Kyler Zeleny- Crown Ditch and the Prairie Castle

Interview by: James Wrigley

Canadian photographer-researcher and author, Kyler Zeleny deals with contemporary rural issues exploring how geography extends identity and creates community. Zeleny’s photography champions the long form series with deep research that accurately showcase, document and explore stories.

It's seems clear in your work you're interested in representing a sense of place. As you've put so beautifully in your description "The project advocates for viewing this space as a beast upon its self" could you tell me a little about why you started this series and what you experienced through this long-term project?

Crown Ditch and the Prairie Castle (2015 – on-going) is the second project of a trilogy on rural communities. The first component is my book Out West (2014), which documented towns in Western Canada with 1,000 or less inhabitants. Crown Ditch is specifically about rural space and community in Alberta and uses portraiture as a way to envision the rural individual. The last component, which I am shooting over this spring and summer, is about looking at one specific rural community in Alberta, almost as a microcosm or a general representation of a rural community in the prairies. The thread that connects the projects is this interest in documenting rural spaces. Part of my intrigue into rural spaces is also thinking about them as regions, I’ve become interested in the idea of regionalism or provincialism and what it means to create a visual identity of a province or a region. For instance, how do we know or sense the American South or the American West when we see it in a photograph? This is also inherently problematic as borders are not finite structures but fluid boundaries. 

As you mention about being interested in how people see the American south or American west. As a photographer what do you do when including your own personal gaze (or not). Many photographers work in different ways, I'm interested to know if you try to stay clear of your own perceptions or rather study and showcase it in a way that excludes yourself from that question?

I think the idea of photography as witness or the photograph as truth has largely fallen into the background. Lewis Hine once said, "Photographs don’t lie, but liars may photograph”, I think you can take that one step further to say that "photographs tell the truth, but not all truths”. That is to say what is depicted is often true, but often only in that moment and in that context. Truth is subjective and framing is creative framing is even more so. So when I photograph I do so with the reflexivity that I know I am a subjective being wielding a camera and what I witness is authentic and it is true but only for me. You call it perception, another word for it is intuition and its impossible to sidestep. The work I do as a photographer and academic is about embracing my own photographic intuition and attempting to couple that with the rigour of academia. 

I was particularly interested in the selection of keywords featured with your series. It sets a tone for the images and coming back to that sense of place, these words are poetically descriptive. Could you explain a little, why you chose to feature the keywords in this manner?

This work is a component of my doctoral research and I often see overly ‘jargony’ sets of keywords applied to projects, I wanted to create a set of keywords that could further the reader’s understanding of the project but that could also speak to the poetic nature of the medium itself. It is also a way for me to include concepts and observations I’ve made while in the field that, for a number of reasons, is not represented in any of the images in the narrative. It is still very much a work in progress. 

How did you go about setting the narrative within these images? What was your method of shooting?

The narrative is evolving as I continue to shoot. Speaking about my method, it is largely about creating work first and allowing the process, and later the sequencing, to determine how the story will be told. In other words, the shooting largely informs the direction the narrative will take. I don’t start with a clear direction but allow my own meanderings through rural towns and events to move the process forward. 

I've read on your website that you have attended workshops from photographers such as Alec Soth, Jim Goldberg and Mark Powers. How are you inspired and how do you let your inspirations affect your work?

Alec Soth is a hero of mine so I jumped at the opportunity to do a two-day Magnum workshop with him. Although, when it was all said and done I’m not sure I learnt anything from the experience. As a result I don’t feel workshops are the best way to find inspiration. They are too often not affordable and they are almost always short-term exchanges that do little for long-term work. My go-to for inspiration is photo books, I love learning about others work through the books they create. Instagram and websites are fine, however there is nothing more intimate than sitting down and doing a slow read of a photo book.

What would your advice be to photographers on how to Learn from those who inspire them?

Similar answer to the above question. Read and study. Alec Soth use to run a blog (not sure if its still active) and it offered these great glimpses into his creative process and how he viewed the medium of photography. So if a photographer is interested in someone’s work, search it out, both their visual work as well as anything they might write on the subject. 

I want to talk a little about your interest in found photography and archive material. In 2011 you started the "Found Polaroid project" that has seen great success. Firstly, where did your interest start?

The Found Polaroid’s Project developed in stages. I have always been drawn to images, particularly my family's albums. Those were individuals whose laughs and mannerisms I could mimic, whose histories I could recount. We look at our family albums and can tap into a wealth of knowledge. What intrigued me about found images, Found Polaroid’s in particular, was the disconnect between the visual evidence that they existed with knowing who these people were, what they have done, who they had wronged, or who they had loved. I was interested in knowing who these people were. I continued to ask myself, "who would abandon family photographs?". I tried to locate the origin of these images by talking to those who sold them to me but they did not know, they said they were acquired from estate sales and gave no further particulars. These individuals seemed less interested in the stories these images presented and more focused on the business of flipping the goods of the broke or deceased. The initial project idea was to attempt to return the images, and I was successful with maybe 2 or 3. But I had more than 6,000! So I thought, if we cannot know who they are in life, we could at least fictionalize who they could have been, to the point that the stories—although based in fiction—could of belonged to the person in the image. 

What advice would you give to photographers starting out? Something you wish you were told earlier on?

It’s an important question and its often asked so I’ll opt for an offbeat set of answers. Focus on being a storyteller and not simply a photographer or documenter. Don’t expect documentary photography to pay, think about it as equal parts calling and hobby. Be professional in your execution of it, but don’t expect large monetary gain or any surmountable level of fame - the field is flooded and everyone is a photographer now. Find a career that supports your photographic interests, putting too much pressure and stress on your creative abilities in order to pay bills is not healthy; avoid disenchantment, for after all, photography is lovely. 

For more of Kyler's work you can visit his Website or follow him on Instagram. You can also follow along his ongoing Found Polaroids project here