Transcript - Episode 81: Mike Sakasegawa
Mike Sakasegawa: Hello, and welcome to Keep the Channel Open, a podcast featuring conversations with artists, writers, and curators. My name is Mike Sakasegawa, and this is episode 81. Today’s guest is… Well, let’s get back to that one.
Hey there, folks. Today’s show is a special one, our third anniversary episode. It’s kind of wild to me that it’s already been three years, you know, in a lot of ways it feels like I’m still just getting started, still figuring everything out. Then again, thinking back to where this all started, that day I sat down with Trinh Mai up at the Escondido Municipal Gallery, thinking about how nervous I was and then looking at how far the show has come, how much I’ve grown as a host and just as a person since then, I realize, you know, a lot has happened in those three years. And I just want to take a second to express my gratitude. I’m thankful to all of the amazing artists who’ve taken the time to sit down with me and have these great conversations. I’m thankful to my friends and family for supporting me and the show. And I’m so thankful to all of you listening right now, whether you’ve been here since the beginning or whether this is your first time, the show wouldn’t exist without you, so: thank you.
So, in honor of the milestone here, we’re going to be doing something… a little different today. OK, let me back up a little bit. Back in October, at the Medium Festival of Photography, I had the chance to catch up with a bunch of friends—as I always do at Medium, it’s one of the things I love most about the festival. I got to hang out a bit with my friend Daniel Gonçalves, who long-time listeners will remember was the guest in episode 55, and showed him some of the new work I was getting reviewed. Anyway, he had this idea of sort of turning things around on me and having me be the one getting interviewed, talking about my own work for a change. And I said,“Ah, thanks, that’s really nice of you,” you know, that was a really nice compliment, and then I kind of brushed the whole thing off. But then after the festival, just a few days later, he reached out again and asked again, and after going back and forth a few times, well, here we are.
So, ah, this is definitely a little outside my usual comfort zone here. I’m always sort of at my best when I get to talk about other people’s work, you know, promote other people’s stuff and talk about why it’s great. That’s where I’m comfortable, what I really love doing. I tend to be a little bit more… Well, it’s not so much that I never do self-promotion but it’s something I’ve had to work at a lot, and it’s not something I’ve ever felt comfortable with. I’m reminded of that quotation that Jerry Takigawa mentioned in our conversation that artists always want to be seen and always want to hide, that’s super true for me. But this year I’m trying to stretch myself a little more, trying to grow a bit, do things I wouldn’t normally do, and so I’m really grateful to Daniel for giving me the chance to do that. And I think the conversation went pretty well, and I hope you will, too.
Now, before we get to the conversation, I just wanted to make a little ask of you, the listener, you know, as a little third anniversary favor. If there’s work out there that has moved you, work that you love, please just take a minute, you know, just a few seconds, and tell the person who made it. Tell them that you appreciate it and why, whether it’s an email or a tweet or whatever, just reach out and let them know. It’s such a small thing you can do, and it’s so helpful. Often times as artists we’re working alone and it can be so hard to know whether what you’re doing has had any impact at all. And that’s true whether you’re emerging or established, I find. Getting just a little bit of positive feedback from audiences can really make your day, lift you up and help you keep going. So, please, just take a minute and do that.
OK, so on to the show. We talked about a few of my different series of photographs and if you’d like to have a look, I’ve included links in the show notes. As always, if you’d like to join in today’s conversation you can use the hashtag #ChannelOpenPhoto to live-tweet the episode. And now here’s my conversation with Daniel Gonçalves.
Daniel Gonçalves: Hi Mike.
Mike Sakasegawa: Hey.
DG: When I first met you in 2016 at Medium Festival, I felt a genuine curiosity and interest. I also appreciated that you put your time and you invest all this effort into other artists and bringing other stories to light. So today as you get ready to celebrate your big three-year Keep the Channel Open milestone, I'd like to turn the lights around and shine them on you as a person and an artist. How does that sound?
DG: What do you think?
MS: Alright. Wow, this is a new experience for me. So, I'm interested to see—I 'm a little nervous, but we'll see where it goes. [laughs]
DG: See how much we can shake things up a little bit, get you out of your comfort zone.
MS: Yeah, yeah, that's important.
DG: So, you've been doing this for three years now and I guess this would be the 81st episode.
MS: Yep. Number 81.
DG: That's a lot of episodes.
MS: It's funny because it feels like a lot and not a lot. It kind of feels like I'm still fresh and beginning and I can't believe I've already done that many. I'm also really looking forward to all this stuff that I've got planned for the future as well, but looking back, it is kind of a lot, I guess. [laughs]
DG: It is. Yeah, I agree. So speaking about plans for the future, I'm curious since you opened that door, what do you have? Anything you can share?
MS: Well—and hopefully by the time this episode goes up, which would be the end of this month, I will have already launched this—but I have a new podcast project that I have been planning for a while that is going to be sort of a short fiction anthology podcast. So I'm hoping to launch a Kickstarter for that this month and we'll see how that goes.
MS: I'm a little nervous about that, but I'm excited. Yeah, that's the main thing. And you know, lately I've been focusing a little more on my writing. I've been sending poems out for publication. I think I set a goal of submitting 10 times this year, which isn't a lot, but it's a start.
DG: Yeah. I think that's always tough, putting your stuff out there and opening up for opportunity, but also rejection, potentially. I mean that's always a really tough thing. That's something that I think we all struggle with. For sure.
MS: For sure. Yeah. You know, I actually kind of like getting rejections. [laughs]
MS: Part of that is just my own insecurity because, on the one hand, getting rejected from something means that you're done with that part and so there can't be any further anxiety about it. [laughs]
MS: But, you know, the other thing too is—and I think that this is really an important thing—that the rejection is a sign that you did your part, you know? Because from the artist's side, all you can do is make the work and try to put it out there and you have no control over what happens to it after that.
