Paul Sisson Journey’s Through the Lonesome West

Journeying along dusty, open roads, Paul Sisson seeks out all that is open, untouched, and forgotten in Not So Far From Here. Enamored with what might be overlooked by the average passerby, the quiet, often minimal shots Sisson records are simultaneously filled with beauty and sadness. Under vast blue skies, the half-finished landmarks and lonesome singular buildings almost make the nostalgic remnants of americana look small and fragile. Devoid of humans, Sisson’s photographs capture only what we’ve bothered to leave behind. In the following series of questions and answers, we were able to find out a bit more behind these portraits of rural America.

Is there anything specifically that draws you to the landscape of the American west? Do you feel any sort of special connection to the land?

I’m a city kid and have always lived in or near a big city where I’m not used to seeing the sky touch the horizon. Part of the impetus for Not So Far From Here was to get away from the city and the crowds, to disconnect and explore new terrain that I wasn’t particularly familiar with. In the past I always viewed driving anywhere that took more than an hour as a chore and something to be avoided at all costs, but in developing this project it quickly became something I craved. I began to feel the romanticism of the open road and embraced the adventure of not knowing where I’d end up or what I’d find on the way. The unknown drew me to the landscape at the beginning and through my photographic process I developed my own special connection to the land throughout the west.

From what I can gather, much of your process involved letting go of your preconceived notions and instead heading out to record whatever it was you happened to stumble across. Was it difficult at all to head out with the intention of making photographs without having an idea of what to anticipate?

It was definitely difficult at first. On my early road trips I’d find myself looking for similar types of objects or spaces that made interesting photographs previously and I’d put pressure on myself to find something interesting in every town I passed through, which often left me with too many images of deserted gas stations. After a handful of outings though I was able to start letting go of some of those notions, I realized that I had to let the images find me instead of searching too hard for things I didn’t know existed. I’ve now been doing it long enough that I know I’ll find things to photograph along the way by simply trusting my instincts and the process.

You place a lot of emphasis on savoring “the proverbial journey”. Specifically, what do you think that a journey has to offer that can’t be delivered by simply reaching a predetermined destination?

Placing the emphasis on the journey instead of the destination was originally a way to force myself to slow down, look around and take in my surroundings. I was always anxious to keep moving and get to where I was going in the best possible time, I never considered what point B might have to offer en route to point C. By focusing on the journey I allowed myself to relax and forget about any sort of schedule, which in turn opened up my eyes to all sorts of interesting things dotting the landscape. Instead of trying to make a four hour drive into a three and a half our drive I was taking eight hours to do it, enjoying myself more and seeing new things along the way.

You’ve mentioned that the simple act of driving has played a very important role in the making of this body of work. As you spent hours going through small town after small town, what sort of thoughts went through your mind?

Well, besides “what can I photograph here”, I think a lot about the human condition. The images from Not So Far From Here are void of people, but they still say a lot about the way people inhabit the vast open spaces in this country and the migration patterns from place to place. I’m interested in how people live and interact with their surroundings in general, I just happened to form a body of work photographing those surroundings while driving through “flyover country”.

Can you talk a bit about Not so Far from God, the offshoot project that stemmed from your time photographing Not so Far from Here?

The religious aspect was actually an early emphasis of Not So Far From Here. As a non-religious person I’ve always been interested in the differing viewpoints and how these worlds interact with each other and have often felt overwhelmed by the ever-presence of religion. These observations are only heightened being on the road and I would frequently notice interesting juxtapositions of religious marketing and symbolism that I probably viewed in a different light than their intended audience. I eventually removed the religious images to form their own subset as they started to change the feel of the overall tone of the project, but I felt that they were still interesting enough to warrant their own space.

What draws you to pull your car to the side of the road, grab your camera, and take a picture of a specific place or object?

Anything out of the ordinary.

All photos and text are courtesy of Paul Sisson.

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