What happens when a documentary photographer who has developed his own fly-on-the-wall approach to his subjects is invited into the bizarre, disturbing and humorous world of a filmmaker who tells true stories through the use of reenacted scenes? The interesting result is Nonfiction, acclaimed photographer Nubar Alexanian’s collection of more than 70 beautiful and unnerving black-and-white photographs from the sets of Oscar-winning filmmaker Errol Morris‘ films, including Fast, Cheap & Out of Control, Mr. Death and his latest project, Standard Operating Procedure, about the scandalous prison photographs from Abu Ghraib prison. In conjunction with a forthcoming piece on Morris and the film, I conducted an email interview with Alexanian about Nonfiction, and his impressions of and collaborations with the filmmaker. To wit:
Brent Simon: Have you ever discussed — broadly, in more theoretical terms — composition with Errol, and if so, and/or based on your own judgments, what has he indicated as a unifying style or vision in the structuring of his work?
Nubar Alexanian: Excellent question, although Errol and I have never discussed this. Since film and stills have different requirements in terms of style and vision, it’s an enormous topic. In my work on Errol’s sets, the most important thing has always been the unlimited access he has provided. This is highly unusual on any film set, for the still photographer to roam freely. This allowed me to produce photographs that describe my experience of what I see in front of my camera. In terms of my still photographs from the set of Standard Operating Procedure, the comments I hear most of the time have been: “I’ve never seen photographs like this,” or, “I really loved looking at your photographs, until I realized what I was looking at.”
BS: Which of Errol’s film sets that you’ve visited has provided the most amusement? Strangeness?
NA: All of Errol’s sets are both amusing and strange. The set of Standard Operating Procedure was strange because he created an exact duplicate of the cell block of Abu Ghraib. So all of us working on the set were in Abu Ghraib prison, and we were not. This was, in part, due to the fact that the events of Abu Ghraib have been part of our recent history.
BS: Was there a sense of the Abu Ghraib recreations — a standard part of Errol’s films — for Standard Operating Procedure being somehow different from previous reenactments?
NA: Yes. These reenactments were much more complex and exact. Errol had a military expert on set to make sure the reenactments of water board were exact and precise.
BS: I’m intrigued by the notion of sought-after ambiguity in still photographs, and how that principle informs Errol’s work as well. To your mind and in your experience, does it? Or is this achieved more through the post-production manipulation (sound, editing, etc.) specific to film?
NA: Although I believe that ambiguity is the well that feeds still photographs, it’s not really something that can be actively sought after, not while you’re shooting. Errol is interested in irony; I am interested in ambiguity. This is not an semantic difference so much as a difference in the requirements of the mediums we work in. This is a complex issue, which I’m happy to discuss if you’d like to pursue it.
BS: What are any other impressions you might have of Errol as an artist?
NA: Standard Operating Procedure is a movie about a subject we all know something about, that the press thinks it’s covered. But what Errol Morris has is the truth.