Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Up & Coming: Interview with Murray Ballard

Centrepoint Collective: How did you come about the idea for this project? How did The Prospect of Immortality begin?

Murray Ballard: It’s a long story, but I’ll try and keep it as short as possible. Basically it grew out of a project I was doing in 2006 during my second year of university. I was reading Susan Sontag’s book, On Photography, particularly the chapters where she explores the relationship between photography and death. I became interested in the idea of photography as a way of preserving something, of stopping a moment in time and preventing it from essentially disappearing, or ‘dying’. I started a project photographing subjects that mimicked photography’s inherent ability as a tool of preservation.

I drew up a list which included: taxidermists, embalmers, Egyptian mummies, restorers, museum specimens and most importantly, although I didn’t know it then, cryogenic preservation. Anyway in hindsight the project was a bit of a ‘naff’ idea, but it got me researching cryogenics on the Internet. I quickly found out, that what I was thinking of as cryogenics, was in fact called ‘cryonics’, and that it was something people were actually doing for real.

Initially it seemed like cryonics was only happening in America, but then I stumbled upon a website for a group in the UK. They were planning a meeting in Peacehaven, Sussex. I couldn’t believe it, I thought this idea only existed in the realms of science-fiction and here it was right on my doorstep, a twenty minute drive down the coast from Brighton where I was studying. Fortunately the man organising the meeting, Alan Sinclair – who I have now come to know well – had left his phone number for people to contact him, so I called it, and sure enough got through to Alan. He answered my questions and agreed to a meeting at his house. A few days later I went along as a nervous student and sat in his lounge with a cup of tea while he and his wife Sylvia told me all about cryonics. I then came along to one of his meetings and it grew from there. I’ve now made five trips to the USA, three to Russia, one to France and another to Germany.

CC: Cryonics is quite an unexplored subject, what kind of difficulties (if any) did you face when shooting The Prospect of Immortality? Tell us about the working process.

MB: The project evolved slowly over a long period of time. It was really just a process of serendipity – allowing one thing to lead to the next – most of the time it would be the ‘cryonicists’ who would say, “you should go and meet such and such, or check out this place.” And that would lead me off on a little adventure. Initially the main problem I had was gaining peoples trust, they were used to journalists coming along for a couple of hours to interview them, but they didn’t understand why I wanted to come along and spend a whole day, or several days, observing a training session or visiting a facility. I was very fortunate to have Alan Sinclair [the cryonicist from Peacehaven] willingly to introduce me to people and he was very helpful in vouching for me when I approached the American facilities.

CC: How did you convince your subjects to let you photograph them and the Cryonics facilities they work at? How did you make them feel at ease with this?

MB: I use a large-format view camera for many reasons, but I find it particularly useful when taking portraits. Due to the way the camera works you can’t just snap a photograph of someone, it’s a slow process, and it requires some discussion with the subject, normally it evolves into a sort of mini-collaboration. From my experience the camera tends to make people feel much more at ease because it gives them a certain amount of control over the situation and how they are portrayed. It’s also got a bit of novelty value because people aren’t used to having their picture taken with that type of camera and therefore they tend to be quite interested in the process.

CC: You spent quite a long time [5 years] shooting for this project, could you tell us why?

MB: The main reason why it has taken such a long time is simply because of the costs involved - the flights, hotel bills, film and processing make it an expensive project to make. When I was a student I was lucky enough to get a grant from South Square Trust, which paid for the first couple of trips. But since university it’s been mainly self-funded and therefore it’s been a case of saving up the cash to make each trip. There have been a couple of exceptions, in 2009 GEO magazine commissioned me to travel to Germany and photograph the cryonics community over there; and in 2010 I was awarded a Kodak film grant, which has been great and taken the sting out of shooting film. More recently, and somewhat reluctantly, I have started selling the pictures to magazines – I say reluctantly because I would have preferred to have finished the project first, and ideally have published a book, before putting anything out into the world, but it’s been a great way to finance the last couple of trips.

CC: Considering it was a long-term project, do you feel you have reached the end of it?

MB: I keep asking myself this, and of course I could go on forever. I thought the exhibition at Impressions was going to mark the end of the ‘shooting’ stage of the project, but now I’m not so sure. Through the process of putting the exhibition together I learnt a great deal more and identified a couple of things I would like to explore further. I now think I might have one more trip to do.

CC: The Prospect of Immortality is being exhibited at Impressions Gallery at the moment, what’s next? Are you working on a new project?

MB: At the moment I’m working on my first commission with Elliot Hammer, a graphic designer, the working title is: How to Genetically Modify a Tomato and Some Vegetables. We’re going beyond the laboratory doors of the John Innes Centre - Europe’s largest research centre in the field of plant science and microbiology. We’re working with three scientists who are conducting experiments using genetic-modification technology. In September, as part of the British Science Festival, we will present our findings in a newsprint publication and pop-up exhibition.

CC: Have you considered publishing a book for this project? Any offers yet?

MB: Yes, I’ve just started working on a book dummy with Stuart Smith, which is very exciting. So far we have only had a couple of meetings. The other day I presented what I thought was a near finished edit and sequence to Stuart and he immediately started taking it a part and questioning everything. The next step is to go right back to my contact sheets and look again at the picture edit and the overall structure of the book – at the moment it really feels like ‘one step forward, two steps back’, but Stuart’s assured me that it’s nearly always like this when you start making a book. Once I have a finished book dummy I plan to start showing it to publishers, but I’m also interested in self-publishing and possibly doing something along the same lines as Rob Hornstra, who has self-published all of his books through crowd funding.

CC: What photographers have influenced your work?

MB: Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin, Julian Germain, Jim Goldberg, Rob Hornstra, Simon Norfolk, Mark Power, Alec Soth... I could write a very long list. I guess I’m drawn to work routed in the documentary genre, but the sort made primarily for books and the gallery wall. When I began The Prospect of Immortality my approach was heavily inspired by Broomberg and Chanarin’s early work, Ghetto and Mr. Mkhize, and you look at what they are doing now and it’s very different - it’s a massive progression and I’m fascinated by their constant interrogation of photography as a medium, which runs in context with the subject they’re tackling.

Murray Ballard (b.1983) lives and works in Brighton, UK. He graduated from the University of Brighton in 2007 with a BA (Hons) in Photography, and was selected for Fresh Faced and Wild Eyed 2008, the annual showcase of work by the most promising recent graduates at The Photographers’ Gallery, London. In 2009, he was a selected by The Magenta Foundation as a Flash Forward Winner and took part in Hang, a nine-month long professional development project for emerging photographers organised by Redeye. In 2010 he received a Kodak film grant and a portfolio prize at the International Photobook Festival in Germany. An assistant to renowned Magnum photographer Mark Power for the last three years, his first solo exhibition The Prospect of Immortality is currently on show at Impressions Gallery, Bradford until 17th September. To view more of his work please visit: www.murrayballard.com

All images property of © Murray Ballard