Friday, November 13, 2020

Q & A with Sinna Nasseri

Photo by Kyle Myles
Sinna Nasseri is a photographer based in New York City. He is currently on a road trip around the United States.

BA: How's it going?

SN: Things are wonderful. I’m hanging out in the Arizona desert taking a break from photos.

Can briefly recap your road-trip project? What are you doing? Where, when, how, etc?

I’ve been on the road for most of this year traveling all around the country. I've driven about 20k miles so far in my trusty Volvo. I set out with the goal of making a book about the election and the people of the country in the shadow of this historic event. I started off doing 4 stories with Olivia Horner at Vogue on the Democratic primary. In Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina. After that the pandemic hit and I was marooned in my apt in New York City for several months. When the president announced his first rally back in Tulsa on June 20th, I hit the road to cover that event and have been circling the country ever since.

Had you ever covered elections or political events before?

No elections but I did a series on the UN General Assembly in NYC in 2019 that was politically oriented. I majored in politics and have always been interested.

From what you've seen so far, what has surprised you the most?

I like to enter an event/scene/interview with very few expectations as part of a sort of process I have. I don't often feel very surprised at all. I think one thing that surprised me is when a Molotov cocktail landed about 10 ft from a group of reporters and photogs in Portland. I wasn’t expecting that.

Wasn't that the protest where you got the photo of the kid being dragged by cops in the road?

Pretty sure the Molotov was the night after that photo. Early September. Even the photogs that had been out there every single night were surprised by the escalation. A few photographers were set on fire and it really popped off after that. Definitely got a first sense for what being in a war is like.

Molotov cocktails are generally counterproductive I think. And that was during peak fire season. Bad idea. But I think the use of such weapons highlights the strong feelings and stakes all around. If a Patriot Prayer dude threw one I'd probably freak a little.

I can't really say one way or the other how productive it is. I guess I don't have a strong opinion on that.

I see them as counterproductive because they are so easily iconified and then turned against progressive causes. For Trumpers, they can use an image like that in very disruptive ways. Violence! Socialism! They’re coming for your suburbs!

That's true but I think the propaganda machine on the Right will find a way to vilify no matter what, and perhaps vice versa.

Yeah, they'll stick the "socialist" label on anyone. Even a centrist like Biden.

The amount of times conservatives mentioned socialism to me in my travels is uncountable.

Have you seen any Molotov cocktails or physical violence approximating that level since Portland? 

No, Portland was the peak for me. Nowhere else in the country comes close in my opinion.

How would you describe the scene over the past few days there in Phoenix? 

It's the hard core Trump people out here in Phoenix and they are angry. They don't trust the election results at all and there are a ton of conspiracy theories. One big one they call sharpie-gate. A lot of the people protesting now are very angry at the media and especially Fox News for calling Arizona on the night of the election.

You seem to have a nose for finding the center of the action. How did wind up in Phoenix?

I was sent to Maricopa county, Arizona by Paul Moakley at TIME Magazine. I was in Austin at the time and drove 2 days to get there in time. I think it was the perfect place for me to be.

You were heading back east to New York?

I was finishing a story for Vogue on NM and TX and thought I'd be driving all the way to Pennsylvania for TIME. But they switched a few days before.

Just think, you coulda been at the Four Seasons Landscaping press conference.

Haha, that was perhaps the funniest twist this election. Simply perfect summation.

What was the incident you referred to recently on IG about shit going down in Phoenix, and other photographers having your back? 

As I mentioned, people are very angry at the media here. Angry enough to get physical, so it's a scary situation for us and especially me I think because I like to use a flash at night which draws a lot of attention. But there were several incidents. An older woman threatened to knee me in the groin and got inches away from my face. That's on video on my IG. Another time a group of militia members with large guns followed me to my car and wrote down my license. Another time a younger man followed me at the protest and kept watching me and when confronted he started flashing a light in my eye. I was helped by a fellow photographer who put her safety on the line for me. There were other incidents as well.

If they could see your actual reporting they'd realize you are pretty evenhanded. You have an almost equal mix of Trump supporters and Biden supporters in your stories. I think that's one thing which you do well which is a bit different than most outlets.

