Malia James is a member of American rock band Dum Dum Girls, a director, photographer and actress. She was interviewed for The Lab by singer/songwriter/producer Devonté Hynes, also known as Blood Orange.
DEVONTE HYNES—Hi Malia, I’ve been a fan of your photography for a long time now, so thank you for giving me this opportunity to talk to you.
MALIA JAMES—I see you as one of the great artists of our time, so I’m honored to have you interview me!
DH—I’m wondering, how are you feeling right now? Honest answer please.
MJ—I’m road-worn and tired from the three-month tour we just finished, but having a little time at home was really regenerative. As much I enjoy the travel aspect of touring and all that it enables me to document, I have always needed a lot of solitude in order to feel grounded and creative so I’m often left with a bag full of cherished memories, but in need of time alone to recharge. Now that I’ve been able to rest, I’m looking forward to the next stretch.
DH—Do you feel excited to answer these questions about your life and photo work? Or does it seem like a slight annoyance considering that all these answers will be in your head anyway, things that you already know about yourself?
MJ—I’m an open book personally and creatively, so I don’t mind answering questions. Most of my work is a documentation of my life and experience, so I’m already talking about it through the work in a way. I’ve had friends in bands who get tired of answering questions about their work and I’ve certainly battled that when I hosted a show interviewing bands, but if you’re putting work out into the world, wouldn’t you want to talk about it? The influx of interviews is much different when you’re a director/photographer, so maybe I would feel differently if I were the frontwoman of a band and had to do 10 interviews in a day.
DH—The times I’ve run into you, your camera is always around your neck. It’s an extension of yourself I’d guess. When did this extension start and when did you stop noticing that it was a part of you; as in when did it become second nature to take photographs?
MJ—It’s funny you say that because I feel like I don’t carry my camera or shoot enough of my life. I’ve always had a compulsive desire to document my life and wish I had shot more when I was younger. It becomes a diary in a way, you know? When I was young, we moved around so much that taking pictures became my way of holding onto things. Of trapping memories. Most of the photographs of my parents were destroyed as a product of their divorce, so I think in a lot of ways, that’s amplified the importance of documentation in my life. When I was nine years old, my grandfather took me to Disneyland and I shot 12 or so rolls of film on my pink Capri camera. Even then, I was clearly observing the world around me.
DH—Do you think this affected your photography? You have a great natural eye for a striking frame. I love the more set up pieces, but I also really love the more natural photographs, they feel extremely genuine in a way that other “on the road” photographers try so much to fabricate. Are you always seeing a frame?
MJ—Thank you! I do always see the frame, yes. The true challenge is capturing the moment within a well composed frame. There’s also always a balance in capturing a moment without interrupting it. I’m careful not to intrude on people’s privacy, which I think has earned me a lot of trust from those I know and shoot, but sometimes I wish I were more bold. There are photographers I’ve known who lack this filter and often get some great moments, but I value trust over ‘the shot.’ I’m scared to approach people on the street usually, mostly from the fear of intrusion, but I’m working to overcome that. I keep reminding myself that most people (who aren’t in the spotlight) are honored to have their photo taken because, in a sense, you’re saying that you find them interesting.
DH—Were you ever a fan of Stephen Shore? Are photographers even an influence for your work? If so, I’m curious as to who?
MJ—I’m a big fan of Stephen Shore! I also love Larry Clark, Bill Owens, William Eggleston, Lee Friedlander, Diane Arbus, Philip-Lorca diCorcia, Joseph Szabo, etc. I’m enjoying seeing the way other people experience the world and the inspiration that comes from it. Websites and apps like Pinterest and Instagram provide a constant flow of material, but my favorite days are spent at a bookstore with a cup of coffee and a stack of books or magazines. Whenever possible, I try to make it to art shows or galleries in the towns we visit as well. I’m inspired by how much art and culture you, Dev, seem to take in and think the best artists immerse themselves in anything they can. Inspiration can come from anywhere as long as you’re open to it.
DH—What do you like to shoot on; what film do you use?
MJ—I am shooting mostly digital these days because it’s expensive to process film, but when I do, I shoot Fuji for color and Ilford for black and white. I miss shooting film and used to print a lot in the darkroom, but I’ve really fallen in love with shooting digital now that I can make it look just like my film work. Digital is much easier when you’re traveling, but I do carry my 35mm Contax T3 for snapshots at night. By virtue of always having it on me, I find I capture some of the best images on my phone.
DH—I’m a fan of your video work, do you ever think about doing more? Or delving further into a narrative nature? One of my favorite videos of yours is for Demon Dance by Surfer Blood. Every single frame is very strong visually, yet you’re skilled in a way other directors aren’t. Your videos are visually striking yet deeply moving in a completely natural way. Where do you think that touch/balance came from? And which side of any do you prefer?