MS: So I feel like for myself, I've—and it took me a while to get here, but I've finally sort of come to the place where I'm really comfortable with the idea that all that needs to happen is the part that I can do, and as long as I do that part, then I've done everything I want to do and need to do, you know?
DG: And that's a really hard place to get to. I mean it's one of those things where there's a quote and I don't remember where I got it but it was just something I have in my notes that I refer to every once in a while and it's "Fail harder."
DG: Just really try to put yourself out there, really try to fail and—not try to fail but just try, and try harder, and fail, and that's okay. And that's just part of the process even though it never really gets easier.
MS: Yeah. I like that quote. It's funny, I was just listening to this episode I did a couple years ago with Ken Rosenthal and it was really right on that topic. He was saying that you've got to be open to failure, you've got to be not afraid of failure. And the thing that really jumped out at me was he said, "I think if you're not failing, you're not trying." And I think that's really true, if your reach doesn't exceed your grasp a little bit then there's no chance of growing and getting better.
DG: That's really interesting. And that kind of brings to mind also the idea that if you're not failing then that means you're maybe tailoring your work too much towards what you think other people like.
DG: You know what I'm saying? Because if you're doing what's real to you and what's part of your personal vision and it's not really influenced or meant for others then you should fail, right? Because you're making it for yourself. I don't know.
MS: Yeah. And it's that thing where the only way that you can not have a failure... Like, everything I start off, at the beginning is not what I want it to be. And a lot of times, even by the end of it, it's not what I want it to be. And it's only after I sort of say, "Okay, well I did all I can do, I'm done now." And then I can come back to it a year or two later and [be] like, "You know what, this actually doesn't suck." But that gap between where you want to be and where you are is the thing that forces you to have to figure out, "Well, why isn't this working and how can I fix that? How can I make that better?" And if you don't have that thing pushing you, then you'll just never get anywhere.
DG: It's also kind of a critical piece, I think, especially with personal work where you have the luxury of time and what not. I think time is that kind of like secret sauce, right? Sometimes you just need that time, that year or two sometimes. Or sometimes we're just not ready to face what we've done or really interpret it. And with time, it comes to kind of make sense.
MS: Yeah. Yeah, definitely. That's really my whole approach to especially photography. With the writing, I think I tend not to even attempt writing something until it has percolated for a while. But with the photography I find that I'm just sort of constantly making photographs just as sort of a thing that I do in my life. Just I'm constantly looking around and seeing things and making a photograph, even if it's just with my phone. A lot of my more recent work has been iPhone pictures, which I kind of like. It can be a little frustrating sometimes because the technical limitations of the camera but, you know, just having it around with me is very useful. It's just one of these things. I'm always seeing things. I'm always... Sometimes I think it might even be annoying to the people that I'm with because I'll be out walking with somebody and then I'll get distracted and have to stop and take a picture for a second. [laughs] "Hang on, hold that thought. Just a second. Okay. Okay. Now we can go." But it's not until a little while later, I'll realize looking back over the photographs I've been taking the last several months, I'll realize, "Oh, there's kind of a theme here." What I'm being drawn to sort of subconsciously or unconsciously is all along a theme, but it's not until I've sort of built up that body of not necessarily finished images but just sort of collection of time that I can really realize what it is that I've been trying to unconsciously work out. You know?
DG: It's fantastic that you do that because I agree, I think that's one of those things where you just need to go with your instinct and just do it. Even if at times you're like, "Did I just take a picture of a sidewalk crack?" or something weird, and your wife is like, "Okay, you need therapy."
DG: But at the same time, like you're saying, then with time we find out maybe that was something that was indicative in that point in your life or something you were going through. Something you're trying to work out. So it's kind of interesting and just looking on your website, It Forgets You kind of feels like it has kind of that vibe where it's like you're kind of collecting things as you go along and then kind of trying to make sense of it.
MS: Yeah, I think that was one of the hardest things I've done to date. A lot of the work that I make is something that comes out of some emotional thing I'm trying to work out. That one was the one that started with the most acute feeling. I had gone back to my home town for the first time in a really long time. I grew up in this town in Northern California that's very small and it's not on the way to anything. And even though a lot of my family still live in that area, they live outside of that town. And you really have to go there on purpose. There's only one road that goes in and out and it's not near anything. And so my parents moved away, my mom and my stepdad moved away and my brother moved to Monterey, which is sort of the closest city, and I hadn't been there for a really long time. And just on a whim, one day when I was up there visiting—because my wife is from that area also, but her family lives in Big Sur—I just decided, "I want to go back to my town. I want to go see what it looks like. I haven't been there in a long time." It had been seven years since I had been there and I got there and I was just... I had all of these emotions going through me and I think on some level I had sort of still always thought that some day I would come back, that that was the place where I fit in. Because I'd lived in Southern California, if you include college since '97 and this would've been in 2004—no, it was 2004 when my parents moved away and it was 2011 when I made this trip. So I hadn't lived in that area for a good 14 years at that point and I hadn't been there at all in seven. And that was the first time that it really, really struck me that like, "Oh, I don't belong here anymore, this is not my home anymore." And I went and walked around my old neighborhood and some of the neighbors still live there, but some of them didn't. And I just stood outside the house where I used to live, that my parents had sold and moved away from and I didn't know the people that lived there and, you know, I just looked at it and I was so sad. [laughs] I spent most of that day just sort of wandering around in a haze and taking pictures of things, and visiting these different sites that were sort of personally—almost like making a little bit of a pilgrimage around the town. I mean it's like anything, when you grow up in a place, there are all these little hidden places that are really, really meaningful to you and maybe like a couple other people that were your friends and your family, but that have no significance at all to anybody else, right? That nobody would even know that that is a spot that matters at all. Or if it does, maybe it just means something totally different to them, right? So I found myself going from place to place in this town and wanting to take a picture of it and wanting—because it felt the same but it also felt different and that sort of tension was something that... It felt very urgent to me. And then over the course of the next couple of years I would make a point to go back. Any time I was up in the area, I would go back. I'd try to go early in the morning when there weren't a lot of people around, when the light was really nice, and go to all of these places, walk around in different parts of the town and see what jumped out at me. What was really, really interesting to me about that project is, you know, so now I'm done with it and I've been done with it for a couple of years now. And I think I was shooting that for probably three, four years, something like that. And at the beginning of it, like I said, I was just—I had such strong emotions about it and I was really troubled and sort of upset. By the time I was done shooting it and then trying to assemble it into something coherent as a project, it didn't feel that way anymore. I felt like, "Okay. You know, this is where I am now." And I think it was really sort of at that point that I really started accepting my place where I live now as being more of a home. Yeah, it was an interesting experience.
