With this interview, Ducts welcomes Peter Ahn, guest arts editor, to our Winter 2018 issue. For each of our 5 feature pieces, Peter has curated selections from his 35-mm film portfolio. See our feature essay, fiction, humor, memoir, and poetry pieces to view Peter’s artwork.
“EXPERIENCES, ENERGIES, AND EMOTIONS”:
AN INTERVIEW WITH PETER AHN
With Mary Cool, Ducts Editor-in-Chief
Mary Cool: Tell me a little bit about your process in selecting the photos for this issue.
Peter Ahn: I first read the stories and didn’t think about anything else. I submersed myself into the emotions I was feeling as I read them. I tried my best to preserve those raw feelings and eventually I went through my photo library for photos that would resonate with those emotions and the thoughts I was having. I also went back to the stories and read them again, several times, because each time I was picking up different things.
MC: Did you immediately have ideas of the photos that you wanted to use when you were reading, or did you go back through your collection and see what clicked?
PA: There were certain ones that really popped in my head. I didn’t dive into my general library because my commercial work is digital photography but there was a period of time where I used to carry around a really compact, analog camera shooting 35-mm film. The photos created using that medium are very, very different and how you approach the subject is different, so for the stories I really wanted to dive into my film archives. Going through the photos that I’ve taken through the past two years helped me remember those moments and memories a lot better, and it was an interesting experience where I had thoughts and emotions as I read the stories, which brought me back to my past self and experiences. It was a cool mixture of the two.
MC: What do you think the difference between the digital and film photography process is?
PA: I think it’s in what the photographer makes out if it. Because it doesn’t change the essence of photography but it’s the fact that there are fundamental differences between film and digital. Like being limited to 24 frames or 36 frames per roll. You have to really carefully think about the shots and every time you press the button is a lot of pressure—not being able to review that shot right away, not being able to make those adjustments. If you only have 24 shots, you better make it count. So when you go through the archives that are film photos versus digital, the digital have a lot of similar shots, whereas the film just sticks to essence of things, to one shot per moment. So it’s really capturing just the essence and nothing else. When you’re going through the archive, it’s more fun and feels like it’s better work when you’re looking at your film shots compared to your digital.
MC: How did you come to select the photo for the essay, A Triangular Dialectic? It’s an interesting photo, because it wouldn’t have been my first guess for the photo you would pick. The association is not necessarily something you would jump to automatically.
PA: When I read the story, there was just a huge shock for me because I don’t have a child myself. I understood where she [the narrator] was coming from, from a mother’s perspective, but I haven’t experienced it myself. It was a huge shock that a mother would love her daughter so much that she’s willing to do all these things for her. The photograph was a picture I took in Coney Island last winter. I had just gotten off the subway, and I could see in the dad’s face that he clearly did not like what she [the child] was doing—that it was dangerous and she might hurt herself. But the girl was having so much fun that he was standing by her side and letting her do it. I remembered that moment and it seemed to make the right connections to the essence of the story.
MC: How did you find the photo for the fiction piece, Guitar Hero?
PA: Overall, I thought it was a very interesting piece that was fun to read. For me, it was the section where he [the main character] was practicing a lot but lacked a bigger sense of purpose, like a friendship, but later he’s able to find it with his friend’s mother—that kind of resonated with the picture. The day I took the photo, I grabbed my camera after work and went on a long walk for about three or four hours, and I found myself in a waterfront area by Chelsea. I saw these two strangers on a bench—not together but still together, side by side—and I had the impulse to take a photo. The emotions of that moment resonated with the emotions I got from the story.
MC: And the photo for the humor selection, A Life of Being Bic’d?
PA: That was also a very enjoyable piece. It also wasn’t a direct association. I thought that the overall perspective and idea of the story was clever. The photo I submitted was taken at the Met. And like I said, although it’s not a direct association, I thought there was a level of similarity between both pieces. It’s one of those things where not everyone will get it immediately, but everything is there.
MC: Yes, I thought it was clever, because I think it has a sort of winking quality to it that the piece had, too. What about the photo for the memoir piece, The Way the Wind Blows?
PA: With this one, too, I was able to see from the perspective of the main character, and feel her emotions, too—the confusion, and later that turns into anger from betrayal. I think, at least for me, after the moment of anger settles down, it kind of puts you in a state similar to the one that’s in the photo, where you kind of take a moment and process things. What’s the word?
PA: Yeah, it feels like you’ve lost something. Because something that you thought was a certain way wasn’t the case, so all your thoughts and feelings that were based on it weren’t necessarily true. And now at least, you have the truth, but at the same time, you feel betrayed and you need time to process it.
MC: And finally we have the photo for the poem, Blue Angel of Unctuous Balm, which was a really stunning image. Probably the most abstract of the five?
