whatever - and just disappearing.
Ryan Muirhead: But you want to eat. To disappear completely doesn't exist.
Oli Sansom: But how is my ability to eat going to be affected by not being involved in photography, versus drawing an income something else?
Ryan Muirhead: Right. Because you'll survive. You can get a job on a farm.
Oli Sansom: At the end of the day, if I'm shooting photography or portrait photography to make a living - I'm not producing art any more than I would be at say... a café - if I was having conversations like this, but making coffee. There's no value to me doing commercial photography, because it's not photography to me. It's hammering nails, it's anything else. It's not photography.
Ryan Muirhead: To me, that's a weird realisation mix too: that I had a real shame about not being able to figure out how to make money with my work. "Are you hoping to get noticed? Are you hoping some celebrity loves you and wants you to be their only guy?"
Oli Sansom: Because you say that, and it's like crack.
Ryan Muirhead: Then you'll shoot them for a magazine. And you'll do it your way in black and white film. And you'll refuse to shoot digital. And it'll be so much more meaningful. That then all of sudden everyone will be like, "Oh my God, you're the best photographer in the world. You're our new go-to guy." And now I'm doing my thing, but I'm rich and famous and celebrated. I think that was the pipe dream of it, of like, "That's where this is going." Now I'm not even sure that I ever want to be paid to take an image ever.
Because surrendering ... Look at what artist bullshit we're getting into. "I don't even ever want to be paid, because then I'd be surrendering my soul to it and my artistic control." But really, I have a very innate mechanical desire to not do what I'm told. It’s like, "This is going to cost you $100 to do this shoot." Like fuck, I don't want to do it. I'm going to see it. If I love it, I'm going to make it. Then when it's like, "Do the exact same shoot, and I love your work and I'll give you $100 to do it," I'd sit there and I don't see anything. Because I can't drop that from the mechanic of, "At the end this has to be $100 good."
Oli Sansom: Transactional, yeah.
Ryan Muirhead: Then I start saying, "Well, what is $100 good? What is it to me, and what is it to them?" I'm not even doing much, now I'm gone from the whole thing I like about photos. I haven't personally overcome that yet. I'm fine with people buying prints, because it's like, "Wow, that's amazing. You like that, I made it for real personal reasons." That doesn't really freak me out. But the like, "I'll give you something before," makes me want to quit.
Oli Sansom: Yeah. Expectation at the front end rather than back end.
Ryan Muirhead: Expectation is 100% it. I mean you can just be a psychologist real quick about it and be like that, "It's just fear. It's just like now there's an expectation and you're not good enough to do it." The expectation. There's a lot of people that I think are pure brilliance that shoot with expectation. Have tonnes of commercial work. Some of which is in a museum, and should be.
Oli Sansom: I feel like you would impart more of yourself commercially a long time ago. I mean if we refer back to fashion photography in the '50's and '60's - maybe I haven't got a broad enough understanding of it, but I feel like it was about... The photographer were on top of the hierarchy, then the model.
Ryan Muirhead: Yeah. Now they're way, way, way below anything. They're like below stylist right now. They're like below hair/make-up almost.
Oli Sansom: It's also attached to this binary idea of what's good and what's acceptable. That being sharpness, pixels - all the crappy technology/techno shit we all know about - with little room for ambiguity at all.
Ryan Muirhead: Yeah. And no room for serendipity. Click the button, show me on a six-foot monitor and we'll fix it. Something happened, we didn't ... expect: that's the magic of it all. That's the shooting your 50 year old film and being like, "Oh my God, we sat here in Melbourne in normal daylight with a camera and knew exactly what it looked like and got back something mystical, something betraying the bland realities of the existence of it," and that's gone. Totally fucking gone.
Ryan Muirhead: The one thing I, for now, feel like - that I am terrifically into, is intimacy outside of the situations you would normally see it. That even goes back to delivering the bad news. You get to see a mother cry if you were the kid and something bad happens in the family. But to knock on someone's door in a normal day, say one thing - and then see them in that moment, is such a non-normal intimacy dynamic. I love that. I got to work with this model from Belgium who's just crazy. She's like a real nudist and does just all this nude modelling. But real cool, dynamic - real cool person and great at posing and great at modelling and all that stuff. I got to shoot with her, and we met and did a shoot. It was real beautiful, but also kind of normal.
