Mike MANDEL | Interview (Issue #51)

The following interview with Mike Mandel has been made in 2016 by Kontrast Magazine::

Mr. Mandel, can you tell us about the work you did with Larry Sultan in 1977, with the photographs you compiled from the archives?

In the late 1970s, a few people outside the frame of traditional academic photography community were trying to discover how to use the photo in other ways. Among them were a book prepared by Mitchell Payne and Ken Graves, a project that emphasized the cultural importance of snapshot photography. New York Museum of Modern Art photo curator John Szarkowski even published a book called From The Picture Press. He collected all the interesting photographs he could find in the press and published them as a compilation. Another artist, Michael Lesey, wrote a book called Wisconsin Death Trip, which examines commercial photographs taken by a photographer living in a small town in Midwest. Thus, it was interesting that there were some situations in which a photograph was seen outside of the usual fine art, and even though it had a cultural meaning, none of these activities aimed at creating a change and was nothing more than a collection of interesting objects. This is where the importance of Evidence arises. Evidence, as Marcel Duchampis agreed, is based on the concept of changing the content and giving the photo a new meaning. So, together with Larry Sultan, we found some realistic shots formerly aimed to be used for some engineering projects and presented them with a new content: we have prepared a book of pictures lined up in a row, each of which affects the following. And these photos were inherently realistic, and were mainly documents of organizations that produced energy, weapons and space technology, such as Jet Propulsion Laboratories, Lockheed Aircraft, United Technologies, and many other organizations working on creating the future. All of these organizations were based in California, where we lived, manufacturing weapons, spacecraft, and missiles. They were architects and engineers trying to built some kind of future. We thought we could visit this place and look at the photos in their archives. The organizations gave us this opportunity, and we took these images and invented a new story that we thought might change the message that was intended to be given at the beginning. In other words, these organizations were building the idea of a technological future, but the photos we found showed the existence of a strange, evil-looking environment and inhumanity dismembering the body. So we used the images they produced. They may not have realized, but it was a cynical answer to their existence.

Can we get your opinion on found photography and appropriation?

I think that the appropriation of old photographs is being a lot more in use today, because we understand how electronic archives on the web provide a new look at found photographs. There are people like Trevor Paglen, who works with photos of organizations like NASA, or people who use Google street images to create a map of the world. Artists take these images and turn them into something else. Therefore, there is a new opportunity to use all the electronic images that we can have access to. I think it’s great. It gives us the chance to improve our thinking about photography. Therefore, a very interesting new concept of photography has appeared.

What can you tell us about postmodern art, which draws attention to the difference between production and consumption, creation and copying, ready-made and created concepts?

In the late 1970s, we began to move away from the innovative approach that suggested that the artist working in Photography had to take his camera and express himself to the world. There was such a narrow view. That’s what the picture meant. There was such a narrow view. That’s what the picture meant. Current modern photographers such as Walker Evans, Edward Weston expressed their understanding of form, society, beauty and then their way of thinking through their cameras. This is extremely good and true, the perfect tradition of photography. Since postmodernism and the innovative movement, all the issues that have been overlooked in the social use of photography as a source have begun to emerge. Today, photography is not only expressing its own approach, but it looks at the cultural significance of Photography in the world and this view includes all the opportunities to think about everything concerning advertising, journalism, fashion and social media as a source. Artists who want to work in the field of photography no longer have to necessarily use a camera. This new understanding has diversified the notion of what photography means and developed the idea of what it means to think of oneself as an artist working in the field of photography.

We’re all consuming photos. Some of us produce photos, some of us don’t. To me, whether we take pictures or whether we just collect pictures nowadays does not matter. All the possibilities of photo collection are there, and it doesn’t matter anymore. There are really great artists who work behind the camera to make projects that convey a certain idea, and there are great artists who are responsible for creating works of art that convey an important message without using the camera. Photography has evolved and now the definition of a photographer and/or artist is a much wider and richer.

Can you tell us about your latest work?

