Innate empathy, aching vulnerability and nobility of spirit. San Francisco based street photographer and aspiring filmmaker Peter Earl McCollough turns to be a sophisticated artist with a rare aptitude to feel and understand nature in human terms. After serving four years (2000-2004) in the United States Marine Corps, he began studying photography in Sacramento. In 2008 he received a Bachelor of Science in Visual Communication with an emphasis in Photojournalism. Since then, the artist has never stopped documenting the human fragility and harshness of contemporary society. In an endearingly honest interview, McCollough candidly reveals the thoughts and stories behind some of his stunning photographs, precious relics of the lost purity of the past.
Hi Peter, could you please introduce yourself and tell a little bit about your educational background?
Hi! Sure, I’m 29-years old, I grew up in the Davis and Sacramento region of California and attended college at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio. I’ve been a freelance photographer living in San Francisco for 2-years now. I’m an introvert, I love cinema and am an aspiring filmmaker working towards being a cinematographer. In my spare time I like to paint and write. My favorite color is sea foam green and I love black licorice and coffee.
You joined the United States Marine Corps in 2000 at the age of 18. Where were you and what did you do there.
When I was 17 I signed up for the Marines so I could pay for college but I couldn’t go to boot camp until I finished High School and turned 18. Not long after I signed up (December 1999) I fell in love with a girl, discovered photography, got my first camera and took my first road trip. So when it was time for me to leave for the Marines, I had a bad feeling about it but it was too late to get out. My time in the military was rough and I didn’t like it at all. It did take me all over the world and teach me some important things, albeit the hard way. When I was a Marine I lived on a ship for 6 months, sailing from California to Africa and back with lots of stops in between. In 2003 I was deployed for Kuwait where I took part in the initial invasion of Iraq. Because I was in communications, I was able to bounce around from assault oriented missions to more removed and strategic work. But if I knew what I know now back then, I would have steered clear of the military.
How did you become interested in photojournalism, and what formal training, if any, did you have?
I fell in love with photography because it felt like a natural was to emote. After the military, Photojournalism seemed like an appropriate fit for me because I was really interested in trying to make a difference with telling untold stories. I started out by taking black and white film classes at Sacramento City College and shooting for the school and local newspapers. Eventually I transferred to the School of Visual Communications at Ohio University where they have a really competitive photojournalism program. My time in Ohio was the bulk of my formal photographic training.
What does your equipment consist of?
For the past year, thanks to an award I won through the LOOK3 Photo Festival and Leica Camera, I’ve been shooting a project with the Leica M9. Using the M9, which is a digital rangefinder, has been a really insightful experience because usually I shoot a canon 5D / 35mm 1.4. So switching to a small and all manual camera has forced a much more intimate and spontaneous relationship with taking pictures that I at first disliked but now enjoy. Other than that, I occasionally shoot portraits and landscapes with a Mamiya 7, but most often I prefer the smaller, more discrete cameras.
The series Innocence Lost gives us an in-depth insight into your intimate life and old relationships during that time. What kind of image of that experience do you think your work portrays?
I’m not sure what people see when they look at those images but I hope they convey a sense of loss or desperation. That’s really what that time of my life was about; being stuck in a harsh institution for 4 years, losing my freedom, my creativity, my youth, going to war, coming back from war and suffering from ptsd and then losing the girl I was in love with. As much of a bummer as that sounds, I think if someone found the images optimistic, inspiring or exciting I would feel like I failed at communicating the reality of the situation. The reality of that period of my life was that I was miserable and I lost everything I loved, internally and externally.
“The photographs, like words, are meaningless when isolated…”(Antoine D’Agata). In no particular order, here are five isolated photographs of yours we’d love to know more about. Would you please describe them for us?
Oh man, I feel vulnerable explaining these pictures cause the way in which I string them in my narratives is much more interesting than the stories behind the photos themselves, hence the D’Agata quote. But I’ll try to shed some light on what exactly they’re about and what they mean.
