I am an inherently introverted artist with an extroverted passion for exploring nature— the nature of wild places, the nature of people, and the nature of relationships these same people have with the place that surrounds them. I explore, first and foremost because it feeds an insatiable desire I have to learn. For me exploring is about experiencing, where some element of risk is inextricably connected to the richness of discovery. I am not a roadside artist. I believe the most authentic creations reflect an element of vulnerability and risk of failure. The experience comes first, and the photography or art grows from that. Experience first. Art Second. The opposite results in images that are devoid of purpose. This is merely my philosophy. I love looking at great roadside art, but I don’t enjoy creating it. I enjoy the hard to reach vantage points, and not just in a physical sense. I love connecting with people who live well beyond the perimeter. As such I have a soft spot for rural people, or anyone hidden in the cracks of society. If my artistic endeavors were associated with any sort of popularity contest I would fail miserably—on purpose. I rarely begin a project with the pressure to capture a story. Invariably the inspiration grows organically. The most authentic stories reveal themselves. I try as best as I can to stay out of the way of that.
I’m less an artist and more a conduit. The stories I stumble onto are always much bigger than me. My work is focused on honoring those stories, and especially honoring the people behind the story. The further I get into my work the more I realize how ancient this process is. Among indigenous peoples story tellers shouldered responsibility for sharing what they had learned in their travels. Their words had cultural implications, helping to create community, even minimizing fears about the unknown. My purpose is to honor the traditions of ancient story tellers. The outcome of my work is beyond my control.
HOW IT STARTED
I remember sitting on my grandfather’s lap as a boy, staring down at a 1960’s National Geographic that he held in his grease-stained hands. As he translated the pages for my wide-eyed, five year old mind, there was often a faint smell of whiskey on his breath. The sweet aroma punctuated exotic stories of distant cultures. His evening ritual included reading with a glass of his favorite spirit, and when I wasn’t sitting on his lap I was studying him… as he studied world literature. He had voluminous stacks of those famously yellow magazines decades before they became synonymous with the now fashionable concept of adventure.
Looking back almost fifty years, I realize now he was insatiably curious about the nature of people and places. Despite his fluency in all-things-international, the only time he traveled abroad was when he was sent to Europe during World War II. My grandfather was a deeply humble man who experienced an unimaginable war. He later became a hard working mechanic who understood the inner workings of many things, extending far beyond the walls of his work-shop. He remained a provincial dreamer because of an undying devotion to his first love, my grandmother, who was afraid of the unknown and content to stay at home.
After all these years I can still remember the intrigue of my grandfather’s stories and his unique perspective on the world. Sometimes when I’m standing in the middle of some vast and wild place that I know would have captivated him, I’d swear I can even hear his voice in the wind. I miss my grandfather very much.
I am forever curious, just as he was. This same curiosity inspires an obsession with wandering around wild places and seeking out interesting people. I love hearing people’s stories, and I’ve been lucky enough to meet some extraordinary people during my journey. Hearing people’s stories is how I examine the world, something I endeavor to do with an absence of judgement.
Words and pictures are mere tools that I use in an attempt to develop my own understanding. I don’t write or make pictures for an audience so much as I do to process my own experiences. And this process comes from necessity. I write and I make pictures for me. Sharing what I create is more a catharsis, the “letting go” of the experience.
Some of the most compelling stories I’ve ever heard were characterized by a strong connection to “place,” the environment around the individual. In many cases, I’ve observed a connection so palpable that the individual seemed to embody attributes of the landscape that surrounded them. Observing this place — where the human element and landscape intersect — ignites my curiosity more than anything.
Someone once asked me, “Joe, where’s your place?” And without hesitation, I replied, “Behind the lens.”