Anyway, super long story short. Had a beautiful shoot, made stuff I love. But then like got together a second day, and she had just gotten some very uncharacteristic bad news. We were at dinner, and she started crying and couldn't keep it together. We had a lot of pretty personal conversations about what we were both interested in, and as that was happening she was like, "This is what you want to shoot, isn't it?" I was like, "Yeah, absolutely."
We went back to where we were shooting and we laid on the bed like face to face, three inches apart for an hour or an hour and a half. She cried and told me some stuff, and I probably took like seven or eight frames in the next hour and a half. One of them - for however much people like it, is one of my favourite portraits I've ever made. It was like - I'm so into that dynamic of laying naked on a bed with someone two inches away, and you're not going to kiss or fuck or something. To just stay in a space of crazy intimacy, have the place to make something - and it's totally removed from the like, "This is the dynamic of where this is going." That's what I know I'm into.
Oli Sansom: You can't craft that.
Ryan Muirhead: No.
Oli Sansom: You've just got to somehow put yourself on the tracks.
Ryan Muirhead: That's what I mean. I keep hoping I end up in more of these.
Oli Sansom: How do you put yourself on more of those tracks without that whole exercise becoming exploitative?
Ryan Muirhead: Yeah, I don't know. It's been this weird waiting game of hoping stuff like that happens. Hoping's weird. Because so often it's like trauma that really brings that to the surface. There's moments of just like pure bliss or pure, unexpected amazingness - that's also so fun to be in. But nothing brings it like trauma. Nothing, except for bad news.
Oli Sansom: But then you're also going to have that trust capital built already, for you to be able to capture that.
Ryan Muirhead: Yeah.
Oli Sansom: It's a huge exercise. You argue that then, that it has to start from the right place anyway. Because you're going to focus on building friendship first, without hoping something bad's going to happen. Probably the closest thing I've got to that was shooting Dwight's funeral.
Ryan Muirhead: Oh, were you there?
Oli Sansom: Yeah.
Ryan Muirhead: Oh, was it here?
Oli Sansom: Yeah.
Ryan Muirhead: I've shot three funerals now. I know talking to you and people that know me know it comes off well. But to say like, "I love it. Love it." I love seeing people without all their mechanisms of how they're supposed to act.
Oli Sansom: How do you find that they like seeing it afterwards?
Ryan Muirhead: That's been a real prevalent issue with my sister, because I shot the pregnancy and birth and death of her daughter - and did it in that sort of fashion. When I make a slideshow or send her stuff, it brings that back. This realness of the experience, mixed with how horrible it was to go through - and it's almost like doing a good job of capturing that, makes it worse.
Oli Sansom: For who?
Ryan Muirhead: The person and seeing that again. The better you did at connecting with that and bringing out the sincerity of it and capturing it - even in an evocative, meaningful way - makes it worse to look at. Hopefully worse in a way filled with meaning in the sorrow of humanity and things that happen to us.
Oli Sansom: But then they - maybe not worse, if they've reconciled that in a way where they can feel that emotion within a different context, with a more positive context? I think of Louis C.K. He's got a little... You familiar with his stuff, Louis C.K.?
Ryan Muirhead: Oh, yeah, he's a genius. (edit: this conversation happened well before CK was outed for objectively terrible behaviour, but we're leaving the pleasantries in this interview because you reader, are a well-adjusted human being).
Oli Sansom: I love that guy. I can't remember the talk show he was on, but he talks about how he got crushing depression when he was driving down the freeway.
Ryan Muirhead: Pulled over
Oli Sansom: And just let it...
Ryan Muirhead: To the Bruce Springsteen song.
Oli Sansom: You've got to feel this. How often do we shield ourself from feeling that? If they view those images again and they can feel it and get upset about it, but it would be in a different way - because they're not that close to that moment as they were last time.
Ryan Muirhead: Yeah, I don't think it's there yet.
Oli Sansom: For your sister?
