Logan Bellew talks with Efrem Zelony-Mindell
Logan Bellew (b.1988) is a photographer based in Brooklyn, New York and Nicosia, Cyprus. He has been returning to Cyprus since 2011 where his work takes root in formal archaeology and utilizes its investigative ideologies to develop the deep personal narrative that concerns his work. At present he volunteers with the AIDS Solidarity Movement of Cyprus, an NGO that conducts island-wide HIV testing, education, and outreach campaigns. Logan earned a Bachelors of Fine Arts in photography and a Bachelors of Arts in art history from Arizona State University as well as a Masters of Fine Arts in photography from the University of New Mexico. His photographs, videos, and installations are exhibited internationally.
Efrem Zelony-Mindell is a curator, writer, and artist. Their curatorial endeavors include: n e w f l e s h, Are You Loathsome, Familiar Strange, and This Is Not Here. They write about art for FOAM, Unseen, DEAR DAVE, VICE, Musée Magazine, SPOT, and essays for artists’ monographs. Their first book n e w f l e s h, published by Gnomic Book, is available now and in the collections at Robert B. Haas Family Arts Library at Yale University, Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library at Columbia University, the Fine Arts Library at Harvard University, and others. Efrem grew up near a beach in Miami, but not on it. They work, write, lecture, and live in New York.
Efrem Zelony-Mindell: Hello Logan. Here we go. I’m standing on a train platform right now headed into the city thinking about journeys, relics, and kinds of trauma associated with the body and the passages of time. These thoughts made me think of you, and though I may be more comfortable starting an interview in the comfort of my home sitting at my computer, I feel compelled to address this now. Your work and your life is so revealed. The foreign is palpable because you allow it access and its humanity. You’ve spent years traveling, which you continue to do, but Cyprus undoubtedly seems to be a place you feel most kin too. If a blind person asked you to describe it how would you paint it for them?
Logan Bellew: Hi Efrem. Thank you for thinking of me on your journeys, it feels like the right state of mind to consider my work in. So much of it is about both being in and having to leave a place. It seems strange that I spend a lot of my time and make a lot of my work about Cyprus, but at the same time it’s about not being there and the circumstantial distance created between me, this place, and the people I care about. I could never paint just one picture of Cyprus visually or conceptually for anyone, it’s far too complex and beautiful with its history and nuance. But I tell people always about a special beach on the island – the furthest beach from any major city – where there is no light. As the sun sets you feel the heaviness and weight of the dark begin to settle on your shoulders as your eyes begin to adjust. Slowly, and it feels almost miraculously, the arm of the Milky Way galaxy we reside in emerges and looks as if it’s rising in a giant arc out of the sea. In that moment you feel like you can reach out to stars that are light-years away, and all of the distance a human can experience here on earth seems inconsequential.
LB: I’ve attached a picture I took last year on New Years Eve. It’s a tradition of mine to write a list of the things I feel I failed at the previous year and light the list on fire. This photograph is for me about destruction and regeneration, which are two concepts that permeate my work in general, and about Cyprus specifically.
EZM: The milky way birthing from the sea. The ocean and light of martian gas filling the sky of a Mediterranean shore. That’s a pretty good place to start painting a picture for anyone I think. I also really like the idea of burning a list of failure for New Years rather than a resolution, it feels more cleansing and about acceptance of the reality of you Logan the person who just lived through another year. What is it about the people of Cyprus that attracts you? Or is it more the place, or perhaps both?