Flint, Michigan, 2007. American flags can’t be thrown away when old and needing to be replaced, they must be ceremoniously burned or retired. This kid was from a “young marine” program that was in charge of burning hundreds if not thousands of folded flags that day. The situation, considering my background, became a personal metaphor. The image represents the moment I realized I was being used for profit and conquest and that I had lost my dreams.
Flint, Michigan, 2007. This image was taken during the beginning of my newspaper internship at the Flint Journal, during a 5-hour evangelical, anti-violence tour conducted by several local churches. We went to an apartment complex notorious for violent crimes; to a school lot where elementary children were allegedly having sex and transmitting HIV. At each location a different Pastor from each church would stand on stage and lead the group, preaching loudly, adamantly. This particular parking lot was the last stop of the day. A slab of asphalt in an isolated part of town squeezed between train tracks and a night club. Several people had been killed and wounded at this location during a recent incident. One of the church members, after a passionate sermon, blew into a large shofar. People began to speak in tongues and others were exclaiming “hallelujah,” A few walked through the parking lot with their arms out before them and their eyes closed. Many just laid on the wet ground in prayer, as if possessed by something higher.
San Francisco, California, 2010. As I mentioned in the post about SF Fleet Week, which is essentially a large PR event for the military, the event was really difficult for me to photograph. I boarded a ship that was open to civilians and realized while in line to board that it was the same unit I used to serve with. The ship was nearly identical to the one I lived on for half a year so the smells, sights and sounds of the ship brought back a time in my life I’ve tried since to forget. As I was experiencing this I was watching civilians playing with military gear and weapons that are designed for killing people as if they were toys. The whole experience was extremely unsettling for me.
To see a child like this playing with a .50 caliber machine gun on a helicopter that had just returned from Afghanistan made me ill. It reminds me of a story my Mother tells me of a time when we were at a public event together. She was talking to someone and turned around after a minute or so and saw me standing next to a Marine in dress blues who was letting me hold his sabre. I was four-years old and as my Mother tells me, amazed by this man with a sword. This is exactly the kind of thing that events like this are designed to do. They make war look clean, heroic, honorable and exciting for the next round of fighters. The American glorification of violence is something I grew up with, bought into and it’s something that almost killed me and ruined my life. So when I see the cycle repeating itself I feel like I have to speak out about it.
Athens, Ohio, 2008. The story behind this image is a secret – sorry! But if you really want to know the meaning behind it you can read a poem by Anne Sexton called “The Room of My Life.” It’s essentially about how insanity and ecstasy are the extremes of a spectrum but are the same thing – like a dot on a circle. That probably doesn’t come through in the image, but that’s what it means to me.
Flint, Michigan, 2007. During my time in Flint, which was only 5 months, I worked on a story about amateur cage fighting. It was pretty popular in that area at that time. I would see a lot of signs for it on the highway and around town so I decided to contact and follow a local MMA club. None of these guys make any money on this and they would often risk injury and hospital bills in order to fight. In this photo, I can’t remember if this guy broke another guy’s nose, or it was his own nose that was broken, but he was covered in blood after he won the fight which isn’t uncommon. The culture of cage fighting at that time in Michigan reminded me of the military. There were a lot of trained competitors, but also a lot troubled, angry younger men with something to prove getting pulled into an institution that was using them to serve itself. In this case, the fight promoters were often matching up anyone they could, despite their lack of experience, in order to book shows and make money. It was difficult for me to photograph all the fights I went to cause every bout just gave me anxiety. My goal was to shed some light on why these guys have to prove themselves in such a destructive way. But it was too hard for me to photograph in depth so the project ended up being a surface story on the sport itself. To this day I avoid watching or seeing any of that kind of stuff – it doesn’t do anybody any good.
Would you consider authenticity as a necessary condition to photography or any kind of art?