DG: In a way, you're kind of like looking at an old picture of yourself, right? Where you almost don't recognize the person, and if you were to go back and be in that person's head that you used to be. It's kind of like, "Whoa, what's this person? Completely different." So it's interesting, visiting that home that you thought would be a place that you belong in the future and kind of resolving that it wasn't your current home or that things have changed or evolved.
MS: Yeah, it's really weird being back in that town now and I find, since I finished that project, I haven't been back quite as much in the last year or two. It's funny because it's not a very populated town. I mean there's maybe a thousand people spread out over, you know, a good-sized area and it's a lot of hills and trees and stuff like that, canyons. And that part of it, the geography of it looks identical. But the feel of the town is really different and it is funny too because even though my family doesn't live there anymore, I still know people who live there. And when you talk to them—like even when I was just walking around sometimes people would say, "Oh, what are you doing?" And, you know, I sort of wandered into somebody's business or something and say, "Oh, you know, my mom used to own this place" or something like that. I walked into an art gallery and it was like, "This used to be the gym. I used to work out in here." And having this long conversation and the person being like, "Oh, that's really interesting. It doesn't really feel that different to me." But it's because they live there, they've been there the whole time, and it sort of sneaks up on you, you know.
DG: It's almost like the history of a place or a city, it's kind of interesting how it evolves. As you do as well, right?
DG: It's almost like a living, evolving thing. Towns and stuff. Yeah. Interesting. So, looking also at your website, I was appreciating All Good Things and it feels like a lot of your work has to do with this kind of holding onto a moment or to a time in your life. Do you find that there's a need to document things and hold onto them as pictures, that you can kind of extend that moment or relive it later on? Or a fear of losing it or...
MS: I mean, I do think that my work is very sort of concerned with time and the way time passes and how time accumulates in your life. Things like that. A lot of my work has that either explicitly or implicitly in it. In general, I think photography... I think all photographers are on some level concerned with time because... I mean there's been volumes and volumes written by much smarter people than me about how photography is a medium that is intimately concerned with time. Even just the way that we operate our cameras, in the shutter speeds and how we're all intimately familiar with what a 125th of a second looks like as compared to a 30th of a second. But, yeah, that series. So that was my first sort of real body of work, and I came to that series very organically, right? Like anything else. It's my series about my family and specifically about my experience of parenthood. I had always been interested in photography, even when I was a kid, but I sort of left it behind for a long time. I had one semester of photography in high school and then I did just a teeny bit of photography, not as art, but just sort of incidental to doing other things in college. But then after college I—even during college—I didn't really do photography as photography for a really long time. And then when we were about to have our first kid, my wife bought me a camera for my birthday. He was born almost exactly a month after my birthday and so I had this brand new DSLR and was getting all into it and taking pictures. And, you know, everybody takes pictures of their kids. But I found that I was very frustrated with not being able to take pictures that looked the way I wanted them to look. So I started off looking at a lot of commercial family photographers. That was right around the time when family photography a lifestyle thing was really taking off. And so there were all of these family photographers with blogs, and wedding photographers with blogs and all these sort of behind the scenes, "This is how we did it" kind of thing. And so I always found myself copying all of those things and getting all these little tutorials, teaching myself how to light—or, not how to light but how to see light. Eventually some of these people would reference—like one of the biggest ones was Sally Mann, you know, and they'd be talking about, "Oh, Sally Mann, look at what she did with her family photographs. That's what I want to do with my photography business is to be able to make really authentic photos." And then that was sort of my gateway into fine art photography. But these pictures that I made were all things that just sort of developed out of my life. It was just that I would notice a moment and I would have this sort of poignant feeling and I would just need to make an image of it. One of the things that I find with my photography, what I like to say is, a couple of things. The first is that I think one of the unifying things about all my work is that it's driven by this desire to look more closely, that the world is a really beautiful and interesting place but sometimes you just have to look for it. So that's one thing. The other thing is that oftentimes what I am doing with my photographs is that I... I think what my photographs are about is almost never what is actually in the frame, that I'm always trying to take a picture of something intangible and invisible. And so with It Forgets You, literally the subjects of my photographs were these sort of found little still life or landscape scenes that I would stumble across. But really what the photographs are about and what I'm trying to capture in the photograph is how I feel about all of that, right? Which the photograph can only suggest. So with All Good Things, the photographs are—they're all either, again, little still lifes that I find that my kids have left in places, or they are portraits of the kids. But the breakthrough that I had after my first portfolio review, which was in 2012, that I didn't have it organized as a real body of work or anything. And talking to people, especially Aline Smithson, [who] I remember was one of my first reviewers. What I had thought that I was trying to do with those photographs initially was to describe my kids' childhood. I thought I was taking pictures them and I thought I was trying to say something about childhood and about growing up, about innocence or, you know, things that I thought of when I thought of my kids. But what I came to realize, with the help of these reviews, was that I actually was taking pictures of myself. And that was a real turning point for me in realizing that, "Oh, these pictures are not about my kids at all. These pictures are about me." It's been a real interesting thing that really changed the way I conceive of myself as a photographer entirely. That I'm never in the frame, literally, visibly in the frame, but that I am... What I'm trying to do is show you the way that I see things, right? Like I'm trying to put you in my shoes. And that's really what ends up being... What I feel makes the photographs work is that when I'm able to accomplish that, then I feel like I'm able to get to a meaningful place as an artist.