Ryan Muirhead: Yeah.
Oli Sansom: Yeah, but generally. As a general...
Ryan Muirhead: There's like, medium - some guilt with that.
Oli Sansom: For you?
Ryan Muirhead: Yeah.
Oli Sansom: For not being present?
Ryan Muirhead: That my favourite work causes a reaction of despair in one of the people I care most about.
Oli Sansom: And the beautiful thing is, you don't know how that's going to change over the next 30 years though.
Ryan Muirhead: Yeah.
Oli Sansom: And how she'll respond to it later. So that work gets to change in way without any interaction with the camera or...
Ryan Muirhead: Yeah.
Oli Sansom: Or any building of that body of work. It just changes by itself.
Ryan Muirhead: Conversations like this are so interesting, and that I love having. But I have a kind of anger and frustration with them too. Because I love digging into thinking about it and talking about it, and that moment at the end when you move on to like, "Who knows, what a life, what a time to be alive, what a pursuit to try and be an artist who makes..." Where you just wrap it up and be like, "There's no answers and now we need dinner."
I get real angry at the end of it. Real - just internally like, "Fuck this." Why do I have to keep thinking and talking about this? I should have this conversation at the depths of everything that's ever happened to me and all that's ever gone on - and at the end I should get some answer or resolution. At the end of plumbing into it again, and then moving on to eating dinner and coffee again and answering an email. I get this like, "Fuck this, I shouldn't have to think about this if there's no resolution."
Oli Sansom: Is that what dr-- I don't want to use the word fucking drive. How shit is that word? "Is that what drives you to make?"
Ryan Muirhead: I know. Now we hate our words.
Oli Sansom: For me, I'm interested in the masochism of being disappointed as much as possible. It's like when you make coffee. I really think apart from the functional hit of caffeine you get, part of the joy of making coffee is all about opening that bag of beans. How it smells.
Ryan Muirhead: Yeah, and it never tastes as good as it smells.
Oli Sansom: It doesn't. Because what you're smelling is what's been released and gone already: it's left the beans. It's gases that fill the air. You're constantly smelling something you can never have.
Ryan Muirhead: Oh, I love that.
Oli Sansom: It's beautiful because the whole coffee making game is then just the chase. The coffee's secondary. My friend Sarah had a great saying around coffee. She said, "There's only two things I need out of my coffee - instant and coffee." I fucking love that.
Ryan Muirhead: That's fantastic.
Oli Sansom: It's the same for me. It's a similar thing with photography. It's not that I just care about the process. But for me, the addiction is being disappointed and working out how to maybe fix it next time, and then going on that tangent.
Ryan Muirhead: But if you did fix it, would that be the ultimate disappointment?
Oli Sansom: I think I have fixed it in the past. That's when you get a nice shot and you get your hit and you're like, "Okay, next." Disappointment is fuel to discover the next thing, and so on and so-forth, but it's the positive, productive attitude to that disappointment that makes all the difference.
Ryan Muirhead: I think mine has been propelled by the idea that... I can go to the weird, dark place of meaninglessness, of "Why do this?", but when I'm sitting with someone at the coffee shop like you did, and they finally hold their hand in the weird way that you did, I would never be like, "I want to do a weird portrait, hold your hand like this," and then they do it - and I'm like, "Oh my God, that's beautiful." And I can't kill the mechanic of, "I want to take a picture of that."
Oli Sansom: The good thing is that the more you're visible with your friends in that scenario and they know that that's what you're addicted to, then not only can you stay present because what they're saying - but they can stay present knowing that you are staying present, and you're still with them while you're shooting.
Ryan Muirhead: Oh, and I mean that was the addiction of a couple of the models I got close with, like Rachel especially. After 10 or 12 shoots or whatever and getting images back, we got the trust of, "Oh, I really can stop worrying about what this looks like, and your art plus mine… Like this did turn out beautiful.” It led to more and more, like less managing the situation. I can do what I do. I can get us closer, as far as I want to. Having seen results of like, "Oh, it's not just a conversation piece. We really are going for these weird little moments in between." It turned out so beautiful to both of us.
Oli Sansom: Yeah. It's funny that building trust is more about just having conversation.
