License to Investigate: Photographer Aaron Wojack
All photographs are a kind of evidence. Photographer Aaron Wojack searches for authentic culture and marginalized human activity. Wojack’s practice is both commercial and personal, capturing images of people in communities, candid interaction and, on occasion, arranged artifice. After a spanning friendship of over two decades, I finally decided to inquire about why and how he began taking photos that resonate with nostalgia, happenstance and sincerity.
KM:When did you know that taking photographs would become your livelihood?
Woj: I just picked it in college when I didn’t really know why I was there, floundering and exploring my options. I went to school with thoughts of going into architecture. But that quickly dissipated. It felt like I just signed up for it to make someone else happy. I also thought anthropology was cool, which is funny because photography is like anthropology. I was checking out a lot of stuff and eventually found myself in the art building.
KM:And what did you like taking photos of? It seems like you use photography to make connections between people.
Woj: At first, it was innocent and fun. And I didn’t think about it that much. In the very beginning, I just went to look for cool stuff and took pictures. So long as I could find interesting things, all I had to do was get the exposure right and not worry about it too much. I think about it more these days.
KM:You think more about the technical aspect of taking pictures rather than just the subject?
Woj: I’m trying to get my head inside the photograph, or trying to imagine what the photo is going to look like. But at the same time, I am maintaining a connection with my subject. It can be a really difficult balance.
KM: Like your mind is detached and your body is there?
Woj: Yeah. Photography is an out-of-body experience. You’re basically transporting yourself into this small box.
There’s probably some story, like Hellraiser, you can relate to that.
You know, the box. And you’re in there with Pinhead and those other characters.
KM: It must be difficult to focus on the shot while having to interact with or direct people you’ve just met. I’m thinking of a few different series here: Pigeon Flyers, Deer Stands, Ft. Tilden, Blowing Minds, the Manhattan public school series. Even the early Glider series. Your work is very authentic, even though you’re approaching communities and pastimes as an outsider.
Woj: Coming to New York, I knew I had to do a project. It can be an intimidating city. But after a few years of getting comfortable, I started the Pigeon Flyers to get after this Old New York that everyone was talking about. In 2007, everyone was saying, “New York is different, New York has changed. It’s not the same. It’s Disneyland.” There are even bumper stickers that say “I miss Old New York”, so the Pigeon Project was a way for me to go looking for that, to go find this Old New York. And it worked, because pigeon flying is a part of Old New York and the people who still do it are part of Old New York. And they’ll tell you all about it.
KM: I feel a sense of nostalgia in your work.
Woj: The Gliders are a nostalgic thing for me. So are Deer Stands. I grew up hunting, I went for the first time in 5th grade when I was transported from the Chicago suburbs to rural central Minnesota, where you ride snowmobiles, shoot guns and have a limited number of ways to entertain yourself. And hunting was one way. So yeah, I lived with that for a while.
KM: Do you divide your work into commissioned commercial jobs and projects? For example, the 9 to 5 series looks like slick commission work that doesn’t have the embedded journalist quality of the others.
Woj: In order to learn photography, that’s one way I’ve practiced it. Commissioned work. I’ll also give myself assignments and those are generally longer projects and I have more connection to them. I’m not only doing photography for hire. I started doing it because I enjoyed it. And it’s a ticket to explore. It’s like a pass; a bus pass to culture. It gives me an excuse to do investigate things. To go up to people and ask them stuff, to interact with them, to investigate these things and learn about them. I use the camera to experience them firsthand.