DG: Yeah. It's interesting. And speaking to that as well, I feel like with your pictures there's little secrets in them, because there's what you're presenting as the surface of something, you know, a vista or a door or whatever. But then there's also what you're thinking and what you have for yourself as well, that maybe you're not sharing or explicitly saying what it is, but it's something that holds true to yourself, that's just for you. Would you say that that's kind of there a little bit?
MS: Yeah, yeah.
DG: Like with It Forgets You. I mean these are all—they're things, but they're obviously little secrets that... I don't know, there's obviously personal things that are there that aren't overly explained.
MS: Yeah. That project in particular was tricky and it's one that I've had a little bit of a challenge because I... And you've seen it in its final form. It's on my website of course, but its most fully realized form is a book and it's a book that I... It's a handmade artist book and it's in the form of a journal. It's supposed to look like a handwritten journal with the pictures tipped in and with handwritten text accompanying it. There's a few things with that, because I like writing and I like images and finding out ways to make them work together is really interesting to me. I find that when I present that book in particular in a photographic context, like when I bring that book to reviews, one of the more common things I get from people is that I'm really asking a lot of the viewer. And that's the word, too, viewer instead of reader. That there's so much text that I'm really asking a lot of the reader so it has to really be worthwhile. And I hope it is. I feel like what I'm always trying to do is not overexplain the picture. And that's the difficulty with the text, because text is in a lot of ways about explaining things. With that series I have the photographs interspersed with little vignettes or poems, and sometimes the text will be by itself with no picture next to it. Sometimes it'll be butted up next to a picture, juxtaposed with the picture. And when the two are together, sometimes the text will be directly related to what's in it. Like on one of the pages I have an image of the skeleton of a building after it's been burned down. And then I have a poem that is also about that building having burned down. Not the describing the picture, but it's more like they're both about the same thing. Whereas in other cases I have a little vignette that isn't actually related to what's happening in the picture. But, again, it's always supposed to be suggesting a feeling. When you talk about having secrets—or another word sometimes people use is mystery—I think what that does is... The important thing for me about the work is to be able to express myself. But more than that it's to be able to make a connection with people. Because you know, I spend so much of my life being afraid and feeling lonely and feeling misunderstood. And then when I go and see a work of art or read a poem or hear a song or a movie or whatever and I can see a piece of me in it, then that makes me feel better. It makes me feel less alone. And I want to be able to do that with my work as well. And, you know, who knows how successful it is in general. I know that some people have connected with it very strongly. That's been very meaningful to me. But I feel like if you're going to be able to do that, you have to leave room for the audience to put themselves into it. You know, you have to make it so that it is personal and it is specific, but you can't be talking about it in a way that's didactic or heavy-handed. You have to just suggest things and then let the audience sort of fill in the blanks for themselves. You know?
DG: I feel like with Sheets, that's an interesting project. I think it kind of... I don't know if that's your most recent project or maybe not, but it feels like a kind of culmination of all these kinds of things you're talking about in terms of it—you know, you have the poem within it and it's basically a love letter to your wife. You have the words in there but it's not heavy-handed and that kind of puts it into context but leaves it... It's very romantic, very light. It's a photo of you and your wife, but there's also the secret because there's not you and your wife. You know what I mean? Like it's got all these little things in it. And in a way, like from what you were saying, when I first saw that project it just kind of felt very personal to myself as well because I, too, never really understood the idea of making a bed. And [laughs] so I do it for my wife as well. I joke around that before I met my wife, I would just sleep on top of the comforter with a sheet that I would put over myself. And my idea of making the bed was I would hide that sheet underneath the pillow in case someone came over [laughs] so I wouldn't have to make it. So I totally get that. It's kind of like I see myself in there, but also there's this kind of mystery of these two people and this life that you have together and the family and all those things where there's this kind of mystery to it, too. Or the secret. One thing that I'm really interested about that project is something that I think we all kind of struggle with with personal work—and this seems to be very personal work, obviously, showing where you sleep with your wife—is how do you balance that? Making a project—or not making it with the intention of making it, but making it to share between you and the specific person, either with yourself or with your wife. How do you do that and also balance the idea of also putting it out into the world and sharing that deeply personal part of you?