Ryan Muirhead: There's nothing I hate so much as the first conversations of telling people how I like to work, because it sounds like a lie to me. I hear myself saying it, and I know I kind of mean it - and it sounds like a sales pitch. I'm like, "God, I... I want to be on shoot five." I don't want to do this and then be excited and then be reassuring, and then make a Polaroid and show you - and then being pumped about how it's going. I want to like already be there.
Oli Sansom: You go, "Okay, I'm going to have five shoots of shit and disappointment, and then I'm going to love it for the shitness."
Ryan Muirhead: Yeah.
Oli Sansom: "I'm going to love making fake stuff for five days before we get it."
Ryan Muirhead: I think, like you said too - I was in love with scary, personal territory too. I was in love with having to earn, prove my value. "You treat me like shit, but I'm going to work even harder and I'm going to make something fucking incredible - and people are going to celebrate it and see how uniquely beautiful it is, and that's going to earn my being treated better." Liking that dynamic. Because I'm lazy and I don't like pushing myself. But that pushes me. Then the satisfaction of, "Oh, you found a way to work hard and motivate yourself." It's just through being treated bad.
Oli Sansom: It sounds like some variation of Stockholm Syndrome.
Ryan Muirhead: Oh, yeah.
Oli Sansom: Self-inflicted.
Ryan Muirhead: Yeah. I want to get kidnapped so that I can change my perspective. Yeah, self-inflicted Stockholm Syndrome.
Ryan Muirhead: Yeah.
Oli Sansom: Do you ever see yourself moving away from dehumanising the shots that you're making?
Ryan Muirhead: Maybe, I hope so.
Oli Sansom: Why is that?
Ryan Muirhead: Do you think there can be a harder artistic progression to make? I think being awful and learning how to make something good is hard, but not nearly as hard at being good at making something and learning how to make something else good. A lot of mechanics, a lot of personality searching. What do I care about? I don't think it is nearly as hard as knowing how to make something good and figuring out how to make something else good. It's not the same thing. You get mechanics and trust, and then to be like, "Well, why don't you make images in a different way?" It's like, "Am I even capable of that?"
Oli Sansom: But that's you. Because you've reached the intersection where the way you make the images is who you are - all that stuff.
Ryan Muirhead: I feel like you have better insights than I do, with me being interviewed. I think it is the masochism. It's like I figured out how to make something that's beautiful - that I love, that other people like - and it's really hurting me in the process. I like that it's really hurting me in the process. It's like getting tattooed. It's like these images are hurting, and I'm bleeding making them. That's comforting in a way, because you didn't just jerk yourself off on Instagram. At the end of it you're scared and hurt and confused and sad about the whole experience. It hurt. The seriousness factor of that. The reassurance of - you didn't just dance through a field of flowers and get something, like it damaged you. Then you think, "I'm going to do that again." It just ups your mental stakes a little bit.
Oli Sansom: When I've spoken to self-harmers, the same thing, "I need to feel something right now. I need to feel alive, because everything else is making me feel dead."
Ryan Muirhead: Yeah. I wouldn't want to say that that's what I'd be doing. I was terrified of needles forever, well into adulthood. I was like, "Oh, I could never get a tattoo," something that hurt really bad, PLUS needles.
Oli Sansom: That's the worst thing ever.
Ryan Muirhead: Right. Then when I got it - you got onto something with the masochism thing, and it being art. Because in the tattoo thing, the revelation was like, "Pain is always inflicted on you." Pain is a sensation where you never choose when pain's happening. It hits you. Getting a tattoo, you're like, "I'm going to feel pain, and I'm going to feel it right now - and when it's over, it's going to be beautiful." That's so tied to photographing for me. "I'm going to feel pain. I'm going to feel it right now - and at the end of this, it's going to be beautiful." The control over that of like, for however many years I got hurt by a cult.
Oli Sansom: You got hurt by a cult?
