In Conversation: Shane Rocheleau on his book ‘You Are Masters Of The Fish And Birds And All The Animals’.

Shane Rocheleau was born in Falmouth, Massachusetts in 1977.  He received a BA (1999) in Psychology and English from St. Michael’s College in Vermont, a Post-Baccalaureate Certificate (2005) in Fine Art from Maryland Institute College of Art, and an MFA (2007) in Photography and Film from Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU).  He has taught photography as an Assistant Professor of Art at St. Norbert College in Wisconsin, as an Adjunct at numerous institutions, and presently serves as an Adjunct Assistant Professor at VCU.

Rocheleau has exhibited in the United States, Spain, Russia, Brazil, Australia, Ukraine, The United Kingdom, India, and Germany.  He has been featured in several online and print publications, including Aperture’s The Photobook Review, Dear Dave Magazine, Paper Journal, C-41 Magazine, The Reservoir Quarterly, Aint Bad Magazine, Fisheye Magazine, Lensculture, Lenscratch, Phroom, and Humble Arts Foundation.

His first monograph, You Are Masters Of The Fish And Birds And All The Animals (YAMOTFABAATA), was published in April 2018, by Gnomic Book.  His second, The Reflection In The Pool, will be published by Gnomic Book in 2019.

He currently lives and works in Richmond, Virginia.

William – Can you start off by telling us a little bit about yourself?

Shane – I feel like I’m ten-thousand things. I’m an artist. I spend at least some time in my studio everyday. I photograph at least once a week with my 4×5 field camera (I did just purchase a Fujica GW690, so maybe I’ll start making pictures more often given that each medium format picture won’t cost me eight bucks!). I love to teach. Sometimes I think teaching is what I’m best at. Between 2006 and 2016, I made my living as an adjunct professor. I still teach one class per year at VCU, but the instability and limited financial flexibility became too big a psychological burden (but I was born with so many advantages that I’m able to make changes in my life easier than many). Now, I make a living explaining to persons with disabilities how work and earnings impact Social Security benefits. Though both a shoulder and knee surgery have sidelined me for about a year, I still think of myself as an athlete. I love to rock climb and am so excited to do it again sometime soon. Solving a difficult climbing route always feels like art to me. It may be the only time other than when photographing that I feel flow.

I’m a partner to the most decent person I’ve ever met. Her name is Jo. I feel grateful to have somehow convinced Jo I’m decent enough for her. We just had our first child together. Ian Pointer Mulcahy Rocheleau was born on November 18th! He’s healthy and sweet and even sleeping some. And I’m father to Mardi Belle, my 9 year old. Mardi has taught me more, perhaps, than anyone else in my life. I have a lot of love around me.  I’m lucky.

It seems like you have a healthy degree of balance in your life. I say this, because there’s a undying story sold to us that only those that sacrifice everything for their craft can “make it”. While I’ve only recently discovered this to be a naive answer to the plight of most artists, have you always had balance? Were you always interested in Photography?

When I was younger, I liked to draw and played a lot of sports.  In hindsight, it feels as if I did little else. In college, I majored in Psychology and English (both of which remain integral to my practice), took full advantage of intramural sports, and made sure to exploit that I had very few responsibilities.  It never occurred to me that I could be an artist. And I think this benefited me. When I left college, I didn’t know what I’d like to do, so I tried lots of things. I wrote poetry, worked as a learning specialist, traveled the east coast peddling supplements for athletes at cycling events, thought I’d become an English professor, rode my bicycle up and then down mountains, began pursuing photography and decided I’d one day become a photographer (not an artist; becoming simply a ‘photographer’ felt less scary), spent endless days and hours playing in the darkroom, sung karaoke, rock climbed, ran a group home for adjudicated sex-offending youth males, almost went to school to become a psychologist, moved to the mid-atlantic on a whim, waited tables (and as fate would have it, visited Maryland Institute College of Art after a mentor mentioned they have a post-grad program that accepts persons without academic art backgrounds as students).

I remember in Graduate School at VCU, my director told me it had been a mistake to accept someone with so little art background.  I knew he was wrong. I’m grateful it happened exactly as it did.

But I digress.  My point is this:  because I really didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life, I tried a lot of things.  Exploring always felt right. It still does. I think my art requires balance. I don’t think my art is chasing its own tail or ‘art for art’s sake’ or inbred in any way.  It is far flung and poetic and diverse, inspired by the many things I learned and experienced along the way. Without diversity, I get bored and my life loses dimension. Inevitably, then, so does my art.