MS: Um, it's an interesting question. Because, you know, with that project specifically, it might have a little bit of a different answer than I might have for my other things. I think it's different in part because of the fact that that really is personal, and not personal to me, but it's personal in an "us" kind of way, right? Because it is, as you say, it is a love letter to my wife. To sort of make this a little more broad and general, one of the things that I think a lot about—and really this is something that I think a lot about in terms of all human behavior—but specifically with art, I'm always interested in what does the art do? Right? How does it function in the world, what's the purpose of it, what's the intention? But even aside from the intention, what does it do in the world? And so this book, right? This is also another thing that, again, I've made a book out of it and I sell that book, right? A few dozen people around the world have a copy of this book, and it is the kind of thing sometimes people ask me, "How does your wife feel about that?" And just to be clear, I did talk to her about that before I started making a book out of it and definitely before I started selling it, and she's on board. So [laughs] that's good. But you know, for me the thing with that series is it actually didn't start off as a serious art project. It actually started off as a blog post. I think it was for Valentine's Day. I can't quite remember. It was either Valentine's Day or her birthday but, you know, as the series is in the gallery on my website right now is pretty much the same form that it was on my blog at the time. The thought that I had with that was that, yes, I want to say something to my wife, something that is directly and specifically to her and nobody else. This is from me to her. But also I wanted to do it in public because I wanted other people to see how much I love my wife and the act of doing that publicly was part of the gift of it, I guess. I don't know if that makes it sound like I'm blowing myself up a little bit, but it's sort of like... You know, like when you get married—and some people don't do this—but traditionally when we think of a wedding, we're thinking of a big party where you're getting a whole bunch of people together—and you absolutely can get married where it's just you and the officiant and one other person witnessing it, right? But to me there is something about a wedding that's—and first of all I just, I love weddings. [laughs] But there's something about weddings that is, it's a declaration made in public. It's a declaration made in front of all of these people who are part of your life. And having it witnessed that way, having it witnessed publicly, to me it changes the meaning of it all. And it changes the function of it, like a promise that's made in public maybe works a little bit differently than a promise that's made in private. And similarly with this, I wanted it to be something that other people saw because I wanted other people to see, you know, this is how great my wife is and this is how great I think our relationship is. And I don't know, maybe as I'm saying it, maybe it sounds a little bit braggy, but to me doing it that way felt like a gift and an act of service to her, if that makes sense.
DG: No, that definitely comes across in your writing in it and also in the pictures. One thing that I noticed is—and I'm looking at it right now as well—it was the opening picture feels almost like a landscape of water or the ocean and all these undercurrents. It's kind of soft and I feel like that's a little bit like what relationships are. And so it kind of speaks to a little bit. It's a little bit stirred up, but some calmness to it and some familiarity.
MS: Yeah, I like that word softness. Another word that sometimes people use about my images is that they're quiet, which is another thing I really... I really like that idea of quietness in an image. And of course there are images that are loud and in your face that I really love and that I think are doing—they're amazing, but that's just not who I am. That is not the kind of image that I'm interested in making for myself. I love seeing that they're in the world, but things that I'm drawn to are sort of quiet contemplation more. And this is another thing, too, with this work—and with All Good Things, especially—is... You know, something I've been thinking a lot about, for a while, is what kind of man I want to be and what kind of man I am. And not just person, but man, right? I think that there is this way in which having an idea of masculinity as what we sort of traditionally conceive of masculinity to be really boxes you in, right? It really makes it so that you can't know yourself fully and you can't know other people fully. And I realized a while ago... I think part of this is because I grew up and my mom was a single mom and, you know, of course I love my dad and my stepdad, but my mom was always sort of the biggest figure in my life when I was growing up. And so I always had this real drive to live up to the example that my mom set of being a strong and capable and independent person who could kind of do everything. She was a small business owner and she always... When we were young, when I was really young, we were fairly poor and she would work like three or four or five jobs at a time just to keep a roof over our heads, me and my brother. Eventually she became a small business owner and she would just work her ass off to do that. And I always felt like I sort of owed it to her to live up to that and to be a better man. And part of that when I had kids was I really, really wanted to be a good father. I wanted to be a good parent. I wanted to, you know, not just be uninvolved, and not just be a traditional sports and whatever dad, even though I'm not a sports guy anyway. But I wanted to be—I wanted to change the diapers, you know, I wanted to kiss the boo-boos. I wanted to give the baths and read the stories and do all of those things that guys don't traditionally do. And as I've become an artist, I find that I'm really interested in engaging with that sort of more quiet and contemplative and tender and nurturing and emotional side of myself and putting that into the work. That I'm really interested in challenging the stereotypical notion of what a man is supposed to be and redefining it. And finding ways to incorporate softness and caring into my conception of masculinity. And not just for myself, but also because I have a son and I want him to have that example. I want him to be able to understand his emotions and take care of the people around him. And I feel very fortunate because he's a really good kid and he really does care, you know? Yeah.
DG: Well, sounds doing a good job with all that. I mean, I think you're making your mom proud.
MS: I hope so.
DG: Another thing that I kind of found interesting, you know, the softness and the quietness, but another thing that I feel when I'm looking at a lot of your work is also a little bit of a sense of tension. I don't know if you feel that or if that's something that I just pick up on.
MS: Well I would love to hear more about that.
DG: Well, I'm just looking, for example, [at] All Good Things, there's a picture of your son. I think he's holding a little snake. He's got like a little bit—it just feels a little bit of tension, you know, the little tricycle thing next, with the leaves. The—I'm assuming that's your wife with your child in the ocean, with the turbulent water, looking away. The little pink eye. Just little moments of—you know, the hand coming out of the shadow, hiding in the box. There's little sweet moments but also not just sweet, tender moments. There's also just a little bit of tension there. You know, the balloon, the ceiling it's just... Yeah. I don't know, the little red sweater on the floor.
MS: Yeah. You know, I'm not sure if tension is the word that I would use. I think I sort of get what you're saying. I am always looking for a way of making the images visually interesting. And so having a sort of visual, compositional tension is an important way of doing that. So like with that picture of the tricycle, the composition of that image is, you know, there's a little pile of leaves that is a certain color that's right in the middle of the frame so that your eye kind of goes there, but then off in the left corner there's the green, darker grass. And then on the right hand side you've got the tricycle and then when you look a little closer you can see the feet and hands coming in the frame from the side and things are very cut off on that edge. So like there's a visual tension to it because your eye wants to be pulled towards the center because that's the brightest part of the photograph. But then I put the most interesting parts of the photograph on the edge. Or to me, I think. And so I do think that visual tension, compositional tension is something that's a tool that I'm trying to use to get people to stay with the image longer. I always... That's another thing, too, is that, for me, I don't want an image that's obvious, right? I think there always needs to be something to get your attention, right, because otherwise you'll just slip right by it. But what I want and what I always appreciate, too, is, I come to somebody else's image and I have some reason to stay with it initially, something that catches my eye. But then the longer I stay with it, the more I notice, right? The more it reveals to me. That is something that I just find so impressive. And so it's something that I often am trying for. I have never felt like I do it quite as well as the people that I admire. But probably everybody does that.