LB: Burning the list has been a tradition of mine since I was a kid, and while I fully accept the practical absurdity of it I still find the gesture romantic and cathartic. You’re right about it being a form of acceptance, but it’s not to be confused with resignation. The nature of my relationship with Cyprus has, like any relationship, shifted and grown over time. Cyprus began as a job – I was a photographer for an archaeological dig. Then it was a project that became my MFA thesis – something wrapped up in a bow for an audience and defended in front of a committee. During this time I struggled with being newly diagnosed with HIV. Tests were done, lots and lots of tests, and it was determined I contracted the virus in Cyprus. My CD4 count hovered very close to the threshold that would medically classify me as having AIDS. I’ve never felt more afraid or alone, so I went looking for answers. I wanted to know how something like this could happen, how it could happen to me, and could I do something to stop it from happening to someone else. I started to get my answers when I became involved with the AIDS Solidarity Movement of Cyprus, which is work I love and ache for when I’m not there. Sometimes photography is involved but mostly I help with HIV and STI testing campaigns, hand out condoms, proofread reports, and occasionally speak publicly about being a person living with HIV. When you do this kind of work you tend to find yourself in rooms with like-minded people who refuse to tolerate their own and others’ suffering. This is the kind of common purpose that transcends all linguistic, cultural, and geographic borders. My photographs are of people I love, the parties we throw, the work we do, the things we hide, the physical, political, and social landscapes we inhabit and that inhabit us.
LB: I am also deeply afraid I won’t be able to go back. As of this interview Cyprus does not grant third country nationals like myself residency based solely on the results of compulsory HIV testing, though I am allowed to stay for some months at a time on tourist visas. I feel like Persephone – I come and go but can never stay – and Odysseus – my life and my work and my energy are spent finding a way back to the people I love – and Sisyphus – progress is backbreaking and often I end up where I started. My pictures in this context are my failsafe. They are what I cling to when my prescribed time is up, I’m forced to go away and stay away, and all the weight feels like it will crush me again.
EZM: Anyone who would see the burning list with resignation clearly doesn’t believe in Phoenix’s or what they stand for. Being as you’re from Phoenix, Arizona – who better to understand how to rise from the ashes? Campy as it may sound, this all seems pretty fitting. Since the first time we met you’ve never backed down from speaking your mind, and I’ve always found that so incredibly valuable. It comes across in the work you make and the interactions that you have. You grow care and that is incredibly important work. You’re a very proactive activist in Cyprus and given a lot of face and reality to HIV and AIDS awareness that has previously not been seen. Just to give some context I want to piggy back off your comment about you doing public speaking. Public speaking yes, but you’re also the only HIV positive person ever to show their face on national television speaking about awareness. I think it’s important to discuss a little bit about the politics of the country as well as the politics of LGBTQ culture on the island. Could you give us a little background here on these two things? I know they are separate at first, but also irrefutably connected.
LB: The political and social climate in Cyprus are complicated with an extensive and deep network of roots, but an extremely short summary is that Cyprus has been divided by a buffer zone since 1974 after a failed coup by a Greek junta and a military invasion by Turkey. Thousands of Cypriots classified as “Turkish” and “Greek,” went missing after ethnic cleansing perpetrated by both parties. Others were forced to relocate to what is now the South (the Republic of Cyprus, currently an EU member state) and the North (the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus – TRNC, which is militarily occupier and recognized as a state by Turkey only). There has always been a desire to solve what has become known as “The Cyprus Problem” – the reunification of the two portions of the island – but all attempts including the most recent in 2018 have failed.
LB: In addition to living in a politically and geographically divided land, religious and social influence from Islam and the Greek Orthodox Church (arguably more so) make life as a queer person challenging in Cyprus. The first gay pride was held in 2014, civil unions were legalized in December of 2015, but despite these early steps violence and discrimination are not uncommon in both parts of the island. Stigma surrounding HIV only makes the weight of all this heavier and usually more isolating. I’m glad you mentioned I’m from Phoenix, it’s important for me to acknowledge where I’m from when we talk about my work with HIV in Cyprus. I’m not Cypriot and don’t run the same kinds of risks as someone from Cyprus (not that I haven’t taken similar risks before or faced them in the US). On world AIDS Day in 2017 I was interviewed on a morning talk show about being HIV positive. This instance was memorable and special for me because all other media appearances by people living with HIV up until this point had been conducted anonymously – only the backs of heads or darkened silhouettes would be shown, and voices would be changed. I’ve have absorbed enough stories from people living with HIV in Cyprus to understand why that decision makes sense. But light is really the cure here. Visibility fights stigma, and so does connecting the letters H, I, and V to an actual human with a face. I would be remiss if I didn’t at least try to shine some light on the situation.
