Shanna Merola in Conversation with Stephen Frailey
Stephen Frailey: I was initially struck by the rawness of the work. It has a hurried and makeshift feeling to it—especially in this day of seamless Photoshop collaging—that lends the photographs a urgency and a visceral quality, all very deliberate. Is this correct?
Shanna Merola: Yes, that’s right. I feel like this work benefits from the “anchoring effect” – a cognitive bias that describes the common human tendency to rely too heavily on the first piece of information offered when making decisions. Over the past ten to fifteen years we’ve become so accustomed to seamless Photoshop composites in art and advertising that our initial read of a collage is that it’s been digitally created in post-production. The sharp corners and visible cuts in the paper I work with are way to slow down that read. Disrupting the photographic surface also calls into question the photograph as evidence or document of reality.
The anxiety or urgency that manifests in form and content is a reflection of my research on economic collapse. Everything is commodified under capitalism – especially the human body. I’m interested in how this creates an antagonistic relationship between labor, bodies and the earth. There is a chaotic violence to the scenes which reference disaster, the extraction of resources, and bodies for exchange in the global market.
Frailey: I guess another way of stating it is that the images are shattered, reflecting both the fragmentation and the brokenness of economic coherence. I’m also reminded, in your work, of archeology and the unearthing of a one-significant civilization.
Merola: Especially in my recent series, We All Live Downwind, where the aftermath of catastrophic events is evident. In my research, I often look for politically charged landscapes that have become inhospitable because of some conflictual history. Traveling to document EPA designated Superfund sites, I’ve experienced the uncanny feeling of standing on the edge of a lost world. In Love Canal, NY, an iconic site of corporate environmental disaster, whole neighborhoods were razed and families relocated from land that was previously used as a toxic waste dump. Decades later, you can drive to the containment zone and walk through blocks of empty neighborhoods, driveways and broken streetlights.
Time seems to work differently in these environments where past, present and what’s to come are conflated. I think this aspect of non-linear time may contribute to the layers of unearthing you reference. The story of a place, whatever that story is–from colonization to industrial legacy–unfold through the use of multiple photographs and signifies. In a constructed image, where time is incongruous, we can simultaneously visualize a factory malfunctioning ten years ago, and the health implications of this fallout today.
Frailey: I think we’re getting a bit ahead of ourselves: would you please express, in broadest terms, the motivations behind the work, and some of its background?
Merola: Sure, let’s back up a step… my work lies at the intersection of art and the law. I began working for the National Lawyers Guild a few years ago, documenting civil and human rights abuses. The Guild supports a broad range of organizations and political actions across the country, but in Michigan we’ve worked especially close with water rights advocates. Over the past few decades Southwest Michigan has become a battle ground for clean, affordable water and stricter environmental regulations that would protect its natural resources. Meanwhile, wealthier municipalities ship us their waste, and industries use the area as a dumping ground for everything from tar sands to radioactive fracking waste. Residents on the frontlines of these struggles are vocal and have an incredible wealth of knowledge. No one knows more about the health effects of fracking than a family whose had their water contaminated by nearby injection wells. Once, at a town hall meeting, I watched someone pull up their sleeves to reveal rashes on their arm. At a protest in Flint I spoke with another woman whose teeth were falling out from lead corrosives.
Inevitably, these stories will work their way into the concept for a piece. I’ll search for corroborating information on the effects of dioxin, cadmium, lead, etc… What happens over time when the human body is exposed to these elements and what happens to the land? Aerial views of fracking fields show devastated landscapes, carved into the earth like veins. I’ll make a correlation between these topographies and surgery. Sometimes I’ll bring in medical equipment or reference worker related injuries.
Frailey: Your work thus represents, to me, an important paradigm shift in the history of photography—work that is motivated by social inequity in an attempt to foster social change that is not journalistic nor documentary, and that borrows from all forms of art-making. And I am reminded, of course, of the history of collage and its political and ideological functions.
Merola: Within my practice, I have always felt a tenuous relationship to the field of photojournalism, with all of its ethical quandaries around representation, power structures and authenticity. The creation and consumption of disaster photography holds a particularly exploitative potential, with narratives of saviors, victims, and cities viewed as blank slates. Ultimately, I think there’s a lot of anxiety around photojournalism, which I use to examine the inherent challenges and possibilities of bearing witness through photography. As an image maker with a conceptual art background, this push and pull against documentary and journalism also becomes a barometer for the kind of photographs I want to contribute to the world. In attempting to disrupt the normalization of images of violence, I am undoubtedly influenced by the ideologies of early surrealists, who railed against conformity and war under repressive political/ social regimes. The Dada impulse to liberate and subvert imagery by cutting it from its place of origin to create mash-ups has found its way back into the imagination of a new wave of contemporary artists. I am inspired by this spirit of irreverence and hope for my work to be in conversation with both past and present movements.
Frailey: The idea of irreverence, versus some of the bromides of photojournalism, is very welcome, and you articulate the ‘anxieties’ of journalism and documentary well. Where would you like your work to be seen, ideally? What is the best context for the work?
Merola: I’m still trying to figure that out. But in the meantime, universities have been a great place to get a temperature check and experiment. Having to present a workshop or lecture in front of an audience holds me accountable in a different way, where I feel compelled to answer questions like -why is this important now, and how do these things intersect? I’ve struggled to connect my art practice and legal work these past few years but it’s starting to feel more cohesive since I’ve been forced to talk and write about it! Students can be challenging too. They don’t hide when they’re unimpressed, which makes me want to work harder… others are inspired, and it ends up generating these really informative conversations. I’m not opposed to traditional gallery spaces, but am more interested in ones that center an exchange of dialogue through programming during a show’s duration. There are some people who may not go to an exhibition opening, but they’ll go to an open-studio to watch an artist work during a gallery residency. Having different points of entry can help invite a broad cross section of perspectives into the room, which complicates the conversation in a way that I enjoy.
Frailey: A last question. Does the work have a cathartic effect for you? Does it’s creation provide some kind of emotional ballast?
Merola: At times, yes. Photography has become central to how I understand and move through the world. It helps me deconstruct complex material and communicate in a way that I’ve never been able to with words. Working in my studio it can be a vehicle to unpack nuanced issues, or a tool to investigate fears and anxieties. In the field, it presents an opportunity for me to work alongside frontline communities in their efforts to expose and dismantle power structures. So, on one hand the work provides a personal outlet, but having a skill to offer in service of something greater also allows me to contribute in a way that feels both relevant and meaningful.
Shanna Merola is a visual artist and documentary photographer. Over the past five years she has been a human rights observer for social justice movements across the country – from the struggle for water rights in Detroit and Flint, Michigan – to the frontlines of uprisings in Ferguson, MO and Standing Rock, ND. Her collages and constructed landscapes are informed by these events – from direct actions against fracking companies, to the privatization of water both globally and locally.
Merola has been a lecturer and visiting artist at the Rhode Island School of Design, the University of Michigan Institute for the Humanities, Cranbrook Academy of Art, the University of Richmond Department of Art and Art History and the School of Visual and Performing Arts at the University of Toledo. Her work has been published by the Humble Arts Foundation, Art 21 Magazine, Wayne State University Press and Nat.Brut. She has been awarded studio residencies at The MacDowell Colony and the Santa Fe Art Institute, and fellowships through the Virginia Museum of Fine Art. Merola holds an MFA in Photography from Cranbrook Academy of Art and a BFA in Photo and Film from Virginia Commonwealth University.