Interview with Seph Lawless

Pseudonymous photographer Seph Lawless is known for his haunting, yet aesthetically beautiful portrayal of America’s most fragmented places and buildings including malls, hospitals, schools and houses. Through his photo books Autopsy of America, 13: An American Horror Story, and Black Friday, Lawless has showcased the underrepresented ‘ugly’ side of America in an effort to encourage and promote action for improvement and sustainable change in the society.

fluoro spoke to Lawless about his style, the challenges of his work, the role of Artivists – a self-created term – and his up and coming projects.

fluoro. Why urban decay and abandoned spaces?

Seph Lawless. I started taking pictures of some of the most abandoned spaces and broken parts of America for the simple reason that I wanted America to wake up to what was happening to their country.

I wanted people to see the closed schools, the hospitals, the abandoned amusement parks, the abandoned malls, the abandoned houses, ‘cause often people forget that there are still people that live there. I wanted to raise awareness for those Americans that are living very poorly and very disconnected from much of mainstream America.

f. In your opinion what is it that attracts people to these kinds of images? They have become such a big trend that the term ruin porn has developed.

SL. People ask me all the time why are people attracted to ruin porn? Why do people like your stuff? I break it down to three sections. The first section of people liking my work is because it reminds them of the ancient ruins of Greece in a way. They find this to be aesthetically appealing. The second group like the mystery of it, the fear element of it. It looks creepy, it looks scary, and I do that by editing and designing. Lastly, there are people that find relevancy in my images and this is what separates me from others that do this work. I started attaching statistical data about the locations and brought political debate into the art.

f. Your images are more than just an eerie photography style. They’re a means of communication. In words, what call to action does your work express?

SL. The goal is to excite awareness. To awaken the various foundations in America. I want them to be moved not only emotionally by the art, but to be moved into activism. I want them to not only care about what they’re seeing; I want them to try to do something to change what they see. Get together, be activists and raise money for the homeless and try to stop some of the things that are happening in these parts.

A lot of Americans see my work and don’t believe it’s even in the United States. They think it’s a third world country, and that’s because they’re so disconnected. They live in a nice section of America so they never see other parts, and when you don’t see it, it doesn’t really exist. Our country is just as weak and vulnerable as other parts of the world. We need to be reminded of that. I didn’t think the problems would change unless we actually faced them so I thought we could very simply start by looking at them. That’s why I started taking photos. The most important part of what I do is spreading awareness. 

f. In relation to this activism you talked about, you developed the term Art-ivist? What’s that about?

SL. It’s basically a combination between artist and activist. The idea is that an artist can use art, whatever that artistic medium is, for the betterment of humanity. The artist can use that to promote any kind of activism, whatever the case may be. So Artivist is a combination of an artist that identifies as an activist. Someone that believes that creativity and art is a powerful way to reach people and invoke real sustainable change. 

f. What are you working on currently?

SL. I have an upcoming project that’s going to be a really powerful one. It’s ten years after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans and devastated the area. I went to the worst section of New Orleans last month to examine where things are, and where things still need to be, ten years after that catastrophe.

Also, I will soon be releasing my next book on abandoned amusement parks from all over the world. It’s a different project for me in a sense, more of an emotional one. There’s something creepy but very beautiful about abandoned amusement parks. A lot of people identify with it and share fond memories of it, and to see it abandoned gives a very powerful image. Each park is going to share someone’s experience in that particular amusement park to add a little bit to the image. 

f. On a different note, rumours are that you have been working on illustrating the Edward Snowden documents through art. How far is the project?

SL. Correct. We started implementing the project in 2014 working as part of a much larger team. This is going to be a little different than photography. It is going to be large installations spread out in very specific cities in America. Essentially, it is going to draw the eye to the art, then, it will introduce some of the, what I strongly believe to be, very intricate and important information that Edward Snowden helped leak from NSA and some wiki-leaks that we’ve come across. It’s going to include audio and video that will be transmitted to cell phones. It will be very social media driven. I feel it’s really important for Americans to know what their government was doing, how it reacts to certain situations, and how it affects our foreign policy. 

f. Sounds very interesting. When is the timing for that?

SL. It will definitely happen in 2015. Because of legality factors we’re trying to keep that as low as possible because, [laughs], it’s not that any of this is extraordinarily intrusive, but some of these installation projects are going to be very large and rather intrusive, at times even illegal, so we’re trying to do our best to avoid that. 

f. Well, It wouldn’t be the first time you got in trouble for doing your work, would it?

SL. No unfortunately not.

Unfortunately here in the States you’re not allowed to trespass, and you know, obviously I’ve been arrested for that. It’s unfortunate. Clearly it’s not hurting anyone, but there are laws. Sometimes you break the law to do the right thing. I think that’s relevant to my work sometimes. 

f. Your exhibits are currently touring Europe, any chance it will reach Australia?

SL. Correct, yeah, it’s currently in Munich until 15 March 2015 and then it will be going on to Paris and Milan and through different cities to be announced. I don’t have anything definitive scheduled for Australia yet, but there has been some talk with some different places in Australia and honestly I’d love to without a doubt so if that does happen I will definitely let people know. 

f. Have you considered photo documenting other countries and cities outside of America?

SL. Yes! I photographed in Germany and I think the more I progress with this kind of work, the more I will work outside of America. So that’s a goal that I’ve already started and that I look forward to doing much more with the same mindset of exposing places that are underrepresented by national media, and that most people don’t want to see, giving a little bit more of an accurate depiction of countries. That will be my next step for sure. 

f. What’s your dream project?

SL. I guess going back to covering other countries. That would be a dream to do that. I can’t imagine anything more of a dream project than travelling the world and doing what I’ve done in America. That would be pretty amazing to do. 

f. So in 2015 we have the Hurricane Katarina in New Orleans and the Edward Snowden and amusement park projects to look forward to? Anything else for 2015?

SL. Well, I’m about to release a very unique project in a couple of weeks with the press and different things that no one really knows about.

I shot a very rare place, an abandoned pet cemetery. It’s actually extraordinarily beautiful how I shot it. I just finished editing the photos and they’re just amazing. It’s a really old pet cemetery where people went that were very rich and could afford to bury their pets over a hundred years ago. It’s pretty fascinating to see.

There have been a couple of different things that came up for 2015. I was asked to host a television show on the Travel Channel but I haven’t signed any contract yet, but there are talks about doing a reality show about my work and me sometime in 2015. I really can’t talk much more about that, but it will be happening in 2015, at least the part of filming.

We’ll be covering the Lawless journey as he travels around the globe exposing places that are underrepresented, with the aim of giving a more accurate depiction of the world we live in.

Stay tuned to fluoro and follow the hashtag #fluoroSepthLawless to be taken on this journey across our social media.

Lawless will soon be releasing his new book Pet Cemetery… In Loving Memory, which together with his previous publications, will be available in different prints and versions.

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One thought on “Interview with Seph Lawless
  1. John F Small says:

    I love your work since I discovered you on Facebook. There are members of the United States Government if showed some of these pictures would think they were taken in some other Country. I am so glad you ‘get it’. We are now a throw away Nation. zThanks for all you do.

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