What is it like to work as a duo when the other half is almost nine thousand miles away? Go ask Frank Diaz and Deb Young, a creative team known as Diaz & Young, who live in the United States and New Zealand respectively. But distance is not an impediment for their photographic work; on the contrary, they’ve managed to fuel each other’s creativity, respect each other’s vision and opinions, and are, in a way, closer than ever. We speak with them about the difficulties of having an artistic long-distance relationship, the uncanny and mysterious nature of their works, and The International Collaboration Project.
Do you remember the instant when you realized that photography was your true passion and that you wanted to turn it into your profession?
Frank: Yes, a good friend, Raymond Helfrich, always carried his digital camera around and he suggested I get one. I had worked years earlier with a film camera and done darkroom work. So, upon his suggestion, I went out and bought my first digital camera. That was about eleven years ago.
Deb: I immediately became fascinated with photography when a friend snapped our family portrait in the backyard when I was about 10 years old. But it wasn’t until I had been working in a bank for four years that I realized I needed to be immersed in photography. I simply quit my job, found a position with a photographic studio and my passion deepened.
Frank and Deb, we would like to discover how and when you two met, and what experiences led you to initiate a challenge as daring as The International Collaboration Project.
Frank: We met in 2013 on Facebook. A photographer friend, Brent Pallas, gave me ten names to start with and Deb’s was one of those names. I reached out to be Facebook friends and she agreed. We began viewing each other’s posts and eventually started to make comments. Over time, we discussed art and photography and realized we had similar points of view. Deb had completed some beautiful landscape shots of Manukau Harbor (New Zealand) and I thought they were amazing. I asked Deb to borrow one.
At the time, I was a photo montagist and she was a street photographer, so I thought I might play around with Deb’s landscape photo. After spending time with the image, we discussed some ideas and then created our first work together, The Wolf + The Bird. We then entered it into a photo competition and did well. We stepped back and asked each other, ‘Ok, what have we done?’ You see, Deb was 8,800 miles away in New Zealand and I was in New Jersey (United States). There was no blueprint for how two photographers working that far apart could collaborate on the same photograph.
The Playground Series the Sack Race1.jpg
How did you evolve from there?
Frank: We began to create more of a methodology using out-of-the-box technology – seeing through each other’s camera and working through each other’s computer remotely. We called ourselves The International Collaboration Project, and as the vanguard collaborative duo we have won many awards including Best International Fine Art Photographers.
Long-distance could be hard to overcome in an art project when there is a +8,000-mile distance between a duo of creatives, but both of you defend that it is a trait that distinguishes and differentiates The International Collaboration Project in the world of photography. What kind of creative process do you follow so it reflects both of your visions and achieves the desired result?
Deb: The most important aspects of our collaborative process are discussion, listening and giving each other the time to present ideas. First, we discuss a possible concept and how we would each visualize the look and feel of the finished piece. Then, we discuss the logistics of attaining images for that concept. All our work comes from random snaps we take, we don’t do set-ups or use models, so when we agree on a concept, we then proceed to shoot random images that may pertain to the idea. Afterwards, we begin to create works that appear to be a single shot but are photomontages. Our goal is to move the form of photography forward, and to do this, we must approach each series from a unique position. It takes us hours of discussion, then days or weeks of creating together. We don’t go in search of that unique image, we create it ourselves.
In the art world, the collaboration in artistic photography between a man and a woman is unusual. How have you managed to mix the male and female sensibilities in the same project?
Frank: Our collaboration is unique, not just because photography is generally a solitary endeavor, but because most collaborations are done by pairs living in proximity to each other. When we started collaborating, there was no roadmap for a male and female artist to work together on the same image, at the same time, yet separated by 8,800 miles! The gender hurdle was something we began discussing from the start.
Males and females are conditioned differently and therefore, we think and approach many things differently. We both see colors, contrast and saturation differently and we approach composition differently. We see those differences as strengths and use those differences to create new work – work that combines the true feel of a male and female artist.
Deb: We listen to each other carefully – no arguing – and we try those suggestions that we agree are viable. I lean toward a more muted palette and Frank towards a more hyped color sensibility. We combine each of those in a way that works – it’s all about balance. I favor black and white at times and Frank doesn’t.
