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September 2006

STRAIGHT TALK: Paul Shambroom

Although he has focused throughout his career on the political realities of life in America after the Cold War, Paul Shambroom’s work isn’t the sort of blunt, unambiguous photo-polemics that one traditionally expects from strictly documentary art. His images are open for interpretation, and more likely to raise questions than offer easy answers. The New Jersey native and Minneapolis College of Art and Design alum has had a rambling career to date; he’s photographed factories and corporate environments, spent ten years documenting the country’s nuclear facilities and stockpile of weapons, and traveled thousands of miles to take pictures of town council meetings. Here, he discusses works from his most recent project, Security.

Initially, at least, these new photographs look like a huge departure from the Meetings project. How do these things come together?
The Meetings photos came about after I had wrapped my nuclear weapons project, and as a result of that experience I had become fascinated and sort of obsessed with the whole command-and-control aspect of nuclear weapons—you know, the question of when and if these things are ever going to be used, who makes that decision and how is it arrived at. That led me to the question of citizen responsibility for the actions of our government, and the way many of the basic civic decisions at both the highest and lowest levels are made.
Was there a natural evolution from Meetings to Security?
I knew I wanted to do something in response to September 11th, but it took a couple years for the idea to percolate. It’s difficult to wrap your head around history or see it with any perspective when you’re in the middle of it. My process always works pretty much the same way; I’ll have a subject in my head that I’m interested in, and as I research and dig around, I’ll start trying to figure out a way to put a visual face on it. Not necessarily to provide answers, but to offer a visual form in which to raise questions and issues.
That visual form here isn’t the typical sort of thing we’re accustomed to seeing labeled as response to September 11th. There’s no flag-waving, for instance, and no real military presence.
Well, with all the Homeland Security issues, I wanted to do something about what was going on here in the U.S. There are all these political issues with the money and how it’s being spent, and the role fear plays in public policy. You realize that fear is both a natural human response and also a valuable political currency. This was a really difficult project in that previously there wasn’t much question about how I felt about the subjects I was working on. After September 11th, though, there are no easy answers. I don’t have a clear stance, which makes it very complicated.
You made most of these photographs at training facilities around the country. How did you get into these places, and what was going on there?
Visits had to be arranged well in advance, and access can be very difficult. I did a lot of research into the places I wanted to go, and then it was just a matter of figuring out who controlled access and how to work with them. Most of the sites are funded by Homeland Security. There are five of these institutions around the country, and most of the people who go to them are law-enforcement people, firefighters, first responders. I have one photo taken at a place in New Mexico—Playas—which is this old mining town that Homeland Security uses for really large-scale exercises. Everybody calls it Terror Town.
The portraits are particularly interesting. You have these guys wearing bomb-squad outfits or biohazard suits, covered from head to toe.
The portraits were sort of a departure. They’re very mannered and posed. I was looking for these iconic subjects, and I thought it was interesting that you couldn’t see their faces. They became almost superhero-like. Some of them had a science-fiction quality to them, and in some of the others I guess I was looking even further back for inspiration, to the grand-portrait tradition in Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, painters like Gainsborough and Joshua Reynolds.
How long have you been working on Security?
I made the first photograph in November 2004, so it’s been two years of traveling and photography, preceded by three years of scratching my head and research. And the project is still very much in progress. There are other things I’d like to do with it, and I think we’re probably going to be living with this reality as a major part of our consciousness for the rest of my lifetime.

The Weinstein Gallery will exhibit photographs from the Security series September 15–October 28

(908 46th St. W., Minneapolis; 612-822-1722; www.weinstein-gallery.com).