LA artist Nicolas Silberfaden rounded up a bunch of celebrity and superhero look-a-likes and made them cry. The resulting Impersonators series is a morbidly comic set of photographs that contrasts ideals of Hollywood success with the downturn of America’s economy. We caught up with Nicolas to talk about his inspiration, his techniques and, of course, his newly re-elected president, Barack Obama.
How did you first get into photography?
When I was about 22 years old, I went on a trip with a girlfriend and felt compelled to record and 'remember' the whole trip. I took an old Nikon FM that my sister borrowed from her school (I have to say that the camera was never returned). After that innocent trip I saw photography as a means of expression. From there I took a few workshops and soon after started working for newspapers and small publications, until I travelled to New York to study at the International Centre of Photography.
Many of your subjects in the Impersonators series look like they feel short changed somehow, as if they've been sold a lie. Did you intend to show fame and success and juxtapose them with a harsher reality?
An interesting question. Let me try to answer that by bringing up a very common trait in most of the impersonators I've met: most of them wanted to be actors or entertainers. Dreaming big, not with the American dream, but the Hollywood dream. I think the media feeds us ideals of what we could be or the way we could be them. Ultimately it is up to us to believe these ideals or not. I believe that nobody is sold a lie, unknowingly that is.
Some of the people I've met would go on to find other jobs, slowly letting go of that "greek ideal" of eternal beauty and form and move on with their lives. And then you would have the one that believed that something could inexplicably happen to them that would change their life forever. You know in the end they all come from somewhere else and arrive in Los Angeles, either escaping reality or chasing a dream. This middle point between the unwanted reality of life and the idealised possibility of it is what interests me. You can take this project as an allegory about the American recession but really it comes down to a representation of the disassociation in the American dream.
The series features a wide range of sadness, from vaguely distracted to absolutely distraught subjects. How did your process work and did it differ between subjects?
I didn’t tell them much about the project until we were actually in the studio working. I would then start by asking questions and directing the tone of the conversation to a place that was suitable for our purposes. Once the idea was explained we would collaborate on making the best possible image. I wasn't specific with them regarding how much crying, sadness or anguish they should show; coming from a "documentary tradition" I wanted my sitter to really let go and give them the opportunity to roam free in front of the camera, assuring them that even though he was being observed nobody would be judging. During the session we would talk about many things; their life, their dreams, family, superheroes and so on. Everybody goes from optimism to disillusion constantly. That’s what I was after—the optimism of the inevitable.
You describe America as being on the decline. Do you see Obama's re-election as continuing downhill, or as the start of a better future?
What I really try to explore is the shifting representation of a country’s public image. What surprised me the most was how, to the general public at least, the US went from being the almighty superpower to just another fallible country with economic and social problems. That is what I was trying to convey with the sad allegorical iconography. It's about the world's perception of the US. I think America is a great country, I love living here and I get to do my art and sustain myself doing what I love. It still feels like the centre of the world (for better and worse). Obama is the best thing that could happen to this country after the Bush years, but I would never raise any false hopes for any politician, or political party.
What is your next project?
Right now I am working on a project about downtown Los Angeles, where I live. I hope it can come out in book form sometime next year.
Check out Nicolas’ site to learn more about his work and view the Impersonators series in full.