PHOTOSENSE: Sebastian Meyer Interview

We each agreed to begin by emailed two or three artists or photographers we had come across so far within our research and ask for the chance at interviewing them. Genea’s email to Sebastian Meyer came up trumps first, and as a trio we worked hard on writing a script to ask him questions that both suited our expectations and also didn’t bore the hell out of him. Unfortunately I was unable to be there during the interview. But here is the transcript of his answers to our questions.

Sebastian Meyer about his project “War Sounds” which can been seen here.

Photosense: Thanks for taking out the time to do this interview.

Sebastian Meyer: No problem!

Photosense: Right, let’s get started.

Photosense: What first gave you the idea to combine sounds and your images?

Sebastian Meyer: It all started after a particular patrol I did with US forces in Afghanistan. The unit I was with got in a pretty big fight with the Taliban and were flanked.

Sebastian Meyer: It was pretty hairy, very chaotic, and also very loud, when I looked at my photos afterwards, they were completely still and silent, they gave a very bad impression of what it was actually like and it really annoyed me.

Sebastian Meyer: That was in 2010…

Sebastian Meyer: In 2011 when I went to Libya, I decided to carry a sound recorder in my side pouch, so at the very least I’d pick up some of the sounds and hopefully some of the chaos.

Sebastian Meyer: Unfortunately the sound isn’t that good because the recorder bumps against my leg as I walk (and run) and also I couldn’t monitor the levels as I was shooting but all in all I was happy with the results.

Photosense: That’s a really interesting point, photography as always been known for being still and silent. That can be both a positive and a negative thing, it depends on the message that you’re trying to send out with your image…

Photosense: The results you produced are amazing and really original.

Sebastian Meyer: Thanks, that’s lovely to hear!

Photosense: Do you think that image and audio give the viewer a real glimpse into what it’s like to be in a war situation or do you feel that there are still elements missing to complete the experience?

Sebastian Meyer: There’ll always be elements missing. It might be trite, but you’ll never know what it’s like, unless you were there. However, that’s the job of the journalist to do the absolute best at letting the audience know what it was like.

Sebastian Meyer: I think in today’s world, photography doesn’t do such a good job anymore in war.

Photosense: Agreed. Our culture has been so desensitised to shocking images in the media, is this why you thought that sound would add an extra element to the experience you’re trying to create with your photography? As you think photography doesn’t do such a good job?

Sebastian Meyer: Absolutely. I found out later that sound adds something else which is essential and that is “time”. The overriding emotional experience of war is fear and to properly tell the story of fear, you need the element of time.

Sebastian Meyer: It’s all about suspense, when you listen to the sound of the bomb dropping there’s a whole load of anticipation which is terrifying. You don’t get that with a photograph.

Photosense: That’s absolutely true and that’s exactly what we felt as I listened to the audio. We know most people will never know what it is like to be at war. But the sounds definitely help give a better feel of the atmosphere you were in. That’s why sounds are so important. But what about the other senses?

Sebastian Meyer: Such as?

Photosense: Touch for example, or smell? Have you ever thought about working with other senses to give a more complete experience? Or do you think the sounds and visuals do enough alone? Without actually going to war…

Sebastian Meyer: I’d love it if there were a way to record smell and touch.

Photosense: Maybe that would involve bringing back objects from war, creating an interactive exhibition.

Sebastian Meyer: True, although the smell I was thinking of was that of dead bodies…which I don’t think would be a very popular exhibition…

Sebastian Meyer: I think there are ways of structuring narratives with visuals and sound.

Photosense: We weren’t thinking of dead bodies at all! We were thinking more the smells of the smoke or fire. But at least you’re thinking outside the box and that’s never a bad thing!

Sebastian Meyer: Certainly the smell of cordite would give a good impression of what the bomb smelled like, but I’m not sure if you need all of that. I think uncertainty is what drives so much of the fear. Will I live or die? Will my family and friends live or die?

Sebastian Meyer: As a storyteller I think we can use that uncertainty to properly convey the emotions of war.

Sebastian Meyer: BUT, you need the element of time to do that and photos don’t have that.

Photosense: Maybe that’s what the audio recording conveyed very well, you’re right. If you feel that a photograph can’t always convey the message you’re trying to put across, why not use video?

Sebastian Meyer: Well spotted! I use video a lot these days for that very reason.

Sebastian Meyer: I think there’s a way to bring both together. I enjoy shooting video as if it were photography.

Sebastian Meyer: http://sebmeyer.com/videos. Have a look at Sleeping Soldiers

Photosense: Actually, we were just discussing the video sleeping soldiers. The way you shot it isn’t documentary style at all; it’s very artistic and almost beautiful.

Sebastian Meyer: That’s really kind. Thanks

Sebastian Meyer: For me it’s about showing how slow time can move, even when you’re on an operation. I don’t think a photograph would convey the same feeling.

Photosense: It seems you’ve only put audio to one image on your website [War Sounds], was there something special about that image that you wanted to translate over to the viewer? Why don’t you use sounds alongside all of your work? [If sometimes you prefer photography to video]

Sebastian Meyer: I don’t always record sound, to be honest.

Photosense: Why not? It worked so well!

Sebastian Meyer: It’s something I’d like to do a lot more of but I don’t often have the time to do it.

Sebastian Meyer: My commissions are either photo or video and I’ve yet to be commissioned to do sound and photo so I’ve got to do it in my spare time.

Sebastian Meyer: There’s also the problem of ‘platform’. How do you mix photo and sound together. Audio slideshow? Those never seem to work for me.

Photosense: We would think so, we’ve worked with audio and images together before, which is how we found your work actually.

Sebastian Meyer: What I’d like to do is take the time to properly explore the marriage of the two and then find a really good platform for it. I’m reading a lot of books about time these days.

Photosense: For the benefit of our readers, could you briefly explain what you mean about marriage of audio and images?

Sebastian Meyer: Simply bringing them together, but in a way that it works as one unit, not as just sound and photos laid on top of each other.

Photosense: That’s very true, as part of Phonar, we’ve been experimenting with creating soundscapes so we understand when you say it needs to work as one unit. It is hard; you did it very well with “War Sounds” however.

Sebastian Meyer: Thanks

Sebastian Meyer: Oh, I forgot to add that Matthew Herbert. He has made a series of audio recordings based off of the bomb recording. His website is: http://www.matthewherbert.com/ I think he’ll be releasing it as an album sometime next year

Photosense: That’s really great, thanks for the link, we’ll definitely have to post about him on the Photosense blog, and we’re constantly looking for new artists that use sound smell taste and touch.

Photosense: Right, it looks like we have covered everything finally. Thank you so much for taking part in the interview.

Sebastian Meyer: It was a real pleasure!

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