DG: No, I definitely pick up on that. Like with the popcorn. When you first look through it you don't notice it, but then you look a little bit closer and you get the three nails that have nail polish and you've got them inside this bag with popcorn and it's just kind of interesting. Again there's just a little bit of that tension of, you know, suffocating almost the hand, but this kind of youthful energy to it. And I think that's maybe your dad or something with some flowers—I thought that they were popcorn at first. Just like little things that kind of make you pause and, you know, what's the secret in this picture? What's going on here that I wasn't in this room to know what's going on. It makes you kind of beg the question.
MS: Yeah. And another thing too that I—one of the things that I think you were talking about, like with the picture with the snake, is that with a lot of these pictures I want there to be a complexity of emotion. And so I guess that there is a tension in that, right? Because I don't want any of the images to just be one thing. It's very important to me that there is a sweetness to them, right? I really want to... It just drives me crazy, I don't like the word sentimental used as a criticism, as a pejorative. I feel like we're a little too scared of being sentimental or sweet or whatever. And so I want these images to have a sweetness to them, especially because these are pictures of children. I don't want it to be too much of a downer. I want the pictures to express a certain sweetness, a youthfulness, a joyfulness. I want the pictures to express the tenderness and depth of the love that I feel for my children. But also these pictures are in a lot of ways about mortality. There is something about when you have kids that it makes you aware of how fast time goes by in a way—or at least for me, and I know talking to other parents this is true as well—you have this little reminder in front of you every day who is growing and changing in a very visible and obvious way that is showing you the passage of time. And it at the same time reminds you of, one, how fleeting these little moments that, you know, they might be frustrating at the time, but you know 10 years down the road you're going to think "Aww" about that, right? And also that it makes me really aware of the fact that I'm getting older, and that I'm... You know, when I started making those pictures, I think I was like 30 maybe. And now I'm almost 40, I'm going to be 40 in just a few months. I think especially if you have an office job, the way that I do, that there's a way in which your life after you get out of school can feel very static, right? You can kind of forget that time is passing because every day is kind of the same. When you have kids that's not true anymore. You have this really visible reminder of time passing. And so that sort of melancholy and maybe existential dread a little bit, and bittersweetness is something that is very present in the images for me and that is also something I want to communicate with them. You know, like one of the images that I really debated a lot about including in that was the picture of my son where he's made up to look like an old man.
MS: Because I thought for a really long time, I was like, "Eh, I don't know, this picture. I think it's just too cute. I don't think people are going to understand why it's in there. They're just going to say 'that's cute,' but nothing else." I remember talking to a few other people and being like, "I really want to put this picture in, but I'm not sure about it." And you know, the people that got it—like I remember I was talking to Kurt Simonson about it at Medium a few years ago and he was like, "No, I don't think it's too sweet. I think it's really poignant, really bittersweet." And I was like, "Yeah, that's what I'm going for with that picture." Because it is a child at play in a certain way, but it's also. It sums up a lot about how I feel about these images.
DG: I feel like that kind of also translates with Sheets. You know, when I'm looking at Sheets, it's soft, like we were saying before and kind of quiet but also a little turbulent. And forgive me for using the word again, tension, a little bit of a tension towards it. And I feel like maybe that speaks also to that idea of, like you're saying, reminding you of the life cycle of things and maybe this idea that maybe reminding yourself of how special it is that you have this relationship with someone, or what your mom went through and all that. Because I feel a little bit of, you know, like there's that turbulent water in the first picture. In the next picture they're kind of twisted together but kind of loosely. So [it] speaks to your relationship. And in others it's a little bit more loose. And then there's one where you talk about how you wake up and she wasn't there, how you felt about that. And there's the two impressions. There's a little bit of a valley between the two impressions, so it kind of speaks [to that]. And then the last one, it's almost like an umbilical cord kind of tying you both together, so it feels like it talks a little bit about that kind of life cycle as well as just relationships and how they ebb and flow, but in the end you're kind of still, I don't know.
MS: I'm [laughs] really happy to hear that that came through. The sequence of the images is so important to me. That's the thing, as photographers we're always talking about sequencing the images and how to approach that. And there's so many different opinions and ways of doing that. For me, a lot of the times when I'm working... This is maybe a little less true in some of my more recent work, which is sort of more linear and just arranged chronologically. But especially with the first three, with All Good Things and Sheets and It Forgets You, I really am trying to establish a narrative with the images and the sequence of them in a—not just a story but an emotional arc. Yeah, so it's very gratifying to hear that that kind of is actually present and somebody else was able to pick up on it.
DG: Definitely. And then the words obviously tie it together but adds a whole new layer. Which is something that I don't normally think about, is words. I try to get away from words but they are important at times and there's that kind of balance and that kind of... How do you do it? Like in that work, it works perfectly, right? With Sheets where it's a love letter, it's a poem that you wrote for your wife, so it kind of really makes sense. And then the pictures add a little bit of that tension. Just seeing... I don't know, it just makes you think about your relationship—not "your," but relationships in general. It's not always sunny days, sometimes you're a little gray, like in the pictures. And sometimes a little bit of separation, other times it's really tight. And, you know, in the end it's still kind of soft and you're still there, you still wake up the next day together and things are going to be okay.
DG: So it's interesting. Those three projects I feel like they all kind of really go together. And then with Caesura and Auguries they feel like a little bit of a departure. I could be wrong, but I'm just curious about those two because they're also very similar. I notice one is black and white, the other one's in color, so I'm curious as to the difference as well and where that comes from.
