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Better to Burn than Disappear
Abraham Meeuwsen speaks with photographer and videographer Kenneth Owens. Owens’ imagery centers on people and their relationship to their environment, focusing on youth cultures and identities. Their conversation explores the themes and narrative qualities within Owens’ photographs against a backdrop of autobiographical stories, his take on contemporary photography, and politics.
Abraham Meeuwsen: You got into photography roughly twenty years ago when you were thirteen years old and took your stepfather’s camera to take pictures of your friends skating. Going back to that moment, what was life like back then?
Kenneth Owens: My stepfather had a really nice Canon EOS film camera he wasn’t using much, so I stole it. I assumed, with a camera that nice, I should be able to produce professional images. I failed to realize it was not indestructible and probably shouldn’t have kept the camera in a backpack. I broke the lens, and it no longer focused properly anymore, but I continued to use it.
I was thirteen years old, finishing middle school in Houston, when I began skating with friends. That transition of leaving middle school and the summer before high school is symbolic in American culture. Many major events will happen to you in those four years of high school—there is a whirlwind of fears and excitement—the peak years of being a teenager before you supposedly go off into the world alone. Thinking about the early nineties, I can only say how big of a role television played, especially in America. As a kid, I’d watch so many different TV shows on MTV. Being from a family of color, you watch programs that are more relatable to your life, shows like In Living Color, A Different World, and Martin—there are too many to name.
AM: What made you start taking photos?
KO: Every day that summer, me and friends would go on long adventures, skating through a massive series of interconnected neighborhoods, to get to different friends’ houses and shopping centers that had skate spots—I documented a lot of it. Back then, I looked at so many skate magazines and videos, I wanted to emulate what I saw. The element that got me the most was the freedom skating gave me: no coaches or teachers, just exploration with your friends. I was lucky enough to eventually be around peers who weren’t getting in trouble—so I stuck with it. Almost every weekday after high school, I went to the public skatepark, and on Saturdays, we would all meet downtown to roam around the empty city. The desire to photograph my friends skating was just the excitement of something new—wanting to participate.
AM: Being born and raised in the Southeastern United States during the late eighties and nineties, do you remember what shaped how you saw the world while growing up?
KO: My family originates from North Carolina, but I moved to the empty suburbs of Houston, Texas, where my mom was an engineer at NASA’s Johnson Space Center. Most of my childhood memories are from my grandmother’s house in North Carolina and where I grew up outside of Houston. Lots of memories of riding the bus to school. In retrospect, the Texas suburban life seems so cinematic. It really felt like a nineties film. We lived on a bay on the Gulf of Mexico, so I went fishing with friends almost every day. Baseball was popular in the town I was from, and I played for ten years. Some of my mom’s friends had horses that I would ride. I will always miss seeing people riding their horses next to the roads. We would drive 45 minutes into the center of Houston to go to the barbershop and to church on Sundays.
AM: What else comes to mind?
KO: A visual memory that stands out is when my mom and I drove across Texas to see my uncle, who was in the military and stationed in El Paso, Texas. I remember driving endless, hundred-mile-an-hour, two-lane roads through the desert. This was pre-cellphone era. El Paso, with its desert-style city houses, dirt front yards, and cactuses, was a completely different environment than anything I’d seen before. We walked across the border to Juarez, Mexico, with my late uncle. I remember buying fireworks and Chiclets. Most of my memories of North Carolina were at my grandmother’s house, which was on top of a hill. She always had cookouts and parties with lots of people listening to music and hanging out. Texas was very much the opposite. Just my mom and me in an apartment. We weren’t rich, so I never went on extravagant vacations, but my mom did a good job of exposing me to what she could: the city, the beach, her geeky coworkers at NASA, and flying to North Carolina to see family. In Houston, we lived right next to the air force base. As a kid, I was obsessed with planes and thought I would be a pilot one day. When I was a little older, I knew how to identify every plane in the air. We would see all these jets, bombers, and Apache’s doing flyovers constantly.
AM: Your work has a powerful narrative and poetic quality. What informs your constant striving for authenticity and truth, both within you and your subjects?