MJ—Directing is my primary passion and I absolutely want to be doing more. I have ideas brewing for narrative projects, but also a stockpile of video ideas that are just waiting for the right home/budget. I want to make more videos with that same strong visual element that Demon Dance had because music videos are the perfect outlet for that, but I also enjoy the subtlety in the documentary-style videos. Maybe the subtlety comes from my background in photography. I shot both of those videos and tend to shoot all of my doc-style clips, so I’m just applying the same seeing-eye in motion as I would with a still image. I enjoy both styles of creation equally – they are different but complementary creative muscles.
DH—What films (if any) have inspired you?
MJ—I’m a total cinephile. Some of my favorites are:The Graduate, 2046, There Will Be Blood, The Conversation, Blue Valentine, Eyes Wide Shut, Morvern Callar, Paris, Texas, Christiane F., Rear Window, Don’t Look Back, E.T., 21 Grams, Edward Scissorhands, Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, Lost in Translation, Fish Tank, Red Road, Blade Runner, The Secretary, Buffalo ’66, The Virgin Suicides, The Place Beyond the Pines, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, 2001: A Space Odyssey.
DH—I want to know about the photography show you had in Pomona; how did that come about? When do you know a chapter is closed in your life or, if not closed, ready to be shared with the world?
MJ—The gallery approached me about doing a solo show and, though I was honored by the offer, I felt intimidated about filling/selling a gallery full of work. I approached Nick Zinner of Yeah Yeah Yeahs about doing the show because I knew he, like myself, was as much a photographer as a musician. I wanted the show to be the experience of traveling the world in a single-serving life that is tour from the inside looking out. I also wanted to keep the pieces affordable so that younger people or fellow struggling artists could buy the work. The show and zine were a big success, so we hope to host it again in LA or NYC.
DH—Something I’m curious about, is your teenage life, if you wish to share? What were some of your interests back then? What were your modes of escapism? Did you watch these things develop as you got older or slip away only to resurface in more recent times? I feel that in your late twenties things start to come back in to your life in a real way, that you may have disregarded a few years earlier.
MJ—The formative nature of adolescence has always been fascinating to me. I was a goofy overweight overachiever, which I’m incredibly grateful for. Superficiality is at its peak in your youth, so not being able to rely on that forced me to develop humility. The feeling of displacement pushed me to escape through my work. Even then, I had a strong drive towards directing and shooting. I’m lucky and cursed to have known my path in life so young. On the one hand, I had a direction to apply my drive. On the other, maybe sometimes I missed out on just being young and carefree. Now in my early thirties, I balance working hard with taking time to enjoy the ride.
DH—To me, from the outside, it seems as if you mutually enjoy making music as well as taking photographs or making films. In fact it all seems like things you can’t help doing. Is there anything else like this in your life? Something that maybe hasn’t come to light in some way, but is much a part of you as music and photography?
MJ—What’s interesting about being in a band is most people assume if you’re in a band, that’s your thing, but for me music is in the periphery. Music has always been such an important part of my life, but my true passion is visual work. As I get older, it gets harder for me to balance them, but as I have begun to put more of my focus on directing and photography, I am conscious to absorb as much as possible from my time in bands so I won’t leave that world with regrets. I can make movies late into life, but you can really only be in a rock band when you’re young. At some point, what I’ve taken from all of these experiences will culminate in a bigger project. Stagnation is terrifying to me, so I always stay busy doing something creative be it directing, shooting, playing, acting, writing, drawing, etc.
DH—Do you enjoy sharing your art? Is it part of the creation for you, or something you don’t even really think about, in regards to photography?
MJ—Absolutely. Culturally, we live in a time where everyone is sharing their life through social media. I love what Instagram has done for photographers. It’s a way of taking people on your journey. It’s hard to know if sharing is a part of the creation, but it must be.
DH—Have you read reviews or opinions of your work? Do you ever agree with what they are saying, positive or negative? Does it matter? I find pretty much all reviews of any field slightly pointless, and there’s something about photography reviews that can be a little grating, as if they’re literally reviewing someone else’s actual sight.
MJ—It’s always interesting to see how people interpret your work, but thus far, I haven’t had any ‘reviews’ per se. If I ever read things, I only skim for the good parts. :)
DH—Is there a project you are working towards right now?
MJ—I’m putting out a photo book next year and hope to start work on a screenplay that I’ve been thinking about for a while. I also recently acted in two short films directed by Bret Easton Ellis.