An interview I did
Critically-reclaimed photographer Garry Cook is about to step into the unknown with his most superlative project to date. His reward-winning show is a ground-breaking theatre-based cross-platform consciously-conceived contemporary concept where documentary photography meets verbatim theatre meets community non-engagement across a table of social issues, human rights and compassion without condiments. This thoughtlessly-provoking absurd notion infiltrates the resurgence of people in an inhumane world where propaganda, tyranny and smoking cigarettes are socially acceptable schisms. His noir-fetish genius is encountered here through a diverse interview where the themes of his show – war, weirdos and wankers – are discussed alongside other philosophical prophesisings.
What is Photographing Fags, Freaks and Fighting about?
Photographing Fags, Freaks and Fighting is about the fight in our lives. The fight between selfishness and selflessness, the fight between right and wrong, the fight between us and them. It looks at human behaviour, ignorance and prejudice and how we judge people who are different from us. I ask questions about what is important to an individual and how disassociated we have become from the world around us. You could almost describe it as a series of contrasts, the biggest contrast being that despite the serious subject matter it is quite funny.
What can the audience expect if they turn up?
They will see three documentary photography slideshows presented in an innovative way. The wrapping is that they will be entertained. At the heart of all this is a desire to discuss some serious issues but I’ve never lost sight of the aim to engage with the audience through shock, surprise and humour. When you leave any theatre you don’t remember every word spoken or every bit of every scene, you remember how you felt – that’s where your memories come from, the feelings. This show will give you new feelings, most of them good.
What was the inspiration behind Photographing Fags, Freaks and Fighting?
I’ve always explored different ways to bring photography to a wider audience. The traditional methods are obviously exhibitions and books. I’ve experimented with printing images on objects. I’ve also added music and video to photo projects, anything to try and increase one person’s engagement with a single image. In a museum, the average amount of time an individual looks at a piece of art is 30 seconds – but for a photograph it is less than five seconds. Maybe as little as two seconds. I wanted to do something which engaged directly with an audience and which extended this interaction between a viewer and an image. I’ve been fortunate to witness, close up, the work of some extraordinary performers. They opened up the possibilities to me. It took a while to work out exactly how bringing photography into a theatre situation could work but once I made that first breakthrough, which was a five-minute sequence I first performed at the Liverpool International Photography Festival, the reaction of the audience was enough to know that it would work.
You avoid revealing personal information in your work. Why is this?
I come from a journalistic background. And I don’t mean the sensationalism of cheap sex stories, celebrity paparazzi photographs and scandal. My desire was always to tell a story as fairly and accurately as possible. This invariably was someone else’s story. My opinion was always irrelevant. I still feel like this in my head, where the story I want to tell is never my own and, over time, this developed into a morbid fear of revealing myself through words.
Sometimes I want to write about how I’m really feeling and my emotions but the acute fear of exposing myself stops me. When this feeling is mixed with the emotional reluctance of a slightly stiff upper-lipped British man, you end up with a toxic combination of reluctance. Maybe I should think of my experiences as a commodity, to dissect and publish as confession. But have I really done anything which is that interesting? No. And why go through the pain of mining myself for something to write about when Sting has spent 40 years doing this so that he could describe how I feel?
How do you feel?
I can’t tell you that.
Can you describe your career to date?
I’ve written for over 40 national and international newspapers and magazines. My photography has been exhibited in London, Liverpool, Manchester, Preston and Blackpool. I’ve written several books, most of them include documentary photography alongside words. Kids also like my rhyming Albert the Pug books. I did the drawings too.
You say you struggle to write about yourself, but one of your books – Stay At Home Dads Are Not Welcome Here – is about your personal experience of taking your daughter to play groups full of mothers while another, Palestiniana, is a commentary on the conflict between Israel and Palestine seen through your five-day trip across the West Bank. You say you don’t write about yourself but have actually written two books written in the first person in an almost diary-like form. Is this not a contradiction?
How can you say that?
What I mean is, I’m so emotionally reclusive that I am unable to write about my own deep feelings and insecurities, so instead have used a mechanism of writing about my own everyday, mundane experiences to allow me to describe the extreme situations of others. In Palestiniana, these others were Palestinians. In Stay At Home Dads, they were men.
But you are a man.
Yes, but while writing that book I still felt like a journalist writing about the experience of being a lone dad in a room full of mad women.
You came across as a man who was complaining that he was not a woman.
That’s because I was.
Is Photographing Fags, Freaks and Fighting your best ever work?
I know everyone always says it, but this is my best piece of work. And this time I really mean it when I say it.
Is there anything else you would like to add?