Photographer Interview: Kalen Na’il Roach

Photographer Interview: Kalen Na’il Roach

“Me, My Brother, My Cousin” from the series This is and This isn’t My Family
Copyright Kalen Na’il Roach

D&B: Where are you from and where do you work/live now?

KNR: I was born in Washington, DC but I’m from Lanham, MD in Prince George’s County.  After I graduated (from the International Center of Photography), I moved back there to my family home and that’s where I currently work and live.
Your father used to photograph parties with a Polaroid 600 SE. Is he the one who introduced you to photography? 
He was in that scene from the mid ‘80s to the late ‘90s (I think a little past when my little brother was born). He sure was the one who introduced me and he doesn’t mind letting me know when he needs me to take some photos for him, but I actually really enjoy working with him and would never say no to the man that put the camera in my hand.  My dad bought me my first camera, it was a 35mm Promaster 2000, for an elective class in high school.  I remember the day he gave it to me, he gave me an impromptu lesion teaching me how to focus, use the built-in light meter, load the camera, etc.

“Uncle” from This is and This isn’t My Family
Copyright Kalen Na’il Roach
The series using your father’s party images (This Is and Isn’t My Family) is so amazing to look at! There’s so much happening in each photo but personally my eyes fixate on the unique backdrops of these on-location studio portraits. What do you make of these (painted?) images within the final Polaroid image? Everyone really responds to the nature of the backdrops and rightfully so, they hold so much weight and just have a lot of style. They are air brushed by hand (I think) and are actually quite expensive (I know because I tried to buy some). My dad would rent the backdrops for the gigs he had. When I think about the backdrops as they are within the polaroids I look at them as a portal into another illusion. It’s like an escape from an escape.  

The party itself is already an escape and the backdrop is just that extra bit of fantasy that you can stand in front of and present yourself. Almost as if by simply standing there and taking a photo you have entered into a new reality provided by that backdrop. The polaroid, which itself is already a illusion, then becomes the only piece of that reality that you can take with you when that party ends.  I think its just fascinating and seeing my family in these photos presenting themselves the way they did in this reality while having experienced them personally was a very strange dynamic/feeling that hit me hard.
“Stepmother” from the series This is and This isn’t My Family
Copyright Kalen Na’il Roach

At ICP I remember seeing what seemed like almost life-size prints of this series. Why did you choose to print them so large?That choice came after a lot of back and forth and a lot of making.  I tend to create a lot of iterations of things and from my process I found that at a larger scale the image was less about novelty of the polaroid picture and more about the image itself. Also in the process of creating, when standing in front of the images, I was able to see and respond to the people I saw more effectively.  I could detach myself from the preciousness of polaroid and focus all on what the image of the person in the photograph meant to me.  With that out of the way the image became more emblematic as if the people in the photos were not family but concepts.  

The way you physically alter these vintage photographs evokes photography’s materiality and it’s lifecycle – how images and prints can have different iterations across generations due to the way it is preserved or not. You seem to overlay and inscribe a personal narrative over the original images. Please describe your inspiration and creative process. 
I think a lot of the inspiration comes from the investigation. I found the photos in an old camera bag of my dad’s that he gave to me.  I knew he had taken photos like this but I didn’t think he had many of those photos lying around and on top of that most of the ones that I found were photos of relatives.  As soon as found them I began to poke and prod my dad to find out more about each one. He would tell me about the parties and how crazy people were.  He would tell me things about each person in the photo. 
This process of discovering more about the photos and what my dad did as a photographer really pushed me head first into the work. The next thing I know I’m scanning all the photos, reprinting them, and constantly looking at them. Then I started making drawings for each photo, searching for a way to express what I saw of the people in those photos through my own hand. I scanned those drawings and would make these digital collages that looked like parts of the photo had been torn away and underneath that was the drawing or vice versa.  

