INTERVIEW WITH BEN SCOTT-KILLIAN
by Alice Oliver
Ben Scott-Killian is a photographer living on Vashon Island in the Puget Sound of Washington State, where he runs a small dairy and livestock farm with his family. Where work and life merge together into a seamless unity, the difference between drudgery and open-hearted presence is decided by the intentionality of his approach. SOLA Journal founder, Alice Oliver, discusses with Ben his practice and his upcoming publication, The Boy in the Wild Orchard, which is currently available for pre-order through Black Flower Publishing. This book is a reflection on his early adulthood and the mentors that guided him, pages filled with vulnerable musings on fragmentation and solitude.
AO: Could you tell us a little about your early life, where you grew up and how that environment shaped you and subsequently your practice?
BSK: I was born in 1987 on Long Island in a suburb about 50 miles east of New York City. My mom was a high school biology and ecology teacher who kindled a love for the natural world in my brother and I. I was very connected to the estuaries and forests that surrounded our town. I bore witness to the rapid and devastating expansion of the built environment, much of which was encroaching on the natural places I held so dear. Even at a young age, I was sensitive to the harmful costs of modernity. For me, environmentalism was a diving board into much bigger questions about human beings, the mysteries of nature, and our correspondence with the Earth, i.e. spiritual matters. These matters and concerns continue to be a part of my everyday life and are inevitably part of my photographic practice.
AO: Can you tell me a bit about how your photographic practice started? What were some elemental moments that helped or hindered the shaping of your practice?
BSK: There came a time in my young teens when the turbulence inside my family’s home became sufficient motivation to get me out of the house whenever I had the opportunity. My solo wanders gave me space from the confines of our family system and, more importantly, became my sacred time. At some point, I was kindly gifted a Nikon F2 by my family which became my constant companion on my walks through my local world. I took lessons in photography from a local photographer. In one such lesson, my teacher and I ventured from the camera shop he owned to the duck pond down the road in search of photographic opportunities. He pointed out someone feeding the ducks by tossing cracked corn into the air. He was trying to get me to release the shutter the moment when all of the ducks, anticipating the grain, would look up into the air at once and the light reflected off their brilliant green heads all at once. For the life of me, I couldn’t see what he was trying to point out. The moment was lost. I can see now what I didn’t know then, I was using the camera as a tool primarily to view the world inside of me; the phenomena of the external world were secondary.
While photography remained a serious interest, I studied environmental science in college and became involved in farming during my time there. Learning how to farm after I graduated was an all-encompassing immersion that took up the time and creative energy that I might have spent being a serious image maker. It faded into the background and, ultimately, practical concerns subsumed the creative ones.
In August 2020, there was a period of late summer light that awoke me from my photographic slumber. I started taking my camera out on walks just like I did as a teenager, except now with my wife and young daughter alongside me. There was something about that August light that demanded I participate in it, to receive it. I responded to the demand and so began my renewed apprenticeship to photographic practice.
AO: Can you tell us a bit more about your body of work The Boy in the Wild Orchard and your upcoming publication?
BSK: The book is the reflection and result of a specific period of transformation that occurred over a 6 year span ending around my 30th birthday. Those years began very dark, lonely and confused for me. In the depths of despair, I finally came to know another human being who I could be completely honest with. Leslie, my first mentor, changed my life. He led me into the world of dreams, myth, and the mysteries of the human psyche. His guidance also helped open me to the many other lessons I would receive along the way. I came to my island home as a naive 22 year old trying to prove myself farming. I had no intention of staying, but circumstances conspired to keep me here. I feel like I was claimed by a place. It wasn’t done with me and still isn’t. I found other people who freely shared their gifts with me, some of whom are depicted in the book. I’ve also been shaped by the non-human beings that I get to interact with, some quite intimately.
The book acknowledges the critical presence of true elderhood in the psychic development of young people. I wanted to honour the process of coming into adulthood, and all of its allies, with something beautiful and intentional. The book is currently available for pre-order through Black Flower Publishing, to be printed and fulfilled in January 2023. We are working with a press just on the other side of the ferry from me to print the book. Despite the limitations dictated by material shortages and the small scale of the release, we are excited for the physical presentation that we’ve settled on for the publication.
AO: Was The Boy in the Wild Orchard a new step within your practice or something that evolved out of earlier concepts or themes that you had worked with in the past?