Ryan Muirhead: A cult. Or a person, or a parent, or a religion. You weren't like, "I'm going to feel religious guilt now." It's like, "Here it comes," it just hits you. To be like, "No, I'm going to feel pain, and I'm going to choose when - and at the end, it's not going to be horrible - it's going to be beautiful." I mean I get that self-harm thing. Because it's like, "I choose this." I'd say I photograph in a pretty self-harming way. I've never really, really thought of it like that. That was you getting into masochism.
Ryan Muirhead: Have you seen the National documentary? "Mistaken for Strangers." It is insanity in a way you are not expecting. The plot of the movie is - this guy's got one younger brother that's like eleven years younger than him, and basically on the autism spectrum. His older brother's a rock star, and he invites him to come on tour with them as a roadie. But the brother just wants to like film everything that's happening, and is like a terrible, terrible roadie. It leads to fights, and he gets fired. Then at the end, they assemble all this footage - and it ends up being the story of like, "What does it feel like to be stupid and watch your older brother be a rock star?" It's not a band documentary. It gets into this like, "Oh, my God, this is.." The emotional territory of it gets like ...
Oli Sansom: Did the kid put it out, or did the band?
Ryan Muirhead: The kid filmed all the footage, but didn't even understand what to do with it. Then they brought in people and helped make a movie out of it. It's incredible. You should watch it.
Oli Sansom: That's taking a punt. But again, you can't script that if you're a band and wanting to craft something different.
Ryan Muirhead: Yeah.
Ryan Muirhead: No. Just watch that, and "Apocalypse Now," and then "Shame."
Oli Sansom: Shame?
Ryan Muirhead: Oh, dude. Tell me you've seen Shame.
Oli Sansom: No, I haven't.
Ryan Muirhead: It's Micheal Michael Fassbender's sex addiction.
Oli Sansom: It's a biopic?
Ryan Muirhead: No. It's just a drama. You say, "Oh, it's a movie about sex addiction," and you're thinking, "Ooh, there'll be something provocative or interesting or erotic or sad." And it just, it doesn't go for any punch you think it's going for, and it is visceral. It's so, it fills me with jealousy.
Oli Sansom: Jealousy?
Ryan Muirhead: Yeah, because you can see it. It's not a really good acting performance. Like someone's being hurt, him. It's just that level of intensity where you're like, "You're not being a super, super good actor, like you've gone somewhere." Like "Apocalypse Now," have you ever seen "Hearts of Darkness"?. People are like having nervous breakdowns and heart attacks on set from the level of intensity of what they're doing, and they're putting it into the movie. People are getting emotionally damaged. They're - on purpose, funnelling it back into the intensity of the story. You're like, "This can't be a good idea. But then the level of what they make is just like - feels like that, because it was like that. Just that level of like emotional transference. The content is that crazy, because the thing happening was that crazy. It turns a creative work into quasi documentary work.
Ryan Muirhead: There's some fantastically dark sincerity, and that's what "Shame" feels like. It's like a dramatic performance, but you're like, "You're not just being a super good actor. You're going somewhere in your psyche that's like tearing a little bit." Like Christian Bale. Gees, he's like down to like...
Oli Sansom: I love Christian Bale. He's down to what (weight)?
Ryan Muirhead: Eighty five pounds, like in real life. On the verge of dying. For a movie about a guy that doesn't sleep for ten years, and just turns into a skeleton - and really turned into a skeleton. You know how you were talking earlier like the interest in people that are into that darkness, and you can discuss it? I'm like really into it, and don't have the courage to go there - and it makes me like mad at myself.
Oli Sansom: You don't have the courage to talk about it, or physically go there?
Ryan Muirhead: Physically go there. If someone was cutting, I'd want to document that. But my ability to not be like, "This is exploitative," is so strong that I feel like I couldn't just let go and let them be them and tell it how I see it. But I have this mechanism to step in or get them help, or be like, "We don't have to shoot." To disconnect enough to go there in something hard. I have the artistic desire to do that and a humanity that is too afraid of it, not being the human thing to do.
Oli Sansom: Maybe that's what separates a Pulitzer winning photojournalist from a wedding photographer?
Ryan Muirhead: That's kind of how I see it. I can really mentally go there, and when I see something someone's made like that, I'm like, "That's an amazing version of a thing I say I care about." It's like, "Okay, go there," and I'm like, "Oh I..." There's a lot of frustration with that.
