Viewfinder: Kyler Zeleny
Canadian photographer Kyler Zeleny explains the pleasures of freestyle wandering, how being raised in a small town can affect your social skills, and the benefits of taking pie from strangers.
Kyler Zeleny is a Canadian PhD. student and photographer. He’s documented (mostly on stuff called “film“) his travels through the American South and the Canadian West, through small towns and open prairies. Zeleny takes trips in the summer, between class loads and teaching obligations, and makes quiet, thoughtful pictures of landscapes and the people who inhabit them. We recently caught him during a brief lull between school and shooting.
Daily Yonder: Tell me about your home town and how you grew up.
Kyler Zeleny: I grew up on a farm next to a small community, when I was growing up it had about 600 people. It has 850 now. I had a lot of open space. I had to use my imagination a lot. There wasn’t much to do. We had really only 3 channels on TV.
You had to be pretty creative quite early. I liked my small town… but I’m still trying to figure out what my relationship with that community is. I started to, over the last couple of years… actually photograph that community. In five years, that will be a project. I want to slowly comb through it and understand. I find this as a common thing where people who come from small communities feel close to them.
I personally would love to split my time in both. Maybe in the future, that’s something I can accomplish. I love large cities, and I love open spaces. I think that’s my growing up, and then where I’ve gone to school kind of informs both of those. I love people and some days I don’t love people, and I’m trying to figure out how to do both.
How did you get into photography?
I was the first person that I knew that had a camera. I just liked the idea of documenting what was around me. I guess [I was] just self-taught, but I always had an interest in documenting. I think right now I’m really into trying to tell stories rather than take photos.
The new stuff that I’m going to be doing is going to be also based around using drones and 360-degree cameras and stuff [like that] to try and create more of a story-telling aspect. Photography is becoming so very saturated, which is great. There’s so much brilliant stuff out there, but it’s also a question of how do we change the way that we interact with things? How do we understand or tell stories?
How do you approach your subjects? What is your method, what is your process for finding folks and getting them to stay still for you for a second?
I grew up in a small town and it was one of those things where you’re kind of friendly with everyone, so you don’t really have this issue of initially thinking… that there was a person that I couldn’t talk to. If I wanted to ask someone a question, I’d just go ask them a question. We’d have a friendly conversation.
It is a generalization to say that rural folk are friendly. They generally are, not to say that urban people aren’t, but it’s just easier to have interactions when there [are] very few people walking around and you can say hi.
Generally, what works before for me is actually just being kind of interested in something the person’s doing. If they’re working on a machine or something, just be like, “Hey, what are you doing? I’m interested to learn more.” Then, we chat for 10, 15, 20 minutes, and then I ask, “Can I take your photo?” Half the time, they say, “No, I don’t want my photo taken,” and to me that’s fine because at least I had this… organic interaction because I’m not expecting a photo. If they say no, they say no. We still have an interaction. I think sometimes when you ask a [person] to take their portrait, then they already become closed and they don’t want to even engage with you in terms of a conversation. This barrier wears down where I’m just some person who’s just quickly showing up, taking a photo, then moving on. I don’t want to do that.
I was going to ask you about your Georgia work, actually. I love those diptychs. Tell us about you were a photographer in Georgia … You went to the state Georgia, and she was in the country Georgia. How did that project come about?
I want to know more about those… certain areas and States in the US that don’t get much hype. For us, we hear a lot about [the] American West and all the photographers working in the West, and not so much about the East and South and I’m really interested in learning more about it.
[Russian photographer Yanina Shevchenko and I] have similar approaches to our work. We focus on this idea of journey, where the journey can take us, how can we create work. All the stuff I do generally starts with photography. It’s photographic, and then after doing it and almost realizing what the project’s about, I do the written component. We worked on Journey as kind of our beginning, it’s our A-point.
I actually left Western Canada so that I could go photograph it. It’s a weird thing because when I’m there, you get used to it, but once I leave, I’m so fascinated about this place that was once very familiar. We just essentially wanted to work together, but we couldn’t figure out exactly how to do that. I watched [the movie] “Paris, Texas,” and I thought of having a Paris in Texas, USA. It’s just a name, but when we hear Paris, we hear so many things but we don’t think Paris, Texas. I liked this idea of there’s this name, like a play on words, essentially to call “Georgia”, “Georgia”, to look at one country, and to look at one state. But it’s actually quite similar. Georgia the state and the country are both pretty large. They actually have this religious connection in their history about why they’re both named George.
We thought, how about we just do a project that we’re at a distance in both space and time. We’re photographing different places, not seeing each other, not seeing the same place. We’re doing it at different times, too. I think we shot between a difference of eight months.
