In The Eye of the Beholder: An interview with Anna Gabriel

Anna Gabriel is a photographer and filmmaker who has worked with a wide range of artists from Run DMC to Emmylou Harris, Iggy Pop and of course her father, Peter Gabriel. While she has spent many years on documentaries and concert films her most recent project stemmed from work she did for the Scratch Your Back album. It is titled Eye-D and some of the participants include Sting, Tom Petty, Pussy Riot and more. We spoke to Anna in NYC where she is also working on yet another project; her second child who is due very soon.

Thanks for taking the time to talk to us Anna. What inspired this project. How did it come about?
My father was doing a covers album where he covered other artists (Arcade Fire, Bon Iver and more) and they in turn covered him. We thought it would be a nice idea to shoot a close up of each artist’s eyes and fingerprints as a form of identification in the album insert. Once I finished all the photographs and saw the collection of photographs together I realized there was something interesting happening and that I should continue the series and started shooting more people. I’m at about 45 people and trying to get 60 for the book.

Are they all artists?
They are but I’m trying to get people from other walks of life. Obviously I have a lot of musicians and actors but I’d like to get more writers, painters and such. The premise was that these are faces we know already that we’ve seen in the public eye that you’re looking at in a different way. The more recognizable the face the better it works. There are some writers and scientists that the average person might not recognize by face that I’d like to get but it does work better with recognizable faces.

Is there anyone you tried to get that you couldn’t?
A couple of people have said no, but it’s more of a schedule thing. Martin Scorsese is interested but has been too busy to schedule which is why the project has taken so much time. Artists are generally busy traveling and working etc.  Coordinating with them is a challenge. The response so far has been enthusiastic though. No one has refused to take part, again it’s a scheduling thing.

How do you make the ask and do they understand the project right off the bat?
Most of the people I’ve been connected to through friends and family so I’ve reached out that way. Friends, of friends have helped from time to time. Some of the artists I’ve worked with in the past.

Do you try to catch them as they roll through NYC on tour etc.?
Yes, it’s a lot easier for me that way but I’ve shot some in Los Angeles, London and I’ve flown out to Minnesota for Bon Iver’s house but that was the only one not in a major city. The rest are sort of backstage before a show or in a hotel room as they travel through town. It’s very much an on-the-go approach. The shoot itself is very quick and simple to do so I’ve made it as quick and easy as possible for the artist. I’ve got my camera and a portable set up to get in and out.

That’s a very ingenious project from a photographer’s point of view. No makeup required, no wardrobe, just zooming in on the eye. How long does a shoot take?
I try to keep it to about 15 to 30 minutes and I’ll get as much as possible with my allotted time. Usually the first ones I grab are the ones I wind up using. I try to plan a few things I want to do but you never know how it is going to go.

Any standout shoots for you?
They’ve all been lovely.  No one has been difficult but the funniest was shooting Shane McGowan in Dublin. We went to his house, my husband and I. He wasn’t feeling well at the time and we sort of waited around the house for him and we wound up sitting with his lovely wife Victoria watching TV and eating Christmas chocolates for about 4 hours.

That’s a funny story but I don’t think there are any boring McGowan stories.
No, no, definitely not. He wasn’t in top form because he was under the weather but he was still hilarious and making jokes. It was a really funny shoot. We sat and watched bad TV and then wound up talking about healing therapies. It was an interesting evening for sure.

Johnny Depp I shot backstage when he was doing a concert at Coney Island.  That was the night Joe Perry had a heart attack. I had just met everyone, they went onstage and later in the cab back to the city I heard it on the news. That was pretty crazy to say the least.

Anna Gabriel shooting The Edge

As you said on your website.  Sitting that close to someone is very intimidating. To get that close and look someone in the eye is very intense. Were there any awkward moments? Did anyone make you feel uncomfortable?
No one made me uncomfortable but I’m sure I probably made them uncomfortable. Having a camera in your eye is very intimidating. A lot of the performers were already in performance mode and ready to go. They’re prepared to go onstage and be in the public eye. They weren’t bothered.

The ones I shot at home or in a hotel probably had it a bit harder as they weren’t in show mode.Looking into someone’s eyes is extremely intense and something people probably aren’t used to. Having the camera in front of my face sort of helped me. It’s easy if you have the camera in front of you. It gives a level of separation between you and your subject. I’ve shot a lot of non-profit work and I’ve been able to almost shut off emotionally behind the camera because it sort of becomes a layer of protection. It’s a mask. It’s easier, especially that close up. Some of the shots are right up in their face and it can be quite difficult holding your eye still while having it examined. But being that close up makes it more interesting, they can be more vulnerable.

What stands out is how different the shots are. Even though it’s just the eye you can see many emotions and expressions and not from an arched eyebrow but just the “look” one has. They don’t need to squint the eye but you can pick up a bold look, a vulnerable look.
Exactly. I wanted to do this without specifically trying to get an emotion, making someone laugh or discussing a subject. I left it open and just let it happen. It was more natural. A lot of people gaze off and you don’t know what they’re thinking and I find that fascinating.

What are you hoping people take away from this?
I think the idea that these people are well known and you think you know a lot of them or that they can relate from what they’ve seen in the press. I think you don’t really know anything about these people but in this close scenario you are gathering new information and seeing much more them than you think you know. Maybe get a hint of an emotion that is deeper than what we feel we know about these people.

Not to get too far ahead as this isn’t even done yet but has this sparked any ideas for future projects?
I have another photo series that’s pretty different. It’s more of about exploring the emotions one has about oneself. It’s pretty different. I’m basically photographing female figures but interacting with themselves. It’s one of those things you’ll need to see. It plays with double exposure, painting and several levels. It deals with self reflection etc. The project is in the early stages right now, so we’ll see.

Do you have any film work in production or is it just photography right now?
I haven’t done much film since my dad’s concert projects but I’ve been working on a project about a girl who moved here from Cambodia. She lost both her parents to AIDS. I’ve been filming her on and off for 12 years. She came here, went to college, worked for the UN and is now back in Cambodia applying to law school.

Wow.  What a story.
Yes, she’s sort of become family and the story now is less about her and more about our relationship. That’s been an ongoing project.

You sound like your dad with ten different projects going on at once.
Yes and taking ten years to do it! Hopefully I can be a bit quicker than him [laughs].

So it isn’t just his fans that tease him about that then huh?
No definitely. We do.

So what’s next for the project?
I was looking at self-publishing but I’m now talking to some publishers who are interested. Either way it’ll take a year or more to get everything out.

Looking ahead to completion, what would a gallery show look like? What would the presentation be?
I’ve started using these boxes so you look through a window and the print is backlit so you have this 30 x 30 eye looking back at you so you’re sort of confronted with the eye. I’d love to be able to do that in the three places I’ve been shooting, NY, LA and London.

Well we look forward to seeing the finished project both in book form and hopefully in some shows our readers can attend.
Thank you!

The Eye-D project is currently in production and while Anna is speaking to publishers she has also launched a funding project to get Eye-D off the ground.

You can read about it and see examples of the artists she’s worked with here.