Witness: Efrem Zelony-Mindell in conversation with Drew Nikonowicz
Efrem Zelony Mindell is a force of nature, shapeshifting the photography landscape with unique curation, books, and exhibitions. They are drawn to edges, observing worlds and communities that often overlooked and unseen, yet Zelony-Mindell not only acknowledges these spaces, they celebrates and elevates them into something completely new. The idea for the book, Witness, and subsequent exhibition at Texas Tech University, came from a curiosity of what queer people, trans people, and people of color were working on during the pandemic.
The publication for ‘Witness’ is currently sold out (though you can contact Efrem directly if you’d like to find out how you might be able to purchase the book and support the next volume of this collection), but is available as a free resource PDF to all online.
Today, Zelony-Mindell is in conversation with Drew Nikonowicz, geeking out over a mutual love of conversation, community, and photography.
Follow Efrem Zelony-Mindell on Instagram: @efrem_zelony_mindell
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Follow Drew Nikonowicz on Instagram: @drew_nikonowicz
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Drew Nikonowicz: Hi Efrem 👋 Let’s dive right in – looking at Witness today I’m thinking a lot about ‘passing through’. The outside of the book is a mirror front to back. In the Foreword you write, “The prefix “trans-” means across, through, beyond.”
Photography is so slippery. It’s always about transience while also (seemingly) fighting against it. I’m always keen to hear your thoughts, but at this moment I specifically wonder why you made Witness? Why these photos, these words, these ideas?
Efrem Zelony-Mindell: hi Drew . thanks so much for chatting and taking us straight into the deep end here! your keen observation of the reflected title on either side of the covers in relationship to the prefix trans- is on the money! what a lovely and wonderfully subtle observation . to be honest, i hadn’t pieced that together until just now . thanks for that! it’s really great that the visual language that’s available in the book reflects the words and all the other parts of the book and works included
i love photography as slippery or sticky . the medium’s ability to trigger tactility provides a lot of opportunity for rewarding uses and making the kinds of mess and play involved in making art . this definitely feels important to how Witness has come together . more to your question, anytime is a good time to be exploring what trans folx and queer folx and folx of color are working on . anytime is a good time to be exploring voices that have been minimized and ostracized . Witness is the gathering of two different projects i was working on during the height of the pandemic that, for different reasons connected to people’s ignorances, became destined for the scrap heap. it’s time to be shouting louder and fighting harder for work and people like the artists included in Witness and i wasn’t going to let this opportunity and their work slip away. for me very personally it wasn’t just about the pictures, but the people and narratives that are embodied by the pictures and their makers . this project is important and I felt it very deeply . it needed to have life and breath so I merged the projects together . then with a little tenacity and a lot of support from colleagues, friends, and family brought the project to life . the unusual nature of the works in this collection invented the necessity for their existence together.
Nikonowicz: Yes! Let’s keep this up – I am geeking out that we’re piecing together new realizations about the structure together. The true blessing of these kinds of conversations is the excuse to look more closely. I also want to go on the record as saying that the work you do for the photography community at large is invaluable. I deeply appreciate the space you make for your fellow artists (including me)!
There’s an important detail that I hope people are picking up on in your response there: despite plans falling through, you still found a way to honor their labor and bring these artists together in a meaningful way. Especially when the labor is coming from queer people, trans people, people of color. Witness as a book is quite small as a physical object, but the real promise and potential of it are the artists represented within. I think that leads nicely into discussing the exhibition up at Texas Tech University of a selection of images from Witness. It feels like the work and its title takes on a new meaning in this new, larger venue. Beyond simply showing larger images, could you talk a little about how you see this as different from the book? What are your hopes for exhibiting the work?
