Sean Hemmerle in Conversation with Stephen Frailey
Stephen Frailey: To begin, the work in Them has a pronounced relationship to the work of August Sander, both in the composition of the images and in the titles that identify the subjects by their occupation. Could you elaborate on this—your affection for Sander’s work as well as it as a useful template for this particular topic?
Sean Hemmerle: When in Kabul, I was approached by a man asking me to take his portrait. He gestured to me with raised hands as if holding a camera. I backed up, held up an actual camera, and waited for the man to pose. It was a silent collaboration. He covered his heart with his hand, looking directly into the camera and depressed the shutter, I held a finger aloft as if to beg for another frame, and took another. The man was a security guard at a bus depot. Though very few vehicles were operational, this man was attentively guarding the rusting hulks.
Sander’s compassion, persistence, and aesthetic have inspired me from the beginning. People of the Twentieth Century is a great work for a host of reasons. Personally it registers from the artist’s dexterity to stand out of the way of his subjects. Sander employed minimal aesthetics, allowing his people to independently occupy the frame, unadorned by pretense. His work still feels contemporary, conceptual, minimal, honest, and to the point. His captions provide the essential information necessary to introduce the subject.
Watching the reports from Afghanistan in 2002 one could see the propaganda machine at work. They were responsible. They were heavily armed. They meant to topple us and our way of life. Our differences were said to be black and white, but to my eyes, they were all shades of gray.
Frailey: So, identifying those depicted in the work by their profession would provide counterweight to some of the false characteristics that had been flung against them? And thus, also, the title, Them?
Hemmerle: Correct. There is only us.
Frailey: It also occurred to me that the professions that are available in a society are a revealing metric, in this case—soldier, road worker, security, translator, unemployed mason, etc. (And in the way that Sander’s rendered, arguably, a bourgeois/agricultural/merchant class). Were you conscious of a particular emphasis as you were making the portraits in Afghanistan and Iraq?
Hemmerle: The professions of those depicted are rather idiosyncratic to my approach. My work does intend to portray he citizens of Afghanistan and Iraq with dignity, but the professions I encountered were mostly random. I was vaguely aware that many of those I was photographing were barely employed, and that all had a job title readily available. Someone living in Kabul doing the same project today would have a much stronger contingency of engineers. In the time I was there, the country was broken, the roadways lined with men looking for work. Most people were struggling, doing what they could to survive and feed their families. I hope that is evident in the work.
It did occur to me that I was meeting a lot of soldiers, but they were on the street, and seemed to gravitate toward the camera. One of the men I photographed near Konduz stated that he was Mujahid. It didn’t occur to me till later that this distinction identified him an active fighter. Sander’s work benefited (and was interrupted by) his citizenship. Almost all of his portraits were commissioned, and as he amassed his archive, it came to the attention of the Fascists who eventually halted his project for a time. Being an Army veteran in Kabul and Baghdad with a camera was a different and similar experience. I was intentionally undermining the propaganda being disseminated by my government, a privileged citizen of the occupier, and a humanistic tourist in an exotic landscape. At the time, I didn’t have as much to risk as Sander.
Frailey: The phrase a privileged citizen of the occupier, and a humanistic tourist in an exotic landscape is a provocative and powerful conceit, admirable within the context of the so-called foreign policy of that time. But could you elaborate on this, and how this rhetoric translates into the images? Does this return to the desire to depict a more authentic face of the people as a political act?
Hemmerle: Thank you. It was not a very popular stance at the time I made the work.
In 2002 we were beating our war drums loudly, waving our flags aggressively, threatening to “bomb them back to the stone age,” drunk on Orientalist flavored jingoism. The “War on Terror” seemed like an impossible fight. The Bush administration was a coalition of men with big hammers who could only see nails.
Having witnessed the collapsing World Trade Centers in person and then seeing it mercilessly rebroadcast over the weeks that followed, I was acutely attuned to the power of the news media. That my pictures were suddenly a part of that moment in history, I realized that I might also help to shape the story from Afghanistan. My images were a protest against our bloody foreign policy taken from its frontier.
In a time of perpetual policy spin, speaking the truth had become a political act. What might we call it today, treason?
Frailey: The text that accompanies the images in Them is quite engrossing. It’s anecdotal, and places you at the center of the narrative, in contrast to the photographs. This must be a deliberate polarity; could you amplify this?
Hemmerle: The text comes directly from my journals and emails from the days the work was shot. I thought that the inclusion of some of my internal dialogue and historical references might be interesting to the reader. It was a complicated time, and the days were long. I was younger then. Revisiting the text was a bit schizophrenic, but I still believe in the work. I hope that the narrative and the pictures feed off of each other, inform the other without being redundant, and open a space for the viewer/reader to inhabit. Does it work?
Frailey: The text is absorbing and compelling, and creates a very strong narrative. It does rejuvenate the common portrayal of the photographer in conflict zones as a heroic figure.
Hemmerle: I tell my students that they should pursue their work to its logical conclusion. In January 2002 it made sense to go to Afghanistan. When I returned, I knew that Iraq would be next, and started reading Chris Hedges. I don’t think much about heroics. I have a great respect for those who make sacrifices, live by example, and who make things. I made many of those I loved sick with worry, but it was something I had to do. I’m sure none of them found my actions particularly heroic, but think they all still support the work.
Frailey: Could you share your thoughts about the work in relation to the passage of time? In the fifteen year interval since the work was made, has your relationship or understanding of the work changed?
Hemmerle: Fifteen years ago we were just getting started on the “War on Terror.” Post Traumatic Stress was not something many people said then. Our president at the time seemed woefully unqualified for the job. It felt like we Americans were too obsessed with our own anxieties to understand the dark shadow we cast in much of the world. Divisive rhetoric was gathering a jingo chorus of millions. On the other side of the world, we were waging two wars, sending our young people into battles with no particular end in sight.
Since 2002 we have accomplished very little in either Afghanistan or Iraq. We killed Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden, but birthed ISIS and stoked the flames of extremist ideology. At home, we have elevated a racist to our highest office, are more divided as a country, and appear to be losing our position as global leader. We have lost much to the War on Terror, are slipping backward socially, and seem itching to find yet another conflict.
I was a little saddened by the realization that this work is as topical today as it was then, but relieved to have put the stories and images together. Hopefully my granddaughter will read it one day and think of us as savages.
Sean Hemmerle is a New York-based photographer whose work ranges from international conflict zones to deserted industrial towns in the United States. His conflict images span over 10 years, beginning with the World Trade Center collapse, and continuing with sites such as Kabul, Baghdad, Gaza, Juarez, and Beirut. Closer to home, Hemmerle has created award-winning photographs that reflect the pathos and poetry of U.S. Rust Belt areas in Detroit, Pittsburgh, Toledo, Gary, and Albany. He collaborated with the Columbia Journalism Review while working on the Media Nodes project, where newsrooms across the country were photographed as production facilities. In addition to thematically driven subjects, Hemmerle is drawn to architecture as a formal and symbolic element in much of his work. This has led to numerous commercial collaborations with international architecture and design firms. Since receiving his MFA from the School of Visual Arts, Hemmerle has exhibited nationally and internationally. His work can be found in public and private collections such as the Museum of Modern Art, the International Center for Photography, Martin Margulies, and Brooks Brothers. His images have been featured in major publications, including The New York Times Magazine, Time, and Metropolis. Sean Hemmerle is represented by Galerie Julian Sander in Cologne.