A conversation with santiago mostyn

It was in the same Brooklyn bookshop where I found Anne Hall’s Known World that I first came across the photography of Santiago Mostyn. His book Excerpt: All Most Heaven, published by TV books,  is a collection of images from the years when he was homeless and travelling around middle America, building rafts and things like that.

He sent over some images from the book and we had a conversation about forests and photography and the point of it all.

Santiago Mostyn: Jess, you like forests, and travelling, but you live in a big city. Same here, really. Why is this?

Jess Gough: I guess cities are a sort of a good starting point, the place where you want to be when you are young and where everything happens and takes off. But there is always this need to have chapters in your life where you can escape from that and explore new places with a good group of people and I think that is also something to do with growing up - wanting to go on adventures in a sort of pursuit for happiness perhaps.

What about you? Do you go travelling sometimes specifically to take photos or are they always based around documentation? I sometimes find that I pursue certain places because I have ideas of how I want to photograph it…

SM: Yes, cities as energy forests as release. The ideal of the outdoors seems to get stronger the more we grow into city creatures.

When I first traveled in America I was escaping unhappiness, so maybe that counts as the pursuit of it’s opposite. Mostly I was looking for new air to breathe. My pictures got fogged up with beauty and the finding of different pleasures, but it was a rewarding process to go through.

I don’t think of the photographs as documents of anything other than perspectives and relationships. Documentation always seems to suggest an ‘other’ - a subject that’s alien to the photographer and remains that way throughout, something of a fantasy - and even though my starting point is always as an outsider, that’s something I have to work my way through before I can make the pictures that mean something more.

JG: I know what you mean. There is no such thing as recording reality in an objective way. It’s an impossibility. Everyone is a sucker for nostalgia but even that word alone holds so much weight. It’s like what Susan Sontag said about how “photographs give people an imaginary possesion of a past that is unreal.” But at the same time, even though there is so much visible idealisation and romance in photography I wonder whether people aren’t trying to create something similar to the human memory, with everything a little hazier and nicer looking that it is in reality. In that sense I guess you could call it documentation.

So if it’s not documentation, what made you want to start taking photos? I get that not everyone knows the answer to this, fuck knows why I did, but some people often have interesting stories.

SM: I actually think of what I do as performance, because I don’t ever carry a camera around with me casually and don’t like being photographed, but then I get really interested in a place or become friends with a good group of people and the person that I decide to become is the one who makes the pictures. So I live a fiction, perform a particular life for a while and it’s almost like the subject matter is responding to that fictional icon that I’ve become. It’s the space between these two things that I’m trying to photograph.

My mother is a textile designer and collector of old pictures, so I was always looking at those when I was young. Then when I was a teenager and we lived in Trinidad she gave me a camera one year and told me to go out during Carnival to make pictures of the costumes she had designed for one of the big troupes of masqueraders. I didn’t take any classes until college though, and that’s when it became an obsession.

First I was obsessed with the process of developing pictures, the darkroom magic, and then with the doors that would open when I used the camera as an excuse. I was always trespassing, always making friends undress, manipulating relationships, catching things, and could always just point to this tool as a justification. It let me open up and ask for things that I would’ve been too shy to ask for otherwise. These were also the worst years for me emotionally - dark and fragmented - so spending all my waking time thinking about and working with a machine designed to capture light was the most elemental response I could muster.

JG: So would you say that there’s a sort of element of dishonesty… actually not so much dishonestly more kind of exaggeration in your photos?

SM: Dishonesty would be the wrong word to use when considering the process because it suggests maliciousness, and when the camera’s desires are light and delight and resonance between people, that can’t be the motivator. Maybe the revelation of structures - of desire, communalism, etc. - against the wishes of the subjects could be seen as diagonal from a stated truth, but that too is part of the anatomy of images.

JG: I like the way you talk about light and you are right, dishonesty is the wrong word… and in fact thinking of it I would say it’s hard to produce a dishonest image with a camera because of it’s precise nature. I guess most photos could be seen as diagonals from the stated truth because they are illuminating events with a significance that may not be true to reality. More so even when an image becomes iconic and engraved in our memory, it kind of canonizes events and myths are then born.

So, are you working on any specific projects at the moment?

SM: Yes, I’m going on a short tour soon with the band Dark Dark Dark, friends from Minneapolis, who are riding south from Minnesota to New Orleans, their second home. And then in March and April I’ll be in Norway working on new pictures. I was there last summer to go on a long walking tour, and I want to spend more time with that land. The geography is broad and still pretty incomprehensible, and I managed last summer to start on some kind of portrait of the landscape via pictures I took with my travelling partner.

It seems he’s got it pretty sorted. Here are some of his newest pictures from Norway, just for  you guyses.

Thanks, Santiago.


  • Anonymous January 21, 2010 at 7:22 pm

    great interveiw . very enjoyable.

  • Anonymous January 21, 2010 at 10:42 pm

    Ha homeless my ass. Is that what Yale grads call slumming it for their art these days?

  • Anonymous January 22, 2010 at 2:13 am

    I dont follow. He studied at Yale ergo he wasnt homeless?

    Yale grad or not..homeless or not…his pictures are incredibly moving.

    • jessgough January 22, 2010 at 1:36 pm

      couldn't say it better myself mr. anonymous


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