Finding the meeting point of fact and fiction is one way of describing Brendan George Ko’s dreamlike photography. As he settles into a place and attempts to capture its essence on film, his vibrant imagery considers how our surroundings have a tangible spirit.
The beauty of nature is universally appreciated, but what can we learn from the stories it has to tell? This abstract question is one that fascinates Canadian photographer Brendan George Ko, as he seeks out the landscape’s spiritual side.
Born in Toronto but raised in New Mexico and Texas, Ko has spent much of his life travelling to unsung locations where his images contradict tired stereotypes. More recently, Ko has been spending much of his time immersed by the dense hinterland of Hawaiʻi, using photography to document the island’s communities and their instinctive connection with the land.
Ko’s photography attempts to convert oral traditions to analogue film by bringing the dreamlike qualities of a place to the fore. Focusing on the people that carry these ancient stories forward and help others to interpret their meaning, Ko’s work has explored this through numerous projects over the last decade. From his attempts to visually represent aloha’s undefined meaning to his series on the revitalisation of traditional Hawaiian sailing culture, documented during a three-week stint as crew on a Polynesian voyaging canoe, Ko’s work highlights the importance of togetherness and memory.
Meanwhile, Ko’s ongoing Scrapbook series – an annual document of his mismatched experiences – feeds into his overarching philosophy through the inclusion of images based on feeling rather than absolute photographic perfection. Here, Brendan George Ko talks about developing his own style, transforming nature and the importance of storytelling.
“I learned to see the land intrinsically connected with memory.”
What techniques do you use to transform nature into something so surreal?
I find it is less about technique and more about feeling. I work mostly with film and use an Imacon scanner to help me get a similar result that I used to get in the darkroom. Then I work my images in Photoshop. How I set the mood for my images is guided by my emotional memory of the scene captured in the photograph. I am conjuring up past spirits by creating a mood that takes me back to the moment.
What advice would you give to photographers looking to develop their own point of view?
I find the most important thing to develop one’s own point of view is to focus less on what others are doing and dive deep into one’s own world and lens. We are all different, with our own histories, identity, and experiences, and this is where one should speak from. Pair that with a healthy sense of stubbornness to endure making work that perhaps no one really cares about until it has been perfected. And know that it may not be as popular as you desired but as long as you make one meaningful connection with someone it is worth all the while.
“A story either attached or embedded in the image gives it life and stirs our curiosity and connection to what is captured.”
How has your relationship with nature evolved since you started working as a photographer?
I have always had a spiritual connection to nature even before I picked up a camera two decades ago. Over the years I have developed more vocation towards that spirituality and connection. With my studies in Hawai’i Nei, I have learned to address the places I enter, acknowledge the spirits around me, and see the place as I would see a person I deeply respected and understand that I am a guest in their house.
How do heritage, place and past experiences come into your work?
From my time living in New Mexico, I learned to see the land intrinsically connected with memory. We are surrounded by regions of land seeping in memory of past humans and all life that has passed through and it is what haunts a landscape. I enjoy seeking out those who hold those histories and learning to see the land as they do.
“My message is to think of oneself as a guest on this planet.”
How important is storytelling to your process?
The story is everything. A picture without one feels as hollow as some form of commodity. A story either attached or embedded in the image gives it life and stirs our curiosity and connection to what is captured.
Do you have an overarching message that you hope your audience embraces?
That’s a tough question. I think that varies depending on what project I am working on. I think as a human being on the planet earth my message is to think of oneself as a guest on this planet and a good guest leaves a place in better shape than when they first arrived.
How has your process and interests evolved as you’ve gained more creative experience?
I found shortly after finishing my MFA that accessibility is one of the most important aspects to any project. Showing in gallery spaces meant the work was limited to a certain art-going audience who had the time to visit a gallery in a specific city and neighbourhood. I started thinking how work can exist without any borders and be accessible. I started to work with magazines, sharing projects I was developing or publishing entire projects online so that it can be experienced by all that have access to the internet. With the stories and experiences I had access to came a responsibility to share them with a greater audience.
How did the Scrapbook project come about and what changes do you see in your own perspective with each edition?
The Scrapbook project started in 2013 as a container of all my “b-sides” for the year. My research projects take me years to complete and all the while I am still making images of the places and people I encounter. My mother was the family documentarian growing up and she’d make these scrapbooks photo albums of our family vacations and road trips. As an adult when I look at those scrapbooks I am taken back to my childhood and recall so many forgotten memories. There’s a magic to those scrapbooks and I am continuing that legacy with my own brand of scrapbooks.
Do you have any upcoming projects that you’d like to mention?
I have a book project that I am working on with Conveyor Arts called Moemoeā – on my work with traditional voyaging in the Pacific. In addition, I am currently producing a documentary about the parallels of plants and people being introduced to an isolated environment.