SHOOTING WITH INTENTION FEATURING: Adam Jason Cohen

Shooting with Intention is a brand new series of interviews by Elephant Gun photographer Kevin O'Meara. This week, he interviews Chicago-based photographer Adam Jason Cohen.

Why did you shoot and publish your series of zines?

Like all photographers, I photograph because I’m curious. I’m curious to see what things look like photographed. Naturally, I’m a critical human and I guess you can say I’m a collector of sorts. I’m really interested in typologies. I photograph many people, things, places, etc. A lot of the times, I don’t show those photographs. However, these photographs that appear in this set of zines I simply found interesting enough to share with the world and offer in the form of a physical object to interact with. The idea of turning the page is just so special to me. So much more than swiping down or double tapping a screen. When I pick up a book, turn a page, and the sequence of photographs just make so much sense, I will talk out loud to myself. I will say “daaaaaaaaammmmmnnn” or whatever I’m feeling at the time. That just doesn’t happen with Instagram, e-Books, or whatever they got going on right now. I’m not sure if that’s a feeling or an interaction that can ever be replicated with a LCD screen. Additionally, I have been working on a book project that has been very close to my heart and mind for the last five years. It’s much heavier in subject matter, I go deeper, a little darker, and it’s more intimate. And I think it’s important to pull back sometimes. If a song was the same note over and over again; would it be interesting? To me? Probably not. Working on multiple projects at once allows me to focus on each of them more closely. Sort of like a rotation, keeps my mind feeling fresh and not stale. I guess one of my bigger fears is getting stuck in one place. I’m not sure if anyone reading this has actually seen the movie IN TOO DEEP (LL Cool J has one of the lead roles….), the main character played by Omar Epps, becomes essentially addicted to getting deeper and deeper into his role and never really gets out and becomes a teacher at the end of the movie. I don’t want to become a professor. In summary, I LIKE TO SWITCH SHIT UP.

© Adam Jason Cohen

© Adam Jason Cohen

How did you develop the concept behind it? What narrative did you want to share?

I developed each concept based upon my own curiosity in each of the subjects. With Fresh Garb I saw a beautiful a tradition that I have been interested and never really explored or attempted to understand on more than a surface level appreciation. What also attracted me to that subject was the obvious fact of Chicago, specifically these neighborhoods that are highlighted in the book, are reeling and are having difficult times and these beautiful traditions that continue on today are not what people really tend to focus on. The media tends to focus on the negative, which is important, but also unfortunate at the same time. The majority of my longer term projects are much more heavy, and have a broader range of emotions. At the time I felt it would be a great break to focus on something purely beautiful, in aesthetic and tradition. King of Pop was something that I visited more than once. Gary, Indiana is a strange place, it’s almost like a part of Chicago due to their relationship and distance, however it’s still it’s own entity. Especially in a time like this where, previously strong manufacturing towns are quickly dying, I thought this project could be interpreted a bit more universally. I just so happen to use the shrine of the Jackson 5 as a metaphor. This type of work is done quite often, however I haven’t really ever seen Gary photographed other than photographers taking pictures inside of an abandoned church, which personally, doesn’t interest me in the slightest. But to each their own. Tres De Mayo was about the celebration of Cinco De Mayo in Chicago. I thought it was interesting that it so happened to fall on the third of May, which also happens to be the title of my favorite painting by Francisco Goya. Without giving too much away, because with this one I really wanted to keep some references subtle, Tres De Mayo is loosely about examining cultural self expression. I really enjoy this event in Chicago, I’ve been in attendance for quite a few years at this point, but this is the first year (2015) I really knew how and why I wanted to photograph it. 

© Adam Jason Cohen

© Adam Jason Cohen

Are there any photographers that you study that you found helpful in constructing your narrative?

For the work you see here, a good example would be Alec Soth. For one, I don’t necessarily believe that a photograph can exist as pure document of something. I see something much more than that, however my work looks like “documentary” and for some that’s how it functions. I think Alec deals with the struggle of his photographs looking like a document, however he deals with it in a broader context. Additionally, I’m just not sure anyone knows how a book functions better as an objects as he. Maybe Martin Parr? But I think if the viewer is also familiar with his work you can see a bit of his influence in there as well. Paul Fusco’s RFK Funeral Train is another interesting one. He published quite a large monograph about one single day in America’s history. He photographed the American social landscape from a moving train, in one single day. I’ve been always interested in the idea of; What would one day, in such and such neighborhood of Chicago or anywhere for that matter, look like in book form, with a context, a concise narrative, and a sequence? I have a ton of photographic influences. And sometimes I feel like that actually may be a detriment to my work. It is something with a struggle with every single day.

