Idol Magazine, October 2015
Talk us through how you normally achieve an image, from conception to completion.
It always starts with a lot of frustration. Then I panic because I haven’t been creative lately and I’m wasting my life. I’ll play video games for several hours or maybe take a walk. Then I’ll see something kind of interesting and return to it with my gear, and that usually involves one or two ruined articles of clothing. I’ll edit for up to 3 days to make sure I don’t miss any problems. Then I’ll be really happy with my new work for a few days. Rinse and repeat.
Your photography often includes dramatic sets that seem like they would be hard to come by spontaneously. Would you say that your work is always thoroughly planned, or do you ever shoot candidly?
I get lucky and find a cool place sometimes, but my real secret is the ability to find a small scene and make it look much larger than it really is. One of my recent photos [is] of a girl in yellow on a yellow slide. It looks pretty odd, but it’s really just a typical playground nearby my house. I just did something to it that made it look more surreal. When I go somewhere new, I get overwhelmed and start taking photos like a tourist. I let the environment become the subject which is not what I want. When I first came to New Zealand, I didn’t really shoot anything for 3 months because of that. Once you’re comfortable with the area and you understand what goes on there it gets a lot easier. Some of my best work was shot within 100 feet of my parent’s apartment.
Identity – or lack thereof – seems to play a big role in your photography. Can you explain a bit more about that?
Some people are really good at getting a certain emotion of people when photographing them. I’ve found that I can create the same effect without showing someone’s face. The image itself is the emotion. I have nothing against showing my face, I’ve done it before. I just don’t want it to take away from the important bit. I’ve got a pretty distracting face, you know.
Much of your work features linear patterns, from the road markings to the clean line of the horizon. Is this a conscious decision or are you naturally drawn to these kinds of shapes?
Not sure how I got started with it. I always liked lines, but I don’t actively seek them out.
‘Suits’ is a relatively simple name for a rather complex body of work. What sort of idea are you trying to communicate with it?
I needed the name to be really generic and simple because each image ends up meaning something different, and I still make a lot of images that could fit right into that series. I can’t categorize a series into one message. It’s impossible when you shoot as sporadically as I do. I guess they each mean something different, but that’s a conclusion for the viewer to make. I wouldn’t want to hear the artistic meaning of Mona Lisa from Da Vinci.
One of your series is titled ‘When Words Fail’, and yet ironically you studied journalism. Does this reflect your relationship with photography?
I never thought about that. You made a really good point. I guess you could say I failed at journalism so now this is what I do. But a good photograph always speaks for itself anyway.
Do you have a favourite photograph or series that you’ve ever taken?
Yes, the one I’m about to make.
Bolshoi, October 2015
Alexsander: Before asking you questions, I decided to read everything I can find on the web about you. Actually, I didn’t find much. But there is one interesting phrase which is being repeated on many websites. It goes like this: «the art of Ben Zank allegorically representsthe feeling of being tired of the world». What is this, Ben? Are you really tired of the world, or are these just journalists’ assumptions?
Ben: Damn, dude. That's some dark stuff. Perhaps you were searching my name in a Russian search engine? I've never read an article that directly said that about me. I will admit that there are times when I've felt like the world could never give me enough of what I want, but that's exactly what you need to keep improving and setting new goals for yourself. Sometimes I am very emotional when I shoot. I'm not the person I am around other people. I either feel full of energy or have no energy at all and feel very depressed. This usually dictates the way an image will look. I tend to do riskier photos when I'm happy and full of energy and more bizarre and 'dark' photos when I'm not feeling so great. I've had some crazy mood swings since being in New Zealand, but I'm definitely doing a lot better.
Alexsandr: I have been seeing so much surrealistic art recently, that I feel that I am beginning to drown in all these endless depressively drowsy images. Why are you, young artists, attracted to it? Why surrealism, Ben?