But now, it’s more difficult to maintain the balance, honestly.  Sometimes all I can think about is getting into my studio and making. I have to force myself to do other things such as the job I’m paid to do. My mind is never far from my art, even when I’m rocking my baby boy or wrestling with my daughter. Art has become the context for every other aspect of my life.

Sun 001

Untitled (Dig)

Sea of Icarus 001

Woman in Her Home


I completely agree! I’ve (also) found my best work to come from periods of diverse work and play. Was there a specific event (or series of events) that led you to start ‘YAMOTFABAATA’? What was happening during the production of this body of work?

To start, two simple answers: I began ‘YAMOTFABAATA’ because I was done making pictures for my previous project; and, Donald Trump was riding the escalator to the presidency, powered by sentiments I naively believed fringe and remote.

The shape of the book was largely drawn before We The People elected that infantile, narcissistic, savant. The culture is experiencing a foreshock. The fear of Socialist ideas (from those who would most benefit from a Socialist turn) and violence perpetuated from the Dylan Roofs and Elliot Rodgers of the world, has led to rampaging for “lost” power. White America’s disdain for a black man who would dare kneel in protest of the present and historical brutalization of black bodies…Trayvon Martin murder and the subsequent cries that Black Lives (should) Matter…(this list is far from exhaustive).  These events triggered deep, historical racism that seemed bound for subterranea, awakening a hoard of sarcomic cicadas. These events drove Heather Heyer to her death. And they brought us Trump.

Ultimately, the “People” also helped elect Danica Roem, Virginia’s first openly transgender member of the House of Delegates. They have led a generation of David Hoggs and #MeToo Women to demand better from all of us, and see that their voices can and must be powerful vehicles for our better angels. As it turns out, these events also shaped this book. ‘YAMOTFABAATA’ is one of a million emergent examples, my small contribution to a chorus of better angels. To answer your question: so much was happening. So much continues to happen. (May you live in Interesting Times.)

Server Wires 001

Site of the Death of Edward Jones

Sun 001

And it seems things get more and more ‘interesting’ as events continue to unfold. In Albert Camus’s speech (aptly named) ‘Create Dangerously’, he says “…This is why beauty, even today, especially today, cannot serve any party; it cannot serve, in the long or short run, anything but men’s suffering or their liberty. The only really committed artist is he who, without refusing to take part in the combat, at least refuses to join the regular armies and remains a freelance.” While the politician can offer changes in policies, and the writer type thousands of words in regards to the suffering and events that transpire, they all [ultimately] are conceived within an institution, for an institution, with several ‘checks and balances’ systematically imbedded within the process (and rightfully so). Art, whether that be photography, painting, sculpture, etc. has no institution to serve, nor a master in mind. How do you want your photography to be seen? And what does this book mean to you?

Thank you for suggesting this speech. It’s wonderful and certainly apropos to these times and this conversation.

To your point:  right, in its extreme, serving a party breeds propaganda (and/or frivolity, as Camus suggests) rather than understanding and truth – like with Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will -or- the selective, sham science which supported Big Tobacco and now supports Big Food, for instance. I don’t know that I agree that “Art…has no institution to serve”. I guess it depends how one defines Art; and though he tries mightily, I’m not sure Camus exactly does in his speech. I might agree that the greatest art serves neither institution nor master – or at least strives for this ideal.  Like good science, good art always seeks understanding and truth in spite of its maker’s loyalties.

I think I’d like my book to be read as a series of internally composed questions: Why does Gordon have a black eye? Why does Jo follow The Last Supper? Why is that image entitled Broken Stake? Why is Kendrix swallowed by darkness? Why does the Sun sequence end in water and a dank room? Why this particular iridescent cover fabric? And so forth. Afterall, I had to ask very similar questions for the book to become exactly what it is. So rather than meaning something specific to me, the book continues to unfold, ask me questions, and teach me. I now feel less like its maker and more like a reader reworking my old answers and finding new questions.

I’d say the following is not what ‘YAMOTFABAATA’ means to me but is instead a synopsis of what I have thus far learned (about myself, as well) through making and now reading my book: a White American man is expected to be violently strong and sexually aggressive, a homesteading “Man of the House”, heroic, emotionally contained and rational, greedy and entitled to spoils (etc.). Those most persuaded by these expectations risk embodying the repressed, aggressive, paranoid man who demands worship by subservient, impotent women and minorities. The man made in this image is dangerously entitled, un-empathetic, injured, and violent. As for the man who fails to embody these expectations? He can still become dangerously entitled, un-empathetic, injured, and violent (see the aforementioned mass murderers Elliot Rodger and Dylan Roof). It’s time to re-imagine American Masculinity and the historical narratives that support its most toxic conception. My daughter and son will both be better off. But so will I. So will my dad. And so will all Americans and the many other people living here.

