I was drinking tequila in the back of a beat-up Ford Explorer with my girlfriend, my sister, and a couple of friends the night I discovered Otis Ike’s work. We were in Woodstock, New York, to see an exhibition co-curated by the photographer Juan Madrid. Eating at a Thai restaurant, moments after the tequila, I asked a group of artists and writers with us if they had noticed a photograph of two men wrestling in blood. No, they said, picking at their food, as if I were crazy and hadn’t said a thing. While I’m unsure I remember the night word for word, I do remember describing how strange the photo was. It was, to start, a photo of two men interlocked in a gruesome hug — one giving a chokehold and another receiving it. The strangest thing, though, was that the man receiving the chokehold, the man who seems to be swimming in his own blood, was grinning. He was laughing, I told them, as if he just overheard a good joke or learned that a good friend was in town.
That photograph, shown above, was taken by Otis Ike(a self-taught photographer) and was on display at the exhibition we traveled to see that night. I would later find out that Otis Ike is only a nickname. Otis Ike’s real name is Patrick Bresnan. Bresnan started shooting photography in the 80s when his mother gave him her Canon AE-1. She would keep on supporting him as he practiced, even developing his 4×6 prints. Bresnan now lives in Austin, Texas with his wife Ivete Lucas. Their film, The Send-Off, was awarded at the South by Southwest Film Festival and had its world premiere at Sundance. Here, Ike talks briefly about this work and about his thoughts on shooting candidly.
How did you get your start in photography? Were you always interested in it?
I always felt different than the world when I was growing-up. In 8th grade my mother taught me how to use her Canon AE-1. That was my start. She loaded and developed the film for me and gave me 4×6 prints. It was the late 80s when I got my hands on that camera, and it served as gateway drug to the Mini-VHS video camera that would become my best friend in the 1990s.
To take a question from one of my favorite writers: does shooting photography help make the anguish of life more bearable?
I don’t know. War photographers have always seemed numb to me. I was a researcher and camera person on a death penalty film made in Houston, Texas. I learned that they took the bodies of the former inmates to a small church outside of Huntsville for their families to finally get to touch them. After the film, which ended with the death of Elroy Chester, I went to Huntsville for the occasion of the 500th execution that was to be carried out by the state of Texas. A woman named Kimberly McCarthy was set to be executed. I spent the day outside the prison photographing protesters and supporters of the execution. After her life was ended by the state, I went to secret chapel where I knew her body would be on view for family. I had my camera, but no family showed up. The minister encouraged me to photograph her body, but I could not do it. Her face was glowing. I held her hand, said a prayer, and left. It was the biggest news story of the day in the US and the concept of taking photos of her body made me feel sick. I did not want the camera to act as a barrier between me and Kimberly’s body. I wanted to approach her with a pure heart and intention.
Have you ever been unsure of your talent?
I have never felt like giving-up. I’ve been taking photos and making video and film projects for twenty-five years. I’ve been rejected by every grant, photo jury, and film festival. This year my wife and I had our film The Send-Off accepted to play in competition at Sundance and which also won an award at the South by Southwest Film Festival. Failure is built into any art form that requires you to put yourself out there and submit your work. I think it is good to be unsure of your talents. I am scared to death of people who act like they know everything. I think being humble is one of the most important traits of a truly talented person.
What are you interested in capturing when taking a photo? What do you like to connect with?
I photograph people spontaneously, meaning that I don’t plan the photos. I really want to see them interacting with the world outside of the camera that I am pointing at them. I don’t like people looking at the camera. I used to spent a lot of time photographing big events and gatherings of people — for example, the Super Bowl parking lot, Cajun Mardi Gras, Pride Parades, proms, motorcycle rallies. And while living in Austin I did a lot of festivals like Austin City Limits and the South by Southwest Music Festival. I really enjoy capturing people in costumes, while celebrating, or getting drunk and living life in a very different way then their everyday routine.
Have you ever been uncomfortable when shooting? I don’t mean uncomfortable with the technical process but with the idea of photography. If so, what made you uncomfortable?
I don’t like portrait photography. There are people that specialize in it. I enjoy viewing their work, but it is not exciting to me. I like the feeling that I get when I walk into the unknown and discover people. I used to make sure that if I was photographing drunk people at a frat party or on Bourbon St., I would be as drunk as they were. That way I was sharing in the experience. Honestly, I feel uncomfortable photographing drunk people while I am sober. It is rough because I have broken a number of lenses and cameras but the photography is honest. I am not preying on people, I am living life alongside them.
Would you agree in saying that some people are less able to relax in front of the camera than others?
Yes. A guy at a gas station in central Florida whose car I was photographing told me I had some nerve not to ask his fucking permission to photograph his car. When I asked for his permission a few minuted later he said, “I am so close to snapping on your fucking ass.” I left immediately.
What makes them stiffen? Where’s this tension coming from?
Some people don’t want to be photographed. People are not prepared when I photograph them. I usually enter their frame of view, a weird guy with a camera, I take a photo, smile and leave their frame. The majority of people want to be photographed when they have had time to compose themselves. People also have no idea what you are doing with their image. I photographed a pair of sorority girls posing in front of their college with graduation caps on. When they saw me taking the photo they covered their faces. The tension is the unknown. I am not a friend of theirs on facebook and have long hair and a black t-shirt. People want to be photographed in a safe space by someone they know. Go on youtube and watch every Garry Winogrand video. It’s incredibly tense.
The Crash series is one of my favorites. Could you tell the story behind it? What happened to the man? Why do you think it was important to shoot it?
I was in LA working for an artist named Clare Rojas and was driving on Highway 27 through Malibu State Park to meet her husband Barry McGee, in Malibu, to surf. I was following a pick-up truck when a Volkswagen bug pulled out in front of the truck causing the bug to crumble around the driver’s body and the pick-up to flip. It was surreal. I called 911. There was a thunderstorm in the air, and time felt like it had stopped. We were waiting for the first responders. I tried to help him, but his bones were exposed and he was spitting blood. I took the photos because I was in awe of the events that were transpiring to save his life. He was just a punk rock kid driving to the beach just like me. His boogie board was in the trunk.
What have you learned about yourself from shooting photography? Any surprises?
Most of my photography has a very strong political narrative. Photography has allowed me to participate in a lot of movements without putting my face in the frame. As I get older, I really treasure the windows that open for me to be on the open road shooting film. There is nothing like the surprise of seeing a photo weeks after you have taken it.
All images © Patrick Bresnan.