Ben: With tools like Photoshop becoming more accessible to consumers, it's only natural that many young people are exploring these concepts more deeply. A lot of work is also based on trend. Surrealism is something that gets the views so a lot of people take it up. I could argue that cliche Instagram accounts with uncreative and overused compositions and concepts are much worse, but that's another conversation. To say that everyone is doing surrealism is a bit silly though, because there are an equal amount of young artists who do fashion, and landscape photography with old large format film cameras... they are just less 'news-worthy'. I only started calling my work surreal when other people started calling it surreal. If you looked back through my Facebook page, you'll see that my work was more portrait and humor-based in the earlier years. Surrealism was something that I slowly evolved into when I thought that I would be able to express myself more through it. It's also just a lot more fun to me. I find most photography to be seriously boring. And I hope you can look past the darkness of some of my images and see the humor that is in them, because I think some of my photos are fucking hilarious.
Alexsandr: How did you begin working as a photographer? As far as I know, originally you were a journalist?
Ben: I first picked up a camera when I was 18, but at that time I had no clue it was what I'd be trying to do professionally. I ended up going to college for Journalism because I thought it was an easy way to earn a degree. No offense to my professors, but it was. In fact I was able to spend most of my time in the woods taking photos while my colleagues were studying or working on better stories than me. Do I regret going to school for it? Not really. I think I learned a lot about myself and gained some useful skills that have ultimately helped me grow my photography business. I could do without the debt, though.
Alexsandr: By the way, at first you were using Pentax ME Super 35 mm camera, but now you have switched to the digital Nikon D90. Don’t you feel nostalgic of film? Don’t you think thatdigital photography kind of deprives an image of its soul? Or is it just the opposite – doesdigital photography give you broader opportunities?
Ben: I shot with the Pentax ME Super for a few months before I got the Nikon D90 for my 19th birthday. I haven't used that camera in a long time. I shoot with the Canon 5D Mk III now which was partially funded by generous contributions through an Indiegogo campaign. I do agree that film has a quality to it that just can't be achieved through digital. It speaks to you like a real memory would. Vivid, yet not exactly as it was. Digital is too exact. It doesn't have an organic personality to it like film. But I don't think my work is effected in that sense because most of my images are capturing form and composition over people and emotion. Digital also allows me to do manipulation that wouldn't be possible with film. Much cheaper, too.
Alexsandr: Could you elaborate on that story with Canon 5D Mark II and quagmire?
Ben: It was a shitty day. my camera fell into a muddy pool of water while on a tripod. I tried to save it by leaving it in rice for several days, but when I turned it on it only gave me an error 20. My awesome fans and friends grouped together to raise a whopping $1287 that helped me purchase a new camera. Thanks guys.
Alexsandr: How do you manage to shoot such unusual self-portraits? I was literally scalded by the one in which you are under ice with fingers attached to the ground. You are like a puppet trying to get out…
Ben: A lot of my photos are not as dangerous as they look. And a lot of my photos are WAY more dangerous than they look... for different reasons. In this case there was no real danger. I simply used a thick sheet of ice that I had put over some logs and then a black cloth underneath to stop the reflection of light and thus giving the effect of being underwater. The only thing I hate about that photo is that it's been emulated several times using photoshop which is the complete opposite of how I made it.
Alexsandr: Have you ever had problems with police or community activists, when taking your photographs? I am pretty sure, something funny must have happened.
Ben: More times than I can count, but usually just for trespassing. The funniest thing that ever happened to me though was way, way back when I just started taking photos. I was burning a book for a pretty cliche shot, and apparently someone had called the fire department on me. They kind of casually sprayed a bit of water on my book and just left. I think they were pissed about the false alarm. Other than that, I was almost arrested by police and was told if they caught me again they'd put me in jail. And I was put on probation for a year by my school for shooting on my roof of my library in midday. Too bad they never caught me when I broke into every single one of their buildings. Haha.
Alexsandr: A lot of photographers confess that they do not particularly like post-processing of images. So what stage of production do you like the best?
Ben: I'd like to get to a point where the only post processing I had to do was basic color correction. It's an awesome feeling when you're able to create exactly what you wanted on location without the use of any manipulation. Photoshop is still a 100% necessary tool in order to create high quality work, though. Most of my photographs look pretty boring until I put them through post-processing.
Alexsandr: In an interview you said that there is a project for which you take photographs for three hours a day. What project is that?
Ben: I think you're referring to the 365 project that I did from 2012 to 2013. And it was more like 4-5 hours a day, every day for over a year because I got really picky and didn't share photos for weeks sometimes. That project really helped me improve at a drastic rate though. I definitely wouldn't be where I am now if I had never done it. Forcing yourself to be creative everyday is like rolling dice. The more dice you roll, the more chances you have for the outcome you want.