© Adam Jason Cohen

© Adam Jason Cohen

How do establish relationships with the people you photograph? How do navigate cultural differences from the demographic that you shoot? Do you receive any pushback from the community?

I photograph people with respect and compassion. That goes for any and every one who has found themselves in front of one of my cameras. There have been many instances where I originally thought I wanted to take a photograph of someone or something and decided against it, for whatever reason. I don’t regret that and I’m at peace with leaving it out there. I have a great deal of responsibility with the photographs I make and ultimately show. As of right now, I mostly photograph people, places, things, etc that I’m “demographically different” than. I think on the surface level that can be viewed as something thats apparent, deeper than that, I feel as though I do have a connection with subjects in my photographs. I would like to think I have a good approach and I think that’s massively important. That’s something that art school unfortunately can’t teach. I learned that on my own. When people ask me how I am I able to make these photographs, I simply tell them I’m a much better communicator than photographer. The making of a photograph structurally, I believe can be taught to anyone. I guess that’s why art school exists. However, the process in order for you to be able to communicate your vision and why it’s important to a complete stranger takes a bit more skill. I offer my contact info to everyone I photograph, and as long as they contact me, I will certainly and have sent images that I shot. The other day I recieved a great email from the father of a family that appeared in Fresh Garb, thanking me for being there to capture that day for them and how special the photographs were to them. Little things like that go a long way for me in assuring me that I am on the right path.

© Adam Jason Cohen

© Adam Jason Cohen

How did you go about sequencing the zines?

Sequencing the zines as a series was actually pretty easy. Everything I do has a flow to it. I think of all my work as if it’s one big music composition coming together as whole. There’s a time and place for every thing. Fresh Garb came first, it was fresh and metaphorically it represented the second coming of Christ, which can be interpreted as a “new beginning”. King of Pop, which actually was supposed to originally be my first zine released publicly, ended up being snuggled in the middle of series. Gary, Indiana which the zine is ultimately about, is a place that has been trapped and stuck somewhere in time. It’s a really rough place. So I stuck it in the middle. Tres De Mayo was the third and final zine of the series and it ended with the title referencing the number three. Additionally, the car on the cover was on three wheels, which happened to work out perfectly.

© Adam Jason Cohen

© Adam Jason Cohen

In retrospect, is there anything that you would revise?

I’m 28 years old. I have been photographing for a decent amount of time now, and up until recently, I have been scared to ever publish anything more than a book with two copies. Part of that has been due to the fear of the book being the end all be all, and other parts feeling generally incomplete. It feels great to have a few things out there for people to hold and look through. It’s like the mixtape or demo before the LP. Every book, project, etc has it’s own successes and failures. Nothing is perfect. Sometimes, you just have to do it, and that’s where I’m at right now. I wouldn’t change anything. At all. It’s been a great learning experience to challenge myself and to learn from my mistakes publicly.

Michael Jackson's Boyhood Home; Gary, Indiana © Adam Jason Cohen

Michael Jackson's Boyhood Home; Gary, Indiana © Adam Jason Cohen

What are some positive experiences that have come from publishing your work?

There has been great acceptance across the board and a lot of new opportunities have come through the publishing of these zines, which is great. But nothing compares to watching someone pick one of these up, flipping through it and their eyes lighting up and the questions I’m ultimately asked. Or the emails and comments I get about people wanting to do their own book. That’s all great to me and I’m interested in seeing what anyone comes up with. I’d love to see that. It seems there has been a huge push back to social media, more so than ever, for independent artists to produce objects for the viewer to hold and interact with. We live in a three dimensional universe, let’s focus on making things that take advantage of the physical nature of the world. There’s a staying power to that, and it’s important to take that into consideration in a world becoming increasingly more instantaneous and focused on the moment.

© Adam Jason Cohen

© Adam Jason Cohen

Do you have any recommendations for photographers who are thinking about shooting a complete body of work?

I have a ton of advice. I’m just not sure anyone really should listen to it. Hahaha. Being as vague as I can possibly be: My best advice is to just feel things out. You’ll probably never feel completed, I know I don’t with any of my projects, but that’s ok. The work will always work its self out.

© Adam Jason Cohen

© Adam Jason Cohen

Anything else you want to include?

Right now I’m not sure what to say other than thank you. I appreciate your interest in my work and the opportunity to be able to talk about it with you. Everyone needs to be questioned, and that’s a fact.

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For mobile photography and more follow @adamjasoncohen on Instagram.

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