I said, “Okay, photograph around these three ideas.” It was people, landscape, and built environments. “Those are really broad categories, but I want you to go out and photograph those. I don’t want you to do anything close-up details, or conceptual.” They were meant to be broad.
Then, she created a series of images and I took those images, and from each one, I drew out something that I saw that I thought I’d try to go and find. It became almost like a scavenger hunt. In one of the images, there’s a guy… holding a walking stick in a field. He’s got some cows or sheep behind him, and I drew out of that photo to just write down “walking stick” and I’d go and look for the walking stick.
I was wondering how, on your “Out West” project, you picked where to go. Did you just take off and figure it out, or did you plot it out and map it?
I don’t know if you’re familiar with this urban theory of the flâneur?
I’m not, no.
I talk about this a little bit in Out West as well, but flâneur is essentially this urban wanderer who would just go around the streets and let … It was almost mindless walking in a sense in very dense areas. I like that idea, and because there are so many side roads and cross roads in the Canadian West, I just thought the idea of creating this concept of the automotive flâneur where you essentially just drive. Instead of being as a single stroller in an urban environment with all these people around, it’s quite the opposite where you’re in this metal capsule and you’re driving very straight lines but they kind of lead everywhere. Essentially, I would just drive. Maybe map out one or two days. Maybe a slight direction, and then that’s just where I would go. I would let people and the things that I experienced guide myself beyond that.
If someone said, “Oh, there’s this other community north. You’ve gotta go see them. Okay, that’s probably what you’re looking for, a small town.” I’d say, “Okay,” and then I’d just start driving north until I found it. The Canadian West is just a scattered … the prairies especially, because it’s all built around the farm, probably the same way the Mid-west and likely in Nebraska would be. Just a lot of small towns and how our system was built. It’s quite easy to hit them. That’s essentially the model that I use. Where it’s really just journey-like. Don’t have something grand mapped out.
Do you have any funny stories from Georgia or the West that stick out in your mind? Any anecdotes?
In the Canadian West, I’m realizing people are really hospitable. I went to walk by a person’s lawn in one small town, and… she gave me pie with ice cream. Walking around a little bit, everyone was saying hi. She’s showing us her backyard and everything. After that, it was like, “We’ve gotta go. We’ve gotta keep doing our thing.” Literally, a block down this other guy’s like, “Hey, do you want a beer?” We had a beer with him. He would not let me take his photo. I tried really hard. He even found someone else. I took a photo of this other guy. Long story short, we end up getting drunk with him. We end up sleeping at his place playing darts, listening to music. Just hearing him talk, he’s got some really interesting stories. [We] go to sleep. In the morning, [he] cooks us breakfast, we have a coffee, and then we’re on our way. I like that. It’s not the first time that someone has offered me their place.
How much time do you spend thinking about things and writing and researching, versus the actual shooting and editing? What is your percentage, or what is your method?
When I’m thinking about a project… it [can take] a while before it becomes something. I’m not really sure how to define research and stuff, too. Right now, I’m doing these exams for my PhD and one of them is really focused around transportation technologies, so I’m looking a lot and focused [on] railroads and what the railways mean in space and place. That actually then becomes part of the project, so you can call that research.
Everything kind of informs itself, or weighs some sort of knowledge to something else. In terms of just shooting, I can speak to what I do in a year. This is how much time I get. I have three weeks out of the year to photograph, or four weeks. That is it. That’s the funny thing. If you want to call yourself a photographer, you’re like “Well, I don’t really do it that much. I want to do it more, but …” Essentially, that’s what it is. Doing a PhD, it just sucks you of your creativity – it really does, and your time.
What are you working on now?
I don’t know if you’d call it a project, but I’m doing some presentations on it. It’s essentially looking at small immigrant business owners in small communities. What they mean for rural rejuvenation and what they can bring for the community, because everyone is leaving these communities, and this actually might be a subgroup that’s coming to it.
When these images are done and these questionnaires have been filled out and sent back to me… they will then end up in local newspapers. It’s all for that idea of letting people in those communities know about the impact that these individuals have. How we should keep fostering a local community rather than for instance, going to the larger city center and shopping at these mega grocery stores, or the Walmarts, or whatever.
The intent is [to publish in a] paper in those communities and possibly a larger paper in that metropolitan area. The area I’m looking at is the Edmonton, Alberta, which is a western province, and there’s the city. But then about an hour away are some of the communities that I’m looking at. Maybe in Edmonton, but also a lot of these small towns – I’m talking between a population of 1,500 and zero, these communities have also the local newspapers. That’s my intent for that.
See more of Kyler’s work at kylerzeleny.com