For Austin, Texas-based photographer Mike Osborne, his camera is a tool with which to investigate place. Almost without exception, he tells us, his practice sees him looking at a geographically circumscribed location over an extended period of time. “I tend to gravitate to places where there’s a particularly charged atmosphere, or where there is a complex history that reverberates into the present.” It’s a process he’s undergone several times in the past ten years, with his most recent iteration focussing on Washington DC, providing a glimpse into the machinery of American power through darkly comedic documentary-style photography.
All shot in black and white, Federal Triangle sees men with earpieces huddling together, black Suburbans and white vans idle in alleyways and photojournalists climbing trees to get the best shot, captured by Mike who was equipped with a press credential. The project was completed between 2016 and now, but its catalyst occurred several years prior. “Between 2012 and 2016, I was based in Washington, DC, while teaching at Georgetown University,” Mike explains. “I didn’t photograph much in DC while living there, but I spent a lot of time thinking about how I might eventually approach it.”
Now published by Gnomic Book, the series is named after a government complex situated between the US capital and the White House – “Trump’s DC hotel, which lies between the IRS and FBI HQ, is located at its heart,” Mike adds. While some of the images were taken outside of the so-called Federal Triangle, Mike chose this title as, for him, “it brings to mind the Bermuda Triangle, another place of mystery, danger, and disorientation.” It’s another layer to the project which serves to further its black humour.
Mike recalls how the project first began: “When I first arrived in DC, I immediately became interested by brief encounters with the trappings of power. The political sphere in DC is probably similar to the film industry in Los Angeles – it’s this sprawling thing that we know best in its packaged, mediated form, but which every now and then intersects with day-to-day life. In these moments, one gets a quick glimpse of how the proverbial sausage gets made.”
These little glimpses into the “accoutrements of power” led to a cascade of questions for the photographer: “If I were particularly prone to paranoid projections, what kinds of encounters might activate my darker conspiratorial fears and fantasies? If I felt especially dispossessed, what scenes and situations would evoke the paradoxical feeling of being close to, yet far removed from the levers of power?” It’s through high-contrast, high-flash imagery which mimics the overwhelming feeling of paranoia and surveillance that Federal Triangle engages these kinds of questions.
When actually producing the imagery, Mike adopted two approaches. The first, saw him looking at DC through the vantage point of someone in a heightened state of paranoia: “While I was working, there were a number of instances where someone with a fundamentally deranged world view came to DC in order to ‘rectify’ some injustice that had become intolerable to them – I’m thinking, for example, of the Pizzagate fellow who went to a DC pizza parlour armed to the teeth because he was convinced that Hillary Clinton’s friends were operating a sex trafficking ring out of the basement. My pictures don’t directly allude to these specific conspiracies, but they sometimes focus on scenes and situations that relate to a generalised sense of unease, anxiety, and absurdity that characterises this moment.”
The second, saw him emulating a rogue journalist, someone given the task of making an “acceptable, synoptic image of a news event, but who gets it wrong.” In turn, the images feel like they were made in the right place but at the wrong moment, or vice versa. “Often, something is missing in the pictures and one is aware that something has just transpired, or that there’s something going on just outside the frame. By withholding more than they reveal, the pictures invite projections that speak to the fear, doubt, dysfunction, and absurdity of the current moment in American political life,” he tells us.
It’s a technique Mike often employs in his work, and it allows his portfolio as a whole to speak to broader cultural narratives – for example, Federal Triangle’s references are easy to recognise for anyone who has followed American politics in recent times – but still removes itself from the aesthetic and treatment of conventional images in the media. As a result, it lends his photographs a criticality and a sense of humour; an undertone of, “I understand this is all bizarre,” and we love being in on the joke.
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