PA: Yeah, and I guess I wanted to draw a parallel from the poems, too, and how abstract they were in structure, and how free-form they were. And without providing much context you’re able to feel the raw emotions that are captured, and I wanted to find a photo that resonated with that. I wanted to find something physical slash, in a way, the soul escaping. And pure, sensation-wise.
MC: So now that you’ve told me all of the stories, it’s interesting that three of the images were definitely “found moments” or moments that you came upon, and two were more clearly posed or an artistic statement of the photographer, let’s say. Is there anything in the pieces that made you choose a found moment versus a studio piece?
PA: I guess that’s a very interesting question. The ones that are staged are the ones where I have control of the situation, where I can tell the model to do a certain pose or expression, so I guess those are the emotions that I have known personally in my life and are reflected in my work. Whereas those found moments are, in a way, bigger than me—things that I haven’t experienced or things that are universal that I will eventually need to experience, but not quite yet. And I acknowledge those moments but I haven’t really had personal emotions or thoughts based on my experience, so I’m kind of observing those moments from a distance.
MC: And in your work—in your artistic work versus your commercial work, let’s say—do you find yourself more drawn to the found moment or to the studio work, where you’re directing a model?
PA: I guess I go through phases where the focus shifts from one to the other. There are times when it’s heavily studio work, when I have a lot of personal emotions that I want to express. And there are those moments where I just want to live life, to experience those moments that are happening elsewhere in the world. But I guess the element that ties both of them together, no matter how different they might be in approach, is that I want to be a photographer where my approach is that I still need to live a very vivid, meaningful life, to first try to experience things—to see and find those moments—and to understand and have a feel for the other people who are in the frame.
MC: A lot of the way we think about art is about the making of things—sort of a creator idea. For you, it seems to be more about experiencing things—that maybe the art is speaking to you versus you shaping the art.
PA: Yeah, I like to think of it as me collecting experiences, energies, and emotions that are out in the world, and kind of storing them in my personal bank within me. And later, I will get to use that energy to create something. So it’s really not the creation of something new, but more the transfer of energy of things that are out there.
MC: I have one last question. I was really struck, when the pieces came in, that two of them were really about what seems to be happening in the moment, where there’s a big conversation about sexual harassment, about women’s experiences. So there’s the piece about the mother who had a daughter who is in a sort of relationship where the power deferential was uneven with the high school teacher, and then one about the revolutionary who ends up being kind of a user, and in the end, maybe a user of women. So I was just wondering if you noticed that too, and if you had any thoughts about it?
PA: Yeah, that’s a very interesting point. I didn’t necessarily make the connections to what’s happening in today’s world, but at the same time, I still felt it. The reason why I was so brought into these stories at the beginning was that they were very powerful, and they were powerful because they were true, that these are things that happen in our society.
MC: That’s right. They both happened to be nonfiction pieces, in particular.
PA: Right. I hate to say this, but I think we are as a society getting better at how to handle these situations because it’s been happening for so long, that finally we are taking a stance on it. It angers me that usually the victims in these scenarios are not of equal status and power, socially and physically and things like that, and people who are more powerful are using their power to take advantage of the less powerful.
I guess what I want to say is that over time we’re starting to realize that just because you have a certain amount of wealth or power to do certain things, that doesn’t make it okay. I think there are these values that we admire so much about success and power. I think we are culturing a certain environment where to get to that level you have to be a certain kind of person where you take advantage of people, and step on them to get there. I think we’re at a point where we’re starting to realize that that’s not everything and we do need to control certain aspects about the things we admire so much—almost regulate it in a way. Those kind of people are the ones who should be more responsible to help people out who are in those situations rather than take advantage of them.
MC: Right. That the sense of accountability should be proportionate to the power that you have.
MC: Is there anything else you want to add—either about your own work or the process of picking photos for the issue?
PA: Yeah, I know I touched on this briefly during this interview, but it was really interesting to make these connections between the stories and the photographs. And like I said, some were things that I hadn’t personally experienced but I really hope I get to experience that stage in life, later. And as emotional or not as comical as my work may be, I am still genuinely excited about this thing called life and what it could offer in the future. It’s a funny feeling when I look back at all these photos I’ve taken. I’m almost overwhelmed by—I don’t know how to describe this feeling, but it feels like I’ve lost all these things. Like there are a lot of people in my photos that might be people I’m not as close to anymore or that I might not talk to. And that photo I took at Coney Island—I don’t really have the time to go out and do things like that anymore—so it’s sort of a collection of how things used to be. Of course, as great as growing up and becoming an adult is, it does have some sucky parts, so I guess I kind of reminisce in those moments and enjoy—or not enjoy, but feel the difference in life as it used to be versus how it is now. But reading those stories kind of made me realize that there are so many other parts that I have yet to experience, so it also gave me an optimistic view on that. I’m genuinely excited.