by Steve Bisson

© Noah Addis, 'Future Cities', Mirpur One #1; Dhaka. 2013

Tell us about your approach to photography. How it all started? What are your memories of your first shots?

Noah Addis (NA): I love photography but primarily I use it as an excuse to travel and learn about the world. I think photography, at least as I use it, is primarily a researchbased medium. It’s a great way to learn about the world and to satisfy my curiosity. While I’m not going to claim that photography is objective or that it necessarily tells the truth, it is possible to use photography to at least reflect the real world. While I have a strong interest in the medium of photography and its place in visual culture, I’m most interested in making photographs that are about the world, about issues and topics that I find interesting, as opposed to work that is primarily about the medium itself.

I first became interested in photography when I was in high school. I had always been interested in science and I had planned to go into physics or engineering. I went on a school trip to Spain, and for the first time I found myself really thinking about making photographsI had no idea what I was doing but I was paying attention to the light and to composition. When I got home I realized that the film wasn’t winding properly in my point & shoot camera so none of my photos came out. But I found the process of making photographs to be interesting and exciting.

© Noah Addis, 'Future Cities', Dharavi #1; Mumbai. 2011

How did your research evolve with respect to those early days?

NA: Initially I was most drawn to photojournalistic work and what would probably be considered a more traditional form of documentary photography. My first job was as a staff photographer at the StarLedger newspaper in New Jersey. It was a wonderful opportunity to work with very talented photographers, editors and journalists. I was assigned to photograph everything from sporting events and breaking news to longterm documentary projects. Being exposed to so many different kinds of photography helped me to learn a lot about the medium and it ultimately helped me to narrow my focus. Specifically, a newspaper assignment in Lagos in 1999 sparked my interest in urban issues and eventually led to my 'Future Cities' project. And while I was photographing the war in Iraq in 2003, I started thinking about ways of using landscape photography to talk about social, political and environmental issues.

© Noah Addis, 'Future Cities', Rebuilt Home #1; Lallubhai Compound, Mumbai. 2011

© Noah Addis, 'Future Cities', Lallubhai Compound Resettlement Buildings; Mankhurd, Mumbai

Tell us about your educational path at Drexel University. What are your best memories of your studies? What was your relationship with photography at that time?

NA: I studied photography at Drexel University in Philadelphia. When I started my studies there, I already knew, or thought I knew, exactly the type of work I wanted to do. I’m not sure if that made me a great student because I was very focused, or a poor one because I may not have been open enough to other ways of working. But I certainly learned a lot during my time at school and it was a wonderful opportunity to make work and interact with other photographers, artists and designers. At the time I was practicing blackandwhite documentary and street photography.

What were the courses that you were passionate about and which have remained meaningful for you?

NA: I’m not sure that I can narrow it down to any specific courses. What I found most interesting was the relationships between all of the different subjects. I attended a very small, private high school which didn’t offer any real courses in art and very few in photography. So when I started college, being exposed to graphic design, typography, drawing and painting really helped shape the work I was doing with photography. And of course, studying art history and taking courses about mass media, culture and sociology helped shape my work and place it within a larger context.

© Noah Addis, 'Future Cities', Lallubhai Compound Eviction #1, Mankhurd, Mumbai. 2011

Any professor or teacher that has allowed you to better understand your work?

NA: If I had to pick a few, I’d say Keith Newhouse, Blaise Tobia, Stuart Rome and Paul Runyon. Keith was a graphic design teacher, and he had a reputation for being difficult and hard on his students. Some called him a sadist. But I learned a lot from him about discipline, about attention to detail and of course about the elements of design and composition. Blaise, Stuart and Paul were three of my photography professors, and they each brought something different and valuable to the photo program. I don’t think I realized how much I learned from them until years after graduation.

What do you think about photography in the era of digital and social networking?

NA: Visual culture is exploding and photography has become a much more important part of everyday life. It’s true that there is a lot of noise, the sheer number of photographs published on the internet every day can be a bit overwhelming. But at the same time I think that people are becoming more visually literate. More and more, I think viewers are able to discern the intentions of the photographer and they’re able to recognize interesting photographs. Digital media and social networking have given a photographers the ability to distribute their work to a large, global audience, often at little or no cost. So I think it’s an exciting time to be a photographer.

© Noah Addis, 'Future Cities', Manshiet Nasser #1, Cairo. 2012

About your work now. How would you describe your personal research in general?