That's a big goal of mine is to show everyone. All kinds of people. I especially like spiritual types, a lot of whom will tell you voting is a farce, that it's not about Trump and Biden at all.

A lot of New Agers baking down there in the desert sun.


How do you decide which subjects to shoot on video and which ones to photograph? Is it more or less random? Or do you do both at once? 

Gut feeling mostly, or just how I'm feeling that day. Or if I don't think I can make an incredible photo I go to video. Not really interested in making a photo that is just ok. So if someone, say, looks sort of plain or the background isn’t interesting the photo might not be that good but a video interview might be hilarious, because it's less about aesthetics and more about their personality.

You mentioned at the start that all of this will be in a book. So that would necessarily leave out the video content, which seems like a large part now of what you are doing.

Trying to figure all that out now that I have a chance to breathe, but yes the video started out being sort of tertiary to the project but as I went along it became very important. My audience seems to connect with the videos in a visceral waySo it’s really nice to have as an option especially when I feel that I’m in a rut photographically, which happens a lot.

"A chance to breath." You mean the Phoenix situation is defusing? 

It seems to be, yes. Less people out and about. And I am not planning on working much more here. I don't think these people will ever accept the results, but less people are coming out to protest.

That's good news if people are returning to normal. From press reporting I can't really tell what's happening. Put on your lawyer hat for a minute and help me project the immediate future. Where do you see all of this going between now and Jan 21

My guess is that courts will uphold the results and Trump will eventually concede.

You are more optimistic than me. I don't think he will ever concede.

Or maybe "leave office" is a better term than concede. You might be right on that. He will probably always maintain it was fraudulent.

I think it will play out in the courts, to not much effect, and Biden transition will eventually take over, although set back several weeks. But Trump will never accept the results, and taking his cue I think millions of people will think the election was fraudulent, probably forever. Which to me is a major longterm problem for electoral politics in the U.S.

I absolutely agree. I do think that a lot of people thought the 2016 election was fraudulent as well, so this is just adding to the pile.

Do you think 2016 was fixed?

Not really. There would be some hard evidence of that by now, but I also consider it a possibility.

All those people you've been photographing in Phoenix, what's your best guess of what they will do once the courts resolve this in Biden’s favor? Civil war? Uprising? Stay disgruntled and quiet?

I don't believe there will be a civil war, no.

That's different than what you told me last summer. Why the change?

I think being in closer proximity to the militia types and talking to a lot of them perhaps changed my calculation of the possibility of civil war.

You mean after talking to militia types you now consider them less volatile than before?

My read of the situation is that they don’t have it in them for a coordinated sustained war effort. Domestic terrorism maybe.

Hmmm, possibly. Just like when Clinton ended 12 years of GOP rule. They couldn't handle it and bombed OKC.

I can definitely see horrifying incidents like that happening again, sadly.

I joined a "Stop The Steal" group on Facebook, just to read the temperature of the room on the other side. There are definitely some folks openly calling for civil war in these groups.

That's interesting

It's actually reassuring chatting with you. I think I've been watching too much Fox. Seeing their coverage you'd think everything’s up for grabs, and this election outcome is unclear, and pitchforks and torches, etc. But from your reporting the Trumpers seems more pacified.

I don't claim to know the answer but that's my feeling. I wouldn't call them pacified but a full on civil war seems very unlikely. When was the last civil war in a country as rich as America? The vast majority of these people live in comfortable homes and have plenty of food. They have large trucks and boats.

Those are on Biden's grab-list, right after the guns. I mean duh. Why does he hate freedom so much? Gas-guzzling megamachines are a god-given right. It's in the 2nd amendment I’m purty sure.

Haha they're coming for our boats! But let's not talk too too much about politics.

Are you burnt out? You've only been on the campaign trail for 10 months.

I am burnt out, yes, but also I consider you a photo master and historian so I hate to miss the chance to talk photos with you.

A proud amateur at both pursuits. OK, we can talk shop. Which photos or photobooks have you seen lately that strike a chord?  Which photobooks are you considering as models when you put your own book together? 