MS: So I should say that those two series are... They're presented on my website right now as separate series, but really they come out of the same process and I'm trying to find a way to reintegrate them into being one thing. But so those are images that are... They're pictures of the inside of my tea cup.
MS: And it's sort of this daily ritual, right? I always say my day job is in many ways really great. And it provides the lifestyle for myself and my family that supports us and that's great. But I don't find it very intellectually or creatively stimulating. And one of the parts of my day that I really love is that every day when I get to work I make a cup of tea. And the tea is really nice. I'm very into tea. I get some really nice tea and enjoy it. I sit, sort of contemplate the tea. That sounds really up its own butt.
MS: I mean it's not exactly a purposeful moment of meditation, but it's just a nice thing, you know. It's a nice little relaxing—I'm drinking a cup of tea, it tastes good, it's nice. And then I get to work. And then the next morning I come in and look at the residue at the bottom of the cup, take a picture of it, and then wash it out and start over again. I realized after a while that I had like 200 of those pictures—and I didn't take them every day, but I took them on a lot of days in a row—and that when you added it all up, that it was actually two years worth of mornings. And so, again, it's about the passage of time, and the accumulation of time, and time spent in a particular place, a daily routine, a daily ritual kind of thing. So I do feel like even though visually they're very, very different from my earlier work, they are sort of conceptually similar. That it's, again, I'm looking closer, I'm noticing something that might be hidden if I didn't look closely. And then I'm accumulating this mass of time by coming back over and over again.
DG: And again it's just a kind of documentation of passage of time and almost thinking about mortality in a way.
MS: Yeah, it is, it's like "What am I doing with all of these days in my cubicle?"
DG: [laughs] How many more tea cups do I have left? It's kind of interesting because it's like you're evolving in the way of seeing, in terms of doing something a little bit different, but still the underlying themes and those little secrets are still there, so it's kind of interesting.
MS: Yeah, that's one where there's no words in the—again, I made a book out of it and I made an accordion book. I think you've seen it, right?
DG: I did, yeah.
MS: I liked the idea of being able to stretch the book out and show a progression over time and that's why they're in chronological order and notated with the dates. I think that ultimately even if I'm experimenting with different visual styles or techniques or whatever, it's still ultimately me and if it feels meaningful to me that there is going to be some through-line to why it feels meaningful.
DG: Yeah. I mean, one of the things that I really appreciated when I first met you was—I'd seen Sheets at that opening night of that gallery or whatever it was, the small works exhibition. I remember really loving the personal feel to it and just handmade artist book as a unique object, something you made for your wife. And then how you... I've never made a book and I've been thinking a lot about that lately, as a way to express the work or a way to work through the work. I like how you thought about that with the tea cups, how that kind of shows the progression of time and it's not just an accordion book just for the sake of making accordion book, because that's maybe something someone has on their to-do list per se. But you know, you thought about how that would add to that work and show it in a different way than you would on the website or...
MS: Yeah. This also gets to the combination of text and image. There was a thing you said before about, you know, you try to get away from text and get away from words, which, you know, that's a totally valid way for a visual artist to work, right? Like, I totally understand when people say "What's important about the image is in the image and I don't need to say anything else about it." If that's what you're going for, I think that that's great and then you should just concentrate on making the image say everything it needs to say. For me, I don't think for my work it takes anything away to have the text included because it's always been conceived of as text and image together. And so each one is not meant to do all of the lifting. And I think that's the thing with artwork is that whatever you put into the project, whatever the work of art might be, whether it's a painting or a song or a book or whatever, everything that's in it should contribute to the effect. And so with Sheets I chose an open-spine binding with sort of a crinkle-texture paper for the cover, and the reason I did that was, you know, the crinkled texture suggests the sheets on the inside, the unmade bed, and the open spine sort of has a quality to it that almost feels a little unfinished, I feel like, and then it also really exposes the fact that you can see the stitching in the spine, so it has a very obviously handmade quality. And that was important to me because I made the book with my hands the same way I make the bed with my hands. And also, neither is perfect, right? Like I try really hard to do the best job I can, making the bed and making the book, but each one has some little flaws in it, right?
MS: With the Caesura book, I made it an accordion book because that way I can show them when it's folded up, it's like each one is separate, like day feels separate from the next day. But then when you stretch it out, you can see a continuum and that was important to me. And then with It Forgets You, that book looks like a journal because what's more personal than a handwritten journal? And so it was really about that personal thing. It's funny with the book thing—this happens to me a lot—I only learned how to make books by accident. What ends up happening is that I will get stuck on something, right? And I actually, a lot of times, especially with writing, I just hate doing it, right? I get stuck on it and I'm pushing really hard and it doesn't feel right. Sometimes that happens, not with the shooting, but with the assembling in photography. I will just get really stuck and I can't push on it anymore. And then somebody will say something to me like, "Oh look, I make handmade books." And I'll say, "Oh, I wonder how that works." And then all of a sudden, you know, I'll go off and start researching it just as like, "Oh, this is a fun way to waste time." And then it's five years later and I've made four books. And I'm like, "Oh. Well that's a thing, I guess."
DG: [laughs] Yeah, I mean you're obviously putting a lot of time and thought into it and not just doing it because you saw it on YouTube and trying to figure out how to make an object. You're actually, with the Sheets especially, as you're saying, it's just kind of... I hadn't really thought about that's why you had the texture being kind of similar to the sheets and stuff. I almost thought of the exposed spine and the stitching almost like you're exposing your relationship and your love for your wife and all that. And the stitches holding it together almost like that umbilical cord, where it's kind of like you guys are tethered together, but it's kind of rough but solid and sturdy. But fragile at the same time.
MS: I like that. Yeah.
DG: So I know you're probably getting ready for nap time, and I need to make my bed now that I've been reminded.
