James Mollison

Master Photographers on Their Art.

James and Other Apes, 2004. Bob Dylan - Brixton Academy, London, 22 December 2005. Oasis - Manchester Stadium, Manchester, 3 July 2005.

I developed intuitively. Through accidents, luck, and love of photography I’ve come to this point. I have always been more interested by how the world works than by fiction or the supernatural. My work starts from an observation and then I try to allude to that story in photographs. Nearly always the story is based around a series of images, which I try to make work as a whole; individual photographs, though they are important, don’t matter as much.


I often use the “typological approach,” the process of making innumerable similar photographs of the same kind of thing. I might change method depending on what is relevant to the project. My work often explores ideas around identity.


Photography’s unique relationship with reality gives it its power. It has a connection in a way that painting doesn’t. Although we know photos are more likely to lie than tell the truth, they can seduce us with the feeling we are seeing a window on the world. As a photographer, I have the chance to construct that window—to make something neat out of a chaotic world.


Where do I start? I’ll usually read, see, or hear something that relates to my experience, and then wonder if there is a way to allude to that in pictures. I try to be conscious of what has been done before in the history of photography—and may take inspiration from it. With James and Other Apes, I was watching a nature program on primates. I was struck by their facial similarity to our own. I thought it would be interesting to try to photograph the great apes using the aesthetic of the passport photograph— the ubiquitous style inferring the idea of identity. As I wondered how to do it I thought about Robert Capa’s famous quote: “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.” I decided it would help to have an intimacy from close proximity. (I was seventy centimeters away from all of the apes.) I also took inspiration from Bernd and Hilla Becher, with their photographs all taken head-on from the same distance, with a flat perspective and even light shown in grid format.


With Disciples, I was in LA and noticed how many girls resembled Britney Spears. I wondered if it was a conscious decision on their part, and thinking there might be a project in it, I set up a website called doyoulooklikebritney.com. I didn’t get any responses. I would have gone to a Britney concert to investigate, but she wasn’t touring. I took my camera to a Marilyn Manson concert instead.


Manson’s fans were amazing, but when I got the film back, I was slightly disappointed with the individual portraits I’d taken. No one stood out particularly. When I looked at the portraits as a group, however, I thought something much more interesting emerged. This is how I began making group photographs of music fans. As with James and Other Apes, I decided to use the typological approach, and asked people to stand simply and look into camera. It was interesting that with different types of music, people too posed in different ways.


I hope my photographs will make people reflect on the idea or issue for that project. Maybe think about something they haven’t before. I’m very aware you can’t control what the viewer will think, and that there are many other readings depending on the viewer’s background. With James and Other Apes, I wanted people to think about our relationship to the animal world: as humans we’re clearly different to a worm, or even a dog, but the great apes being so genetically similar ask uncomfortable questions. I am amazed that in the USA a Gallup poll conducted in 2008 found that only 15 per cent of people agreed with the proposition that “humans developed over millions of years.” I hope that my pictures would make them think again. With other viewers who accept the theory of evolution, maybe they might think about ideas of identity, of animals we tend to think of as generic.


There are also other readings: I made a deliberate decision not to photograph apes trained for movies, as I was aware of the abuse issues involved. To reinforce the idea of identity, each ape has a brief bio at the back of the book. Here I was able to tell the story of the bush-meat trade, live pet trade, and threat to their habitat.


With Disciples, I was interested in how people form their identities from within groups, and how people emulate celebrity to form their identity—with the sometimes comic outcomes when they don’t have the stylist and professional hairdresser at their disposal.


Photography is the most amazing key to the world. I feel very privileged to experience the world through photography, and to have met the people that I have because of it. It is incredible to have photography as a witness to my life and what I’ve done.


The worse thing is the feeling that everything has been done, and how can you come up with something interesting, or in some way a new take on what has been done before. It can stifle you and stop you making work. That is why getting a commission to photograph something can be so liberating.