Unseen Interviews: Michael John (MJ) Whelan

by Unseen July 07 2014

Finnish photographer Heikki Kaski was last years’ winner of the Unseen Dummy Award with his beautiful book 'Tranquillity'.  This year, he returns to Unseen as a judge on Dummy Award panel. His Lecturis-published book will be presented with a festive launch at Unseen 2014. The first in our interviews with the Dummy Awards panel, he talks to Unseen about storytelling and the importance of the photobook.

You were selected as the winner of the Unseen Dummy Award 2013. Can you tell us about the process of publishing your own book?
It’s been a long process, which is good. Over time I’ve started to see the pictures in a different way and time is a good teacher. The process has also made me realise the difficulty of discussing certain photography in an ‘overarching’ way. For me, interesting stuff seems to always include some element of uncertainty.

What interested you in creating a photobook?
Making a book puts you in check in a way that you have to realise that once a book is printed, it is going to be out there. I also believe that there is a difference looking at a Tumblr feed and a book. There is a space for a book, not only as a collectors item but as a way to look at pictures by yourself. Other than that, I really liked it, it made sense.

What will you be looking for in the submitted photobooks?
As always, something that I haven’t seen before, but ultimately feel familiar with. Something else than the world as it stands!

How important is the ability to tell stories versus personal aesthetics in book making?
This is a very hard question and I’m not sure if I have an answer. I believe there is space for different kinds of books. Aesthetics are always a part of it and maybe sometimes they are not versus anything. I’m into books that have warmth in them with an understanding of complexity of motives and emotion - instead of declaring some kind of emptiness. So, from the top of my head I would say stories.

What is your favorite way of bookbinding?

A book needs to be designed according to the pictures, and binding comes with that.

Why do you think photobooks are so important? Do you think that the push to digitalise material has changed their significance?
Yes it has. A book can be a small counter gesture. There is a concern on what digitalising material is doing to our experience of photography, and I do not think the concern is fully illegitimate.

What makes a good collectors item?
A timeless quality that you will only realise over time.

Do you have a special connection to a particular artbook you have in your own collection? What are your three all-time favorite photobooks?
Favorites change constantly, but some that I’m impressed by right now are Michel Francois Le Monde et les Bras, JH Engström’s Trying To Dance and Lieko Shiga’s Rasen Kaigan. The right books seem to find you just when you need them.