DG: And I know normally you end the show on a certain way and you're certainly welcome to answer that question that you ask us all. But one thing that I've been thinking about, especially after speaking with you—but even before that—just kind of, you know, the mortality and this idea of we all have an eventual demise or an end, and all that. And I think at the end we tend to think about things such as regret, or things we would have done differently, but by that point it's already too late and you're kind of lamenting something as opposed to having had an opportunity to change it. So thinking in that way and also being January, where we can make changes and all that good stuff, is there something that you can think of going forward that you could do that would, you know, five years from now you wouldn't think, "I wish I had done this or I wish I had considered this," that you could enact today going forward?
MS: Yeah, that's a good question. You know, I think on some level trying to sort of future-proof your life is... It might be kind of a fool's quest, right? Like I don't know if you could do it, because there's just no way to predict what's going to happen. And I kind of think that it's better to try and spend your time trying to figure out what you're doing now, right? Because now is where you live. And the thing that I try to do is—and this is something from my therapist—is to be mindful of what my values are, right? And that if I'm living according to my values, then it's going to feel right, right now. And that in the future I might look back, maybe my values will change, but I'll know that at the time I was doing the thing that felt right. In terms of personal growth or maybe a new project or something like that, for me what's interesting—every year I pick a word for the year and I write a little... You know, I have a TinyLetter newsletter that I send out and I try to do that semi-regularly. But at the beginning of the year I say what my word is and why, and my word for this year was growth. That I have a real fear of success. And there's a lot of reasons for it, you know, like part of it is just my insecurity and feeling like I don't deserve things. Part of it is worrying that people aren't gonna like me or people aren't going to think that, even whether or not I think I deserve something, other people, if I became more successful, would see me and say, "Well that guy doesn't deserve to be successful." And I'm always really concerned with, you know, being a good person and is it possible to be a good person and do things for yourself? And of course the answer is "Yes," but it's easier to see that with other people than with yourself. This year I decided that I was going to make an actual effort to grow outside of that feeling, to try and gain a bigger platform and to be more outwardly successful in the hopes that if I were able to be more successful and get a bigger platform that then I can turn around and use that to help other people. Which is a thing that, I'm always really interested in doing is figuring out how to be supportive and helpful to other people. But I think that the main thing is just if you know what kind of person you want to be then in any moment you can say, "Am I being that kind of person?" You know? You could stop and think about it and say, "Am I living the way that I want to live?" And as long as the answer to that is "Yes," I don't think that there's too much worry about regret, you know?
DG: Well said.
DG: [laughs] It sounds like you're already practicing it. So that's fantastic. I mean that's all you can do it, right? Is live with your life the way you feel like you should. And I think we need reminders from time to time, I know I do. But yeah. That's great.
DG: Wonderful. Well, thanks for putting up with my many questions. Did you want to answer your own question that you normally do?
MS: Oh yeah.
DG: Because you've probably practiced that one, then I had to throw in a little bit of something and they'll throw you off a little bit.
MS: It's funny because I... So I always ask people if there was a piece of art or literature or creativity of some sort that they've experienced recently that mattered to them. And I never—this is one of the only things, I never tell people that I'm going to ask them that at the end and there's a reason for that, right? It's that I don't want people to like think about it and think like, "Oh, what's going to be the cool answer? What's going to be an answer that makes me seem smart or whatever?" And I was thinking about that as we were coming in and thinking, "Well, I know that that question could happen. So I wonder what I would say to that, and what's going to make me look smart?" [laughs]
MS: So I don't know, I read a lot. I've already read five books this year, so that's... The first one was actually really great though. It was a book of poems by Fatimah Asghar. And she's a, I think, Pakistani American poet and the book is called If They Come For Us and it's got this recurring theme all the way through about partition. There's a lot about how... The partition refers to the Partition of India back in the 1940s into Pakistan and India, and how that's a metaphor for a lot of things for South Asians in America, and in South Asia. But also other forms of partition as well, and the ways in which people are separated, people separate each other from each other, from themselves. I just really, really loved that and, you know, I hope someday I get to have her on the show, but I guess we'll see.
DG: That'll be interesting. Yeah, wow. Cool, thanks for sharing that as well.
MS: Well, thanks man. I really—Hey, I just want to say I enjoyed this more than I was expecting to and also I really appreciate you pushing me to do this. It was really very sweet of you and I appreciate your support. Thank you so much.
DG: No, it's all good. I love pushing others, but I'm more reluctant to push myself, so I appreciate the opportunity to push you, get you to, you know, we appreciate you always thinking about others, but I appreciate your artwork and your thing and it's been wonderful to get to learn a little bit more about you and your process.
MS: Thank you.
Mike Sakasegawa: OK, so there we are. Thanks again to Daniel for making this happen and for being such a gracious host, and thanks to all of you out there for listening for the past three years. I’m really looking forward to what’s coming up for Keep the Channel Open, and that’s got a lot to do with you all. Oh, and about that new show that I mentioned, I put a link in the show notes to the Kickstarter campaign. I’m really excited about that and I hope that it’ll be something you’ll enjoy as well. If it sounds like something you’d like to listen to, please check out that Kickstarter and throw in a few bucks, I’d really, really appreciate it.
And that is our show. If you’d like to get in touch, you can follow the show on Twitter and Instagram at @ChannelOpenPod, on Facebook at facebook.com/keepthechannelopen, or you can send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. If you’d like to support the show, a monthly pledge in any amount to our Patreon campaign is greatly appreciated, it also gets you access to our subscriber-only bonus content. You can find that at patreon.com/sakeriver, that’s sake like the drink and river like river. And please leave a rating and review on Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts, that does help new listeners find the show. Our theme music is by Podington Bear, you can find more of his music available for licensing at soundofpicture.com. We’ll be back on February 13th with a conversation with photographer Victoria Mara Heilweil, so do be sure to come back for that one. Until then, remember: keep the channel open.