Deana Lawson

The photographer, recently arrived in New York, steps out from behind the lens.

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Photograph: Roxana Marroquin

Much of your work consists of photographic portraits that suggest a high degree of intimacy. Can you talk about this image, entitled Champagne?
I photograph family, friends and strangers, and I operate on the belief that my own being is found in union with those I take pictures of. Early on, I concentrated on my family, mostly—my mom, aunts and cousins. Once I realized that my intentions extended beyond them, I began photographing strangers as well. I don’t have one method of meeting people; the concept determines the search, and often it requires just being bold enough to ask. I met Champagne in the course of an evening that began in a lounge in upstate New York. It’s always nerve-racking to bring out a camera in the first few moments you’re in a new place and that night was no exception­—everyone was looking at me like, “What the hell are you doin’ with a camera in here?” But eventually people got comfortable with the camera, and I even got a few requests to take pictures.

What’s the role of history in your work? Not just art history but personal and cultural history as well.
For me, it functions in two categories: internal history and external history. The first is the personal, familial and psychological experience of the subject and director—myself. The second, all of the things (culture, art, politics, philosophy) that exist outside the body, and which neither the subject nor myself have any say in, but still affect us. One of the most difficult things to navigate for any person is to reconcile their own state of being with past experiences and historical baggage. My intention is to make work that addresses the multiple layers of these varying and often opposing stories.


Champagne

Photograph: Courtesy of the Artist

You just moved here from New Haven. What do expect could happen now that you’re a New Yorker?
I have never lived here for an extended period of time, yet I feel like I’ve returned home. I see New York as the land of specificity. It’s a bit intimidating because I’m more familiar with photographing and connecting with people in smaller communities. Still, I look forward to navigating the territory here. Random shit happens in New York, and that’s what I love about it.

What’s a recent work you made that you feel really good about, or that you learned a lot from?
Many of my photographs have a surrounding narrative that can’t be captured in a singular image. While most of my practice involves picture taking, I have simultaneously been working on a film, which allows for further investment into narrative. The film is particularly challenging because of its personal nature: It focuses partly on my identical twin sister, who has battled multiple sclerosis since she was 18. But the film also has a certain self-reflexive nature that’s present in my photos.

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