KO: I’m fortunate to have been surrounded by a dynamic variety of personalities throughout my life. This led to my photography’s focus on people. I’ve always been interested in everyone’s personal story, the factors and events that mold us into individuals. Storytelling is a major component of my photography. Growing up feeling like I didn’t have a voice, or any idea of how to use my words, photography became this vehicle. By photographing people, I intend to portray them unbiased and in their highest regard. When I ask people whether I can photograph them, they often wonder what I’m after—my intentions are always genuine, though. I never want to make fun of people. With photographing life and moments that occur on the street, there is a huge desire to show people as they are. But still, the whole story could never be there. You bend reality with the decisions you make within the frame.
AM: Why is it important for you to show people as they are, to depict reality?
KO: I can only depict my reality, things that come into my sphere. I don’t chase images. It’s all about timing and magnetism. We all pay attention to such different things when engaging in the outside world. I’m most attracted to people who show emotion, who express themselves, whether in their demeanor, clothing, actions, or voice. I’ve always been around very extreme personalities, people who aren’t afraid of the camera and live to express themselves—people who trust me as an artist. My goal is to show the reality around me the way it is. Many people think my photos are very staged and posed, but most of the individuals are people that I know or have encountered.
Reality is all we have. It’s what brings us together and connects us. Yet, with photography, the lie always exists. The photographer chooses what they want to reveal. For example, with a scene or moment in the street, I could leave out a vital piece of information if I feel it doesn’t tell the story or work visually. So, within that, you always create an illusion for someone to interpret. It’s a personal preference within my photography to stay as true to form as possible, whether photographing people I know or walking in the street. I’m an observer looking to emphasize people’s positive qualities and features because I feel they have something meaningful to share. Even if I’m asked to photograph someone I don’t know, I want to amplify why they are worth taking a photo of.
AM: What attracts you to the people you photograph?
KO: I learned a lot from Stephanie Sinclair, a National Geographic photographer and guest teacher at my school, who once reviewed my portfolio. I will never forget the input she gave me about my images. She said it looked like every person I was photographing gave themselves to the camera one hundred percent. “With their guards down, there must be some level of trust between the subject and photographer,” she said, which was a massive compliment and quality that I didn’t see in my images beforehand. Through that, I realized my intentions don’t have to be strictly to get a photograph. That’s an unfair relationship or transaction. My intentions aren’t just to take something from people I encounter on the streets. I love talking to people, learning about them, and sharing things about myself, and maybe at the end of a conversation, I’ll ask a person for their portrait.
AM: Am I right in saying your mom played a huge part in inspiring you to become a photographer?
KO: Family shaped my view of the world. As a child, my life was super family-oriented because I grew up alone with just my mom. The things she exposed me to had a significant influence on what I saw in the world. Frankly, my mom wanted to get us out of the place where she grew up and didn’t want me to be exposed to that world. She recently told me I’ve been taking photos since I was five. She can tell because the pictures I took are from knee cap level. She also said she bought me my first camera—a Ninja Turtles 35mm—when I was seven, which I don’t remember at all. But I remember later on using some 35mm cameras that belonged to my mom. She only had Nikons and was always shooting portraits and documenting family events. She would buy me rolls of film and take me to develop and print them every other week for a couple of years. It became this religious activity to go pick up photos from Eckerd’s. In my second year of high school, I took a class in black and white photography. That’s when my mom bought me a Canon Rebel 2000. So, my mom’s interest in cameras was definitely an influence.
AM: What made you eventually attend university?
KO: In my twenties, I worked as a freelance videographer for all different types of events and as a lighting director in nightclubs. After four years, I felt like I was wasting my time. So, when I was 27, I applied for a grant and again enrolled in college to get my BA in Photography at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. It was an overwhelmingly white program, where they’d teach you about all the rule-breakers, such as Jean-Michel Basquiat and Andy Warhol, and yet tell you to play by their set of rules. I’m forever grateful to friends that encouraged me to be a disruptor, to be loud and opinionated—to take up space.
AM: Your work seems to draw on several cultural references. How do music and pop culture both enter into and affect your thinking about photography?
