Contemporary Photographer Series - Victoria Sambunaris

Untitled (Potash Mine, Distant View), Wendover, Utah, 2004 ©Victoria Sambunaris 

Victoria Sambunaris received her MFA from Yale University in 1999. Sambunaris structures her life around a yearly photographic journey crossing the American landscape. She is currently on the road in Utah.  She is a recipient of the 2010 Aaron Siskind Foundation Individual Photographer's Fellowship and the 2010 Anonymous Was a Woman Award.  In 2011, a twelve-year survey of her work was exhibited at the Albright Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, NY and has been traveling throughout the US.  Her work is held in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, the National Gallery of Art, the San Francisco Museum of Art, the Albright-Knox Art Gallery and the Lannan Foundation.  Radius Books published her first monograph Taxonomy of a Landscape.  Sambunaris is represented by Yancey Richardson Gallery in NY. She was recently interviewed by first-year MFA Photo student Meg Roussos for our Contemporary Photographer Series (CPS).  

Untitled (Alaskan Pipeline at Atigun Pass), Brooks Range, Alaska, 2003 © Victoria Sambunaris

Spending months at a time on the road for over a decade, I imagine some things have become a routine.  What are the hardest parts about being on the road? Logistically, how do you consistently eat healthy? Do you have any road trip rituals you've carried through the years?

Actually it has been almost two decades on the road!  But to answer your question, the most difficult challenge is to cut the tether.  By that I mean that I remember a time earlier in my career when I had no cell phone, no computer and I would have to find a pay phone to call home. I used paper maps only, used guidebooks and talked to locals to find information.  The current devices are an enormous distraction.  I find that I am not as focused as I once was and have lost all sense of direction. 

In terms of my eating habits, again earlier in my career, my mother would roast a few pounds of almonds before I left and I would buy a big sack of the most scrumptious grapefruits on the US/Mexico Border.  It satisfied my every craving.  Eventually, my diet evolved to canned sardines and dried soup.  Of late, I still go off with roasted almonds and my mother's almond biscotti that I sometimes use to bribe people.  But between the abundance of grocery stores and my recently gifted state-of-the-art Yeti cooler, I can actually keep things cold for days on end while camping.  But I still make percolated coffee which tastes better than any artisanal brew when out in the landscape. I guess coffee is my constant ritual. 

Untitled (Coal Mine) Gillette, Wyoming, 2007 © Victoria Sambunaris 

You create work by vastly exploring American landscapes. While planning and shooting for projects, how do you maneuver between private and public land?  Do you use the motto, ask for forgiveness, not permission?  What's the closest you've gotten to getting in trouble with the law?

Every situation is different but I am usually trying to access industry or some government entity both of which now seem to be one in the same.  Trying to make pre-arrangements rarely works for me as public relations people never return calls or emails.  And since both 9/11 and the prominence of the environmental movement and activism, access to both has been nearly impossible.  Everyone is suspicious. I've been kicked out of a mining office for merely being from New York and having gone to a liberal arts university from the east.  I've had snipers from a federal security details focused on me.  And I have been falsely accused of lying to a federal officers.  Dealing with security personnel is like dealing with robots that are preprogrammed to say no to everything.  I was told by a security guard that "women are usually scouts for terrorists." Access usually comes from a contact, or a friend of a friend of a friend.  I'm always running from the law. 

Untitled (Parallel Cars) Near Cotulla, Texas, 2012 © Victoria Sambunaris 

I can connect to your nomadic lifestyle and sometimes find my mind wandering to thoughts about my lack of relationships over the years. What choices or compromises have you made to lead this unconventional lifestyle?

There are many compromises that have to be made living this unconventional lifestyle. There is no security in what we do. You have to be comfortable with the notion of living in the moment and comfortable with being alone. 

Having the opportunity to work in a continuous project over a decade, you've met and worked with hundreds of people-forest service, geologists, law enforcement, landowners, etc. I'm sure you've experienced various incidence of people out in the field or while researching.  Have you noticed a difference conversing with people from the early nineties to now? Are people more cautious or curious of what you are doing now than in earlier years of your work? Have their reactions made things easier or more difficult, how do you deal with it?  What assumptions or conclusions could you make about the attitudes of Americans through the years of these encounters?

There is definitely a change in attitude and conduct from corporate and government authority figures, as I mentioned previously.  But, most people put aside their politics, their fears and suspicions and are generally helpful and friendly. Fifteen years ago, people saw me as a lone stranger and opened their homes.  They still do. I just left Provo, Utah where some newfound friends told me to keep the key to their house. Life is full of surprises.

Untitled (Gold Mine Pit), Fairbanks, Alaska, 2003 © Victoria Sambunaris

Although you are traveling for such expansive amounts of time alone, you're meeting lots of people in the field and with your research.  What's the transition like back to your life in New York?

Transitioning back to life in NY can be difficult. Although I'm glad to see my friends and all of those who support me, I realize how out of touch many of them are. They simply don't understand the reality of the country. I was not surprised Trump won although so many friends in New York are still reeling one year later. The truth about American is that there is incredible poverty, lack of jobs, poor education, and misinformation, all of which breeds desperation.  I met some Germans on my current trip in Utah. They were shocked by all these conditions in this country but knew more about these realities through their experiences traveling through the country than many people who live here. 

Untitled (White Containers with Scum), Newton, Iowa, 2001 © Victoria Sambunaris 


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