BSK: I credit one of my publishers, Will Sharp, for helping birth the concept for The Boy in the Wild Orchard. I had no ends in mind when I started making the images that would eventually be the book. He saw some of the portraits I was making of my mentors along with the larger body of my photographic work and posed the idea that it should be a book and that his new collaborative project, Black Flower Publishing, would publish it. It was unexpected. But as the work came together, so did my grasp of what it was I was trying to do both with the images and with a specific moment in my life. It also began what has been a cherished relationship between myself, Will and Roman (the other face of Black Flower).
To answer the question, it certainly evolved out of themes that I had been working with, consciously or unconsciously, for my entire life. Every image of the book is made either on our farm or within a few miles from our home. I see myself as part of an ecosystem - a being with a specific niche in a specific place. My relationships to other beings and the place itself give meaning to my life. The wild orchard is the image that best conveys that for me. The book elaborates on that image.
AO: As I understand, you are a farmer, can you tell us a bit about this lifestyle and how it and your surrounding landscape influence your work?
BSK: My wife and I operate a micro-dairy on land that she has lived on with her family since she was a child. We milk cows, make yogurt, cheese and various other dairy products in our creamery. It is our only source of income. We have built a small home here and are raising our children in this intergenerational setting.
There are so many ways that farm work has impacted my life. Many will be immediately apparent as you flip through the images in the book. The most important factor, though, is the inescapable presence of limits in the life of a dairy farmer. Animals require care every day of the year. I milk the cows every day twice a day. My world is very small. Some would see it as suffocatingly small, bordering on unfree. Many people could not tolerate it, but it suits me. Having my choices limited is freeing for me. I never need to wonder what I should be doing or where I should be. Most of my deepest insights have come when I’m milking the cows or making cheese. I can see myself against the backdrop of constancy. I belong here.
AO: Some photographers prefer to work with photobooks and publications, while others feel that exhibiting their work is the most effective way to resolve and expose their work. Based on your own personal practice, what do you think suits your work best, and how have you come to this conclusion?
BSK: My work has never been exhibited. I recognise the value of a dedicated space for artistic commons, but it is not something I’m attracted to. I’m highly introverted and prefer one-on-one conversations to a group context any day. A photobook is much more like a one-on-one conversation. It’s something I can be immersed in with no distractions besides a cup of coffee or a curious toddler.
AO: Please could you tell us a bit about the technical side of your practice? What sort of camera setup do you use and how do you go about editing your work?
BSK: The Boy in the Wild Orchard was photographed on various black and white film stocks in a Pentax 6x7 camera. I develop and camera scan my own film here at home. While I enjoy the process, we recently welcomed a new family member (Cassidy Paige, born in Oct ‘22) and the time I have to dedicate to those time intensive processes has been squeezed thin. I’ve been using my digital camera for a lot of my work since the book and am still on the fence about where to go from here.
AO: What is one piece of advice you would give to other photographers?
BSK: It’s not advice, but it is a hard-won observation through my decade plus farming. The process, whatever it is, has to be enough. It has to be intrinsically nourishing. We kid ourselves when we rush to the finish line thinking that we are done. Perhaps we feel we are done with the work, but chances are it isn’t done with us. The Boy in the Wild Orchard is a momentary glimpse back on what has come to pass, but it’s an initiation not a completion. The work spirals onward demanding my continual attention and devotion.
AO: Finally, please can you share with us some of your favourite photobooks or bodies of work that have influenced my practice?
BSK: I’d like to mention two current books that have had (and are continually having) a profound impact on me. One is In These Dark Mountains by my colleague Giulia Degasperi. I’ve been following this body of work since I started sharing my own photography. I instantly recognized myself in Giulia’s images and they helped catalyze me along my journey of developing a style. I’m beyond thrilled to be holding a hard copy of this work as a photobook which arrived a few days ago.
The other is Jardins du Riesthal by Anne Immelé. I can only begin to tell you how much this book has meant to me. At a time when I’m trying to once again find direction in my image making, Jardins du Riesthal has given me complete permission to be myself.
Both books explore the relationship between human beings and their place: our place of belonging, our place on the food chain, and our place in the wider web of the more-than-human world. Is there a more worthy inquiry for our time? I don’t believe so. Both of these books have stirred me deep and I intend to write and publish detailed reflections on both as the dust settles from my own book launch.