KO: As I said earlier, throughout the nineties, MTV was a huge cultural staple, as well as BET, which was Black Entertainment Television. It was during this period that music merged with visual storytelling. Music videos were still a relatively new art form, and it was extremely competitive. Every artist was striving for the best video to accompany their music. Pop culture definitely shaped my photography as I was so absorbed with all this upcoming hip hop music as a kid and teenager. I dedicated a lot of effort to memorizing lyrics to whole albums. I loved the urban, East Coast metropolis aesthetic that was also becoming merged within hip hop and skate videos—portraying life as it happened, with a new energy and anger. That’s what their poetry essentially was doing: creating an image of what was going on. Being from there, I could definitely relate to the same things they were living through.
AM: In what way?
KO: With skating, we were involved in an aspect of street life. Although it may not have been illegal activities, we were outside playing in the streets, exposing ourselves to things most people were not, like being around a lot of homeless people, running from security guards, and smoking a bunch of weed. Without any adult supervision, we learned to take care of each other, to operate as a pack, to stay safe, and find our own place in society.
I used to take photos skating, and there was a point where my photos were published by a couple of online magazines that were big at the time. Since I had been into capturing still images for a few years, I was really drawn to video and moving images. My closest friend, who was an incredible videographer and graphic designer, let me use an extra camera of his on a frequent basis. A few years later, I started a skating video series that was distributed around the world. As I began to travel more, I bought a Canon PowerShot, which was a series of early compact digital cameras. Before leaving for a trip to Japan, I borrowed my friend’s Holga camera, which I had never heard of, and brought two rolls of film. After developing the images, I was once again hooked on analog photography.
AM: As a photographer, you often mentioned the outsider perspective and felt this alien-like feeling in Europe. Could you elaborate?
KO: I had always felt like an outsider prior to moving to Europe. Growing up mixed-race in the Southeastern United States was a real challenge to navigate. Everything is extremely one side or the other. I was always envious after visiting places like New York City—real melting pot societies made up of people from all over the world— with barely any similarities to where I spent most of my life in Charlotte, North Carolina, which is a conservative, working-class city.
I didn’t feel I had a group to identify with, and I was always into different things than the majority of people, which probably led to me feeling like an outsider. It also explains my desire to travel abroad and eventually find different places to live. I was a shy person growing up, so my mom would always say things like, “you’ll never know unless you ask.” She encouraged me to speak up and verbalize my point of view. As I got older, I learned to talk to people who weren’t like me and how to interact with them. I used photography to break down walls. The camera became a tool to learn more about other people.
AM: Your current practice consists of processing, archiving, printing, and publishing analog photographs that you’ve taken over the past five to seven years. You’ve also been a big advocate of photo books. Could you tell us about an upcoming project you are working on?
KO: To me, photo books are time carriers, a way to group bodies of work. The practice of binding paper with strong imagery really resonates with me. When seeing photo books like Antiscene, a book about the punk history of Rotterdam from 1970 to 1990, they show how powerful these time capsules are, especially when discovered by people who missed that era.
I have a vast body of images from my time living in a young and lively neighborhood in Charlotte, North Carolina, consisting of mostly black and white Hasselblad portraits of friends and neighbors. Back then, I was always traveling to skate, visiting places such as Australia, Japan, Ecuador, France, and frequenting New York City and California. Later, I moved to New Orleans and once again photographed my neighborhood, coworkers, friends, and people in the French Quarter. Now, I have a lot of really strong images from one of the most interesting places I’ve ever been. New Orleans is a place like no other, with a historic collision of cultures, then tragedy, and a rebirth.
Recently, I started conceptualizing a hardback photography book about nightlife in Rotterdam between 2016 and 2019. Around 2016, I came to Rotterdam for the second time, and there was a lot of nightlife and partying happening. Of course, being in a new city was very exciting, and like always, I had my camera. I thought it would be relevant to do this project right now because even before Covid, Rotterdam’s nightlife was dwindling. While historically, so many different electronic music styles originated here. People from around the world still move here for the electronic music scene, whether it is to produce music or just to party.
Previously, I had some solo shows in North Carolina, as well as group shows in New York City and New Orleans. So far, during my time here in the Netherlands, I have never exhibited any of my images. Now, I’m all about putting it out there. Not necessarily in the conventional spaces, but preferably making carefully curated photo books.
