Doin' Work, Flash Interviews With Contemporary Photographers: Shaun H. Kelly

12/05/2016 12:14 pm ET

Welcome back to Doin' Work: Flash Interviews With Contemporary Photographers. This is a place for me to celebrate the photographers who inspire me every day, and to present you with an easily digestible bite of their personalities and work.

This week's guest is Shaun H. Kelly. From Kelly: “I am from the South. I believe our salvation is in community—that we are all supposed to live with one another, not alone. I went to college because that is what one is supposed to do and studied Communications to be a radio DJ but learned radio is not about the music. There was a time I worked at the Tax Collector’s office followed by a romanticized brief career as a barber after reading Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry. Shortly thereafter, my wife and I moved to California so that I could pursue photography. My pursuits have been by no means linear, nor all that intentional, and sometimes followed without much foresight. Cumulatively they have been understood as formative, for better or worse, mostly in retrospect. Currently it seems the most honest pursuit is as an educator, photographer, and publisher in Oxford, MS, residing with my wife and daughter.”

The artist as a young man.
Shaun H. Kelly
The artist as a young man.

Where do you live and work and how does it inform your photography?

I live and work in Oxford, MS. I am likely most motivated in response to this place—not Oxford specifically—in consideration of the culture of the Southern United States. Geography makes us who we are as people and therefore informs everything about myself including what I do with photography.

When and how did you get your start in photography?

In college I purchased a camera from a friend because I was traveling to Kenya. It was the first time I had traveled to another continent and I wanted to document what I saw.

What compels you to pick up your camera?

The desire to produce a photographic document.

Shaun H. Kelly

What are you working on now?

I recently published the fifth print publication for Strant Magazine, an online and print publication for which I am the founder and editor. The title of the publication is Family, Faith, Food and is a printed culmination of three online issues published over the course of 2015 featuring submitted photography projects, interviews, photobook discussions, and essays about photography in relation to family, faith, and food. The printed edition will hopefully consider the work included in a way that online would not allow. Personally I am working to produce a print publication of my project “Overgrown South”, which considers the American South’s attempt to preserve its culture by way of the past.

If you had to explain your work to a child, how would you describe it?

Fortunately photography doesn’t need much explanation. So rather than explaining a photograph, I can show a photograph of a tree or a car to a child and they will know what it is and understand it as just that.

Shaun H. Kelly

Do you make a living as a photographer? If yes, please explain how. If no, tell me about your day job and how you balance photography with said job.

I do not make a living as a photographer. I work in education, which means I get weeks or months at a time off during which I can concentrate on photography.

Show me the image you feel you’re best known for. What are your thoughts on it?

Shaun H. Kelly

I don’t know how well known I am for anything, but I can say that this photograph to me considers our attempts at preservation by way of an incomplete or artificial truth, that is to say memory, which is very similar to the photographic process. But like a photograph or artificial flowers, this attempt is usually truthful enough for the time being.

What if anything frustrates you about photography?

There is an effort, likely in response to the fairly recent shift from analog to digital and reminiscent of an effort made near the time of any other major technological shifts in photography (say perhaps the invention of the dry plate), to define photography. Given photography’s intrinsic tie to technology however, that it was born as a modern medium and its innate accessibility—it will always be difficult to define. Due to photography’s broad nature, an argument is sometimes offered that there is an overly exhausting amount of photographs being produced, an unnecessary number of photobooks, and too many individuals trying to make it as a photographer as though photography did not come of age during a time and as a result of mass mechanical reproduction. While there is certainly enough room for healthy academic discourse and value in studying the history of photography, photography is beautiful enough and important enough without our over-intellectualization of the medium and can exist in both narrow and broad realms.

Describe your working process.

Although I almost always have a camera on me or very nearby, I usually work in fits and tantrums with lots of circling back and redirections.

Describe the approach you take when establishing a relationship with a subject.

I usually approach both human and non-animate subjects alike with a fear—perhaps irrational—of being an interloper.

Shaun H. Kelly

What do you think of the vast sea of online photography? What's your approach for standing out?

I do not think it is of much value to regard photography online as a vast sea given that one, photography is a medium that for the majority of its existence as a technology has embraced mass reproduction and two, that the internet is also a product of that same effort to share mass information. If there is anything wrong, it is that we as individuals feel it necessary to consume everything we could possibly get our hands on. As a result, I think we convolute standing out or being noteworthy as a result of producing important work. Being appealing certainly has its benefit and I would if I could, make a living taking photographs but it is also somewhat unnecessary and in vain to attempt to separate yourself from the crowd.

What are you most proud of in terms of your work?

Photography allows me the knowing that through photography, I can live in communion with people and a particular place.

What are you doing when you’re not making pictures?

In addition to taking photographs, I am a husband and father and work at a high school in special education.

What do you think the future of photography might look like?

I do not know what exactly the future of photography will look like. I think there will be more changes but we will be having the same conversations about what is photography and the same collective—albeit mild and somewhat tempered—anxiety regarding its role in society that we are now.

Name three contemporary photographers that blow your mind.

I can at least say that as of right now I enjoy spending time with the work of Robert Adams, Sanne Peper, and Thomas Roma.

The most important question of all: dogs or cats? Why?

Dogs, for the same reasons that so many people hate cats.

Shaun H. Kelly
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