Nicholas Eppel’s photographs tell stories. His style and approach is meditative, reflective, and sensitive to the nuances of human experience. History, exile, myth-making and memory are the thematic subtexts of each of his projects, and people and the mundanities of everyday life, the subjects.
Have you always known that you wanted to take photographs, or has it been a process of finding your way here?
I think the impetus – the desire to share and relate stories – is in many ways more important to me than photography. Photography became a chosen form for exploring the kinds of issues I was always interested in, but I think my affinity is more with the actual process of creating the work rather than the method. With photography its been a slow refining and re-defining of a long interest, which started with a sort of romanticized adolescent dream to be a conflict photographer and over time developed into something different.
How do your academic background, experience in fashion and advertising photography and your interest in the mechanisms of society all compound in your work?
I studied anthropology and history with the idea of better understanding the world I wanted to photograph. My hope was that a better understanding would result in better, more relevant imagery. While perhaps this was a little naïve, I do think that the foundation it laid allowed me to delve into my subjects with a more complete understanding of the processes that shape our world. From the fashion and advertising side I gained a deliberate style, often creating quite structured imagery. Commercial photography offers a solid foundation in light, composition and photographic technique – all of which have been essential. It also taught me to approach my work in a more critical way – looking for that ‘perfect’ moment, or the ‘ideal’ interpretation. Advertising, especially, is about creating connections between the subject and the viewer, giving identity and meaning to often very meaningless commodities. I try to work with this kind of approach in mind while dealing with, at least for me, more relevant subject matter – often focusing on the intersects between history, socio-economics and issues of political economy.
Has your style and aesthetic changed over time? How so?
Yes definitely, although perhaps not in the sense of a linear change over time. Stylistically my first long-term project, Harrington Street, was purely documentarian and was very much influenced by the environment, lighting and back-story of that particular project. I enjoy the mystery and mood created by darker, slightly underexposed images using either low or ‘contrasty’ available light. For me that sort of chiaroscuro-type imagery has a lot of emotional value, which I try to use to connect to the emotion of that particular image/story. Later projects however have had their own identities based very much on their particular contexts, and I have approached these differently. But, I do think this is something I will come back to again and again.
A common theme that runs through the work is the focus on the lives and experiences of ordinary people. For me, Life – grand or plain – is storied. It is as much in the ordinary and unspectacular, as in the greater tragedies and joys, that these stories are found. There is a remarkable texture contained in everyday experience and in our constant determination to survive the passing of fortunes and time – in those points at which personal stories intersect with the larger political and socio-economic forces. For me these are the histories that are important. These are the histories that should be recorded. Not only the histories of the powerful, the famous and the victorious. Despite any changes in style or aesthetic that I might have, I think that this point continues to influence all the work I do.
Is there any single image that has profoundly impacted your work, and if so, how and why?
If you’re referring to the work of other people then there are a few. Sebastiao Salgado’s series of workers and miners, specifically the iconic image of coal miners climbing the open pits, has always impacted me. In general his work is beautifully executed – from his compositions to the subject matter, the tones, to the delicate way he deals with his subjects. A few years ago I discovered the work of Alec Soth. His Sleeping by the Mississippi is shot on large format and has carefully constructed imagery – for me the quality reflects the amount of time and effort he invested in the work. Irving Penn’s Small Trades is an extraordinary series of work documenting artisans and other people involved in various trades in post-war Paris. As a historical document it records many types of jobs that have been lost forever to ‘progress’. Joakim Eskildsen’s The Roma Journey’s has some great portraits and is another example of work done over a sustained period.
For non-photographic inspiration I draw a fair amount of influence from the old Dutch masters, and Spanish artists such as Murillo.
In terms of which of my own images have impacted me, it’s probably the picture of the Liberian immigrant from the Between Shadows work. This is because it took perhaps two years to find the right subject, during which time I searched for and interviewed many different migrants. I knew I was looking for someone whose personal story reflected a wider story of African immigration and whose current context had to comment on the history of European/African interaction. All this had to be conveyed visually rather than via text. So it was quite a challenge. Once finding the subject it took many more months first to build a friendship, and later photographing him in way that respected his story and his identity. This experience helped reaffirm the need for patience and trust that this slow process of photography constantly requires.
This type of experience though has been repeated time and time again – greatly impacting the way I work. I’ve now learnt that the less I search the more I often find. For instance again with Between Shadows, I spent almost three years looking for a decedent of the Hidden Jews – those Jews who stayed in the Iberian Peninsula after their official exile in 1492. I contacted every organization, journalist, University, did my own research and even wrote an article calling for anyone with Jewish heritage to contact me. Most of this was fruitless. One day however, after years of searching, I was driving home from Portugal and I saw a very small sign on the highway pointing to a village called El Judio – literally translated as ‘the Jewish man’. I pulled off, followed the signs and came to a tiny village of four or five houses. There was no one around. Just then a municipal worker, who was there doing repairs for a few hours and saw the RSA sticker on our car, called to me in English and asked what I wanted. It turned out that his wife was South African and that he claimed ancestry to these Hidden Jews – even going so far as to have a Torah at home, learning the religion and speaking some Hebrew.
For me, the passing of time, sharing of experience, feeling of familiarity and reaching a common understanding are vital to producing my work. Yet it wasn’t always like that. In this sense Harrington Street – the whole process from start to finish – profoundly changed the manner in which I work.
As a photographer, are you a participant in the mechanisms of society, or an observer?
I think all of us participate in the mechanisms of society – but to varying degrees. For me these mechanisms refer to the complex socio-political / economic / cultural / religious forces that are present in society, and the coping systems we have built to deal with these. Being a photographer gives me an excuse to visually examine these from the perspective of the ‘outsider’. But one can never really detach oneself from the reality one is examining.