Alexsandr: Do you exhibit your works somewhere? Where can one see your works, apart from the Internet? Do you think contemporary photographers actually need live exhibitions now? Cause one can find everything online. What kind of audience do you have?
Ben: My audience consists of other photographers, people aged 18-35 with women being the larger audience, but I'm pretty sure I've got this large underground following of older gay men, too. That's the truth. I actually just cancelled one of my upcoming shows because I wasn't feeling happy about the venue or the time it was taking place. And I didn't think I'd be in the right headspace for it either. So right now the only way you can view my work is through the internet or through actually purchasing one of my prints. I'd love to show my work a lot more, but the process of getting a show is not only time consuming, but also very expensive as I usually have to pay for the printing of all my images. A gallery is a business and they usually cannot afford to pay for the printing themselves. I used to have every single photo I ever took on flickr, right from my first ever photo with the Pentax ME Super back in March, 2010. Your best bet of finding my old work now would be Pinterest or Tumblr. Good luck!
Halcyon Magazine, January 2015
Cortland Thomas: Benjamin, you've been known to have an obsessive personality. How do you know when a photograph is complete?
You never know. That's the thing with a photograph: it's never going to be exactly what you want it to be, and you're never going to get that perfect photograph. You're always going to look back and criticize. But that's also great thing about photography – you can be a crazy perfectionist who is obsessed with everything, but, no matter what, you never get what you want. That's what will always challenge you.
Is that what's motivated you to push the limits of photography?
Absolutely. I used to run around the woods just to break shit and set stuff on fire. It had no purpose at the time, but photography gives me a reason to go in the woods and just be an idiot, which I love doing [laughs]. I'm just glad no one's called the police yet. Actually, someone did call one time... It was towards the beginning, probably when I was 19. I was in the back of my parent's building, lighting a book on fire. I was there for probably half an hour trying to get the book to burn right and sort of putting it out. As I was getting ready to leave, I see a firefighter – all geared up – casually walk towards me. I asked him, “Did someone call the police? I'm just trying to put this out.” And then he sprayed water all over the book and walked away [laughs].
You've worked with fire, smoke bombs, and ongoing traffic... what's been the craziest?
Ben: I put snails on my face once. I went out in the middle of the night to collect them, then I had my mom throw them on my face. They were crawling towards my mouth, which was really weird. I don’t know if I still have them, but...
No, not – [chuckles] I let them go. But there were a lot of outtake photos with snails trying to go in my mouth, and I'm – [imitates gagging sound] trying to cough them up. I've done some pretty crazy shit, but sometimes it doesn't always make for a good photo. I really wanted to do a follow-up photo to the one where I'm under a frozen lake. One day last winter, when it was 25 degrees, I got naked and submerged myself in the water underneath a layer of frozen ice for about 15 seconds. I was in the middle of nowhere and only had a blanket and regular winter clothing. That was probably the craziest thing I've ever done. The photo looked like crap, so I didn't use it... probably deleted it. I guess you don't always reap the rewards of your insanity.
You take a lot of self-portraits. Do you think there's a difference between a self-portrait and a selfie?
A selfie is holding your phone up to your face; a self-portrait is capturing who you are. Selfies, and today's culture, are very misleading. You could follow someone’s Instagram feed for two years, seeing photos of them smiling, looking attractive, and doing great things – but the next day, they kill themselves. You don't really know what that person is actually feeling, because they are putting on a mask. A self-portrait is the truth.
Which is interesting, because your self-portraits are really surreal and seem to be far from the truth.
But, sometimes, the things in your head are probably not always very real either. You can lie in a self-portrait, but it's hard to do if you're shooting from the heart. If you're shooting something you really feel that you need to shoot, and you're being honest with yourself, you're telling the truth.
What do you think is the biggest challenge facing young photographers?
I can't answer for myself because I don't know what my biggest challenge is yet, but for other photographers... it's definitely the internet. People are being influenced by trends on the internet, and these trends are holding a lot of photographers back. Once you fall into a trend, you're saturating your market. If everyone's doing photos of people floating with balloons, you're not going to get much work because there are 3,000 other people who do the exact same thing. Eventually, hopefully, you'll mature and break out of that and look at other places for inspiration, but a lot of photographers are moving forward with things that are never going to get them anywhere.