Oli Sansom: When's the closest you have gone in?
Ryan Muirhead: The situations where it's felt the clearest is like shooting my niece's funeral. Because it was like, "You cannot make this better. You cannot perform a comforting action. Your ability to interact with this and ease the pain of it is zero. Your job is to make really good photos." I really felt like, "There is nothing you can do." That gave me the freedom to be like, "You're not hurting standing here, shooting this happening. There's nothing to do to help, and people want you to make these."
The emotional intensity of that, with the freedom of, "You can't help anyway," was really a dynamic. I was understanding how to make good work. All my words, I'm like being careful. Because I was like, "My favourite way to shoot," or, "I loved it," or, "I'm so happy to be able to work like that." I'm like, "Oh my God, that's not what I mean." You don't want the death of someone you care about to propel you into the way you want to work. But just recognising now's the time when you can make something in that emotional of circumstances, free from the pressure of, "You should be helping." Because you can't. So make the work.
Oli Sansom: Yeah. That's no less than fucking a war zone.
Ryan Muirhead: I don't think I could do it in a war zone. Because I'd want to like put a camera down and pick someone up. But it's like the release of responsibility, of helping.
Oli Sansom: It still requires jumping out of the comfort zone, and getting in a small place where a lot of people feel that is street photography. Just the act of breaking someone's personal space.
Ryan Muirhead: "Comfort zone's" a real weird term though. Standing at a wedding and being like, "Oh, it's beautiful, take a thing." I'm like, "Why? Why are we doing this? Why does marriage exist? Why are we supposed to be here? Why are we shooting this on mountains? Odds are you'll be divorced. Why do I even care? Why is this worth getting money to have to?" That's out of my comfort zone. The, "Everything's fucked, everything is tragic. There's beautiful things happening around you, capture it." I would argue that's more in my comfort zone. It makes way more sense to my mental condition than normal human stuff.
That's what I mean, my comfort zone. When I shot with that Belgian model, Marissa, we had a beautiful shoot, in a beautiful house, with beautiful light. It was good. But I had this like, "Why the fuck are we doing this? Why in anybody doing anything like this? It feels like masturbatory at best, and semi societally exploitative at worst." But when she was crying and just laying there, and I had permission to be there and interact with it - that was in my comfort zone.
It was like, "I know exactly where I want to lay, and I know exactly how I want to talk about this - and I know exactly what I want to make." That was comforting, because I didn't have existential doubt about it anymore, I knew exactly what I wanted to do, and that was comfort. That's born out of crisis, and it makes me feel weird about being a person.
Oli Sansom: You obviously know that people have more grounds to feel weird about being a person if they're photographing a millionaire's wedding. That's grounds to feel pretty fucking weird.
Ryan Muirhead: Want to know another big hesitation of mine?
Oli Sansom: What's that?
Ryan Muirhead: I know what happened to me - and what I ended up caring about, and how I want to work. I have zero faith that is the right answer for another human being. When people are like, "Tell me something." I have a little bit of like, "I can tell you what I care about. I have no faith that that's the right thing to care about. And I have no faith that if you did everything I told you, it would make one percent positive difference in your life, none."
Oli Sansom: Yeah, totally. That's the funny thing about workshops. People go in writing a list of things from different people, and going, "I'm going to action that, that, that, that."
Ryan Muirhead: You want to know another thing? It's been happening recently, and I don't mean this in a way to put anyone down. Because everyone's kind and sincere. But at the end of my presentation, I just want to spend this personal time with someone. I just want to see them at their most intimate and vulnerable. I just want to let something out, and let them let something out - and hopefully take a picture of it that feels and means like something. The most common thing people write me after that, is, "Can I come sit and watch you do that?"
I don't mean this in an arrogant way at all, but like, "Of course not." You can go do that. I'm not trying to be arrogant, I know it's out of fear, and I know it's like there must be something I don't understand - and they're better than me, and I have an idol. I would say the same thing. I'd say to Emmanuel Lubezki, "Like please, God, just let me watch you work." But the whole point is like, "Can I sit in a tremendously intimate interpersonal moment and watch how those happen?" Of course you can't. "Can I watch?" Like, "Of course you can't." The whole reason it exists is because everyone in it is bleeding together.
