Hidden in Plain Sight | Interview with Eirik Johnson

Video by Canh Nguyen | Images Courtesy of Eirik Johnson

Sierra Stinson: Can you describe the initial catalyst and what led to the series WE WERE HERE?

Eirik Johnson: I somewhat literally stumbled upon the project.  As I was navigating down a trail by flashlight on a Winter’s twilight nature walk with my son, the spotlight of my torch fell upon a carving reading “I LOVE LIANNE”.  Lit in the aquamarine glow of the flashlight, the statement seemed imbued with romantic mystery.  It reminded me of the final scene from one of my favorite films Wong Kar-wai’s “In the Mood For Love”, in which the main character whisper’s his memory of unrequited love into a column and covers it with mud.  He leaves that memory of love there and walks away.


How many have you gleaned since the beginning of this project?

I’ve “scouted” hundreds of them, and photographed most likely over 100.  From those, I’ve edited the final group down quite a bit.  If you were to come upon me looking for these carvings, you’d probably think I was crazy, as I methodically walk around the trunk of each tree in a park slowly investigating.


Where are they geographically from? 

They’re from all over the place, but mainly the West Coast.  Some are from the Northwest and many are from the L.A. area which is covered with carvings.  A lot of what makes these images interesting are not only what’s been carved into the tree, but the tree itself.  In L.A. you might find a beautiful Eucalyptus or a charred palm tree that’s been carved.  In the Northwest it might be an Alder, Madrona, or Fir.

You have a different process for each piece. Can you explain the variations and how you decide on them for presenting each phrase or word photographically.

I think about this work as a sort of collaborative performance.  It starts of course with the carving itself and the emotions (love, alienation, eulogy) that have been left upon the tree and how they each make me feel when I find them.  My process has been one of response to each carving and to the tree.  Perhaps the carving is nostalgic, perhaps it’s filled with angst.  The tree’s bark might remind me of a lunar surface or the skin of an elephant.  I try to be open to all of these influences and then decide on a direction for each photograph.  The exposures are made at dusk or in the evening and I use a whole host of lighting techniques to illuminate them, from sparklers, fire, gel filters, prismatic light, and moonlight.


Have you participated in the act of carving your own message into a tree? If yes or no / why?

I have not.  I’m a really curious person and love the idea of encountering something hidden, even when it’s in plain sight.  Coming upon a particularly intriguing carving is like discovering a fragmented line from a short story.  Carving into a tree is such a transgressive act, one both violent and touching.  I’m more interested in responding to these acts and creating something new from it.

There are quite a few lyrics that you have found, I am curious what your playlist would be for this series.

There’s a really strong connection to music in the work.  I imagine that many of these carvings are made at a time when you’re young and obsessed by that one band or that one lyric.  When I first found “The Smith’s”, I could almost see in that carving the same shaky ballpoint pen handwriting from the old mix-tapes we would make in middle and high school.  I love that aspect to the work and frankly, music is often on my mind when I’m deciding how to illuminate the carvings.  As for which songs would be on my playlist, it’s all over the place.  Everything from REM’s cover of the Everly Brothers “All I Have to Do Is Dream” to Talking Heads “Psycho Killer”.  My intention for this project is actually to work with musicians to create a mixtape that would accompany a book of these photographs.


Which one of these carvings struck the deepest chord for you and why?

I was left particularly startled when I came upon the titular carving “WE WERE HERE”.  I had first discovered it a year before, in the trees of a Los Angeles park.  It had been freshly carved and while I photographed it that initial visit, I wasn’t happy with how the image looked.  I returned a year later and found that the tree had begun to heal, the carving fading away but still visible on the smooth surface of the bark, as if a scar on the body receding with time.  Those faded words “we were here”, declaring one’s existence, reminded me of hiking in the Peruvian Andes and coming upon shards of Inca pottery, an immediate physical connection with the past no matter how recent or long ago.  This carving and others, like the carved hand, touch upon our desire to remain, to communicate, to connect.

It seems like it’s been very intuitive project and took you on a journey, when do you think you will be done with it? Or will you always be searching for these messages left behind?

This has been quite a different journey for me than previous projects and yes, one in which I’ve really followed my intuition, the proverbial “gut feeling”.  Honestly, I’ll always be looking for these carvings hidden in plain sight.  As far as the project goes however, I envision it as a story made up of signs and just like a good story it needs a tight edit from beginning to end.  I’ve been working away on this for nearly four years and I think I’m reaching the end of this story.

Evolving Voices : A Conversation with Saman Maydani & Sarah Kuck

Filmmakers of Even The Walls Saman Maydani & Sarah Kuck


Sarah: So, how should we start?


Saman: Maybe how we met?


Sarah: That’s a good idea. How’d we meet?


Saman: You and I met because multiple people from different spheres of our lives wanted us to. We kept crossing paths but never really spent time together – same school, same workplace, same friends. It was eerie!


Sarah: Then you basically cold called me.