In previous interviews, you’ve expressed a complex relationship with social media. As business tools, social media is great, but it can also camouflage our relationships with people around us. How do you think social media has affected your work?
Based on my mood, I have a hard time communicating my emotions through a screen. Some people are good at that, and it helps them, but not everyone can type their heart out on Facebook, on Tumblr, etc.; and that is a challenge today. If you want to break in and become a photographer today, you need to use social media and your personality becomes involved in how you market yourself. People don't buy photographs because they think they're great; they buy because there's a person connecting to those photographs and the story behind it.
The stories in your work are very diverse, from minimalist nudes to biker gangs. Do you think it's important for photographers to have a theme throughout their work?
Absolutely. You could shoot whatever you want, but when it comes to marketing yourself, you have to be one thing, you can't be everything. The only way to be everything is in a certain way and it has to be so subtle that you're not taking high-definition still lifes of a penny, then the next day, you're photographing yourself jumping off of a bridge. You maybe have to be jumping off a bridge with pennies [laughs].
How does one create work that does please everyone, and not only yourself?
Always showing up. Regardless of whether you know what you want to do, or you don't, or you have an idea or you don't, you need to just always do something. That's how you get your mind in that creative flow. If I just sat around for a month and didn't do shoot for a month, and I suddenly started taking photos again, they'd be crap. I wouldn't be making those connections in my mind that make me think about what I could do. When you go out and spend 5 hours taking a photo, your original idea never ends up with what you finish. It's always something different, and I'm always taking little ideas and using them for something new, like active brainstorming.
And Ben, you studied journalism in college. Has it influenced your photography?
One thing that always got me with journalism... the journalism they taught was very objective. "Today, a car crashed, and two people died." You had to tell the story as if. For me, I always wanted to tell my side of the story. I guess that's what photography is for me... in my photography, I'm not being objective.
Emmazed, March 2014
So, what moment made you exactly want to become a photographer?
It was a mix of a lot of little moments. The first one I remembered was when I was interviewed by someone and they already considered me as a photographer, while I didn’t really label myself as one yet. So, then It dawned on me that this is what I truly wanted. I remember when I was a little kid, I’d skip school to paint these warhammers and then that evolved into a video game obsession in highschool, so there was no creative growth then, but when I finally got into college I started making YouTube videos, which I think planted the seed for photography.
What has been the biggest challenge you’ve had to face as a photographer?
I’d say its the geological location I’ve been in. Living where I am in New York City, its very industrial and compact. I would consider myself a minimalist, as you may know (laughs) and it’s a challenge to take the pictures I do in the environment that I live in. I really go for simple and clean compositions, big-open spaces. And that’s very hard to find in New York City.
Yeah, I’ve noticed that most of your images tend to be minimal, why is that?
That's a good question - I have ADHD so I get very distracted by crazy environments. I just like the idea of being able to look at an image and instantly be affected by it. Instead of being bombarded by distractions, you're just focusing on one thing and taking it all in.
What do you hope to contribute with your work?
Damn. I really haven’t figured that out yet. Maybe I will in the future. I still consider myself a ‘beginner’ in all regards. I just really want to give a fresh perspective on what photography is and what you can do with it. Even when you’re shooting the ‘real world’, there are ways to distort reality.
You images are thought provoking. How did you structure the road-line images?
A few of the road-line photos were photoshopped - the earliest ones. I can say the one of my head under the tape isn’t photoshopped. I actually spent a month of brainstorming for what material I was going to use for the road-lines. Its really just tape.
Was that on a road where cars would frequently pass by?
The first one I took was in Virginia. My friend told me about this amazing location with a great road and when I finally saw it, I was blown away. It was exactly what I wanted. Even though it was a quiet road, there were still cars passing by. I was actually directing traffic when my head was under the tape which was kind of scary, but I didn’t get ran over.
How have you grown as a photographer?
I think I’ve grown so much. When I got into it, I think it was more of a vanity thing. I was taking portraits of my face, but when I really delved deep into photography I focused on it as a form of art. I say that if you’re not changing as an artist. if your work looks the same from a year ago, then that's a problem. You don’t ever want to be comfortable with what you're doing. You want to strive to grow and try new things. That's what I’m all about, experimenting with new things and taking risks. I don’t want to just settle with the road-lines photos, I want to do something new.
