The Reservoir

Conversations on Photography

There is a corrosiveness in lack of possibility, and that’s what I hope my photographs convey.

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LINDLEY WARREN MICKUNAS: Something that strikes me about you and your work is the fact that you are both insider and outsider in the sense that you grew up in the place that you photograph but later left. In the photography community, there is a lot of discussion about what it means an outsider. I am curious about how you view yourself in relation to the making of these photographs?

DANNA SINGER: I see myself as both and for the very reasons you articulated. I left my hometown when I was 23 and have lived in several places since. My leaving changed things, as it often does but I am still connected to the place. Most of the people I photograph are close to me and the ideas in my photographs reflect many of my own experiences and that keeps my position in the work as very much an insider.

LWM: The insider perspective is felt in your images. They're unflinching. As someone from within, what is it that you hope your photographs communicate to those who don't have the lived in experience that you do?

DS: I want the work to communicate the oppressiveness of classism and what it feels like to live in these spaces. I aspired to make images that were claustrophobic and unrelenting, like the daily lives of many of the working-poor in America. There are so few opportunities in working-class communities that its psychological damage is massive. There is a corrosiveness in lack of possibility, and that’s what I hope my photographs convey.

LWM: You're very successful at doing this, Danna. There are so many nuances and layers in your work that I really appreciate. You beg the viewer to take a deeper look at what you're showing them. One example is through reflections, which often show additional subjects within the frame, such as in Mother and Daughter and Ellen. Can you tell me about this visual tool you use and also about the image Mother and Daughter?

DS: Thanks, Lindley. I like using reflections when I can. Reflections often manage to introduce ideas in a photograph without hitting you over the head with it. It lets the viewer in on what's happening outside the frame and also creates a depth and space that can either intrude on or compliment the narrative. With Mother and Daughter, I wanted the image of the mother to exist as an almost imperceptible shadow in the frame. She becomes an onlooker, a passive figure who recedes into the landscape. It was a way for me to begin to describe family cycles.

LWM: Correct me if I’m wrong, but the people shown in Mother and Daughter and Ellen aren’t family members of yours, are they? When did you decide to branch out beyond photographing your family and what was the significance of this for you?

DS: The child in the image Mother and Daughter is my niece’s sister Jessica. I photograph her a lot. Her father and my sister were together for a few years when they were in their teens. They had my niece Alexis and we have all been in each other’s lives since. And so, I feel connected to her and her parents in a very familial way. The branching out in the work from family to family friends, (like Ellen) and people related to my old neighborhood wasn’t by design, it happened organically. I saw a photograph of an old friend on Facebook and I wanted to photograph him, so I reached out. It felt right because our neighborhood was tight and so I followed that thread and the work opened up from there.

LWM: I find that it's really important to allow yourself to be open to the work taking you in directions that perhaps you didn't originally intend. In what other unexpected ways has the work shifted? What have you learned through the process of making the images both in relation to being a photographer and otherwise?

DS: As a photographer, I learned that I get the greatest satisfaction out of working slowly and that I am most excited by building a picture from the ground up. I like to sit with the architecture of a place and then arrange figures in space until I’ve exhausted just about every possibility.

And maybe it shouldn’t come as any great surprise that, in the end, the work revealed itself as a self-portrait. It essentially winds its way through my landscape of my own history while pointing the camera in the direction of others. That’s not say these images aren’t about the subjects as well, but I chose to make the pictures I did because I was responding to the memory of my own experience.

LWM: It’s funny when obvious things don’t become obvious to us until much later in the working process. This reminds me, you recently posted an image on your Instagram and wrote “An overlooked picture in my archives.” It is such a striking photo and honestly, I don’t know how it slipped through the cracks! It makes me think of Andrea Modica for a few reasons, one being that it’s so rewarding to look at all the details within it – it’s a photo that keeps giving. Tell me about this image. Why didn’t it work for you before?

DS: Wow, that’s quite a compliment. I think Andrea’s work is just stunning. She is a true technician, an artist with complete mastery of her craft and such finesse in her visual language. I aspire to have such command. And so, to your question, I didn’t feel that I had any of that with the image Happy Birthday and so I dismissed it. The paneling and the lack of color separation between the mother’s hair and the wood was the main problem. I shot that picture on two different occasions. I brought in lights for one shoot and it wasn’t working for me, then I hit it with flash and still I was disappointed. It went into the discard pile until this summer when I found it again with fresh eyes. I had this idea of what the picture should have been and wasn’t seeing it for what it was. It’s funny how life can be that way too. When you try to impose your will so strongly, you can’t see the forest through the trees.

LWM: I can definitely relate to that as a photographer and a person. With regard to seeing things for what they are, how do you navigate the more complicated aspects of what you photograph? Why is it important for you to show things that are sometimes difficult to look at?

DS: Many of my photographs deal with difficult subject matter and it gets emotional for me. Before almost every shoot, I want to cancel. I convince myself of some reason why I shouldn't go and then spend a lot of time talking myself back into working.

In the end, I go because it makes me feel better. If were a writer, I would write it all down, but I’m not, so I say things in the way that I know how and that’s with images. I think it’s important to say something real, to be vulnerable, to have something at stake. The viewer can feel that. I know I do when I see it.

LWM: Within your series you blend traditional documentary shooting methods together with a tableaux approach. This mixture creates a surreal aspect to the work and allows one to not only attempt to figure out what is happening within the image but also what is happening within you. Furthermore, the question arises, “Is this real or fabricated?” But that becomes almost a moot question because you are a strong editor and ultimately you always seem to find a way to say what you intend whether or not the actual moment was directed.

DS: Photography has had such complicated relationship with “truth-telling” since it’s very beginning and I want to lean into that with the edit. And so the work moves between the directed formal image, traditional documentary modes and staged snapshots. My aim is to push up against and blur those lines while still making work that is genuine and true. A lot of my pictures look at abuse in many forms and sometimes I have to create ways to say it and other times, I find it was there right in front of me, like an open letter.