Interview by Jon Feinstein

Published on 11/28/ 2018

About 40 years ago, photographer Amani Willett’s father acquired a deed for the land that was home to Joseph Plummer, one of the United States’ most famous hermits. Upon learning of this mysterious news, Willett set to create a fragmented photographic narrative, piecing together the story of Plummer’s existence and experience using a mix of found images, accounts from local archives and Willett’s own photographs.

The resulting project, which is also a book published by Overlapse Books in 2017, is an astutely edited, engrossing visual journey. It’s a historical telephone game that not only plays to the confusion of truth and narrative structure, but speaks to how stories, family histories, and legends build, twist and evolve over time.
© Amani Willett, from his series The Disappearance of Joseph Plummer
© Amani Willett from Street Series

This work builds on Willet’s constantly winding approach to visual storytelling. It started with straightforward street photographs and has grown into a fragmented presentation of history and mythology, continuously shifting shape from project to project.

After selecting Willett on the Daylight 2018 shortlist, we spoke about his unfolding path.
Jon Feinstein: How did you first get into photography?
Amani Willett: It might sound strange but from an early age (maybe 9 or 10) I often thought that if I ever tried making photographs I wouldn’t be able to stop. We would go on family vacations and even though I wasn’t taking pictures, I was making mental pictures in my head - like practice pictures. And so on some level I put off making pictures because I knew it would become an obsession.
JF: When did this turn into “real” photography?
AW: In 1997 when I was about the graduate from college. I had been an African-American Studies and psychology major and had just finished up my thesis. A few days after turning in my thesis I was down at the school bookstore and came across a Eli Reed’s book “Black in America.” I picked up the book, sat down on the floor and spent the next hour mesmerized.
What amazed me was how the book used pictures to talk about the same ideas I had just written about in my thesis. This discovery came at just the right moment – I was tired of writing about cultural and social issues even though I was still interested in pursuing them. I’d never considered that visual language could address the same issues as the written word and with a force and power that could be more immediate. So I came to photography first from a social/cultural perspective, not a fine arts perspective.
© Amani Willett from his series A Parallel Road

JF: Knowing this, it’s interesting for me to look at your various projects – some of which are more straightforward than others, from a bird’s eye view. They’re a mix of more immediate work, like your street photos, and several projects that play with history, how we understand it, and the blurriness of (written + visual!) storytelling. What makes it all hang together for you?
AW: Good question and it requires considerable explanation.
I see my current practice as photo-based projects that are lyrical transformations of reality. They investigate history, family, memory and place. I use a multifaceted approach that combines photographs, historical documents and text to fuse instinct with structure and create work that operates in the murky area between reality and fiction, history and myth.
What I like about this way of working is that this ambiguous space can sharpen our understanding of the world by creating a dialogue between unexpected images and ideas. For example, protest images can be juxtaposed with family pictures, modern landscapes with historical portraits, computer composites with hand-erased pictures. I’m not simply trying to document or record, but to create rich, atmospheric, impressionistic stories. All of my most recent projects begin with strong personal connections which I then find ways to connect to more universal conversations about relationships and the modern human condition.

JF: How’d you get to this point in thinking about your work?
AW: My road to this current place was a long journey. I think I can speak for many artists when I say that where I had my first experience in the arts has had a deep and lasting impact. My first exposure to the world of photography was working at Magnum Photos for four years. It’s where I learned about the photographic process and to see and think about how photography relates to the world.
© Amani Willett, from his series The Disappearance of Joseph Plummer
© Amani Willett from Street

JF: When I think of Magnum historically, I first think of straight/ linear documentary photography – a bit different from a lot of your recent work.
AW: While I went to Magnum with a strong interest in social and documentary photography, after a short time it quickly became apparent that I was less interested in the straightforward documentary and journalistic work that was coming out of the agency than the photographers who were using the camera to create their own visual language and framing the world in new and exciting ways - people like Henri Cartier Bresson who compositions and framing of the world was astounding.

It was also the first time I saw how the use of color could radically alter the mood, feeling and meaning of photographs and Alex Webb, more than any other photographer, taught me not only that color photography opens up a new and exciting aspect of the photographic language but that the act of seeing itself is something that is in flux - constantly being negotiated by the photographer’s relationship to the world.
There were a number of Magnum photographers whose primary objective was not simply documenting but rather using the world as raw source material from which to create photographs. They seemed to be making images from nothing rather than relying on having a really interesting subject or some gruesome battle. They were out of “The Street” making images.
© Amani Willett from Street
© Amani Willett from Street

JF: I think my introduction to your work was actually your street photos…
AW: Street photography was where I started… When I left Magnum I started shooting my own pictures on the street. I Had a Leica M6 and had fallen head over heels in love with Kodachrome 200. I was thrilled to be photographing anything and everything. I was photographing as Garry Winogrand said “to see what the world looked like photographed.” Successful art should propose a new way to understand the world in which we live and photography gave me a great way to make a viewer challenge their own assumptions about visual perception.
Street photography provided me the opportunity to explore different sorts of photographic possibilities but there came a point where it left me wanting more. I knew I needed to push myself further or I’d lose interest in photographing. I was looking for a way to take my intuitive way of making pictures and mold the images into more substantial projects. And that’s when I discovered the book form. Thinking about my pictures as pieces of fragmented narratives that could be explored within the confines a book was the next big moment for me and my progression as an artist.

