James Bannister: What makes grass grow in the desert?

Since graduating with university in 2013, James Bannister's work has grown visually into a distinctive and strong style through storytelling and practice. Bannister is currently working on his new and on-going project What makes grass grow in the desert?, a look into the wealth and greed of Las Vegas and a society built on capitalism.

What sparked your idea behind What makes grass grow in the desert?

My first large scale project The Road Not Taken (Based on the poem of the same name by Robert Frost) is about escapism, solitude and retreating from the world. I tried to pin down what exactly the characters who I was looking at were escaping from in society, looking for a common thread.

The nexus of our society is capitalism, which is based on competitiveness and essentially greed. Whilst we generally agree that greed is a bad trait, we are all greedy to some extent, we have to be otherwise we’d all be happy living in caves as our ancestors did. We’ve made this place on the planet that we can all go and have a massive blowout and indulge our deepest taboo’s, so while we dismiss it, there is obviously something in the human consciousness that need that base connection.

We are sold the idea, especially in the US, that we can start out in the world as anyone, and so long as we work hard, will get our just rewards. Alain de Botton said ‘Its is as unlikely today that you will become as rich and famous as Bill Gates, as it was being picked for the French aristocracy in the 17th century, but the point is, it doesn't feel that way’. The people I met whilst shooting ‘The Road Not Taken,’ were rejecting that preconceived paradigm of the Rat Race.

Las Vegas is ground zero for that competitive, take take take school of thought, so was the natural place to start as the crux of what they were rejecting. A key theme is the pursuit of happiness, in both projects that's what it boils down to, it's just people looking for it in different places.

The project focuses on the unnaturalness of Las Vegas. The fact that it’s a man made oasis in a harsh landscape. You’re photographing the reality, not the façade that meets the eye. Where did this desire for the truth originate from?

Vegas projects this façade of success and glamour. It’s something that we all buy into. We train our vision to see what the casino hotel owners want us to see, and are blind to what they don’t. We swallow the ‘easy lie, not the difficult truth.’

For me, photography, when used in a certain way, has a great knack of getting under the cracks of the image we project. It exposes the gap between what we would like people to see and the image that we actually project.This gap, that Diane Arbus called ‘the gap between intention and effect,’ between our fantasy for ourselves and the actual reality of ourselves that I find very revealing. This concept of the projection of image can be applied to any town, any business or any social media account.

Specific to Las Vegas:  It shouldn't exist naturally. It is situated in a desert, only a 2 hour drive from Death Valley, one of the driest and hottest places on Earth. Yet it is here we have decided to build our oasis. Water - our fastest diminishing resource, is pumped from 25 miles away (The Hoover Dam)  and has drained over 4 trillion gallons of water since its completion. In a city that gets only 4 inches of rain water a year, Las Vegas still uses 219 gallons of water per person per day, one of the highest figures in the US, compared to San Francisco, where the figure is just 49 Gallons.  ‘The colorado is a dying river, Ultimately Las Vegas and our civilisation in the American Southwest is going to disappear, like the Indians did before us.’ Mr. Mrowka. It seems illogical to put 53 Golf courses in one of the driest places on the planet.

‘Wherever you see large scale environmental injury, you will also see the subversion of democracy. The two things go hand in hand, they always do.’ JFK Junior

You’re using photography in an interesting way to document the border between rich and poor through something more discreet than money, the grass and use of water in one of the hottest deserts on earth. How does photography help display the finer details that may not be visible to the human eye?

I'm interested in the semiotics of culture and cultural phenomena. For instance; Here in the desert, grass has become a status symbol. It is blatantly obvious that in the poorer districts of the city there are little grass and trees, just dust, concrete and urban shrub. Developers use grass, trees and greenery to entice potential buyers to the aspirational districts of the city such as Summerlin and Henderson. Each Summerlin sign is adorned with a crown of luscious well kept grass and palm trees.

To have a lawn here runs deeper than just a status symbol. This subversion of nature is a further medal around the neck of mans psychological triumph in conquering nature. In a dry desert, the most precious, in demand thing is water. If you can afford a lawn, you can afford water. If you can afford to flippantly waste your most vital life-giving resource, ultimately you have power. You essentially have the power to take away life from your fellow citizen, and distribute it to the petri dish of wild life you are the arbiter of in your front lawn. This is why semiotics is particularly interesting to me, using photography as a tool to deconstruct the reasoning behind our decisions.

Is this social documentary of man-made constructions, wealth and resources something you see yourself developing more?

I have a dream project of photographing the richest 1 percent of people in the world, and I do see that sitting within the time line of my work; with the escapism project I was photographing people who had escaped from the money chasing, and found solace in solitude in their own counter culture. and I'm now looking at the flip side of that, and I see it as a logical approach to go to the other end of the scale and see, in some peoples minds, the section of society who've attained the unattainable.

How does the aesthetic quality of your photographs help tell the story more?

The current format of the work is in photo book form. I am experimenting with the narrative in photography and see the photo book as a good vehicle for this. I like the idea of a book encapsulating its own little world.  A strong aesthetic has to be there to hold an audiences gaze. It leans towards subtle reflection over a sensationalist approach and references the vernacular iconography of the New Topographics. It’s such a painful cliche, but there really is beauty in the banal.

You graduated from Falmouth University in 2013 with a photography degree. Three years later, what have you learnt from shooting that education could never have taught you?

My first job out of university was assisting a great product photographer, Ray Massey. I learnt more technical skill in the first 3 days in his studio than in 3 years of university.  The amount of independence and passion you need to succeed on the professional level university could never have prepared me for. Having said that, studying is great for learning art theory, and I am grateful for that.

Some of your work has been shot on large format. Are there any reasons as to why you want to work with this medium?

I once got told in a crit that large format print and a phone picture are no different, (with a kind of little men, big cameras sentiment) and I completely agree with that. Alec Soth remarked how beautiful the world looked rendered through ground glass, and that's a very true statement, it has a beauty to it that is unique. For me the process lends itself perfectly to my way of working. I can be quite shy with strangers, and the slow process allows time for people to relax and the fake-ness we all present to the camera to recede, hopefully creating an image closer to the truth, although I'm not sure how successfully. Ironically, the clunky slow nature of Large Format may be its strength.

In a world were technology is bettering itself every day many look down on an analogue process as something of the past. How would you respond to that?

I think there will always be a place for any process of creating art, if the context reflects the process then every means should be used. I'd say there is something particularly interesting about an older medium applied in a modern context. However, my own personal taste, I find art created with the newest technology really exciting. Working with the peripheral of what's possible.

Were you born into an artistic family? How did you find your feet in photography?

Not really but I'd always shared an appreciation for art and fashion with my grandmother, I'd visit the Dalí museum in Gerona with her every year. I was taken by the world the surrealists were not only able to create, but to convey through multimedia.

At school one thing I found came naturally to me was drawing. So for better or worse I went to art college and specialised in Graphic Design and Photography but the actual crunch point was deciding between the two. I took one look at the computer room at the college and realising I'd have to spend my life in an office with graphic design, I chose photography, as a 17 year old it'd allow me to explore and be outside. I've been fascinated with placing things in the frame ever since.

Find more of James' work on his site here.