NA: For better or worse, I spend much more time doing preparatory research than making photographs. I think it’s very important to know a lot about the subject when one works on any kind of photographic project that’s documentary in nature. Some of that knowledge can come from reading, watching documentary films and using online resources. But probably the most interesting and valuable information comes from visiting the places I plan to photograph and talking to the people who live there.

I don’t really consider myself a photojournalist anymore, although I do still work within the ethical standards of photojournalism. I find the idea of objectivity in photography to be somewhat problematic, but my work isn’t digitally manipulated and the scenes I photograph are represented as I found them in the real world.

I think photography is inherently ambiguous. It is far easier to tell a story with words than in pictures. A writer can express a complex idea in a relatively small number of words. But in a way I think that’s one of photography’s strengths. I think it’s much more interesting to raise questions than to answer them.

© Noah Addis, 'Future Cities', Nakhalpara #1; Dhaka. 2013

Do you have any preferences in terms of cameras and format?

NA: Ultimately the camera doesn’t matter much, but I shoot almost all of my work with a Linhof 4x5 film camera. I shoot some digital too, especially for portraiture.

Tell us about your latest project 'Future Cities'... 

NA: 'Future Cities' is a project about informal urban development in the world’s major cities. I first became aware of the issue of informal urban development during a trip to Lagos, Nigeria in 1999. It was my first foreign assignment, we were working on an unrelated story, but I remember driving by many of these huge communities on my way from the airport into town. At the time I was unaware that so many people in the world live on land they don’t own with no land tenure and no real security. Many of these communities are in very dangerous placeson cliffs, in lowlying areas with rising water levels or in earthquakeprone regions. They’re very vulnerable. It’s important to realize that these places are not ruins or examples of urban decay. When governments allow them to, the residents are constantly working to improve and expand their communities. They invest in their homes and businesses and the population density tends to create very tightknit and strong communities. However, when government policies favor demolition and eviction, it often leads to a cycle of poverty that is difficult to escape. Informal communities may seem like very chaotic places, but they’re actually quite organized and I find them particularly interesting since they grow almost organically to suit the needs of the people who live there. I decided to focus on the landscape and architecture of these communities because it’s so visually rich and dense with information.

© Noah Addis, 'Future Cities', Ciudad Nezahualcoyotl #1; Estado de Mexico. 2012

Is there any contemporary artist or photographer, even if young and emerging, that influenced you in some way?

NA: In the beginning of my career I worked as a photojournalist and my influences were photographers who were working on documentary projects with a global scale; Sebastião Salgado, Abbas and Larry Towell for example. The work I’m doing now looks nothing like their work, but they definitely had a strong impact on me and inspired me to pursue photography as a career.

More recently of course I’ve been looking at photographers who were involved with or influenced by the Düsseldorf School; Bernd and Hilla Becher, Andreas Gursky, Thomas Struth and Candida Höfer.

Simon Norfolk and Guy Tillim are also strong influences because of the way they are using the landscape to tell more complex stories in very subtle ways.

© Noah Addis, 'Future Cities', Old Cairo #1. 2012

Three books of photography that you recommend?

NA: 'Avenue Patrice Lumumba' by Guy Tillim, 'Afghanistan: Chronotopia: Landscapes of the Destruction of Afghanistan' by Simon Norfolk, 'Portraits' by Rineke Dijkstra.

Is there any show you’ve seen recently that you find inspiring?

NA: A few years ago I saw Rineke Dijkstra’s show 'The Krazy House' at MMK Frankfurt. Dijkstra’s portraits seem very honest and they capture a unique vulnerability within her subjects. Previously I was not really a fan of video art, but Dijkstra’s video installations definitely demonstrated for me the great potential of that medium.

Projects that you are working on now and plans for the future?

NA: I’ll be working on 'Future Cities' for a few more years, I’d like to add a few more cities to expand the geographic scope of the project. And I’d like to end the project by returning to Lagos, which is where I first got the idea for the project. I’m also working on a new project about Dubai. After focusing on informal development for a while, I decided it would be an interesting contrast to photograph a very formal, organized city. What I found was somewhat different. Obviously Dubai isn’t informal but it also seems to lack a guiding principal of urban development, it seems like a constant race to build the best new building. It’s all about creating a desire for consumption. But it’s a fascinating place, and one that is always changing, which makes it interesting to photograph.

© Noah Addis, 'Future Cities', Dharavi #2; Mumbai. 2011

© Noah Addis, 'Future Cities', Bawnia Badh Block C; Mirpur, Dhaka. 2013


Noah Addis
United States