AM: Is there anything in particular that excites you most in contemporary photography?
KO: Street photographers like Daniel Arnold and André D. Wagner are two recent photographers I keep up with. Nick Sethi is another. He made a beautiful book of photographs he took in India over ten years. I also keep up with the content that war, protest, and activist photographers contribute to society. The imagery is very compelling, and these kinds of practices have been around since the beginning of photography and haven’t lost significance. I’ve always been interested in the people who put their lives on the line to make photographs and deliver news images to the world. It’s an important job to share events and information about the wrongdoings happening all over the world—to illustrate history, actually—and to show mistakes we shouldn’t make again, to be a witness and to report. We couldn’t do without the documentation and reporting of these horrible things. Unless we see images, it doesn’t really shock people, so it aims to make people want to do something about it.
AM: Lastly, I wanted to ask if you have any thoughts on the current political climate. Neoliberalist governments are failing to provide for people and protect people in a way that feels just. Do you think the fallout from this crisis is something that could work in society’s favor? And do you think your politics are evident in your photographs?
KO: My politics are implied through my images because what I want to show people is my direct choice. My life and upbringing are part of who I am, so there are things about myself that I would like to show through my photographs and where I stand on certain topics. My images show what I know, such as working-class people coming from minorities in America. These are probably the two main themes within my photography that I can’t leave out. Because those things make me who I am, I choose to document, empower and give a voice to people coming from similar backgrounds. These people often reflect the same politics as I do since I’m mostly taking photos of what’s close to me. I’m still, and always will be, close to the streets.
Bottom line: I love to give a voice to people who haven’t been equally documented in history.
I’m blessed to be able to worry about art and photographs rather than violence and poverty. Don’t get me wrong; I’m forever grateful to all the people before me who fought for equality, for my ability to get a decent education and not have to face extreme racism or discrimination on the street, and there’s so much that still needs fighting for.
Powers that don’t want to lose their positions of dominance and wealth in all aspects of society are still very evident, even in the art world, where funding is often given to artists who are not making work about political, religious, or social issues. Too often, the people who need the support don’t get it, and the ones who don’t need it as much are being paid to make pretty artwork.
The days of claiming to make apolitical art are over. Say something. Speak up. Show people how you feel. If you don’t have anything to say, then why should you have the spotlight or be on stage? Just to be pretty? That’s empty and vain. If you are unsure about your voice, pass the torch and help support other artists fighting to share their message and lived experiences.
Over The Dialogue Room
Hoe kunnen we tijd en ruimte maken om met elkaar gedachten, inspiratiebronnen en vragen te delen over de dingen die ons bezighouden en de tijd waarin we leven? Deze wens vormde de aanleiding om een doorlopende reeks gesprekken met uiteenlopende Rotterdamse makers in gang te zetten. The Dialogue Room is het redactionele platform waarop we deze gesprekken als longreads publiceren, en online toegang bieden tot gerelateerde kunstenaarsprojecten. Tegelijkertijd is The Dialogue Room een uitnodiging, aan betrokkenen en aan jou als lezer, om te verlangzamen, tijd te geven en je door elkaars inzichten en verbeelding te laten voeden. Los van specifieke tentoonstellingen of events, bieden de gesprekken in The Dialogue Room gelegenheid om je te verdiepen in het doorlopende onderzoek, de ervaringen, bronnen en bespiegelingen die deel zijn van de artistieke praktijk.
Kenneth Owens (1984) is a photographer and videographer. He was born and raised in the Southeastern United States (Texas, North Carolina, and Louisiana) and has resided in Rotterdam for the past four years. He gained a BA in Photography from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte in 2014. Owens’ current practice consists of processing, archiving, printing, and publishing analog photographs that he has taken over the past five to seven years and which focus on youth culture and identity. When not working on personal projects, Owens uses his chosen medium to collaborate with artists and musicians, such as Animistic Beliefs, and document their practices.
Abraham Meeuwsen (1991) holds a BA in Fine Art from HKU and has worked as a producer and programmer for various art programs, institutions, galleries, and media art festivals in the Netherlands and abroad.