LB: I immediately thought of these two pictures while talking about how people with HIV are visually represented in the media in Cyprus. I didn’t make these pictures as a direct response to that, though some people I have photographed asked me not so show their faces and I instead photographed their backs. I made these years before I spoke on TV, but for me they speak about the same ideas and conventions of representation.
EZM: You seem obsessed with light. Photographers are in an eternal struggle with light and they love flaunting that, but the way you treat and desire light feel much more thoughtful, and extremely poetic. Light is a character in the narrative of your work. It is totally personified. You’ve set yourself in lots of different atmospheres. You’ve mentioned many already; working on archeological sites, parties with friends, raising awareness at clinics and in forum settings, living day to day life in a land that continues to welcome you. Could you talk about the intimacy of your work? And I mean work not just as a photographer, but as an engaged member of the world really. You are a deeply intimate person, you reveal, and want people to be seen.
LB: I think light is important for any photographer, and my relationship to it has changed. I used to want everything as bright as possible, so white to the point of sterility. Lately though I am more obsessed with deep darkness. My photography is becoming the place where I think about the darker things in life. Intimacy is there, but it’s the darker side of it – in a portrait I look for an uncomfortable gaze. In general I take a genuine interest in the lives of other people – think of how much you can learn about the world from someone who you have nothing in common with (or so you thought). In this way the photographs are more of a byproduct of this intimacy, but also a sort of insurance policy against forgetting I ever had it, if and when I lose it. Being intimate in any capacity is both light and dark. I try to embody the lightness when I work in a professional or voluntary capacity, but my photographs are where I examine the dark side of this too.
LB: I wanted to send you this picture too. This is the main highway between the capital Nicosia and Larnaca, another city on the East coast of the island where one of the new airports was built after the 1974 conflict. To this day the center median is painted like a landing strip can be removed because it functions as an emergency military runway. You don’t notice it really when you’re driving on it but it’s one example of the subversive ways conflict inhabits life in Cyprus.
EZM: I was wondering when intimacy would enter into our conversation and when would Pete. (I’m sure he’ll wonder why it took so long.) I think now is the time to introduce him. Pete is a reoccurring figure in your life and in your work. Who is he and why is he so damned important?
LB: That’s really a hard one Efrem. Pete is important in the same way that anyone you care about is important. You want the world to know about the smart and funny human being that has somehow strayed onto your same path, the serendipitous way you found each other, and the challenges you faced only to just be in their presence again at some point. Pete is important to me because I’m vulnerable around him and trust him, the same way he makes himself vulnerable for me and my camera. The pictures are our egos intertwined. I think one of the pictures strengths comes from their duration and dedication. Spanning more than four years now, the pictures are almost never staged or preconceived. No staging, just making a record – the presence and the absence – of a person I want to always remember. The pictures of him, and us, are important to me for these reasons, but they also tell the story of a complicated relationship. They are about that strangeness that develops between two people that are kept apart by distance, money, goals, work, debt, but manage to see each other somehow now and then. A lot of the time that means relishing in the quotidian like a shared cigarette, or the nice light on the side of the road, because relationships aren’t always sexy or about sex. If anything Pete and these pictures are important because they tell a story about the intimacy of friendship and unconditional love. Agape, not Eros.
EZM: What higher goal could there be for an artist, if a goal is indeed a part of the equation of making art. What more significant hope could there be than this prodigious naturalness you just effortlessly expressed? Here’s my last question Logan, and maybe you just answered it. Why do you suppose photography is important?
LB: I think it’s what I strive for, though in practice it’s often far from effortless. One of the most rewarding pieces of my work, and at times the most frustrating, is that stories unfold over years, and in the case of my work in Cyprus a decade. I’ve had to grow into the naturalness – the reward comes when you can see the story and all of it’s plot twists and offshoots emerge only after a long time. But it’s important for me to take that time, to let events unfold as they are instead of trying to construct a narrative for the camera or a specific audience. The excitement comes from seeing where it’s been but not knowing where it’s going. These pictures – and my efforts as a whole – are the product of decisions and their outcomes, of unavoidable circumstances, and of the way we somehow manage to find each other across distance and time. Maybe photography is important because, when you do it in a way that comes from you and your experience, others will see it and find something about themselves in it or, even better, be moved to action.
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