What has been the most complex setup for a photograph you took?
Definitely have to say it was my ‘Decision’ photograph. What I had to do to get that photo was pretty crazy. I had broom and I basically was sweeping half of the snow for an hour. I was wearing black pants and a white shirt that helped create a nice contrast in the image. One of my recent photos, ‘Crater’, I took that in a field of snow. I was karate-chopping a bunch of ice shards and painting them black and I created this sort of installation that emulated a crater - that took about 4 hours to do.
Aha, how did the photo such as ‘Black Smoke’ come about?
That's one my most spontaneous images. It was really just a matter of getting a bunch of shots and editing them in Photoshop. You see how that photo looks pink right?
Well I just realized that it looks pink yesterday since I’m actually colourblind (laughs).
Aha, I think it would look cool regardless of it was pink or white! What was the most memorable photograph(s) you took?
(laughs) I think the road-line photographs, it just takes so long to get everything setup correctly. Especially the one in Florida. I had a lot of people driving by asking what was going on. I basically made up a lot of stories to tell them. I just kept making shit up to these people, that was really fun.
Where do you go to for inspiration?
100% Tumblr. Tumblr has been my biggest inspiration place. I find so many great artists that post their work to Tumblr. I follow around 100 artists, so when I go on my Dashboard you’ll mainly just see photography, design, and art. Just so much crazy stuff from really talented people and its very inspiring.
What was something you wish you were told when you started out in photography?
Probably not to shoot wide open all the damn time. I think when people start out, they’re really mesmerized with the background being blurred out, but it kind of destroys the integrity of an image.
Yeah, I agree. So what are you up to these days as a photographer?
I’ve been lazy lately. I haven’t even shot anything this week. I took a really great photo last week, but need to do that this week. After completing my 365 project I’ve been trying to shoot once or twice a week. Besides that, I’ve been trying to find a day job to fund my photography. I’ve been contacting potential clients in possibly shooting their album covers and I actually just met with the folks at Tumblr recently. They have an incredible office and just have food everywhere. Probably the best bagels I’ve ever had.
Where do see yourself in 2 to 5 years?
Hopefully not in New York City. And someplace that doesn’t get cold. California. I really want to travel. I think that's how I’m going grow as a photographer, because I think when you stay in the same place it just really limits what you can do.
What are a few places that come to mind?
I’d say the mid-west. Definitely some of the desert. 100% Iceland, Iceland looks amazing. Definitely Germany, I really like the architecture in Germany. Japan, I've seen some forests in Japan that are pretty cool. These are like dream locations though, I’d probably start within the US, but hopefully I’ll travel internationally.
If you could give any advice to any photographer in your field, what would it be?
Just shoot everyday. Don’t stop. Don’t get too comfortable, because if you are then you need to try something new. The only way you can grow is by putting yourself out there everyday. I don’t think I would be where I am today without the 365 project. I have to put emphasis on that, because that project changed my life. It really accelerated my learning process and gave me the discipline I need.
With your 365 project, you must have had times when you found yourself at a creative dead end. How did you deal with that?
I didn’t always overcome it, but I still shot everyday. Truthfully, out of the 365 images, probably 300 of them are terrible (laughs), but that’s the point, you’re not going out trying to make a masterpiece everyday and I think if you can get 5 great photos then thats a success. If you look at a lot of great photographers, their work stands for years and years and some may have 60 images in their portfolio. I think that to put out 20 or even 30 great images a year is fantastic.
Who are your favourite artists?
I’d have to say The Guggenheim Grotto, Death Cab for Cutie, Ben Folds and I guess I’ll squeeze in Nelly McKay. I’d have to say that when I’m listening to Nelly McKay while editing a photo, the photos always come out perfect. Alot of my work is inspired by the photographer Rodney Smith and the painter Rene Magritte. I have a fondness for Bence Bakonyi. My photograph ‘Decision’ was inspired by one of his series’.
I’d have to say mangoes. I don’t think I’ll ever get sick of mangoes.
Same here! Ever tried mangoes with shakes?
Dude. Holy shit, I have to try that now.