10 minutes with Tanya Zani

Interviews with Photographers December 3, 2013 12:09 pm

When did you first know that you wanted to be a photographer?

In junior high I had to write a report on what I wanted to be when I grew up and I chose being a photographer. It was definitely a mysterious choice given the fact that at that time the only camera I had ever owned or used was a horrid little pink plastic LeClic camera. Looking back, I think taking pictures gave me a sense of control I hadn’t encountered in any other area of life up to that point. I’ve always been very sensitive to my surroundings and experiences and I think photography provided a comfort to me by allowing me to pause visual moments that I wasn’t quite ready to let go of.

I love that – I’m sure most people don’t end up doing what they say they will as pre-teens. Who were the first photographers that inspired you? How did you discover them?

To be quite honest, I wasn’t moved by many photographers whose work I was exposed to, and visually I was always much more inspired by classical painters. That said, there were certainly many photographers I was taught to appreciate for various reasons: their skill and mastery of utilizing the full spectrum of the gray scale, composition, subject matter, etc. but none of them moved me until I was introduced to the bodies of work that came out of the FSA during The Great Depression—Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, etc. The only way I can articulate it is that when I looked at those images they were the first photographs that weren’t lying to me. I related to them on a primordial level because I recognized a shared suffering within them. It felt like I was looking in a mirror at my dark inner world and for the first time was capable of seeing a sliver of beauty contained within all of the ugly that was staring back at me. I don’t remember how I discovered them…most likely in school somewhere along the way.

That sounds very moving, to feel like you are able to witness beauty in ugliness through their work. In your pictures there is a significant relationship to space – the empty spaces that are falling apart, the space between you and your subjects.. how planned are your images? Do you come across these empty houses by chance or plan them out? Do you see the images in your mind before you photograph or do you watch and wait – or both?

None of my images were planned until I did my portrait project 3 winters ago. The extent that they were planned is that I had decided who I was going to be photographing, and that I wanted to photograph those subjects in their homes, despite never having been to most of them before. When I’d arrive I’d ask to view the contents of their closets after touring their place, then an outfit and a room would stand out and I’d spend an hour or two shooting. For myself, generally speaking, to plan a photograph is to destroy its essence or that which makes a moment truly alive and beautiful in the first place.

I come across the abandoned houses by chance while purposefully driving out to the middle of nowhere in search of them, if that makes any sense. I look for overgrown driveways and missing mailboxes and then I look to see if window dressings of some sort are visible from the outside. My rule of thumb is—if there are curtains, then chances are it’s a home I want to explore. I have no interest in gutted or vandalized homes. The more it looks like someone still lives there, the more I’m drawn to a space emotionally. It’s this emotional aspect that is the wiring that connects me to my camera in these moments. In other words, it has to stir some relatable memory within me with which I become attached, and suddenly capturing that visual mix of color, light and space becomes the most urgent and overwhelming necessity.

I don’t see images in my mind before I photograph and I don’t wait but I am always watching, I think that’s been my default setting from the beginning. The whole beauty of photography for me is that it provides a way to capture what already is, just as it is, so to tamper with that in any way defeats its purpose.

Do you go into these empty homes alone? I have always been intrigued by abandoned old homes but also find the thought of sneaking it frightening, for what I might find or getting caught.

I’m not ballsy enough to enter a home without backup. For starters I need someone else with me for safety reasons because there have been a few times when I’ve become so immersed in scanning a space through my viewfinder that I wasn’t looking where I was going and almost fell through holes in floors, staircases, etc. Having another person there also helps to quiet the fearful/dark side of my imagination. One time I was all set to explore a house close to where I live and then the day got away from me so I decided to go the next day instead. Soon after I arrived that following day, about 5 vehicles flew into the driveway out of nowhere. I walked out of the building I was shooting in and up to the closest driver to explain my reason for being there. The driver then told me that they were there because a jogger was on the property earlier that morning and had found a dead body in one of the rooms—that someone had taken their life there the day or two before given the state the body was found in. I moonwalked in slow motion out of there feeling heartbroken and sick to my stomach. Part of what fascinates me in these spaces is that I don’t know what scenes these walls were once witness to and I like putting the clues together myself—daydreaming about the warmth and sounds that once existed there when it was inhabited…and suicide is not something my mind ever conjured up as an option.

Wow, thats intense. And so creepy. Was it hard to go back into homes after that?

Not at all, but it was definitely difficult going back to that property for the first time. I mostly was pensive and stood back in the tall grass staring at the little freshly boarded up shed for quite some time. On that first trip back I ended up only shooting one frame of the back of the house right from where I was standing next to the shed. It was my quiet nod to the deceased, I wanted to capture their last visual experience before they walked into that shed and took their life.

What would your dream assignment be?

My dream assignment would be to meander through the American South documenting rural abandoned properties in visual and written form.

Have you ever thought of what else you might be doing if it weren’t photography?

No…however if photography didn’t exist I’d most likely be writing or drawing/painting to appease the restlessness I experience when witnessing visual beauty. Now and then I decide (after tiresome deliberations) to leave my camera at home when I know I’m going somewhere potentially stunning. I do this in the hopes of trying to just be in and enjoy the moment rather than constantly extracting myself from the experience by this maddening need to capture it. The last time I did this I ended up spending that entire weekend drawing a picture of a particular scene I couldn’t let go of…I swear it’s a subtle form of insanity of which I’m sure some photographers can relate.

If you could go back ten years and give yourself advice, what would it be?

If I could go back ten years and give myself advice, none of it would pertain to photography. I would tell myself to meditate more, stay present and aware, and to be grateful for what I had rather than lamenting what I didn’t have. I lived in such a tormented brain ten years ago, and probably wouldn’t have listened to a lick of that advice anyway.

(Tanya is based in New York. See more of her work, here)

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