Surveying the USA Through Monochrome Spectacles

The road-trip genre is a timeless classic, one that distils the essence of personal journeys such that even the most intimate of images can feel to the viewer like a lost snapshot from a forgotten moment of their own past. Olivier Boonjing, photographer and cinematographer whose back-catalogue is an array of shorts, features, stills, and television, takes us on a journey of his own across America, in his recent photo-series USA Monochrome.

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Olivier uses a colourless palette that accentuates the timelessness of the road, capturing the unpopulated urban and suburban scraps of American living. Far from lamenting the loss of the American dream, this is a forgiving series that quietly catches that which is overlooked, and quietly passes on.

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TP: Could you tell us more about the journey behind these images?
OB:
Years ago, browsing the internet, I discovered the documentary project of American director Mike Ambs called “For Thousands of miles” (movie is available for free at http://ftomfilm.com). It was a movie project about a guy called Larry who would cross the US from West to East on a bicycle. With two friends, we contacted Mike and offered to help him. A couple of months later, we landed in Los Angeles, jumped in a van and started the trip.

It wasn’t my first time in the US but it felt completely different from what I experienced before. If felt like having a look behind the curtain of the American dream. We shot a lot of images for the documentary but some things we saw didn’t fit in so I started taking still pictures.

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TP: Instant USA is another road-trip series; is there a connection between the two?
OB:
Instant USA was shot on the same trip. I try to always have a Polaroid camera with me because it produces not just images but objects. It’s a fantastic tool to engage conversations with people I meet and allows me to keep a kind of visual diary. I love how it renders colours, distorts them… I feel it captures more a mood than a picture. This series somehow represents more my personal trip: Los Angeles, the road and back.

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TP: You keep the images in this series very wide – why is that?
OB:
I tend to love the way panoramic images render the environment. During the whole road-trip I felt like an outsider, I often saw things from a distance. Wide shots seemed to represent what I felt best. I chose black and white film because I felt that by removing the colour, it would be easier to create coherence between the images, a kind of link of contrasts and textures. The compact camera I used had a fixed lens and I really enjoyed this constraint.

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TP: What do you feel still-images allow you to capture – if anything – that your cinematography work does not?
OB:
When I work as a cinematographer, I mainly shoot people and their actions in time. To me it’s somehow all about movement, it’s a dance. Still photography allows me to focus on just one element. It might be a space, an object, a face… frozen in time. With cinematography (and editing), the director controls how much time you get to look at a sequence of images. With still images, the viewer is in control. There is a magic thing sometimes happening when you look at a photograph (or a painting or sculpture) for a long time, it’s nearly like a form of meditation.

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Filmmaking is all about teamwork, a group of people working together with the same objective. I love this process, it’s all about communication but it can be chaotic sometimes. As someone said: filmmaking is chanting a poem in the middle of a battleground. Still photography for me is more lonely. I associate it with wandering, it’s a calm inward experience. I think that doing both allows me to keep a personal balance.

I also love what philosopher Marc Augé calls “Non-Places”. Places that are not personal, places like train stations, airports, service stations… The kind of places painters like Edward Hopper adored. Still photography is a great tool to explore these places. I still haven’t found a way to included movement but I keep searching.

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TP: Your work seems narrative-driven, is this a fair comment? What sort of narratives attract you?
OB:
Yes, I think it’s accurate. I’m usually most happy when I film great actors performing, I love the dance between the camera and them. I’m lucky to be their first audience in a way. Therefore, I love character driven narratives, stories where the camera is not only there to capture their actions and the dialogs but also their thoughts and sub-text. I thrive to capture not so much beautiful images but images that feel honest.

That said, I think it’s still very important to shoot a bit of everything because you keep learning if you get out of your comfort zone. If the script is good, I’m honestly open to any kind of movies.

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