Why would I want to share an interview on a photo exhibit about a father showing photos he took of his daughter on a road trip? What relevance does it have to you, the readers? I’ve known Wyatt Neumann for about five years. I think we met on a random outing with a bunch of friends to Coney Island back in 2009. It wasn’t until a few more interactions that we realized we had similar interests – photography, advertising, tattoos, skateboarding, music, and more recently, parenting. Wyatt’s one of the few people that I’ve met in the latter part of my life that I respect and trust as if I’ve known him for longer. He is never one to mince words, and chances are, if he presents a work, he’s able defend it with reason.
Recently, Wyatt, like most parents who aren’t even photographers, shot photos of his time on the road with his daughter. A father and daughter and their adventure on the road… Sound simple enough? Instead, his photos came under attack from anonymous persons via social media. GetOffMyInternets.net, or GOMI as they called themselves, deemed his photos pornographic and went as far as having his Instagram account cancelled and the photos pulled from Facebook. A website was even created with various criticisms of his photos, which have still been taken down. Why is this important? You might still be asking yourself, why does this matter? I came here to look at cool stuff, not some nonsense on neo-conservatism and cyberbullying… It’s important, because the Internet is YOUR voice, the voice of the youth. It’s the only platform the youth has now to express themselves, and if things like this are allowed to continuously go unchecked, other people and their ideologies will dictate what you can and can’t post. Intelligence, for the most part, often evokes a silent response. We come across something, and if we deem it beneath us, we move on. Our reactions are: “Why bother?” But these cyberbullies, these people count on your silence. And ignorance can only overcome intelligence if intelligence leaves ignorance unchecked.
PETER: Tell us a bit about yourself.
Wyatt: My name is Wyatt Neumann, I’m originally from Montana and I’ve been living in New York for thirteen years, but my family’s from New York, came over on a boat, just like [your] Puerto Rican family. But just, some generations later ‘cause New York’s a city full of immigrants, but I’m not gonna get into that on this interview.
When did you start taking photos?
My mom gave me a camera she picked up at Salvation Army when I was like 8 years old. An old Kodakchrome 110 camera, I’ll never forget it. Growing up, my mom was really into photography so I always dug it, and my aunt who I’m really close to was, and is still, a big painter. She’s like this kooky, intense painter, but was also a social worker working with the darkest, most fucked up and abused kids. My whole childhood I heard the most heartbreaking stories from her… My own childhood was pretty misdirected too – grew up skateboarding before falling off the rails into drugs and motorcycles and started tattooing back in like ’92-’93 – before it was a trend again – back when you had to make your own needles and know someone if you wanted to get ink... Anyway, I kind of fell off shooting for a few years and then about 10 years ago I got “Moments Like This Never Last” tattooed across my chest to remind me to remember. That’s when I started carrying a camera with me all the time. I mean, photography has been with me my whole life, but now it’s what I use to remember the things that matter to me. And for work. I guess I get paid to do it too [laughs].
You recently took a road trip with your daughter, and like most parents, artist or not, you documented it and share it on your personal Instagram account, which caused controversy. Can you share that with us?
I’ve always taken being a parent and father very seriously. My dad died when I was little – when I was like three-and-a-half – so I grew up without a dad. I always wanted to be much more present in my kids’ lives than the experience that I had. And so any opportunity that I have to spend time with my kids and any opportunity that I have to do something unique with them, I do it. Whether it’s swimming in a pond on the side of a highway somewhere, or climbing mountains, or going off the beaten path, or traveling to Cambodia for six weeks, which we did a year or so ago. Just enriching their life experience while I’m on this planet... Because what having my dad die taught me was that life isn’t permanent. I definitely seize those moments.
About four months ago, I had this opportunity to drive cross-country. My son had school, but my daughter didn’t, so I took her with me. Which was really kind of crazy, because a grown ass man and a two-year-old little girl in a car driving across country, stopping at truck stops and motels... You get a lot of strange looks, but we did it. It was really one of the most amazing experiences that I’ve ever had, and I’m old. Hopefully it’s something she’s going to remember. Since [my kids] were born, I’ve documented everything that they’ve done. I take a lot of photographs and I maintain a blog as sort of like a digital photo album, in the case that I pass on somehow, or cease to exist, they have an archive of their time with me. I document everything, and that trip was no different than any other day of our lives. Something happened on that trip that really kind of brought the shift in the psyche of the American populace, the American public, right to my doorstep. It was unexpected and it was unwelcomed. That’s what this show’s all about.
So what happened to spark this show? I know a few of your personal social media accounts were reviewed and some outright cancelled and/or deleted because of what happened. The Internet gives everybody a platform for their thoughts and ideals, but it seems to also give people a way to criticize what they don’t like or understand. What’s your stance on this?
