(This interview between Sandra-Lee Phipps and Michael David Murphy took place in a cafe on Peachtree over a couple of iced coffees. Sandra, who teaches at SCAD, has a current exhibition at Whitespace called “Safe”, and will be giving an artist’s talk at the gallery on Thursday, June 6th, at 7pm.)
MDM: What does it mean to explore the idea of safe and safety-ness in a place that feels particularly safe like rural Maine?
SLP: Is it ‘particularly safe’?
MDM: It’s both, right? It’s safe from other people, but it’s dangerous from the elements and Big Bad Nature.
SLP: Living in a place like that, you definitely experience nature — trees falling down and not being able to leave the house. It snowed once and we couldn’t open the front door. It took hours of shoveling to just get into the house. People would drive across the ice on the lake. It felt very remote; we didn’t have a lot of neighbors — it felt safe to be taking the pictures, in the poncho, by the river.
MDM: Last week we were talking about Todd Haynes and “Safe” and Julianne Moore in the lead role in that film — in that movie, she has an internalized feeling of danger about the external environment. Safety now, especially with terrorism, is that the problem is internal, it’s within us, and we externalize it as a problem.
SLP: We always want to point at something else, other than ourselves. And that movie is kind of about that. Things that seem safe — like the scene at the birthday party, when she’s sitting there and gets a bloody nose. To most, the suburbs are a safe environment. The whole point is that she was having this allergic reaction to everything that was supposed to be sterile and safe. it’s exactly what I’m thinking about in these pictures: the unknown of protection. That you can build walls to protect yourself, when you really can’t. That what you’re trying to deal with comes from within your society — people are praying to be protected rather than praying to be brave and deal with the danger at hand. I’m not trying to put up walls, I’m just trying to experience the landscape — in my transparent wardrobe.
MDM: How does being a mom play into your ideas about the potentiality of safety and procection and danger?
SLP: When you have kids, your whole idea of what is safe and how much you can protect people from anything changes. I was pregnant on 9/11, and that’s a whole part of where this came from — raising children in this environment of fear started to affect me. I started thinking about it too much. They asked, “how come when we get here we have to take our shoes off — and what are they looking for?” Most of my daughters best friends in Brooklyn were in their first day of elementary school on that day right underneath the WTC. All of those kids saw those buildings come down. The war began the year my son was born. I was stuck at home, watching this war unfold in front of me, and this whole idea was “this is going to make us safe?” To be attacking countries. If we call it Code Orange, we’re suddenly safe.
MDM: All you need is an orange slicker!
SLP: That’ll do it! Yeah, on 9/11 we were on our way to NYC for amniocentesis, that day, and I was informed that we weren’t going to be able to get there – that Manhattan was closed, and my daughter wanted to know what happened, and I told her. I told her in the way you can tell a kid at that age. It was terrifying. We knew people that were there and affected by it. Everyone I knew in Maine said, “don’t tell your children anything…” And I learned a little bit about expressing the reality of fear to children — you have to be careful, but at the same time, they know. Her friends had seen it happen. In Maine, you feel protected, and people move there to feel that, but there’s no protection.
MDM: And being naked in a slicker isn’t going to protect you from the backwoods, either.
MDM: There’s a feeling that the subjects in your pictures aren’t rooted in time, or place, or face even. There’s something about how they’re performative — that there’s a superhero-ness to them. That they’re our Safety Ambassadors.
SLP: I feel like there’s a braveness to putting on the cloak, or membrane, and going out into the world anyway. With just that to protect you.
MDM: It’s like high fashion with the see-through raincoat.
SLP: Yeah, there’s bravery there, and I wanted to see what would happen if I did this with something else, and gave the poncho to these girls, these identical twins. I gave the girls the outfits, and they did things in unison. We did the project over years, and these girls always wanted the same poncho, they didn’t want to switch, it was theirs.
MDM: There’s safety in the same over time, regardless of how everything changes. Whether it’s the landscape, or us that’s changing, at least we have the same damn coat we had in high school.
SLP: I still have the poncho in my car! One in the gallery and one in my car!
SLP: There are pictures in the installation that are scans of the poncho, and I did them on the morning they captured Bin Laden, and they look like shrouds. They have faces in them.
MDM: Oh, boy.
SLP: Yeah! It’s really strange that they have faces that are really there, and the headlines the next day were “We Got Him!”, and I thought, “really?”
MDM: Yeah, let’s go party in Lafayette Park!
SLP: We got him! Why would you celebrate that? I don’t know. But the videos in the closet at whitespace have an element to them that women see related to the deep struggle of childbirth.
MDM: Your work is very much an exploration of an idea of safeness, even the ridiculousness of safety.
SLP: What’s funny is trying to experience that feeling when you’re out with the poncho on, and you’re nude in the forest, you begin to feel what it’s like to be exposed in that way.
MDM: I like the idea of the thinnest of membranes that keep us psychologically feeling like everything’s alright. Whether it’s the poncho, or whether it’s the idea that America’s #1 and can’t be beat. That’s what this thing’s about, right?
SLP: Definitely! I don’t mean it directly, but it’s also about birth, and moving through one thing to another. Seeing one side to the other. Even then, there’s no safety in the womb.
MDM: And your talk is on Thursday?
SLP: I’ve never done that before.
MDM: Come on, you’ve never talked about your work before?
SLP: No! I do with my students; I tell them my life story! I talk about the documentary work in the city first. But this is such a different thing. I shot some of this work in a documentary style, but I want to keep pushing how you can take photographs conceptually, without direction, where you set-up a scenario and just let it go.
MDM: Isn’t it the issue between the beauty in something that’s staid and perfectly arranged, versus a situation where you have the arena, the players, and anything might happen?
SLP: Yeah, I’m going to have my orange membrane and I was fighting-off goats and sheep the whole time I was shooting.
MDM: What did you learn from Sylvia Plachy and Larry Fink?
SLP: That you gotta keep going out and taking pictures. If you’re not willing to keep doing it… You can’t call it in. Every time I see either one of them, they have their camera(s) out. My one goal when I moved from Athens to NYC was to work for the Voice, and it was because of Sylvia’s pictures. I wanted to learn from her and she taught me so much indirectly, as a human being. She’s wise. You have to keep going out and doing it — and if you don’t, it’s hard to stay relevant as a photographer.