Harrison, Eyes Closed 001

Pink Hearse 001

Martin 001

Musket Balls

Purple Mountain Majesty

While this next question is somewhat unrelated, could you speak to your choice of scripture in the book, and the titles inception? Are you a practicing Christian?

I am not a Christian. I was raised Catholic, but my disillusionment with Catholicism began around seventh grade and fully manifested by the end of High School. I think I hung on to a Christian god in my quiet moments for several more years thereafter, but, ultimately, I have come to believe that eternal oblivion awaits us all. Sometimes I wish I believed in some version of heaven with its benevolent God reigning over eternal bliss, but I’ve tried and can’t force this into personal existence. If death begins a blissful heaven or eternal oblivion, I can at least take solace in that death is the dissolution of what Buddhists call The First Noble Truth:  life is suffering.

“You Are Masters Of The Fish And Birds And All The Animals” is a biblical phrase from Genesis 1:28. The “You” here is Men (early translations of Genesis 1:27 refer to women as maids or servants). I’m disillusioned by religion, but this is not the primary reason I entitled the book as I did (in hindsight, I could have entitled it, “Make America Great Again”); rather, messaging such as this has been used to defend many global and local incarnations of American “Manifest Destiny”: the genocide of Native Americans, enslavement of Africans and African-Americans, and a thousand other (ongoing) atrocities. White men are still the overwhelming occupants of American places of power, and religious and American mythological narratives (the American Dream, for instance) are still used to justify and grow white male supremacy.

By isolating this passage, I’m also isolating the content of such propagandistic messaging. I hope readers will reconsider how this and other narratives have shaped American culture and psyche. This title is juxtaposed with those things my camera describes (Musket Balls, Purple Mountains, and a bust of Patrick Henry, for instance). I intend this juxtaposition to suggest the extent to which we are blind to how historical, present, omnipresent white patriarchal messaging has shaped our unconscious assumptions and, thus, our individual and collective thoughts and actions.

Lastly, is there a photograph in the series that you feel encompasses the essence of ‘YAMOTFABAATA’, or was a pivotal moment in the evolution of the project?

My initial reaction to this question was, “are you kidding me, William?! Impossible!”   But it’s an important question, and one, it turns out, I needed to address for myself.

Halfway through the project, I was searching for persons with self-harming scars:  persons who wore pain, anxiety, oppression on their bodies as symbolic evidence of cultural traumas. Specifically, I was making pictures about the explicit and implicit ways white male privilege is enforced – whether or not it’s resisted – and how what follows from this oftentimes violent enforcement takes visible forms. Photographs of such scars, I thought, might be an effective way to further explore this idea. My only self-harming friend lived too far away, and though she was up for it, neither of us had the money for plane tickets. So I asked a couple students if they knew of anyone. Some knew of a few friends or acquaintances who were cutters or had attempted suicide, but none of those friends or acquaintances were interested in baring that pain to a complete stranger whose primary interest was not in them or their personal, unique stories but in their scars – as symbols, to be coldly taken and repurposed. Though the process of photographing always requires taking and repurposing, I needed to evaluate some of my most basic assumptions about from whom and how. I slowly came to understand how this request could be seen as callous and objectifying, an example, perhaps, of my own white male entitlement to take and repurpose other people’s pain toward selfish ends.

I had thought my project was about everyone else and had pointed my camera thusly, but now I realized that I needed to also point my camera at myself, figuratively and literally. Until then, I didn’t fully understand that the project was actually about me, and, by extension, about white American men and the mythos that supports their (my) power.

So to answer your question: Self-Portrait. It’s a picture of my hand. My thumb is chewed and bloodied, as my fingers often are. I have an anxiety disorder (and, occasionally, depression). I wear it on my fingertips and sometimes feel shameful when people see it. With Self-Portrait, I recognized that the violence I inflict upon my body could serve as proxy for the violence white male privilege inflicts upon all of us. I became vulnerable. ‘YAMOTFABAATA’ blossomed from there.

Hand Portrait 001

You can see more of Shane’s work here, and buy the book at Gnomic Books here.