Basically what happened was, I was posting stuff online – which was a personal passion thing – and then a friend of mine who’s an award-winning author/novelist from LA posted a thing on her Instagram about this guy, this dad [who’s] driving across country with his daughter. “It’s amazing, it’s inspiring, and it’s hilarious, and it’s great, you should check it out.” And I got all of these followers. But she’s got a huge, sort of dissenting fan base of these puritanical mommy hate groups of women, and men also, that troll the Internet looking for improprieties and things that they can condemn as impure or immoral. They went onto my account and saw the photos that I was taking and they went crazy and they shut my Instagram down, they shut my Facebook down, and they tried to take my website down. It was all a surprise to me, but they were successful. Luckily for me, I knew people that worked at Instagram, and I was able to get the message through. They looked at my account and they turned it back on. But most people don’t have that luxury. There’s been a lot of big headline stories lately about people who lost their accounts after years of faithful publishing, for exactly the same things, and things that weren’t as bad as what I have photographed.
The reality is that my daughter’s two. Sometimes she likes to take her clothes off, and run down in the sand and play on the beach. As a documentarian, for all the reasons I’ve sort of described and the fact that my history is detailed through photographs and archival things that I’ve begin to look back at, I’ve faithfully documented, and I think it’s fine... For me, having my artwork and my photography criticized or condemned – and especially censored – it wasn’t even so much about that it was pictures of my kids, it was about the fact that I as a human being, as an individual, free-standing, adult person in this world, was suddenly being controlled by an outside force. It all comes down to an issue of the freedom of expression, the freedom of speech, the freedom to be who you want to be, and to live freely – it’s living in a place without fear. [I decided I was going] to make an art show about it. I’ve shown dozens of galleries around the country, around the world, and I’m known as a fine art photographer. There’s nothing that differentiates a photograph of my daughter in the desert from any of the character study portrait photography that I’ve done. Just because it’s my daughter, doesn’t make it any different. Even as parents, I mean, I don’t know a parent who doesn’t have a photo of their kid taking a bath in a sink. We document that stuff, we want to see that. We want to hold onto that, because they’re not going to stay that way.
Wyatt: They say, “A picture is worth a thousand words,” you know, “a photograph is a moment in time.” It’s an archive, it’s a freeze frame, more than even video, more than film. Because film has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Photography has an unknown beginning, and an unknown end. And maybe the photograph is the end. Maybe it’s the beginning, maybe it’s any part of that story. You can add to it whatever you want. Even as a filmmaker, a lot of my thrust as an artist in that medium has been to allow the viewer to bring as much of their own personal story to it as possible. Even if you’re talking about the conflicts between parent and child, I like to leave that stuff open, because people have their own struggles. And if they can bring their own story into it, it’s much more impactful. They get to live through their own emotions and maybe exorcise some of their bad feelings or maybe reveal some of their own pain, and through that process find some resolve through your story. Photography does that naturally, because it’s just that one moment. You can make up where it started, you can make up where it may end. Like I’ve said, if you look at the body of work that I’ve shot, once I became a parent, I’ve shot literally tens of thousands of photographs of my children. Every moment of their life has been documented, and it’s not on a cheesy, dad-with-a-video-camera sort of way. I try to really capture the moments that matter.
I don’t want to teach my child that there’s rules. They’ve got a whole lifetime of having issues with their body and nudity and their sexual orientation and race. The world is gonna compress their experience and suffocate them enough, all on it’s own. When they’re 8, they’re not gonna listen to what I say! I need to do whatever I can, now, to support their liberation and freedom, and give them a platform to be who and what they want to be, so that their foundation is confidence. So that they have a moral base to say, “I know who I am.” Hopefully, that’s what they come back to when they’re older.
What is the message you want conveyed with this show as far as personal freedom, self expression in art and media, and the state of it in social media?
Social media’s an interesting thing. I had a conversation with a friend of mine that I respect the other day, and he was saying, “It’s that whole celebrity culture. You’re blowing people up without them necessarily giving you permission.” The reality is that social media’s here. It’s not going anywhere and it’s just going to evolve into another iteration of what it is now. And our kids aren’t going to grow up without understanding what social media is. So when I look at it that way, me detailing my life and sharing my life in social media is part and parcel to the way the world works now. To live and exist and share and be present in one of the mediums that is insanely prevalent. There is not one brand in the world that is as omnipresent globally as Facebook! Except for maybe Coca-Cola. If I just acknowledge that, my options are two things: Live my life the way I want to live it and create and document my family’s experience the way I feel will be beneficial to them at some point in the future, or moderate myself into some structural, fundamental preset mold where I go along to get along, which I refuse to do. I could pretend it’s not 2014, or live here now and take advantage of the technology that’s available for what I feel is the greater good.
I look at the pictures here and the things people said about them and think, “Man, even the thought that somebody else would think that – it’s a weird leap.” We shouldn’t work backwards into a foxhole. We should be marching out to battle, running forward and charging at life and taking the lumps and bruises that come with it, but to fall back into a safe place, the expected place, it’s just...
It goes back to not living.
If I didn’t do half the things I’ve done because I was afraid I was gonna get hurt or lose something, I wouldn’t even be here right now. Every genius, every artist, every person in the history of mankind that didn’t come from nepotism and didn’t come from money made it because they took risks and stepped outside of what people thought was okay. And I want to celebrate that.
Follow Wyatt on Instagram at @wyattneumann.
And visit his website at WyattNeumann.com.