Has taking photographs influenced or changed the way in which you see and view the world?
For me photography – as the form of expression I have come to use – is secondary in its importance and impact on my life to storytelling. While being a photographer has certainly allowed me to experience things in ways that I probably might not have otherwise, it’s the stories behind the images: the search, the process, the relationships made, the humanity – the meaty stuff – which intrigues me. I have always searched for stories throughout my life, and I think this has had a great influence on my view of the world.
Different permutations on the themes of exile, identity, history, myth-making and memory permeate your work. Can you tell us more about this…
Maybe I’m being dramatic but I really feel that when one examines society closely, these are some of the key themes one finds occurring over and over again. They are universal. Human history, and perhaps more importantly for me the human condition, is steeped in the creation of identities, the act of rallying by these, the joy or pain experienced in both the victories or losses related to holding onto these identities, and the stories we make to explain these after the fact. Identity is intrinsically tied to memory and myth-making – both of which are intricately connected. Mythologies permeate our everyday world and are fundamental to our lives – our religions, social beliefs, relationships, how we relate to our histories, what we wear, the dreams we aspire to etc. When unpacking our beliefs or examining sensitive issues I find that, at least for me, it helps to sometimes deal with them within a mythological or mythical framework – placing them within a realm that is grounded in reality yet contains an essence of imagination. This detachment makes the issues more accessible and I think offers people a chance to relate to them easier, regardless of their differences in context or experience.
Your recent debut solo exhibition, A House in Harrington Street, is a very delicate and intimate portrait of the life and family of Elizabeth Barrett. How did this project come about, how did you gain her trust and get her to allow you into her world?
For much of the three years I spent working on the Harrington Street series I was unsure of what the work would become, or even why I was doing it. All that I was really certain of was that it seemed to have the potential to become a quiet yet beautiful record of urban life, set within the context of post-apartheid Cape Town, and against the backdop of the rapid gentrification of the inner city. The fact that the house burnt down, Elizabeth saved all those children, and was later given a presidential medal of bravery, I think for me just added to the notion that stories are unpredictable and have a life of their own.
In terms of how it came to be: in 2007 I was looking to start a long-term piece of work – something that I could stay with and learn from. I first met Elizabeth as I would often notice her on my daily walk to work near Harrington Street. One day she was standing outside her house, arms outstretched feeding the pigeons. I introduced myself and spent the next four months getting to know her and her household. After that I started working on the project. I think the slowness of the work, and the sort of reciprocital nature of the relationships added to gaining a level of intimacy which later became reflected in the work. This relates to both the intimacy with the people, as well as the intimacy with the house itself.
Where do you look for inspiration?
I try not to look too far. I’m very inquisitive – I read a lot, watch the world around me and I love listening to people’s stories and personal experiences. These invariably feed my over active imagination.
What themes or ideas are you currently working with, and how are you exploring these in your work?
I’m currently doing a long-term series using a FLIR thermal inspection camera as a documentary tool. The subject I’m focusing on is the First Thousand Days of Life, which comes as a response to a growing global focus on the importance of this period on child development, nutrition, healthcare, society and economics. It’s a collaboration with the University of Cape Town.
In many ways the work is simply an extension of past themes – looking for ways to tell an essentially human story without having to rely on using people’s identities to do so. In thermography the nature of the heat signature – the thermal recording of the heat emitted from an object or body – essentially removes ones ability to recognise identity. In this way it offers a chance to render catagories such as socio-economic grouping, age or race invisible. It also allows for environments to lose the associations we place on them, becoming largely unimportant. For example, much of the work is taken in Manenberg – the suburb in Cape Town best known for its gangs, drugs and crime – and some of the young children photographed have been exposed to very traumatic experiences. This however is lost to the viewer. There is no distinction between contexts of privileged and conditions of extreme exposure to contexts that erode social possibilities. Instead what is created is a sort of egalitarian platform from which to examine pregnancy, motherhood and childcare over this key period of time, exploring the particularities and developmental processes within the contexts of children themselves within various social contexts.
In terms of the process I have also chosen a very challenging form of image-making, which I think is a reoccurring theme in other work. Every project has had its own set of challenges: Harrington Street was limited to working within the confines of a small house for three years, Between Shadows required research, interviewing and working in a second/third language, Leo examined childhood, imagination and the Age of Innocence but was limited to only using unscripted, real-life moments, while Legends has its own set of very challenging circumstances.
One of the things I have struggled with in this work is the lack of control over the equipment, As the camera is designed for inspecting electrical and mechanical installations and other inanimate objects, it doesn’t function like a normal camera. It can’t shoot movement, the shutter release is erratic and delayed, the camera pauses after each shot so as to save every image (which can take up to 20 seconds each time), the output size is tiny, and the final images vary greatly in look. These limitations have probably made me miss over 90 percent of the ‘moments’ I have tried to capture. However, once I let go of any expectation I realised that this project is no different from any of my others – if I just carry on then no doubt something interesting and hopefully beautiful will come about.
What can we look forward to seeing from you soon?
At the moment I’m working on three different projects. Probably the one that will be finished soonest is an experimental series of images involving the use of high voltage currents and various remains of animal anatomy. This is for an exhibition next year. The next project, as I mentioned, is the thermal series. That will require more time.
Lastly, for the past five years I’ve been searching for the house keys to those Jewish and Muslim families who were exiled from the Iberian Peninsula in 1492 and 1609. I am interested in the power they hold in the exile narrative, as well as the symbolism placed on them by their keepers. This project is ongoing.
A Time For Legends