I would like to think so, but it’s actually quite easy to lie in a photograph and have it be fascinating and beautiful. But you can also authentically lie, right? These questions are so confusing! Photography is the most accessible and democratic medium I can think of. I see animals and tree stands taking pictures and in some ways those images feel more authentic than the work of a lot of well known photographers. I guess that in all art, the visual arts especially, there is the possibility of creating something “good” without being honest with yourself or your subject. Beauty divorced from truth doesn’t stand the test of time but truth in photography is a slippery thing because cameras are inherently liars. I do believe the art that becomes universal and timeless is born of an artist’s absolute necessity to communicate, explore and emote without regard to anything but what feels honest and right. Often, the greatest things we do are things we don’t understand. When I don’t fully understand what I’ve done and I feel that I had to complete the process no matter the result or the opinions of others then I know I was being authentic. If you can create something in a vacuum, feel challenged by it and get a sense of completion from the process then I guess your ego and motivations aren’t getting in the way. I’m still trying to figure all of this out myself, what I do know is that it’s easy to let ulterior motives slip into your creative processes (success, money, power) and the only way to combat that is to do what you feel is deeply mandatory.
Yours is a truly delicate photography. Your work – such as Innocence Lost, Mythos, My Own Personal Sun and I Feed The World Out There– is permeated with mystery and muted nostalgia. It gives a rare glimpse into the lives of the portrayed subjects whose names (or stories) you wish not to share with the viewer. There’s a certain kind of reticence, or better, a silent reverence about the way you decide to chronicle their lives through your camera. Am I wrong?
Wow – can I use that in my artist statement? I kid – but yeah, that’s a pretty accurate way of describing it. I’m really sensitive but also a person of extremes and I think that shows in my pictures. And I think you’re getting to the heart of my work when you reference the idea of using mystery, mood and anonymity to divorce the reality of what I photograph from the emotion it attempts to communicate. Photographing for me is about the idea of walking through the world as though it were full of sacred metaphors. It’s a very abstract process that’s probably ill suited for photography. The photographs I love to capture are the ones that trigger an emotional response or memory that boils out of me as though it were a foreign entity. When that happens you see yourself for what you really are. That’s what I love about street photography, it allows me to cover the entire city with an abstracted version of my life that I can subconsciously react to and explore. So in this way I’m very much not a photojournalist even though I work within the vocabulary of it. I mean, I can be a photojournalist, but it’s not my true method. I really struggled with long term documentary projects because it’s very easy to place my emotions on the subject and right now there’s just too much in me I don’t understand, so I have to operate this way. What I’m interested in is using real photographs out of context to build personal narratives – which is to say I’m a street photographer and photojournalist trying to make short films with his pictures. The idea of using images in that way excites me because when you put sequences together, there are really two narratives and two realities stacked on top of each other. It reminds me of string theory or a choose your own adventure book.
You also like experimenting with filmmaking, Peter. Which photographers/directors of the past – or present - inspire you the most?
I’m so glad you asked. I’m extremely inspired by David Lynch (so much so that I have a saying of his tattooed on my index fingers.) I love Werner Herzog and I’m crazy about Harmony Korine too. I love French new wave and I’m just now getting into Film Noir. I was raised on American Sci-Fi movies from the 80′s so that genre is very close to my heart as well. Some of my favorite films are Apocalypse Now, Gummo, Bladerunner, Even Dwarfs Started Small and David Lynch’s Grandmother.
What is your next assignment/project you’re currently working on?
Work wise, I’d like to focus on getting more magazine assignments this year. As far as personal projects I’ve been putting my energy into planning for several low budget films, which I’m very excited about. More often than not I’m terribly bored with how movies are shot photographically, so I’m hoping with my background in photojournalism I can offer something seen less often. I really believe that film making is where I belong and I’m finally feeling ready to make the transition from photographer to cinematographer so I think it’s going to be fantastic journey no matter the results.