Leslie Reed is a photographer and video artist who has worked with human rights and environmental orgs around the world.
What were your initial experiences with art? What convinced you that this was the path to take?
Art was part of my daily life growing up. Thanks to my parents, it was always around in one form or another. I remember being about six or seven-years-old, standing spellbound under the Diego Rivera Industry Murals at The Detroit Institute of Arts with my mother. I can still close my eyes and picture specific details like the godlike, reclining figures above, their hands filled with sand, limestone, coal/diamond, and ore. I recall thinking about being human in a new way as I looked at them, about my place in the world. On a much smaller scale, our little apartment became a kind of rotating exhibition because my mother would check out paintings from the local library. At this time, my father directed plays at the historic Eastown Theater in Detroit, formerly a movie palace. I was allowed to explore this vast, majestic space freely, as I learned about the craft of performing. Being in theater allowed me to take part in creating a temporal experience for an audience, which was thrilling, and gave me an early appreciation for the transformative power of light.
I love that the medium of photography is literally light itself, suspended in time. Chasing light over the years has offered limitless possibilities to describe and alter perception, which has kept me on this path. I began photographing seriously on a cross country trip to national parks as a young teenager. It became a license to explore and felt like a natural extension of my interests in art, writing and science. Using the camera became a way to channel my sense of flux and impermanence, left over from moving constantly. Photographs can be equally subjective and vividly real, fluid as language. As Susan Sontag said, photographing involves the “creation of a duplicate world, of a reality in the second degree, narrower but more dramatic than the one perceived by natural vision.” By photographing, I try to harness the power of this dynamic, duplicate world to communicate and connect.
*Susan Sontag, On Photography (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1977), 52.
Your work shifts diversely between documentary and surrealist and abstract approaches. What do you find is the personal or communicative benefit of this kind of flexibility?
I think it comes down to a desire to be fluid and responsive in the work, and in blurring the line between approaches to find new meaning and connections. Geoff Dyer has said of Alec Soth’s photographs, “These are images not just of places at a particular time, but of a kind of documentary dream time.” This notion of dream time within a photographic document speaks to me about the power of photography to transform subjects and record the unseen. Categories like documentary, surrealist, abstraction involve historical expectations and, by playing with these strategically, I hope to subvert preconceptions and generate critical conversation around social constructs, such as industry, class, nationality, and gender. I value the open perspective of the nomad, described by philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari as an individual who continually responds and adapts to shifting inner and outer territories. This view is not limited to travel or physical movement as it is essentially a state of mind. By photographing, I must alter my way of being in the world to see it clearly. All the myriad possibilities and staggering contradictions, inherent in any subject, come to the foreground.
In relation to humanity's relationship to nature, what have you found are some of your core themes and thoughts?
As we speak, hurricane Irma is devastating the Caribbean and is on a projected path to my doorstep here in Florida. There is no way to control this, only to prepare for it as best we can and help each other. A theme that comes up a lot in my work is the level of futility/absurdity in the human will to control nature, to live as if we are separate from it. I am interested in our shared history of territory, dominion, stewardship, exploration and expansion and how to learn from it.
I see a tendency to view the environment as either uninhabitable, vast and dangerous or inviting and ripe for development. The balance is delicate and our collective actions have consequences. I advocate going out into nature and embracing wildness to reconnect with the places we inhabit, unfettered by human interventions.
Please tell us a bit about your residency on the Falkor.
I was honored to be the first artist-at-sea onboard the research vessel Falkor, on a transit across the Pacific from Guam to Hawaii. I felt a desire to represent the wild and untamable force of the ocean, rather than present it as a tranquil, inviting, and endlessly exploitable resource. I attempted to represent the immense scale, power and potential of the ocean, but also its paradoxical fragility. Enacting this ritual of shooting photographs, on the heaving, swaying ship, as waves blasted my cameras with spray, and then rushing to collect samples and write down data, became a performative gesture. I immersed exposed film directly in seawater. This practice allowed the ocean to mark the film in unpredictable ways. These marks are a record of its turbulent presence, and describe the untamable, primordial nature of the sea. I also hoped these marks would visualize the impact of increasing acidification on the marine environment, which is threatened by human activities on a daily basis.
Disorientation and loss of control are ever-present dangers at sea, as the constant motion and unchanging horizon distort the perception of scale, location and time. There was no way to fully prepare for this dislocating experience, which required letting go and responding intuitively.
A woman on a ship was considered highly unlucky until recently, and ship culture remains undeniably masculine. As the only artist onboard, a woman, a lesbian, and one of only three Americans, I wanted to prove that I could withstand the challenges of working at sea. I felt devastated when seasickness left me incapacitated for the first day and elated when it passed a day later. The crew reacted to me with baffled curiosity and detachment at first. As the days passed, I got my sea legs, and we began to trade stories and connect. Differences fell away, as the winds reached gale force and the sea became rough. I realized that all of us on the ship, were nothing but a tiny speck upon this endless horizon.
In your life and circumstances, what has been the most enjoyable and effective way for you to take care of your environment?
I gave up eating meat over twenty years ago, for personal and ecological reasons. There are so many reasons to become vegetarian, from improved health to reducing the impact of climate change and pollution. Raising animals for food actually produces more emissions than all forms of transportation combined, according to my research. From bringing bags to the grocery store, repurposing things, living modestly, picking up trash, growing food and recycling, small changes in daily habits can go a long way toward taking care of the environment. Communities around the world are repurposing waste in innovative ways like bottle bricking trash to create building materials, which I learned about while participating in the Sustainable Living Road Show. It was a spectacle of communal sustainable living, as we traveled cross-country in a biodiesel bus, using performance to educate people at various events. Local activism is also very rewarding. For example, I participate in the movement against the Sabal Trail pipeline here in Florida by protesting and spreading awareness. Actions like these have led, in part, to a successful lawsuit against the company for failing to complete the greenhouse gas impacts of the project, which may prevent it from continuing. Taking direct steps, especially in the current political climate, leads to a renewed sense of empowerment.