My knowledge of photo books is actually so limited. I have a lot of studying to do. I think Joel Sternfeld's American Prospects is something that really has stuck with me, and sort of a loose model for me. And the work of Lee Friedlander and Mary Ellen Mark.

American Prospects is a big book in physical size, and also the photos themselves feel expansive. I kind of imagine your pictures as tighter windows into reality.

Yeah I'd love to make something of really high quality in terms of printing and paper and all that. There's too much to learn.

Do you have a publisher?

I don't have a publisher. I actually have a big bag of film to develop that I've lugged around the whole country. I guess we'll see if there's enough in that bag for a book.

I've seen a lot already that should be in the book.

If you say that then I know I have enough.

When you mentioned limited photo books and lugging things around, it reminded me that you're basically living in a car for the past several months. Which limits any acquisition of books or prints, and probably limits ability to see any photos not on a screen. 

Exactly right. I can't really buy or order anything. I don’t really stay in one place for long enough and the car is pretty full of clothes and photo gear. I used to go to the ICP library a lot when I was in NYC and look at everything. But it's been constant work and photographing for a long time.

That's a good way to be for a while. No attachments. I have gone through periods like that but they were long ago and none recently. But it can be healthy. What's the plan for the immediate future? Is your election coverage done? When is the trip over?

I think I will transition to the editing process now. Look at everything I have and start to think about how to pull it together. Which includes the video work. It feels like a monumental task tbh.

I'm surrounded by miscellaneous boxes of prints at home, which means that every waking moment here feels like I'm facing a huge task. It’s kind of overwhelming and the end result is nothing ends up happening. So that might be a forewarning. I think I have the book title for you: Strange Victory...Strange Defeat.

Nothing Ends Up Happening could also be a good one. But yeah I cribbed my name from the genius David Berman.

Maybe you can get permission to list all the song lyrics as a preface? An homage to the late great singer.

Squirrels imported from Connecticut

Just in time for fall

How much fun is a lot more fun?

Not much fun at all

Very smart Blake. Will you come on the project? These are the ideas I need, ha.

Sinna in action, Eugene, August 2020

What was your general impression of Eugene when you visited?

Big fan of Eugene mainly because of the people I met. You of course, and I randomly interviewed Tim Lewis who is a film maker who did some cool work on the Unibomber and the hard core environmentalist movements. We keep in touch

The shirtless guy in your video.

Yeah, great dude. But yeah it was crazy to watch your process. I could never tell what you were taking a picture of, which definitely inspired me.

I never know until I see the photos. Well, I kinda know. But that approach only works in some situations. It’s not a good method covering politics for news outlets.

I'm always trying to make different work from the photographers around me. There’s a voice in my head at these events telling me to push it further than what others are doing. You have a singular style that inspires me because it’s so unique.

Thanks for the vote of confidence, but I try to avoid any style. Every single exposure has its own complications and requires its own unique approach. I think shooting events which are heavily covered by many photographers is difficult in that respect. Because it's hard to claim your own material in a feeding frenzy. Or at least that's my impression, I haven't tried it much. Winogrand was a pro at that stuff. You look at his photos from these major events that were heavily photographed by others concurrently (Public Relations). Press conferences, sporting events, galas, etc. He had a knack for finding just the right space and moment to do his own thing. And his photos don't look like anyone else’s, or even like themselves.

Garry Winogrand, New York City, 1969

It is much easier to claim your own vision when there is no other photographer within 2 miles. Which is most often the case when I'm shooting here in Eugene. I feel like I have the whole place to myself.

It’s a big struggle definitely, but a lot of my time is spent in the middle of nowhere as well. The events are pretty few and far between recently.

You said you are in the desert now. Did you bring your camera?

I have taken just a few shots in the last 2 days. The first short break from shooting and editing i've had in a long time. It's interesting what constantly photographing for 6 months will do to your brain. I don’t think I’ve really figured it out yet but there's definitely an effect.

6 months? Try 25 years! My brain is toast, haha.

Haha, they should scan your brain for posterity.

They’ll just find a bunch squirrels, imported from Connecticut.

(All photos above  © Sinna Nasseri unless otherwise noted.)