We talk to Australian photographer Ward Roberts about his latest book, a series of photographs featuring the barren landscapes of New York’s Far Rockaway beach and the few sunbathers that gander there, and published by Atelier Éditions. Though he prefers not to give a context or opinion to his work, we discuss the title of this book, Flotsam, which is an ode to this ambiguity and curiosity he likes to promote. Since he doesn’t project his vision through words, he felt the need to express how this place made him feel through images. Roberts remains true to his soft and faded pastel colour palette – his reasoning behind this aesthetic he follows is to depict serious and sometimes depressing subjects in a more playful and approachable way.
Your latest photo book shows a series of photographs of a beach in New York’s Far Rockaway beach. What is it about this place that entices you to continue returning?
I think it’s one of these spaces that when I first visited, it was about what I had felt towards the location. It’s very hard to describe what it was that brought me back; it was an energy that made me feel like I needed to capture my thoughts of it, and I couldn’t describe it in any other way than visually.
You’ve been living in New York, the city that never sleeps, for quite some time now. The city life is very busy, crowded and chaotic at times – does it ever overwhelm you? Do you ever feel lonely or isolated in the city?
I grew up in Hong Kong, so it’s not necessarily a new experience for me to be around a lot of people. But New York as a city is quite different to any other in terms of the isolation that I’d felt. You’re completely surrounded by people twenty-four hours a day, and it’s the most isolating and lonely feeling I’ve felt living in a city. Certainly talking to other people as well, they feel a similar way.
Do you see yourself going back to Australia in the future? Or even to Hong Kong for that matter?
You know, I actually really would like to go back and live in Asia at some point in my life. In terms of Australia, I don’t feel I’m ready to move back there, I think there’s too much to explore elsewhere.
Flotsam by definition means “people or things that have been rejected or discarded as worthless.” And or “the wreckage of a ship or its cargo found floating on or washed up by the sea.” How did you come to choose this title?
I liked the sense of ambiguity in the name, how you could question what it suggests. Obviously it means debris or trash washed up on the beach, but the sense of what it actually suggests is the honour to flotsam. I like the idea of keeping it kind of ambiguous, not really giving the answer to what it is; whether it’s the people on the beach or the actual trash on the beach. Whether it’s the pollution or the city itself, or even if it refers to the certain building and structures in the background.
There’s a commentary-like text by German photographer and founder of mono-kultur magazine, Kai Von Rabenau, in your book; how did this collaboration come about and why did you choose for someone besides yourself to talk about your work?
This collaboration came about through my publishers, who were friends with Kai. But I’d been a fan of his magazine, mono-kultur, ever since they told me about it a while ago – not only the design, but the feel of the magazine as well. It’s very unique in comparison to other publications out there and I thought it was very fascinating. I don’t write my stuff for my own work, I don’t feel it’s appropriate. I prefer getting other’s interpretations of my work.
Even though the shoot takes place on the beach, the ocean never makes an appearance in your images. What were the motives behind this decision?
I like taking context out of images and works. If you didn’t refer to where the location was you wouldn’t actually know there was a beach, other than for the people there worshiping the sun. It’s like a tease, you feel almost desperate to see the water and I like the idea of not presenting it. You don’t necessarily get the context of where it is in the world and I like that.
At first look all images in this series look very much repetitive and indistinguishable between one another, but later you can discover little details in each one: a colourful house, a crane, a plane, a sign, even an enormous cigarette. What do you want your viewers to take away from these images?
It was quite bizarre to see all of these different elements on a beach; planes and cranes and these ‘giant cigarette’ pipes, which I’m unsure as to why they were designed to look like cigarettes. I want viewers to take away this sort of isolation that some people desire.
You’ve mentioned during your last interview with METAL that shooting in film for you is “like I’m painting a canvas where I’m slowly processing the light and the landscape and then I capture it.” How long does it usually take you to compose and shoot one image?
It depends on the series, when I’m beginning a series it takes me quite a while to try to find a sort of formula for it. Then I’ll go back again and again to find the perfect time of day, the sort of composition I’m looking for and all these different elements. Once I find the formula I can be very fast; it progresses as the series progresses.
Your faded colour palettes and deserted aesthetic is consistent throughout all of your work, even on your website. What is it about these vibes that fascinate or define you personally?
I guess the washed out colour palette is a big element in my work, however it’s not necessarily particular to all of my works. I did a series called Sicklove that was very dark where colour played a significant part. Some of the images can be quite harsh in terms of structure and composition so I feel that lighter colour palettes are more playful and youthful. I feel that it’s important to keep a consistency through your work so it’s like your signature without actually signing it on the paper. I like the juxtaposition between playful colours and serious or sometimes depressing themes like loneliness.
Are you working on any new projects?
I’m currently working on a series based on the heart, which will be released on Valentines Day 2018.