2021/22 MCAD–Jerome Fellow Interview: Sarah Sampedro | Minneapolis College of Art and Design

2021/22 MCAD–Jerome Fellow Interview: Sarah Sampedro

By Melanie Pankau on June 01, 2022
Left: image of a house; right: screenshot of a text conversation
New Construction, from Homewood Series; 2017; Archival pigment print with social media fragments; 12”x18”; Photo credit: Sarah Sampedro

In this interview, Sarah Sampedro provides insights into her photographic practice that explores interpersonal space and social contracts as they relate to relationship, community, and belonging. 

You describe yourself as a photographer who is interested in social systems, relationships, community, and belonging. Could you describe how these ideas unfold in your work?

I’ve always wanted to belong: to a specific community, a group of friends or family… I find meaning in being part of a larger whole. I want connection, so when I see disconnection, I want to understand why. This desire for belonging influences the ideas I pursue, and they often come from my relationships and life circumstances. 
For example, past projects like Homewood and Covenant are about my neighborhood in Minneapolis. Homewood was a response to a neighborhood argument over a historic designation and gentrification, as well as an investigation into my role as a gentrifier. Covenant was an installation that grew out of the history of racially restrictive real estate covenants in my neighborhood. The first body of work investigated a contemporary disconnect in the community, and the latter investigated a historic cause of disconnect. I want to understand the history that brought us to where we are today.

People inside an art shanty

Covenant installation view, Art Shanty Projects; 2018; Photo credit: Sarah Sampedro

I’m curious to know more about how you sequence images particularly in your installation work. Could you walk us through your process of editing/ordering/laying out a body of work or space?
For me, sequencing in an installation is all about the relationship between concept and formal elements. The ideas need to make sense next to one another as well as across the room. What does the overall space say? What does this specific wall say? How is it in relationship to the wall across from it? Is a linear narrative important or does the idea expand and contract throughout the space? In the same way, scale, color, line, shape, and other formal elements need to work together side-by-side, across the room, and in relationship with the size of walls and scale of space. It’s a classic example of form meets function. When both are equally strong I feel it in my body.

Photo of three photographs on a gallery wall

Waiting, Agency, Power installation view 1, Katherine E. Nash Gallery; 2019; Photo credit: Sarah Sampedro

You mentioned you were working on a project about the 1862 Homestead Act and your family’s connection to it. Could you tell us more about this research and the images that are developing from this inquiry? 

SS In 1862 the Homestead Act paved the way for my German great-great-great-great grandfather to claim land. Not incidentally, the Homestead Act was signed into law the same year as the US-Dakota War and forceful removal of Dakota people from Southern Minnesota. My research is centered around the history of this forceful removal of one people group in favor of another, and my family’s participation in colonization. This work is an investigation into the history of my whiteness and the place I came from. I want to understand how I and we got to where we are now; I have many questions about land ownership, inequity, power, and control.

What does this look like in images? Sometimes it’s photographs of the landscape and sometimes it’s portraits; often the images include critique of capitalism or colonialism. But like all my work, the photographs move beyond documentation into an intangible realm of feeling. I am looking for visual ways to elicit a physical or emotional response, both from myself and the viewer. I want the images, ideas, and feelings to linger beyond the moment of engagement. Sometimes this power comes from a happy accident (like a timely cloud) and sometimes I happen upon something unexpected (like a caged bear in an old corn crib).

Photo of a field with bright blue sky

Slaughter’s Slough; 2020; Archival pigment print; 28”x42”; Photo credit: Sarah Sampedro

Your photographs blend literal spaces with abstract images. Could you describe why you combine these seemingly disparate methods of image making? Alternatively, what kind of reading do you intend to elicit by pairing these images together?
Photography can be a very concrete art form: it is rooted in “reality” and often understood as “truth.” For example, a picture of a landscape is understood to be a literal representation of that landscape. However, every photograph is mediated through the photographer’s perception, understanding, or intention. The photographer decides what to include or exclude, what idea they want to communicate, etc. A photograph made by a person is not objective truth. Documentary photography works very hard to be detached and observational, but the subject is always seen and portrayed through the photographer’s eye. A photograph is as much about the gaze of the photographer as the subject of the image. 

In Waiting, Agency, and Power, I combined literal spaces with abstract images to disrupt the literal reading of the photographs. Instead of thinking, “Oh look, that's a photo of a waiting room at a doctor’s office,” the addition of abstract imagery pushes the viewer to move beyond a concrete interpretation. Imagine sitting in a waiting room, bored, and letting your imagination wander. That’s the space I am creating. I also overlaid parts of images, or used formal elements to connect images across the wall. For example, a line in one image is continued in another. These interventions disrupt the ease of seeing or consuming the entire image and play with the power dynamic implicit in layering. 

Photograph of a bear sculpture inside a silo shaped cage

Bear; 2021 Archival pigment print; 22”x33”; Photo credit: Sarah Sampedro

Are there specific responses that you hope viewers will have after engaging with your work?

The photographs I make are quiet moments intended to make space for thoughtfulness from the viewer. I want to offer ideas to percolate in one’s mind beyond the moment of engagement with the image. Our daily lives are often loud and busy, and I’m looking for alternative ways to be in the world. I want to create an idea, connection, or spark that lives longer than a brief encounter with my work.

What artists, writers, musicians, exhibitions, performances are inspiring you right now? And why?

A couple years ago I saw Adrian Piper’s Probable Trust Registry and it remains one of the most influential artworks of my practice. In the installation, Piper invites participants to sign a series of contracts for ways to live in the world. At the end of the project signees receive the names of every participant: a new network for intentional living. Piper explores trust, interpersonal relationships, and individual responsibility by activating a global network. 

Nora Krug’s graphic novel, Belonging, is an examination of her German family’s involvement in the Holocaust and World War II. How do we reckon with actions of our ancestors? Of our country? Of our own complicity? I have many questions about this in my own work, and I think Krug digs into some of these questions with candor and vulnerability.

Image of photographs on a gallery wall

Waiting, Agency, Power installation view 2, Katherine E. Nash Gallery; 2019; Photo credit: Sarah Sampedro

How has winning the MCAD-Jerome fellowship affected how you approach your work?
I am both grateful and nervous. Winning this fellowship creates a deadline to complete work about an idea I’ve slowly been working through. I feel pressure to produce within a certain timeframe, but I also want to reject this feeling as pressure and embrace it as the gift of intention. With the exhibition deadline on the horizon, my thoughts always hover in the realm of my work, and it is a gift to live more deeply in this space. The threads of thought are tying and untying themselves, deciding how to weave together. It’s given me intention to reach out to curators with whom I’ve wanted to connect, dig into books I’ve wanted to read, and follow through with studio visits and conversations I’ve wanted to have. Most of all, this fellowship drives me to make this work as good as it deserves to be.

If you could describe your work in one word, what would it be?