Oli Sansom: That touches on something that's hugely interesting to me. I talked to Tami Stronach about it in the context of working on a performance piece where she's writing and directing a thing, and acting in it too - around a team, versus creating in isolation. I've got a friend writing pop in LA at the moment, and their big thing is collaboration: the idea that you only make good stuff when you're collaborating - and that's one way of doing it. But I'm such a control freak. I'm interested in tunnel vision. I'm interested in what happens when I'm sitting in the cave, and letting my mind go down there, without being interfered by anything at all. I think that's when you get the good stuff.
Ryan Muirhead: Yeah.
Oli Sansom: That's what I respect about control freaks in cinema. Like again, Hitchcock. That tunnel vision, we're talking ourselves out of that tunnel vision, and that's what you get to enjoy when you're making.
Ryan Muirhead: Yes. Everything else disappears, and the last thing on earth you'd want is to turn and look at the person taking notes. I want to be like, "Yeah, you can come. Come naked, and write a couple page essays about everything you hate about yourself, and we'll take breaks to have you read that." And they don't mean it like that. And I know that, and I'm not saying that. But it's a very vampiric request. "Can I come observe confusing emotional vulnerability, and watch and see what that looks like?" Of course you can't.
I've got to be honest, that's my biggest reservation about being a photographer. That as hard as I try, I'm vampiric. I stand behind the camera. "Let's have an emotional thing - and then you delve into that, and I'll pull back and do this." I have reservations about that. Why? You should have to go there too.
Oli Sansom: That you should have to go there too?
Ryan Muirhead: Me. That you share an emotional moment, and then they disappear into it - and you pull back a metre or something and frame it. I have this like, "Oh, they went further." I should have to be there with them.
Oli Sansom: And then feeling that if you want to get there yourself, you're not going to get there when there's somewhere three feet away, watching.
Ryan Muirhead: Yeah, because I'm already that problem. I'm already the person pulling back and watching - and you want to be a couple layers more removed. Hell, no.
Oli Sansom: How many people are really in the room when you're shooting?
Ryan Muirhead: You, the subject, and Jesus - without a doubt. I mean that's the minimum, at least three. You can put that in the interview.
Oli Sansom: Well, it worked for the Sistine Chapel, didn't it?
Ryan Muirhead: Jesus is always watching.
Oli Sansom: Jesus or the Pope.
Ryan Muirhead: Probably masturbating. Just please put that in. That was my biggest guilt as a child or a young adult I ever felt in my whole life.
Oli Sansom: What was that?
Ryan Muirhead: One night I was in my room, and I had learned what masturbation was or something, like got the talk. I sat there and I thought like, "I wonder if Jesus masturbated." I felt like hellfire guilt... I thought I could never be forgiven for having wondered that. It hit me like really hard. Like I felt like a wave of like horrifying shame.
Ryan Muirhead: Anywya, It was like seven years in before I was like, "Oh my God, you're never going to figure it out, and people still like your photos."
Oli Sansom: The imposter syndrome.
Ryan Muirhead: Yeah. Isn't it funny that everything you think you're getting deep, insightful, and interesting about, turns out to be a hilarious artistic cliché? Those always make me laugh. When I think about how much I hate Pinterest and Tumblr, and I'm so mad about them - and then try to get real deep about it. In the very end, just end up saying something you'd read on Pinterest.
Oli Sansom: Yeah.
Ryan Muirhead: Do you get end of roll panic? When I know the shoot's almost over, and I have two more pictures, I'm like, "You'd better come up with a really fucking good thing to end on." So we had a day where we were just talking about my frustration of shooting, and her frustration of modelling, and she shot me. She did my makeup because she's super into black metal. She had a whole series when she was super sick and depressed, where every night she'd do black metal makeup and shoot herself. She did it on me. She has no photographic knowledge, so she just did point and shoot film camera. But then just told me what to do. Both just switched roles. Some of them, I really love. I'll show them to you, if I have them.
I think I do.
Yeah, I do.
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