Wavepool – I really love your recent self portrait work. I’m curious: am I looking at Tom Zust in those pictures, or am I looking at an identity that you’ve invented for the camera?
Tom Zust – That’s actually something I like to explore in my photography. People obviously perceive the role personas and playing dress up have in my work, but to what extent is always up for question. Considering the images manifest themselves as various forms of contemporary portraiture, including the ‘selfie’, viewers will always question the validity of the subject because very little pretence is given.
When I look at my self portraits I try not to see myself. Taking a photo is a ritualistic experience for me, exposing and exorcising otherwise intangible moments of my identity. I don’t know how to claim any sense of autonomy over my images because most of the time the subject is a facet of my ego that I have to distance myself from in order to be comfortable sharing.
Wavepool – Would you say it’s most appropriate to view them as a group?
Tom Zust – People viewing my work as a whole is always a bit uncomfortable because so much of myself is on display. It can be a lot to take in and I often worry people will interpret it as some sort of self indulgent shrine to myself, particularly with it’s existence online where most platforms are used to self promote.
Of course there is value in observing the full story but I also enjoy the idea that each photo drifts unassumingly around the internet, curated by unaware people and detached from me as a person and any meaning I’ve projected on it. I’m concerned that too much context doesn’t allow my work to become transformative and potentially subversive.
Wavepool – How do the self portraits relate to your other images of potentially mundane subjects? Are there any major similarities or differences between the two?
Tom Zust – Like the portraits, I use them as diary entries or place markers for what was going on in my life at the time. The other images are definitely an extension of my self portraits as there’s always a level of personification in the subjects I’m drawn to photograph. I’m interested in the beauty and honesty that resonates from anything when you give it a platform and the space to realise itself.
That’s why I think the two types of images can exist together, however paradoxically at times, because deep down they both stem from a desire to be understood and appreciated. If the images are viewed together, my hope is that they don’t polarise each other but transcend their degrees of tangibility by questioning what is mundane or extraordinary.
Wavepool – In South Windsor, the mundane is the self portrait rather than an extension of more literal self portraits. Can you tell me a bit about that project?
Tom Zust – I am only ever compelled to photograph things that reveal part of myself that I otherwise wouldn’t have noticed. As I have always felt a dissociation to my hometown, my photos of South Windsor are my attempt at realising my identity in the town I grew up in. So this project was really about finding spaces and objects that reflected my own feelings of displacement. By projecting myself into these mundane moments of suburbia and calling them self portraits I began to feel less disconnected from my environment. Everyday we are presented with perfectly styled imagery it’s easy to become jaded to perfection which is why I think normal is the new poetic and unapologetically average is my new inspiration.
Wavepool – I’m also curious about Bird, a group of images that depict dead birds. Why are you interested in the subject and how do you connect with it?
Tom Zust – I’ve been photographing dead birds since I was young and I get a real voyeuristic pleasure from it as I have the rare opportunity to get close to something so beautiful. Much like my self portraits, my work with the birds is a ritual. I usually don’t carry my camera with me so when I find birds I often have to take then home. When I’m photographing them I‘ll prop them up and smooth down their feathers to make them look their best. After we’re done, I always bury them in my garden.
Working so close with something that used to be full of life, it’s hard to not let some of yourself fill its emptiness. I hope when people see the images they share the same pleasure and appreciation for the subject as I do. I feel a responsibility, as I do with my South Windsor images, to create photos that reveal beauty in everyday experiences to people that might usually have dismissed it, including myself.
Wavepool – Has that sense of responsibility always been present? Are there any artists or other influences that have reinforced that idea?
Tom Zust – I guess it stems from my respect of photography as an art form. The artistic value of photography has always been questioned, so as a photographic artist I constantly question whether or not what I’m creating is derivative or adds value to the art form. I scroll through so much uninspiring bullshit everyday it’s my biggest fear that I could be adding to the problem and destroying something I love.
To see more, please visit Tom’s website.