Saman: Haha, yeah, I did! It felt like what I was supposed to do at that time. I just felt like, I’m going to call Sarah (who I barely know!) and ask her to do this. It was heart- and gut-led.


Sarah: I’m so glad you did. I brag – we brag – about our relationship a lot. Best work wife ever. I love our process!


Saman: We wrote, produced, directed, edited and are now working to distribute a film from separate places. You came out to Seattle pretty frequently, but we mostly made the film over Skype in our pajamas.


Sarah: Yeah! Let’s talk about the film! Even the Walls is a short documentary about the members of a public-housing neighborhood grappling with the forces of gentrification. The film explores the experience of Yesler Terrace as a place through the memories of its residents.

Saman: Yesler’s an interesting place because it’s a stand-in and a reflection for what’s happening all over the world. Money, development and density are taking precedent over human connection.


Sarah: And it’s not that money and development and density don’t have their place. But they can’t be the only players. They are not even what most people believe are the most important aspects of life. Yet we let them trump our decision-making processes as a society every time, completely ignoring our other important systems (social and environmental, for example).


Saman: If we don’t consider human connections during the building process, then they won’t be a part of the outcome. Being in a space that allows for neighborhood connections, like seeing your neighbors, interacting with the children, watching each others backs and properties – these things all increase feelings of safety and ownership in a space. And these are our natural human inclinations, if our environments supports us. This is what we saw in Yesler, and aimed to capture in our film, Even the Walls.


Sarah: Yes, so with the changes in architecture in Yesler Terrace, to be specific, these essential ties will be interrupted physically, which will translate eventually to the area’s social dynamics. A network of pathways and row houses will be replaced with midrises. We’re not saying that midrises are bad, but we are saying that it’s more complex than that. For young, mobile individuals, midrises might be excellent. But for families and the elderly, midrises mean more boundaries and limitations on connecting and getting help from neighbors.

Saman: That transitions well into how we worked diligently to let the film’s narrative be very open. There was a lot of ambiguity and complexity in the stories, and we wanted that to come across in the film. It couldn’t be black or white. It’s easier to have good and evil, but ultimately it doesn’t reflect the reality of the situation.


Sarah: We tried to let the stories and experiences speak for themselves. We know the power of personal story, and wanted to use that to express reality. We did this in hopes that the film wouldn’t alienate anyone who might want to be part of the solution.


Saman: Many people who’ve seen the film have told us how much they miss what the residents of Yesler are about to start missing. So many people don’t know their neighbors and wish that they did. In this way, I think the young people who might move into those new midrises will also be missing something.


Sarah: I think it’s really surprising that people don’t think of architecture as a tool that can help them connect with their neighbors. That we can’t zoom out and see how systems impact our lives.


Saman: And we quickly forget how architecture and housing policies have historically and purposefully kept people from knowing each other. These huge waves of architectural decisions have been made with only narrow groups of people in mind, and also have historically marginalized others, but in the end we’re all going to suffer if we can’t connect.


Sarah: Community membership and belonging are evolving concepts. A lot of new people are moving into Seattle. So what will our new communities look like? Who belongs? The new Yesler or Capitol Hill? How do we co-create our social reality and include all the voices? If we simply create an “us” and “them” dichotomy – that begets more separation.


Saman: Exactly. There are deep desires within all of us for support, connection and community. So where are the places and concepts we can build from? What are the commonalities and universal needs that resonate with everyone?

Sarah: Oops, Saman, this is getting really long.


Saman: Haha, we could talk about these ideas forever.


Sarah: Maybe we should talk about the artsy stuff, like our pretty images from our awesome DP Canh Nguyen and the gorgeous score from your love Carlos Esparza?


Saman: Yes, it helps to live with the composer! I’m sure he didn’t like our deadlines tho. Canh and Carlos helped reflect the beauty of the residents’ stories. And again, even this layer was complex. The images ARE beautiful, but sad. And Carlos’ music is melancholy but hopeful.


Sarah: I feel really proud of how we all worked together to make this piece. I’ve never worked with a better, more supportive team. I am so honored that we were able to make a piece about human connectivity and love, and have that be a big part of our team dynamics.


Saman: The process was really willing, right? I think willingness was the theme. Constantly checking in with one another, and with ourselves, so that our labor was genuine. And that’s a really lucky thing not just for a creative process but also for our work!


Sarah: Aww, I love us. Oh that’s dumb.


Saman: No, I like that! Ok, what are our hopes for the piece? What should it do?


Sarah: That’s difficult. Sometimes I wish the film could just exist, and that the people who are drawn to it will gravitate toward it and love it. On the other hand, we built the piece to be an empathy machine (as you like to say). We know that the media world is a giant ocean, and to get this piece in front of people will take work. What we want the film to do is to capture this moment and place, to tell stories that are relatable and impactful, and is to bring stunning visuals to our invisible, but essential human systems – to hopefully make a case for their value.


Photographs by Canh Nguyen

*The Saturday Preview for Even The Walls at SIFF is sold out, however no-show tickets will be available 10 minutes before the showing at the door.*