Ben Zank messes with your head. The American photographer plays with composition and twists his images into the bizarre. But he also messes with his own head, for many of his self portraits disguise his face; sometimes they’re headless altogether. Zank becomes the ultimate puppet-master of both his subjects and their surroundings and, as a result, his surreal images leave you wondering – which is exactly what he wants. Read our interview below to uncover the inner workings of Zank’s captivating photography.
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.
You were born and bred in New York City but we rarely see the city in your work; to the contrary, many of the settings seem decidedly rural. Why do you choose to venture outside the city for your photography?
I do have a lot of the city in my work, but it’s viewed through an entirely different perspective. I’ve removed all the cars, people, and distractions. What you’re left with is the stray building, a pillar, and asphalt. And yes, I do live in New Zealand right now, but I seldom had to leave New York City to make my work look isolated and rural. I’ve complained about that very thing before, but NYC is huge and there’s always a place that’s a least a little bit empty.
You feature in a lot of your own work. Is that because you find it easier to arrive at the final image when you’re the one in front of the camera? Or is it perhaps to illustrate a personal message?
I always get excited about working with models, but I have a hard time communicating what I want to them. It’s always ‘Can you stand over there?’ and nothing more. When it comes to the way I pose people or what they are doing, it’s pretty simple. The context of it all is what makes it interesting. I use myself because why not? I’m always available and I’m free labor.
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.
View more photography by Ben Zank here.