"Breaking current popular culture": An Interview With Casey T. Brooks

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Casey T. Brooks, NYC based photographer and video artist,  recreates a fictional photographer's personal street photography in Los Santos of GTA V. His photo essay "You Only Live Forever" is a special kind of in-game photography, less concerned with high-gloss aesthetics or, indeed, videogame visuals, and instead concentrating on an aspect often underrepresented in gaming's world of non-stop spectacle: the mundane, the everyday, the ordinary and personal. 
 
Casey was kind enough to answer a few of my questions by email. 
 
You are a traditional photographer first. What made you try in-game photography?  Were you aware of the  'scene' of IGP?

GTA was the catalyst for my in-game photography. There are features in the game that when combined sparked my interest in taking photos from inside that world. Features like the ability to move freely at any time, the change in landscape, and the creation of “time” with in the game. Sunrise to moonrise. Weather changes. Time passes. Even though it’s more like a Groundhog Day scenario, I’m able to suspend my disbelief because, after all, it is a video game. But that sense of time constantly moving is important. 

For a photographer, the magic hour (the hour or two before the sun sets) will never get old. At least not for me. The magic hour repeats itself in GTA, and I get the same feeling in GTA like I do in real life: “I wish I had a camera.” That’s what made me first start to take pictures in the game--mountains, roads, and water during magic hour. They’re the same style of photographs I make in real life. From there, many other ideas were born. 

I had no idea about the IGP scene. But I can’t say I’m surprised. Of course this is a natural evolution of game play. I think it’s great.

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What, to you, are the advantages and disadvantages of photographing in a completely artificial environment like a game world?

There are many advantages. Lighting is a big one. Rarely are things blown out or under lit in a virtual space. Usually the light is very even. The game developers already did the work for you. They meticulously rendered these light environments. So its not like you need to adjust you camera for exposure like you would in real life. So its up to the photographer to reimagine these environments. Ideally, I want to take a photo that will feel new and relatable to a viewer. And I want to cater both to people familiar with the game and people who are seeing the game for the first time. So in this case, someone that’s played GTA for thousands of hours will think “I’ve been to this location hundreds of times and I’ve never seen it like this.” And someone who’s completely unfamiliar with the game will think, “What is this world? I want to see more.” 

How do you photograph a world that a team of very skilled people created and make it yours?

The limitations of the world are both an advantage and a disadvantage. In the case of GTA, you can’t crouch down when taking photographs. You can’t take photos in water. Things like that. But for me, these limitations have the opposite effect. Its very freeing knowing the rules and working with them to capture the best possible image. It’s like a simple or cheap camera in real life. It forces to you work within particular limitations and take the best picture possible because there are such few options. Photographers hate it when someone says, “Oh, you must have a really nice camera,” because it suggests that the camera mixed with luck is doing all the work. It’s unfair in a lot of ways, but there is some truth in the statement.

We are living in a time in which most things are digital with automatic features. And I do see so many digital photographs that look nearly identical to the next digital photograph. It just has a particular look and gloss to it. So images start to look like white wash to me and I can’t get a sense of the photographer. All I see is Canon D5 with the same lens. And I’m not knocking the camera or digital photography, I love them both. I just think since the technology is so prolific now, we as photographers need to think a little more about who we are as people and how we can apply that to the images we take. And I think from that will come much more individual style and storytelling. This same idea applies even more to in-game photography. How do you photograph a world that a team of very skilled people created and make it yours? It’s a very exciting pursuit because it’s so difficult.  

YOLF is a photo essay, blending pictures and - I'd say: minimalist - narration. Why did you go for that format instead of pictures alone?

I think the pictures alone would not have been enough in this case. I wanted to created more layered experience. But I still want it to be simple and clear to the viewer. So text was very important. But I knew I couldn’t have too much text because then I’d be over explaining. Again, simplicity works best. I wanted to give the viewer little bits of information. Her job, her friends, her family. This would inform her observations and create a sense of history.

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As a traditional photographer, can you see in-game photography becoming more relevant as an artistic tool?

Yes, I think this a natural step in photography and art in general. Again, it’s all about making it yours. The graphics and lighting are so incredible today, and they are only getting better. So it’s easy just to take a screenshot, look back and say, “Wow!” But all you’re doing is capturing exactly what others have created and intended on showing you. So the challenge is finding a new angle or a new story to distort and reshape the game. Thats when it becomes interesting.

YOLF can also be read as a comment on violence and gender in videogames, topics the GTA-series is notorious for. Do you see the attitude towards violence and women displayed in many games and by parts of their audience and culture as problematic?
 
The fact that a game like Call of Duty is partially funded by the US Army is fucking terrifying.

Yeah, I think it’s problematic all around. When it comes to gender I think you’re seeing more women in popular video games but they seem like they are totally written from the male point of view. Like a bad ass girl who’s sexed up and doesn’t take no for an answer. Or the innocent damsel in distress that needs to be guided through the game. It's like Hollywood films: A barrage of clichés. I think developers could easily avoid those clichés but it goes against what they know works. And what works guarantees them money.