By embracing each other’s preferences, we created a series that combines the edgy, grainy, black and white photography I love with the contrasty images cut off at the edges that Frank loves, into The Playground Series. We truly see being artists of different genders as a strength that adds further uniqueness to our work. We are the roadmap for future male and female artists to collaborate successfully in art even though they may be in different countries or continents.
“The dystopian element in our work is less about saying life sucks and more about saying life is a mystery.”
Your project is currently made up of six series where you present complex ideas, including collective and individual conflicts of the human being described as "disturbingly beautiful". Could you mention the artists and artistic movements that inspire your work?
Frank: For me, painters such as Goya, Cezanne, Picasso, Bruegel, Bosch, the Hudson River School and movie directors such as Hitchcock, Peckinpah, Tarantino, Leone, and Kurosawa inspire my thinking about photography. The French New Wave, Italian Neorealism, Hong Kong New Wave, Cubism, and Italian Renaissance painting are all movements that have made a deep impression on me as well.
Deb: Reportage/observational photography has always been a huge drawcard for me. It’s about social commentary, environmental impact, and uncanny, subtle occurrences in daily life that can be interesting reference points for our conceptualization. Photographers Robert Frank, Daido Moriyama, Fred Herzog and Alexander Gronsky, for example, are just a few whose projects have inspired my appreciation for that cross-section of society.
The The Lost Boys series (winner of the International Photographers of the Year at the 6th Edition Pollux Awards, the Fine Art and Documentary Photography Biennial, and the first prize at the New York Center for Photographic Arts, among others) talks about the transition from innocent childhood to the difficulty of adulthood, all surrounded by a dark atmosphere. What kinds of experiences from this vital process do you portray in your photographs?
For us, childhood is the puddle that produces adulthood. So the quality of that puddle determines the quality of our adulthood. The patterns we develop as children, the shared experiences all leave their marks on us, and through storytelling, we show some of the experiences that impact our childhoods, and hence our adulthood. The dystopian element in our work is less about saying life sucks and more about saying life is a mystery. The decisions we make as adults are colored by our reaction to the mystery of life.
The last series released by The International Collaboration Project, titled The Playground Series, has a remarkable backdrop: a mysterious and disturbing playground. Why is this scenario the main focus of these images?
We use the playground as a metaphor for the communities we live in and for the structure of our minds. Inside that ‘playground’ many activities occur, many thoughts happen. In many ways, the playground is the incubation laboratory for the development of how we see our worlds. In that environment, we develop patterns that determine who we are and how we will be.
The Wandering Kind Series the Fox and the Turkeys.jpg
Dealing with the future, we would like to know if the idea of adding/incorporating someone else to the project has ever crossed your mind, or if you believe that being a duo is what fits best The International Collaboration Project.
Actually, our initial concept on The International Collaboration Project was the incorporation of other art photographers from around the world. Once we knew how to collaborate long distance, we invited a French art photographer and an American art photographer into The International Collaboration Project. We wanted to understand the dynamics and see if it would work. Well, it worked extremely well, and the work produced gained entry into international exhibitions and won awards. Lately, we have focused more on our collaborative process as a duo. But incorporating other art photographers is always a possibility if we think the outcome will have both artistic and personal value.
Finally, we could not miss the occasion to ask both of you about future projects that you are currently working on. Is there a new series of images in the making?
Well, fortunately, we have many ideas! At the moment, we have three new series in development and are rounding out a couple of the pre-existing ones. We also have a couple of finished series that have not been released fully yet and are very excited to have them exhibited. We are also working on licensing some of our work and have an agreement with the Beekman 1802 Boys. With a TV Show, a mercantile, a bestselling cookbook  and memoir, and a website – all inspired by their farm in Sharon Springs (New York) – Beekman 1802 is now a wonderful tourist destination. They are amazing to work with and our Wandering Kind series has been licensed for use on their new shopping bag, their seasonal beauty boxes, and their tin containers. Our expansion into product licensing has been a big step and we are thrilled to see some of our work adorn such quality products.
Lost Boys Series Pursuit.jpg
Lost Boys Series Rift.jpg
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The Lost Boys Series the Secret Chamber.jpg
The Playground Series the Incident.jpg
The Wandering Kind Series the Bison.jpg
The Wandering Kind Series the Four Horses.jpg
The Playground Series the Light.jpg