Zelony-Mindell: it’s my greatest pleasure that we can nerd out, love out, share about, and and and together, Drew . working with you and our friends and peers and family and strangers is rad and deeply rewarding . the community is better together when we have places, have conversations, and have vulnerability . thanks for your thanks!
here’s the view when you first come into Landmark Arts at Texas Tech University!
it’s always a bit tough, in my opinion, to delve into the difference between a book and an exhibition when one is born out of the other . giving a book a place, a site, a bed to lay it’s head, feels deeply intimate and specific . there’s a lot of totality around an exhibition and it’s important to me, and the work i do, to share that i don’t plan for this to be the only time and iteration Witness is exhibited . the future will provide new opportunities to re-address this exhibition, this book, and it’s themes . when that opportunity comes, the artists included, and the way things are shown, won’t be exactly the same . the thing that excites me most about books becoming exhibitions is extending visual language and introducing physical and experiential opportunities to viewers in relation to the artists’ works . an exhibition is an opportunity to think about how the body moves in relation to art and what happens after the shutter is hit and the picture printed . photography is part of an extension that is not just a moment . if anything, photography allows for moments to come together and change and not be the same from person to person . that makes it sound like time traveling, which in a way it totally is capable of . the whole thing is deeply experimental and personal to each of our own curiosities . it is all those things because they are simultaneous
i don’t feel like hope is something i put on the exhibition, or the book—not really . and i want to be really clear . the reason why i am weary of hope is because i am through putting expectations on the things i make and the people who are decent enough to share themselves and their work with me . for lack of a much more academic term, i left one the gayest possible things i could in West Texas with a group of people who care about it and are deeply grateful for the opportunity to have it, share it, learn from it, and grow it . what better hope could there possibly be for a thing? but that’s not something i put on it . i am absolved from hope . Witness is only mine because i put in the work to bring it together . it doesn’t have to be mine anymore, and it doesn’t need to be ensnared by my hope either, it’s bigger than that now
Nikonowicz: I’m so glad you mentioned vulnerability. The opportunity to be vulnerable with a group of people feels like it’s at the core of what you do. To curate a group of artists, to ask them to be a part of something you’re fostering and care deeply for, to let them into the process – it’s all deeply vulnerable.
To call it curating though feels incorrect. The care you put into the work feels more like community building and community fostering. These are not images – they’re a brief visual representation of a group of artists. The idea that it would never be the same and new artists would be included in future iterations reflects the idea of a community. It is fluid (shout out to Nick Norman) and ebbs and flows with each iteration.
To be vulnerable and have the privilege to build a community (curate exhibitions) is also a very powerful tool. It is a weapon to be wielded with a lot of caution, and I know you take it very seriously. Could you tell us a little bit about your process navigating these three things? That is, being vulnerable, community building, and the privilege of curation. They seem related and also all critical to the specific way you carefully handle collaborating with a community of artists.
Zelony-Mindell: i really appreciate you picking up on vulnerability . the success of creating that opportunity for others is something that grows . my openness to the folx i work with in turn opens them up to one another . truly the greatest joy of my role is seeing how the artists in these projects start interacting with each other and how that grows new opportunities and conversations . love has never been a popular movement, but it’s a quiet thing worth pursuing adamantly because its rewards are real
wow, the answer to this question is something i can feel somewhere deep inside my body . a place boarded by physical walls, but at its core has no tangible representation . i can feel it surge my arms into my fingertips with a lot of hopeless sputtering as i type trying to formulate that feeling into words . that’s a good place to start, haha . there’s an apt cliche that’s actually coming to my mind, the house on fire . i don’t really talk about my family or my own personal history . i think it’s time to acknowledge the reality that my work is about how i want to heal my own trauma, my own uncertainty around—well many things, but definitely family and community . my work is an opportunity to expose myself, and others, in a way that i was punished for growing up . that reality started in my house, but extended outside to people in my day to day life and strangers . my commitment to others, learning who strangers are, how they live their lives, and how people can come together is . . . an obsession as much as it is a reward to the work i do and the things i make . i so desperately want to like people and i am rapturous towards things, stories, objects, and how all that is made and formed and comes together maybe i’ve gone off the rails here a bit, but it feels good to put it down . it feels true to a core of what you’re asking here and i wonder how it resonates with you?
Nikonowicz: It sounds to me like art-making is a lot about healing for you. Healing yourself and others, and by working together we all grow. A kind of pluralist point of view, where seeing the language of other artists’ healing expands your own vocabulary and vice versa.
