A conversation with William Chan

By Eve O’Shea

Photograph from “Ten Years After Iraq,” 2015

Artist and Season IV NARS Foundation resident William Chan describes his work and photographic book.


EOS: How do you consider the role of photography in relation to the experience that you’re documenting? This is a subject that could fall within the realm of documentary, and yet it is also your personal experience — do you feel that your photographs are more similar to journalism or documentary?

WC: I think I think all images are the same. But the rules that you set for your audience allow them to have boundaries to read the work. If I make something and say, “This is a documentary film,” then my audience will know that they expect a certain level of truth and transparency, but with the same exact footage or content — if I say it’s a narrative film, then they will expect less of it. If some of my images are to be used, say, on the cover of the New York Times, I would expect the New York Times to clarify whether I am a reporter, or if it’s art. I think the role of the conveyor, or the middle person, is to let the audience know what is true or not, or what the boundary is. I don’t think of myself as a photojournalist in any way. But I do work with them a lot; I just don’t want to be confined by that limitation, in which everything has to be perfect, because I don’t believe an image is a true representation of anything, aside from what it suggests. I don’t believe in absolute truth, let alone an image, so I try to avoid that.

But at least if I say that my work is documentary, versus fine art, I’m letting the audience know that it’s kind of true — it’s true as the New York Times. As a general statement, I don’t believe that there’s an absolute truth; it’s always subjective. Even in this Q&A interview, it’s very subjective. And just like most of the time. Haha.

EOS: As you were taking photos, did you have any of those distinctions or intentions in mind?

WC: I would say that first, when I went there, I was not into art at all. My education up to that point was undergrad in finance. I didn’t even go to grad school or even go into art until way later with the GI Bill. It was documenting, on a tourist level, almost as if I knew I was going to space tomorrow. If I went to Mars, I would bring a bunch of cameras because I knew I would never go back to Mars. In that sense, it was not serious documentation, that tourism-type thing. That’s also an indictment on people like myself — most soldiers — their priority is to get home, their priority is always going to like a safari type of thing. That’s an indictment on the US in general.

So yeah, it was vacation photo-ish, but a really one-time trip — like, you would not expect to go back — so you take a lot of photos. That’s what was in my mind, and I took hundreds of photos. What I show are a fairly small slice of the older photos I’ve taken. Most of them are just my friends drinking coffee, and a lot of pranks, things like that.

EOS: So then afterwards, you went back to them, and that’s what these photos are.

WC: Basically, that particular book that I use a lot of photos from is really about PTSD and reconciling. I needed to say sorry for what I was a part of. Mostly it was a poem; I made a book out of it. But really, it’s just words, words to say I’m sorry. And the pictures serve as an ambiance for what I’m trying to say. It’s not really a photo book; I don’t look at it as a photo book. It’s just that as an artist, how can I make you look? How do I get your attention for five minutes? If I just gave you a sheet of loose leaf paper with those words, I don’t think people would read it. I don’t know how to get people’s attention. But a nice big book kind of forces people to give just a few minutes of their time. I think that as an artist, it’s often about how to buy attention when you’re competing against the internet and memes and things like that.

It literally takes you five minutes to go through, and I hope it kind of lets you ruminate, and then you can look at it again for another five minutes. It’s like a good song. I don’t know. I don’t know how to explain it. It is definitely meant to be an experience — the book just controls the pace of what I’m trying to say. I could easily say it in thirty seconds but it would not mean much to the audience. How do I pace the audience to have them come to my conclusion? I think that’s kind of the trick of being an artist.