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JACK LATHAM talks to the BarTur Photo Award

Jack Latham is a photographer based in Bristol. He is the author of several photobooks, A Pink Flamingo (2015), Sugar Paper Theories (2016) and Parliament of Owls (2019). His work has featured in a number of solo shows which include Reykjavik Museum of Photography and Colonnade House. Latham’s projects have also gone on to win multiple awards including the BarTur Photobook Award (2015), Image Vevey - Heidi. News Prize (2019), and the BJP International Photography Award (2019).

His latest project, Parliament of Owls, focuses on Bohemian Grove, a private gentlemen’s club in Northern California and the dangers of not providing context to the public.

What led you to want to study Photography and then become and photographer?

It's 10 years ago that I decided I wanted to become a photographer. My relationship with photography started when I was taking photos in nightclubs when I was 17. It was just a job and I hadn’t realised that photography could be a viable career at that point. It wasn't until a few years later that I revisited photography and realized there was this whole medium of art which I've never interacted with before.

And was there anything that prompted you on the 23rd February 2009 to make that declaration or had you been thinking about it for a long time?

I had bought a camera in Heathrow's duty free before catching a flight. I was taking photos of a trip I was on and the person I was travelling with mentioned I had an eye for it and should continue taking photographs when I get home. I hadn’t realised it could have been a career up until that point. The thought of exploring the world and bearing witness was something that sounded really appealing. Two weeks later I sat down over dinner and announced... "I think I'm going to be a photographer.".

What makes you decide to start a new project?

It's funny. I've spoken about it before but I tend to not know whether a project's a good project until I'm halfway through making it. I try to find a source of a story and I'll try to make work in response to that. And then I get back to my studio and when I look at the pictures and I start sequencing them I can start to pick out themes and concepts that maybe I wasn't very aware of when I was making the photos. It's like having a dialogue with your subconscious. It’s a long process. The book that I made for the Bar-Tur Photobook Award was a process over two years, it focuses on a crime case in Iceland and it was really a period of going back and forth making the work, and then reflecting on how it all fits together. You’re able to see what is missing if you have the framework of a project. So, ultimately it's a long process but also ever-evolving self-referential kind of dialogue.

And so in terms of you go to a place and you take photos and then you look at the sequence of photos. So, when you're taking photos what are you looking to capture. Is it just in the moment? Or are you planning anything?

I’m not a 'decisive moment' photographer really. With my first project I was retracing the Oregon Trail so I had somewhat of a map to follow and with Sugar Paper Theories, I was retracing a crime case. So, I do tend to work with a structure. Another example is my most recent body of work ‘Parliament of Owls’ which focuses on a gentlemen's club in Northern California and so I've had a geographical location to go to initially. It’s then allowing yourself to get lost in the subject and trying to respond to or even reinterpret what it is that you see.

Can you tell us more about Parliament of Owls?

Yes. I've spent all of 2018 making this project. It's my first major body of work since Sugar Paper Theories. And it's an investigation into Bohemian Grove which is a secretive men's club where a lot of republican Presidents go and network with the top 1% of the American elite. Initially there were rumours that they worship a statue of an owl in the centre of the encampment. It sounds crazy but there is actually a statue of an Owl and they do watch this pageant where an effigy of their ‘worldy cares’ is burnt in front of it. Though it’s merely just a boys club with strange traditions, nothing horrific. The project starts there and then it traces the rise of the conspiracy theorist Alex Jones and how he, and then later Trump established power by using an anti-establishment rhetoric. The book will be coming out later this year.

Do you have an ultimate goal for the work that you make? Are they just documenting a story or do you hope that they will do something draw attention to a subject or cause?

No. I don’t try to produce work to change opinions. I do think it is important sometimes that we just take a moment to reflect on things. So, the murder case in Iceland where these six people confessed to a murder they didn't commit is arguably one of the largest miscarriages of justice that's happened in Europe but no one outside of Iceland really talks about. I suppose some of my work attempts to revisit moments of history and then investigate why things happened the way they did. It's the same with this new work. I don't think that it's going to change opinions, especially of Jones, Trump or the Alt Right and it's certainly not going to answer any questions but I think it’s important or at the very least somewhat interesting to spend time trying to make sense of things.

This notion of 'baring witness is really interesting...