One of the biggest offenders is violence. It’s everywhere in popular games. I’m not saying all violence in video games is bad, but it is over-saturated and over-glorified. For some people that probably isn’t healthy. And then there are extreme cases. The fact that a game like Call of Duty is partially funded by the US Army is fucking terrifying. Who thought 20 years ago that introverted video game designers who were shunned by popular culture would go on to help recruit actual drone operators for the USA? It’s so crazy, and yet it kind of makes sense given the culture we live in. 

As a kid, playing video games was like participating in the counter-culture. And I liked that. Most players my age weren’t particularly cool or whatever. They were weird. And I liked that too. Now it's like testosterone and popular video games go hand in hand. The historically uncool kids are now suddenly cool and they are behaving just like the historically cool kids. I didn’t sign up for that. This project is part of rebelling against this pattern. I’m not alone. People are creating new games and stories to break this current popular culture. 

There have recently been some attempts to introduce the mundane, everyday life into video games - games like Gone Home, Papers Please or Always Sometimes Monsters turned their back on larger than life power fantasies and concentrated on personal, real stories. Do you see your own work as another step in that direction?

I think my work in the YOLF series was more reactive to the over saturation of violence and male dominance in video games. I wanted to explore the other end of the spectrum: a young girl living a normal American life inside the GTA universe. It's kind of a ridiculous and fun idea. It’s more satirical really. But I really love personal stories. They are relatable. Sometimes games that are just about everyday life aren’t successful because ultimately they aren’t that interesting. It can be boring. For me the best stories are the personal ones woven into a bigger world.

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Only a small number of media artists like Kent Sheely have concentrated on games as an artistic medium, surprising, given the ubiquity of games in today's society. Do you think that this is due to prejudice against games - from artists, but also others?

The art world mainly behaves like any other form of entertainment because it is so entrenched in money.

I think there is kind of a Wild West vibe happening in video game art today. Some people can accept it as a form of art and others cannot. Of course it’s art, but with anything new comes resistance. There are so many prejudices in the art world, which is hilarious in so many ways that I won’t even begin to address. But the art world mainly behaves like any other form of entertainment because it is so entrenched in money. Potentially lots of money. With money creates “cool” and vice versa.

Video games have the connotation of being very low brow. A lot of people roll their eyes because of the stereotypes that come with it. Like only frats boys and kids play video games. It’s similar to sports in a lot of ways. Popular culture creates categories for people. Because it's easier that way. Less explaining. This person is “this” And when you fall into too many different categories, especially categories that don’t historically go together, you’re perceived as someone who isn’t serious. Or maybe one aspect is taken seriously but the rest is just experimenting and not authentic. 

Kent's project "Stories of War", Josh Talyor's "A Distant Sadness"  and to a degree also Andy Kelly's "Other Places" use games as tools to tell different stories than intended by their creators. Kent told me that to him, "games are perfect art-making tools". Do you agree?

It’s definitely a new way to tell a story. Anytime you challenge the viewer or player to rethink their intentions and perception, it’s a good thing. Because then they can apply that to other ways of thinking. At least that is my way of thinking about “You Only Live Forever.” Everything isn’t just one way.

Seeing your photographs, I get the impression of someone who enjoys to travel. I have argued that video games, while they can never be a substitute for the real thing, allow us to placate our nomadic ancestor's traveling itch. Would you agree?

Fully agree. Traveling holds the idea of discovery. How could you not love discovery? New experiences aren’t hard to come by. You just have to to be willing to take the ride. Video games can provide the sense of discovery by tapping into parts of your imagination you never knew existed. 

I’ve always been a big fan of the Legend of Zelda series. I played the first one at 6 years old and I’m been loyal to the series ever since. I was immediately taken on a ride. And I’m still searching for that feeling. It’s a form of escapism that can be very healthy from time to time. Even the last game for the Wii was fantastic, and I found myself always wanting more. I would walk to the end of the forest, I think to myself “Fuck! I want to keep going! Whats beyond here?” It’s like the idea of the secret garden surrounded by a wall. And you can see the tops of trees but you know you’re not privileged enough to see whats on the other side, let alone go in. The boundaries and limitations have always been frustrating for me in video games. And with GTA it felt so endless that I thought it could be documented in an individual way. 

1674What was the feedback to YOLF like? How does an audience of traditional photography react to your project? Do you have any plans to expand your work in that direction?

The feedback has been really great. I love to hear the reactions. I feel encouraged to continue the work, but right now the project feels done to me. I may pick it up again in the future, but I don’t want to push it if my heart isn’t in it. 

As far as my photography goes, not many people see it outside of my friends and family. Actually I think there are a few people I know that aren’t aware I take photographs. I don’t make my living in photography. It’s something I do because I have to. Just like the music I write and record as well, which is also mostly unheard. I would love for people to know about the work I make, but I’m fine with the way it is now. I think its mainly because I make the work for myself. I usually do something, put it on the internet and move on. Its not something I do to please other people. But I will share it and if other people enjoy it, great. And that makes me happy. I make money mostly as a video editor and I’ve been lucky enough to have enough free time to work on my own projects. So I feel like an amateur in all these fields and I want it that way. I don’t ever want to be a professional anything. That would imply I know what I’m doing.

Casey's personal page showcases his photographic and video work; another excellent interview with him can be found here.

VGT's other English language features can be found here.

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