“Mother” from the series This is and This isn’t My Family
Copyright Kalen Na’il Roach
From there I kept pushing myself to question every decision I made about the work.  I began collaging by hand because I enjoyed seeing more tangible evidence of my hand and construction in the work. Different mediums and the processes I used in treating the photos became much more significant and specific. I would always think about what it meant to subtract or delete something through an additive process/medium and what it meant add through a reductive process/medium. 
Enhancing the existing surface (scratching over cracks that existed in original photo with an
X-ACTO knife) and building my own became very interesting to me.  All of this is done in an effort to bring the family I experienced into photos before me.  I was and still am bending, building, destroying, and altering the illusion of the photograph as if I was testing the limits of the medium to see how much of reality can really lie within a photograph. What can one really know about a person from looking at a photograph of them? How much of that person is there? I think asking these questions can be a bit like running into a wall, however, I still enjoy asking them.

“Self from the series Family Ties and a Fool’s Paradise
Copyright Kalen Na’il Roach
What is your obsession with the school portrait format about?
I don’t know if I have a specific obsession with the school portrait format but I may be slightly obsessed because now that I think about it, I do see it in the way compose my own portraits and I do have a lot of them in my work.  I may be attracted to them because, for me, they are treated like they are these perfect little benchmark photos that are traded around the extended family encapsulating the subject at certain time in their life. It seems like they are some of the only types of photographs that are still printed and exchanged throughout families. I guess what I’m getting at is that I find the roles these types of images play very interesting and trying to figure out why is also apart of the obsession.

“Self from the series Family Ties and a Fool’s Paradise
Copyright Kalen Na’il Roach
You say your work is involved with the “the idea of surface, from physical surfaces to metaphorical and illusionary surfaces.” What lies beneath the surface? Complexity lies beneath the surface.  Nothing is simple and can be wrapped up into a nice little package.  It’s ever-changing and it can get messy. My fears, worries, anger, and anxieties are there.  My happiness and joy are there too.  My fears for my mom’s health, the issues I’ve had with my dad from growing up in a home without him (even though I saw him regularly), and my anxiety about where I’m going and who I’m becoming are there. My whole self is beneath the surface and I invite the viewer to see beneath the surface through placing one in front of them.

“My Father and His Brother from the series My Dad Without Everybody Else
Copyright Kalen Na’il Roach
Tell us about your day job. What other types of photography do you do?Since I have been back home I have been working as a photo booth operator and freelance product retoucher. So I go to parties and events just like my dad and take backdrop photos. The only differences are that I setting up a photo booth that runs automatically and the backdrops are not as original as what my dad used. The booth prints the photos out and I monitor the booth to make sure everything stays in working order. I always find it funny that I’m essentially doing what my dad did. I didn’t plan it out like that, it was just one of the first jobs I got immediately after graduating. I guess the universe has a funny way of playing things out.
I photograph a lot of my family and I really enjoy photographing neighborhoods and exploring residential areas that I don’t know much about.  While I was in NYC I would often pick a neighborhood and hop on the train and walk around with my camera to see what I could find. Looking at things like the way people organize their houses, the face of the neighborhood, and the overall environment.

From the series Untitled (Systems)
Copyright Kalen Na’il Roach
Are there any photographers whose work you can’t live without? I really enjoy Walker Evans’ Message From The InteriorAmerican Photographs, and his secret subway photos. Everything that Gordon Parks touches is amazing and his story is so uplifting and inspiring. I am also a really big fan of Mickalene Thomas, Gregory Halpern, Deana Lawson, and Anouk Kruithof.
Name 3 things that sustain your art practice.
1. Collections. Amassing collections and archives is something that I find really inspiring.

2. Constant  creation. I need to create, almost like it’s an impulse. I feel that if I’m not making something I can get lost and it’s just very unfulfilling. When I’m in the middle of making something I find that I am super comfortable and constantly thinking of what to do next. It’s and exciting process of discovery through making.
3. Investigating and researching. Diving as deep as I can into a subject is really interesting. I find that it can enhance the experience of exploring.


Dodge & Burn is a blog dedicated to documenting a more inclusive history of photography and supporting the work of photographers of color with photographer interviews.

This blog is published by visual artist and writer, Qiana Mestrich. For regular updates on diversity in photography history, follow Qiana on Twitter @mestrich, Like the Dodge & Burn Blog page on Facebook or subscribe to Dodge & Burn by email.

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