I think what I try to do is to reinterpret things happening in the everyday. In a way that can be applied to photography as a whole. With Sugar Paper Theories, the six people wrongly convicted were suffering from Memory Distrust Syndrome, which is a Psychological condition in which your mind’s account of a situation becomes unreliable. There is something in that I feel is applicable to photography being an unreliable medium to depict history. I worked with the Prof Gísli Guðjónsson who originally coined the term Memory Distrust Syndrome. With my new work, I'm looking at the Global Power Elite and where they meet. But the project really is about how conspiracy theorists create narratives by removing things from context, another thing that photography has in common. Largely, like conspiracy theorists I think my work is more about connecting one thing to another. Going back to your first question, the thing which I didn't anticipate when I sat at that table 10 years ago was just how eclectic my experiences have been since. I’m very fortunate to have lived a life that is so varied, it can challenging but I wouldn’t change it.

You take on quite serious and emotive topics for your projects, do you ever find it hard not to bring your own belief system into your work?

It's quite difficult for my own belief systems not to bleed into the work I make, true impartiality isn’t something that I aim for as I don’t think it’s achievable. I try my hardest to listen to as many sides of a debate as possible. I’m very pleased part of my work allows me to talk to people so far out of my circle of comfort in this regard. I learn arguably more from those who I’m politically opposed from than I do those I’m not. Currently, however I find it quite disheartening seeing how divided everything is becoming. I think our problem at the moment is that nobody seems to have conversations with people who think differently to them, we’ve all created echo chambers and I believe social media has created a currency that doesn’t reward nuanced thought. It’s easy to be dismissive to others opinions and label them as villians, the harder thing is to try to see it from their perspective.

We've started on a track that we could talk about for hours. So, going back to the interview questions... What impact did winning the Bar-Tur Photobook Award have on you?

When I won the Bar-Tur Photobook Award, I was at a point where my project needed guidance, I had amassed a huge collection of information but I had no way of curating it in a way that made sense. I was lucky enough to get partnered with Harry Hardie and Ben Weaver from Here Press. They were able to take this body of work that I hadn't really been showing many people and just completely cut out all of the fat. Ultimately the book went on to do well as a result of it. I’m so proud of the work that we did and very grateful to them for the patience it took trying to unpick my research. The book went on to be shortlisted for The Paris Photo-Aperture Book Prize and the Kraszna Krausz Photobook Award. Publishing a book isn't easy. Whilst I was making it I was so stressed I couldn't really enjoy the moment as I was worried I’d let them down. But looking back you go 'God. That was such an incredible time.' My feet really didn't hit the ground from the day that I won in December to the following September when it was published. I don't think there was a day where I wasn't working on the project.

Do you have any contact with any of the other judges from the Bar-Tur Photobook Award?

Not really, when it all happened I was very much focused on producing the book that I didn’t follow up any links with the judges. I’m very grateful that the they were able to see something in the draft I submitted but when it came time to celebrate the award I just grabbed Ben and Harry and we went to straight to their studio and worked on the book. Sugar Paper Theories was then exhibited in Iceland in 2017 and in October it will be shown in the Royal Photographic Society's new exhibition space, and it's largely due to the success of the book.

Have you got any favourite photographers or artists or influences that you look towards?

These questions are so difficult because there's so many and they all leave my head at the same time. So, I'm going to say which musicians I’m currently listening to instead. So, at the moment I'm re-listening to Mickey Newbury, and Tom Waits back catalog. I'd say I get more inspired by music than I do photography and that's not because I don't find photography inspiring. It's just I don't have as much time to digest it as I'd like. Whereas I can listen to music while I'm editing, cooking, reading etc.

Do you have any top tips for people who are starting out? If you could go back 10 years and advise yourself with some pearls of wisdom what would they be?

Quit smoking. I quit four years ago. I can now carry my camera for longer and I save money. Learn how to do everything yourself. Try to avoid interning for free. Have a hobby outside of photography. I've been climbing twice a week for just over a year. I really like climbing because like photography it’s another form of problem solving.

What was your first camera and what do you have now?

Hold on hold on. I've got it right here. Give me a second. So, when my father met my mother he bought her an Olympus XA2. That's what I'm holding in my hands. He paid extra to get it in dark red and he bought it so that they could document their lives together. Growing up they used to let me take photographs on it occasionally. Last year they gave the camera to my partner and I. So, my most recent camera and my first camera is the same. It’s the one that means the most to me at the very least. We’ve named it Merlot.

Great! thanks so much for your time Jack!

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