Photographer Alice Zoo, on accidents:
An ongoing fear of mine is that my most successful projects come about by accident: that they are a last resort, or an experiment, or a mistake of some kind, that I end up following through with and come to find that they’re truer or more authentic-seeming than my more intentional or carefully-conceived work.
For example: when I had the idea for my most recent project, A Formal Feeling, I was reacting to a set of circumstances over which I had no control. Last summer I was coming towards the end of my Masters, and I had been in the beginning stages of the final assessment Major Project I’d originally planned to work on, when various family losses began to pile on top of one another to the extent that I could no longer see my way ahead. In late August I kept returning to the opening lines of a particular Emily Dickinson poem, and so eventually I decided to make a project about the traumas that were clouding my view, with the poem as its basis. I had a title and nothing else: no imagery, no idea of what shape the project might finally take.
Starting out, I thought the project might be a lot more abstract than the way it ended up. This was the first image I took for the project that communicated what I’d been envisaging. The bewilderment, the slight blur of the body against a dark, still, natural backdrop; more impressionistic than my usual work, but it represented my experience at the time with accuracy.
As time went on, I shot many different kinds of imagery for the project, and some patterns began to emerge. The project began to hold its own shape. As it transpired, this image didn’t fit with the rest, didn’t speak to the title in the same way as the other images, and it wasn’t hard to make the decision to exclude it. Still, I return to it now, and am reminded of those first harsh days of striking out afresh, into the unknown of the project and of the new circumstances I was in, and how valuable image-making was to me then in a very tangible way. The ability to give shape to the raw strangeness of unfamiliar and deep-lying emotions by way of a photograph felt like a kind of release: my feelings could be named, even if not in words.
A Formal Feeling ended up being, amongst other things, an exploration of distance, of remnants, of the ways we choose to preserve certain things rather than others: how often we privilege the preservation of fictions over blunt, material reality. I had thought the project would convey my feelings: in fact, it was a way of pushing my feelings away, of holding them back behind the glass of a camera lens. This first image, in all its oblique honesty about myself and my experiences, was irrelevant, just as I myself was to the project at large.
You see what I mean about my fear that my best projects are accidental: the eventual work had very little to do with me, and I was only ever following its thread. (Or rather: the work is mine, but is based on a series of impulses that I cannot verbalise to myself, and so feels beyond my control.) The extension of this fear is that I’ll never find a formula, and that my projects are things I alight on by virtue of blind luck, and I may never land upon another. And so the image means something different to me now: where once I saw in it my confusion and trauma, I now see my creative predicament: my grasping around in the dark for a new thread to follow.
(Link is dead now, probably because of the Tumblr purge)