Interview by Josh McNey
When Scott told me that he wanted me to interview Jan Wandrag for this next installment of the Bullet Interviews, I was curious to see what the connection would be. When I had a chance to look at his photos and videos, I figured out the obvious connection right away. Jan Wandrag loves boys! There are, of course, a lot more reasons but you’ll have to check out his website and decide for yourself. Jan is a super-sweet guy with a really interesting personal history. I hope you enjoy our conversation as much as I enjoyed meeting him and learning about his work.
jsm22ca: Happy Sunday, Jan! What have you been up to?
Jan: Very unusually highbrow Sunday. I went to go see Fables de la Fontaine at the Lincoln Center Festival.
jsm22ca: Sounds fancy pants.
Jan: It was. Robert Wilson did the stage design—very avant-garde. Should have been video. Lots of cool animal costumes, though.
jsm22ca: I have some rich memories of animal costumes going back to elementary school. I was never very fond of tights.
Jan: I know. I was a frog and a "Devil fish."
jsm22ca: All this in South Africa? You were born there. Did you grow up there, too?
Jan: Yes, born and reared. I came to NY in 1998 after college.
jsm22ca: Did you grow up near the beach? I noticed lots of surfer boys in your videos.
Jan: No, not at all. I just love surfer boys, for that matter any boys. I grew up next to a big famous game reserve, lots of wild animals. It's called the Kruger National Park. We would drive in a lot and just watch the animals. Sometimes the animals would come into town. People would be jogging early in the morning and come across a pride of lions or elephants.
jsm22ca: I'm trying to imagine what that would be like. I'm having some trouble. It was a small town?
Jan: Yes, a small mining town. About 12,000 white people in the town, and another 40-50,000 black people in townships around it. They would be bussed into town everyday to work there, in the homes and on the mines. It was a very rich and well educated town called Phalaborwa. It's next to the second largest open mine in the world.
jsm22ca: Do you like living in New York? I assume you do since you've been here a few years now. Do you really miss home?
Jan: I love New York! Couldn't imagine living anywhere else.
jsm22ca: Brothers? Sisters?
Jan: Two older brothers and a younger sister, you?
jsm22ca: One older and two younger—all brothers.
Jan: Wow. I always wanted a younger brother.
jsm22ca: Haha, why? No fun being the boss of your little sister?
Jan: Thought I could help make a nice gentleman out of a younger brother.
jsm22ca: That's sweet. Younger brothers are a good thing. Are you close with your family?
Jan: Yes, as close as I can be 8,000 miles away. I try to call often and visit once a year.
jsm22ca: Do you have family here or were you like the astronaut? Jan, the pioneer!
Jan: No, nobody here when I came. I've built up an extended family though, so it's easier now. Sort of pioneer, almost more like Midnight Cowboy.
jsm22ca: I am loading up one of your war videos now. I have to ask you about the panoramic montages on your old site, though. Those are really, really nice
Jan: Thanks. Haven't looked at those for a while.
jsm22ca: Do you still make those? Are they things you discovered on contact sheets?
Jan: I started pairing snapshots in college. I don't do that much anymore. I guess I would get a batch of 4x6 prints back from the one-hour lab and then start playing with pairings.
jsm22ca: Do you think your video work is an extension of that practice?
Jan: Yes. I want to be a film maker. I started with photography and immediately wanted the pictures to do more—you know, tell a story. So I just paired pictures together. Sometimes I would do like a whole grid of 12 or so.
jsm22ca: Are you still making prints or concentrating more on video?
Jan: I'm doing both—kind of stuck between the two now. I would love to just make a feature movie, but there's still a lot I have to learn.
jsm22ca: So you see film as more mature?
Jan: Not really mature, just more difficult. I enjoy still photography a lot too. To make a movie you need other people to help. Photo is something you can do on your own. Or the kind of videos I do I can do on my own. I made this movie, David+Jonathan, and I did it all on my own. Now I want to do one with real actors and cinematographers etc.
jsm22ca: What's the source of all the images for David+Jonathan? I know you work with found images but some of those look staged and deliberate.
Jan: I shoot video of guys on the street without them knowing—like street photography. Then I choose guys from different frames and Photoshop them into a new fictional scene. I call it non-straight street photography. The guys in the movie have no idea that they're in my film. Some of the images are obviously a lot more Photoshopped than others. To me it's like painting. I take an arm from here and a face from there.
jsm22ca: Are you filming with a particular narrative in mind or are you shooting a bunch of street footage and then editing to build a narrative?
Jan: Usually I just shoot. But once I start a project I have a particular guy in mind, so then I shoot more selectively. Like right now I'm interested in guys that look like they can be soldiers.
jsm22ca: I used to say that I liked all kinds of guys except cowboys. Then I realized how much I dig cowboys. Do you find yourself fixating on a certain type of masculinity and then moving on to another one?
Jan: It's more fluid than I thought it was. I'm very into military type guys now.
jsm22ca: What do you like about them?
Jan: I can't imagine putting myself in that situation. It's such a super-masculine environment, and I've never seen myself as being very manly. So I'm very curious, but also baffled as to how you survive something like that. And now with this awful war I feel really bad for the soldiers and everyone else in Iraq to have to live in such an impossible situation. I also like the idea of camaraderie—men being so close to each other, in love in a way. And then losing your friends in war seems very unimaginable. In South Africa there was a war going on while I was growing up so everyone around me who was old enough was involved in the military. We had military classes in school. I refused to shoot a gun. Also, David and Jonathan were both good soldiers, so it's a continuation of that story in a way too.
jsm22ca: How long have you been telling the David+Jonathan story? It seems to be an ongoing narrative that you're building with video and stills.
Jan: I've worked on it since 2004. My dad is a minister in the Dutch Reformed church. So I've known about the story since I can remember. Growing up gay in the church, it meant a lot to me to know there was this very prominent man on man relationship in the Bible, though no one acknowledges the sexual aspects of it. The Bible is pretty R rated if you read the right translations.
jsm22ca: Spoken like the son of a minister. I'm really glad we got a chance to chat, Jan. Scott said you're headed to LA this week. Work or play?
Jan: It's Outfest, the gay and lesbian film festival. David+Jonathan is showing there on Saturday, so "work" I guess. I've never been to LA, so I'm very excited to go. Any hot ex-marine bars?
jsm22ca: I'll email you. It's fun times and hot boys. You'll enjoy it.
Jan: Can't wait. Thanks for the chat. Good night.