© Amani Willett from Disquiet
© Amani Willett from Disquiet

JF: Your series Disquiet was made in 2013, a meditation on the anxieties of raising a child within a climate of social unrest. Has the past could years/ Trump presidency give new insights into that work or your practice in general?
AW: It’s made me think more about cycles and the fact that we can’t predict the future. When I was working on Disquiet I was thinking a lot about universal cyclical themes: family, life, death, social and societal unrest. But also about new challenges such as climate change. The book could reference many periods of history but at the same time was about that particular moment.
What I thought was a low from which we would emerge and grow stronger from as a country was proven wrong by the Trump presidency. The great recession was a time of grave concern for most people but what’s happening now is different. There is an intense psychological toll now that feels distinct, and generally, while the economy is technically in good shape it feels like we are way worse off as a country as a whole.
I’ve been thinking about that work a lot and wondering if it’s possible to revisit it or if it would just seem like “Disquiet 2.” I also wonder if I replaced the image of Obama in Disquiet with Trump if it would resonate with our current moment. I am currently making work that responds to the events over the past few years but I am yet unsure if, when or how I will show it.

© Amani Willett from Disquiet
© Amani Willett from The Disappearance of Joseph Plummer

JF: Over the past few years, more and more photographers are finding ways to integrate found material into their work – using ephemera, newspaper clippings, etc to help layer a narrative. At times, this has felt a bit trendy, but your work, specifically Joseph Plummer and A Parallel Road, feels sharper, more thoughtful than most.
AW: In those two projects specifically, I’m interested in creating a conversation between historical events and our present time. In order to do this well I find it’s important to literally create those relationships by putting images from different historical moments in conversation with one another. In “A Parallel Road “ (a work in progress) I’m making the argument that the widely accepted symbol of “The Road” in American culture - and especially in the history of photography with the idea of the road trip - has completely ignored the reality of the black community’s experience of the road.
It’s a history marked by violence, fear and suppression, not freedom and possibility. Using a historical book from the 1930s which was created so black people could avoid violence while on the road felt like a good starting point. Bringing in current imagery showing that the problem still exists seemed to be the best way to illustrate that the problem is ongoing and pervasive.
The impetus for this way of working started with Disquiet. That project deals a lot with the idea of inside vs. outside - my family life in contrast to the country at large. When I was trying to make that juxtaposition feel most palpable it wasn’t working the way I wanted when I was only using my images because those images still felt like a world I had created. To make the feeling of inside/outside more distinct, using news imagery felt like the right balance. I was really excited how those two sources of imagery created a conversation that added up to something more compelling.
Trendy or not, I think the move away from traditional ways of storytelling can only be good for the medium as a whole. It feels like photo has been liberated in the last decade from outdated ideas about how to formulate a body of work. The “Photo World” as opposed to the larger “Art World” has always seemed to be more rigid, traditional and resistant to change.
© Amani Willett from A Parallel Road
© Amani Willett from A Parallel Road

© Amani Willett from A Parallel Road
© Amani Willett from A Parallel Road

JF: When you’re first starting a project or when you’re in the guts of it, are you thinking of it as ultimately becoming a book?
AW: Definitely. When I was working on Disquiet I wasn’t planning for it to be a book at the outset, but once I started thinking about the project in that way, it came together in a process that felt very natural. I work very intuitively when I’m out in the world making pictures so the book form provided a great way to begin to insert a level of intention and control into my projects that wasn’t previously there. Making that book completely changed the way I work and think about photographs. Now I’m usually envisioning images in the context of a book, not the wall. There are certain images that work well in books but not on the wall and vice versa.

JF: Does that shape how you make pictures?
AW: How that affects the actual images I’m creating is a little harder to say. I make images now that I wouldn’t have otherwise because they may have narrative necessity. I also make a lot more vertical images than I used to. It’s hard to know how much of that has to do with vertical images working so well in books versus an evolution in the way I see photographically as a result of making so many images with a phone over the past 5 years.
© Amani Willett from Disquiet
© Amani Willett from The Disappearance of Joseph Plummer

JF: Both of your books got rave reviews and a solid amount of press. Has any of that changed how you think about the work or your overall practice?
AW: It’s always interesting to see how other people respond to your work. Part of what I try to achieve with my projects is to give them a lot of room and space for viewers to bring their own experiences to the table. I want the viewer to be part of the process of creating the meaning - I want them to get something out to the experience that feels personal and right for them specifically. I think it’s much more rewarding that way - it takes more time and effort on the part of the viewer but it allows for a stronger connection to be made to the pictures. Because of this, I expect people to have a variety of reactions to the work.
Speaking specifically of “The Disappearance of Joseph Plummer” I will way I was surprised by how dark some reviewers felt the project was. In my mind, the woods is a place full of mystery, wonderment and secrets but also a place for peaceful solitude. The woods depicted in the book is an area I’ve been going to almost all my life and a place where I feel very comfortable and seek solace. For me, the darkness and mystery inherent in the woods isn’t scary, it’s actually welcoming.
I can’t think of specific ways that any write-ups have changed my overall practice other than to encourage me to keep pushing along the path I’m on. I’m glad to know that at least some people are interested in the abstract/ambiguous way I like to create projects.

JF: I love closing interviews with this request: If you could describe your work and “ways of seeing” in a haiku, what would it be?
AW: Early evening A dramatic frame fading Beyond the surface
Reveal and conceal avoid easy narratives to find the meaning
© Amani Willett from The Disappearance of Joseph Plummer