My wife and I have worked on two books together: one is called They Came to Baghdad and the other Lockdown Archives. When we were preparing these two books, we used the images we found on the web. I would like to talk about Baghdad first. It was the time when we were looking for a metaphor for America’s first invasion of Iraq. In the past, at that time, the American government had created a fiction: that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Thus, America was able to convince many countries around the world that there was an ethical reason for them to stop Saddam Hussein from using those weapons. The countries involved in this war were called “coalitions of willing” and consisted of 40 countries that invaded Iraq to overthrow Saddam Hussein. Of course we all know what was going on, but that’s another story. As artists, we wanted to play with the idea of those “willing” countries and maybe turn it back on them. We found the book They Came to Baghdad by Agatha Christie, author of mystery novels, and we thought it was a very convenient title because those who came from outside the Middle East came to Iraq to fix a problem that we know no longer exists. His novels are translated into many languages around the world. Her novels have been translated into many languages around the world. So we found a copy of this book in 40 different languages. All covers were translated into Korean, Arabic etc… Together with the cover of forty books, we also found photographs and stories from forty countries participating in the coalition on the web. So, we have collected images from forty countries such as Bulgaria, China, Finland, the Czech Republic, France, Hungary, Iceland, joining the coalition. We have collected a variety of personal stories about why people joined this coalition. An interesting example was that the North Korean Union wanted to know what it was like to be there, since they would go to the other side of the world. They wanted to know about the culture and decided that they should be Muslims before going to Iraq. It was amazing to see how they joined and committed themselves. Another story was about a Dominican American soldier who fought against Iraq in the US Army. He and his wife were living in America, and when he was in Iraq, he was deported from America because his wife was not a citizen. So while he was fighting for the men’s coalition, his wife was expelled from the country. These were two of the stories we found were related to the participating countries and the whole book is about them. The last part was about companies making money in Iraq. Some companies had the privilege of providing security or food, some had oil contracts. So the book is divided into three parts describing what happened in Iraq. And all the images, the information could be accessed from the web, and what we did was compile and represent them.

The second project is called Lockdown Archive. As you may recall, there was a bombing at the Boston Marathon a few years ago. In this tragedy, several people were killed and many were injured. The two Tsarnaev brothers had planned another terrorist attack and went from Boston to New York. But, because they ran out of money, they chose the town of Watertown in Massachusetts to stop and recover, where coincidentally my wife Chantal and I live. They came to visit their friends here, the police spotted them, there was an armed conflict, where one of them died, and the other escaped. All of this happened in the middle of the night, and the next day, Watertown, a small town, was completely locked down. Thousands of cops and soldiers were landing in our town. It wasn’t coordinated or planned. They had heard what happened and they had come. They were completely self-propelled. It was a chaotic situation. Thousands of cops and soldiers were looking for the entire town to find the terrorist. They went in and searched the houses. Many people were forced to take off their clothes to be searched and some were imprisoned. Our town was so to speak under military occupation. So we collected the images that people uploaded on the web. Special forces came to our neighbors’ house, searched the town, went into houses, searched homes, and people took photos of the soldiers and police, what they saw from their window, and tanks out there, basically of what was happening! And we put the photos of the cops in our backyard on the web. This was a very serious military overreaction, all chaotic, dispersed. The military and police units were trying to find the kid who was one of the terrorists in the town. In late afternoon, the forces announced the end of the lockdown, 18 hours after it began. Forty-five minutes later, a neighbor with a boat in the backyard noticed that the tarp got loose. When he went out and looked at the boat, he saw a terrorist lying in the middle of a bloodbath. So our neighbor found the terrorist that thousands of cops and soldiers couldn’t find. It was a heavy experience for all of us. We sat in our homes and watched it on TV or on the internet. (…) We compiled a documentary book, an archive of this event, by collecting all the images we could find uploaded by the residents of Watertown. This was the largest police operation in America, and our book was a record of this extraordinary experience. The archive helped us to better understand what happened to people, how the police and the military could not work in harmony to carry out the investigation, and how thousands of soldiers couldn’t work when there was no coordination. What if there had been more than two people and they’d had a well-organized plan? We wouldn’t have been prepared to deal with such a situation. This book, containing photographs of 18 hours, was our last project. While preparing this book, we also made another artistic work related to the book, and produced a series of commemorative plates, similar to those prepared to commemorate important events. Like ceramic Atatürk plates hanging in the living room of people in Turkey. There were classic floral patterns and photos we received from the web in the middle of these plates. We made six different designs, and a company producing souvenir plates produced them. The project was a cynical reaction to the incident. It was a reminder of a situation that never should have happened in the first place. We called this project “shelter in plates”; we made a word game here, as we were ordered to stay in shelter in place. You can find this project under the following link: …

Dear Mike Mandel, thank you so much for your time with us…

Please click here for Michael Mandel’s portfolio.