Do you think that process is ever complete? A quote I like, attributed to several folks, comes to mind, “Art is never finished, only abandoned.” What’s next for you, for your healing process, for our collective healing process?
Zelony-Mindell: i’ve never spoken about it before, for numerous reasons mostly tethered to being trained to reject the potential of healing in art making, but yes absolutely this work is about bonding disjointed edges! working collaboratively has the ability to create conversation, thinking radically, and brings people together . if we allow it to hopefully these processes are never complete! I’m not sure how i feel about art being abandoned, but we do certainly allow the work we make to go have a life of its own . the work we make will have viewers we’ll never see, with feelings and thoughts that may never make its way back to our shores . personally, i feel i’m at my ultimate level of being with the things that i make . there’s no way for me to be more with them . it’s only through releasing these things into the world—so that it can have opportunities that i can’t provide—that it may become something more than i intended . by releasing it to others, both the people i work with and the people who view the work, something more different will be exposed by way of all the parts and remnants left in the entirety of the thing . it’s important for artists to be encouraged to offer more opportunity and language around their work to welcome audiences to bring themselves to finish the work . it’s only through sharing differences and working together that something transformative will happen
I’m curious how you see this potential happening in the community that you’re building and as a maker of things yourself?
Nikonowicz: I completely agree with this actually. I think there’s an unspoken second half to that quote which is, “until someone else picks up where you left off.” The greatest gift someone could give me (or any artist in my opinion), is to take something I’ve done and expand on it. Walead Beshty, talking about someone borrowing from his work, once said, “… there was something to it that was worth borrowing and could be put to someone’s use. I mean, once you make something and put it into the world, it isn’t really yours anymore.” I think that’s really what we’re talking about here, and, like Beshty, I find that extremely exciting.
I find potential collaboration extremely exciting, especially as a part of community-organizing through the Localhost community. E.g. bringing folks together and trying new things. A lot of the community members are not artists or have art backgrounds, so I really try to offer a space where people can happily and safely engage with art and each other. It’s critical to me that artists have an opportunity to reveal themselves as humans first – we often do a really bad job of this in favor of our ‘art-world identity.’ I want all of us to feel safe to be vulnerable and irreverent together. From there, as you said, we can welcome an audience to finish the work. In other words, I think collaboration is something we’re all doing – we’ve just been limited in what we consider “collaboration.”
Perhaps it’s about time we took this boat back to shore. What do you think, Efrem? As we head that way, how are you feeling? What’s missing from this conversation?
Zelony-Mindell: a wash back to shore sounds so similar to how anyone comes to a work of art . it doesn’t happen once, it comes back lapping over and over to find more and to hit more differently every time . how we allow ourselves that time to learn what’s inside a thing is so seminal to how we make and take and find what lurks inside a frame or anything . that allowance is a privilege that the work is worthy of, that the makers are worthy of, and that we as viewers of art and people living our day to day lives are worthy of . it’s a form of self awareness that comes with patience, acceptance, and exciting degrees of inquisitive uncertainty what’s missing from this conversation could very well be everything . and how exciting would that be? it would allow us to take this conversation out into the world and have it with others and see how it grows . that growth will embody what change and hope is possible, if we allow ourselves to be sensitive enough to notice it and nurture it .
Nikonowicz: Efrem, thank you so much. I really appreciate you. I hope folks have an opportunity to visit the Witness exhibition before it comes down in February!
Zelony-Mindell: i’m so grateful to you Drew for your time and thoughtfulness with all this . thanks for sharing with us!
how have you mourned the last 24 months? how have you celebrated in them, or for them?how do we recover? or move on? and how does all that vary?
to gain perspective we must come together . i’d be privileged to accept submissions of images and works that you’ve made over the last 24 months that resonate with these questions and how they relate to your perspective
For more info and to submit: Go HERE
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Witness: Efrem Zelony-Mindell in conversation with Drew NikonowiczJanuary 10th, 2022
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