Nowhere Newsletter 13: Karianne Bueno

Interview with photographer Karianne Bueno

What is your backstory ?

My name is Karianne Bueno. When I was admitted to art school at twenty I wanted to be a music photographer. Next to all assignments I went to concerts and tried to take band pictures. I soon found out I didn’t have it in me though. I was nervous to claim a spot near the stage, worrying about blocking other people’s views, and I was way too insecure to stand my ground taking band pictures off stage. I gave it up when I found myself regularly roaming discarded landscapes, like the outskirts of my hometown of Amsterdam. Although I’m a very social person I never felt quite at home in society; always feeling a little different than everybody else.

Moreover, I had always been attracted to storytelling and in places where human feasibility is more or less futile, I felt all kinds of stories just waiting to be told. I love the way time is almost tangible in these landscapes, and the way silence, and aloneness, opens up the mind. At the same time, I feel a deep fear of these exact things. This mix of contrary feelings, this thought-provoking confrontation with your own place in the universe (that Romantics call the sublime) became the starting point of every subject I took up.

Always having loved books, I soon began to write with my photographs. Letters, diary notes, fictions. The texts were never meant to illustrate the images, but to somehow give hints in explaining their underlying meaning, and to emphasize the narrative of the photographs. I am trying to get that combination of texts and photography to another level in my recent project about my cousin (who lives in a camper van). I aim to let go of the documentary-style narrative of the factual subject matter and to create a space in which the viewer can associate more freely and more directly to the deeper layers I want to touch upon.

What is ‘Doug’s Cabin’ and what is the story behind it ?

I met Doug on his campsite in the rainforest of Vancouver Island 2010. He instantly captured my imagination. What is it like to live on the far-flung edges of the world? How do you survive in a forest full of wild animals, without the faintest trace of a cell-phone connection? I had dreamed about a life away from society, but would I dare to actually live it?

When I returned with my camera two years later it seemed Doug’s sole interest was to talk about the history of his forest. There had been close communities here: first, a group of pioneers, and later a military radar station, where Doug used to work as a carpenter. Their remains were scattered across his campsite – everyday utensils, and even entire buildings. Doug had plans. He would build a hostel; his site was to be an open-air museum, a monument for forgotten times. But the forest permeates everything, and the rains pulverise wood and paper. For Doug, it is a losing battle.

To better understand Doug’s motivation to stay in this godforsaken place, I immersed myself in the history so dear to him. Over the following years, my once tangible photography project about living away from society turned into a labyrinth of stories across multiple layers of time and reality. I would find myself completely caught up in them, as though within the jungle itself. I began to wonder: do we actually have control over our lives? Are our choices made as consciously as we like to imagine? Or are we bound by fate? 

These questions concern everyone but, in our society, we make very little room to consider them. I make books to somehow counterbalance this situation. Because to get lost within a book is to momentarily escape the overwhelming, suffocating present. The result is silence, room for reflection – which I find to be an essential part of my work.

Could you tell us the backstory behind some of the photos from the book ?

The forest pictures are edited in the book to approach the feeling of being lost. In the wilderness, in the past, in photographs, in life. The forest has many different faces; it is both haunting and beautiful, it threatens and is threatened. Some of the forest pictures contain hints of the pioneers that once lived here, like traces of logging or a small graveyard. Others are taken in very specific places, like the birches that now grow in the former streets of the radar base village.

The still lives are all closely connected to Doug. The radio for example he keeps to listen to his favourite talk show, quite an obscure programme on news items that are connected to conspiracy theories of all kinds. Doug has learned about the Fukushima disaster this way and believes his rain forest will ultimately get infected with nuclear waste. Hence the picture of the Japanese glass float, an object which was commonly found all over America’s west coast in the first half of the 20th century. The floats washed ashore because of a major Pacific current between here and Japan – the same current which may bring disaster half a century later.

And then there’s the cougar track, and the picture of an actual cougar, that relate to both my personal fear of the wilderness, as to the silent threat of something that is rarely seen but often felt, as to an actual story Doug told me. About a week before my first visit, Doug had awoken at night to pee. When he shone his flashlight around – a habit to make sure he could safely reach his outhouse – the light reflected into two green eyes, just opposite his front door. The cat was hissing, getting ready for the attack, but luckily Doug managed to scare it away. A day later, Doug’s neighbour (who doesn’t live in the forest but keeps cattle there) (Doug says he’s crazy) came rushing in, talking about how a cougar had killed one of his cows that night. Even though the neighbour claims to have killed the beast, Doug is anxious. He checks for footprints at the river everyday – and they are always there, fresh. 

I could go for a long time. Doug’s Cabin is book of stories within stories, some more or less apparent, others hidden and mysterious. To enable the reader to unravel them I wrote an extensive index page, in which some of the photographs are ‘explained’ by either historic facts, information on Doug’s life or diary stories. I suppose it’s all there if you want to find it.