Shane Rocheleau in Conversation with Stephen Frailey
Stephen Frailey: Before I read your statement that accompanies You Are the Masters of the Fish and Birds and All the Animals, I was struck by the mood that suffuses the work, of dread and fear. Some of the photos feel almost post-apocalyptic, but long past. It’s a brilliant job of editing.
Shane Rocheleau: I think it’s important to acknowledge that the dread and fear you recognize in these photographs begin with my own dread and fear. All I’ve ever known is the privilege with which I was born as a white man. Moreover, I don’t like the toxic masculinity that seems to be driving both national politics and our customary, ubiquitous violence. I want my work to tie those two things together because they’re inextricable. The same feelings of loss of power that “Trump men” are feeling, I’m feeling, too, even if I don’t want to, even if I know better. That scares me. And the violence that emerges from those who feel power slipping away is the same violence that was given to me as birthright. It’s a struggle to be good and decent sometimes.
Your read that some of the photographs seem out of a long past apocalypse is really interesting to me. As you know, the history of this country, like all histories, has been predominantly written by hegemonic power. If I’m going to be honest with myself, I have to acknowledge that something apocalyptic happened on this land long before I was born, even if it isn’t really acknowledged in our history. Our country is born out of contradiction. I’m thinking about these basic (if under-acknowledged) conflicts and contradictions when I’m out in the world trying to describe my dread and fear.
On a decidedly lighter note, I think about music when I edit. I want my edits to rise and fall – to describe abstract narratives on a gut level. With this work, I thought about the band Dirty Three and how they build (especially in I Offered it up to the Stars and the Night Sky), let you down just a little, then build again and more…then repeat. I wanted the work to build similarly, and let you down that little bit every so often, until the moment the song explodes into silence.
Frailey: Boy, this is deeply compelling and complex and you’ve really quite said a number of important things involving toxic American masculinity and violence and the toggle of privilege and loss of power (and summarized my personal sense of profound disappointment in this country, probably incurable, in the decisions made recently in this election). But what seems like such an accomplishment in the work is the subtlety with which you are depicting an emotional predicament with such nuance. And that reminds me of instrumental music which can have such an emotional effect without language.
Rocheleau: Those are kinds words. Thank you. I’m happy you’re responding so strongly to the subtleties. For a viewer, there’s a fine line between nuance and entropy, and I’m not always sure I’m walking on the right side of that line.
When I’m looking at contemporary photographic portraiture, it occurs to me that it must be en vogue to ask portrait subjects to sort of empty out like automatons. When I’m photographing people, that’s the last thing I’m asking for or hoping to show. I have an intimate relationship with many of those in this work, and their emotions are important to me. I think some of that emotional subtlety you observe arises out of an uncertain conversation between emotional people and the pictures I present in sequence with those emotional people.
As for those non-portraits: I try to make what I might call liminal pictures – that is to say, pictures that occupy the space between prior knowledge and future knowledge. Is the storm moving in or moving out? Are those three holes big enough for me to fall into? To where do they lead? I try to make pictures that function as metaphor for my experience. For me, uncertainty is a very emotional experience, my most immediate and palpable emotional predicament.
Of course, I’m choosing whom and what I photograph for a reason. There’s the stake in the ground, staggered, ostensibly bleeding. I can trace this gesture back through our history and discover how staking out property lines has both grown our national wealth – and power – and tyrannized. And Gordon, with his black eye and bruised arms; he’s a white man but demands I question my idea of what privilege looks like. Joanna, on her bed, back turned and closed off; like many women, she has endured this masculine gaze for much of her life. It’s important to me that I join her there and learn from her.
Ultimately, if I have a deep and honest exchange with whom or what is in front of my camera, I can only hope that viewers will have the same with my pictures.
Frailey: Indeed, a contemporary notion of portraiture seems to be to portray the individual as distracted—yours are wounded, or at least susceptible. Perhaps this is a more ‘classic’ understanding of the portrait—to reveal something internal. To circle back, I’m aware now of how much the work is about history, personal and cultural, and the extent that it compromises or corrupts any sense of future.
Rocheleau: Before I committed myself to art and teaching, my plan was to become a psychologist. I’ve always been keenly interested in the intersection of personal and cultural narratives (histories).
The opening picture in this sequence is my father, a Vietnam Veteran; the second is my hand, the place I go to exorcise anxiety (ineffectively). I carry my father’s anxiety with me. There are several other nods to personal history embedded in this work. But the boundary separating the personal from the cultural is insoluble, if not a fantasy. In my ex-father-in-law, Gordon, there’s the symbol of familial obligations and my failure at tight-roping that white-picket-fence lined narrative expectation, but there’s also the aforementioned complication of white male privilege. The photograph of The Last Supper references my Catholic upbringing; I turned away from religion as a teen, and it felt like heresy. I retrieved the burned print from a fire-destroyed home. Religion is personally constructive for some, but it’s hard to ignore the ways religion, especially Christianity, is used to justify bigotry, sexism, and power in this country.
Additionally, there are references to land grabbing and subsequent environmental devastation, capitalism (the Federal Reserve Building in Richmond, VA) and poverty, and the loneliness of an increasingly isolating culture, amongst other things.
This is all a long way of saying this: I focus on and am overwhelmed by the ways that this culture fails so many, both individually and collectively, and when overwhelmed by difficulty, my sense of the future is inevitably corrupted and uncertain. I am navigating my psychological inheritance, attempting to understand culture through self, and vice versa. This is why this dire looking work is dedicated to my daughter.
Frailey: That is a very lovely and poignant: your daughter represents a strong sense of hope—perhaps a good place to end. Anything else that you would like folks to know?
Rocheleau: As I’m sure you can tell, I’d be happy to keep talking to you. But I agree, the hope my daughter represents is a good place to leave it.
Shane Rocheleau has had his work featured in Lens Culture, Ain’t-Bad, Lenscratch, and A New Nothing. He has received degrees from Maryland Instuitute College of Art and Virginia Commonwealth University and is on the faculty of VCU.