Each starkly-lit photograph in M L Casteel’s series American Interiors is a treasure trove of detail: on first glance, we notice the familiar plush and plasticky interior of a car, with its smooth, rounded surfaces and angular shadows. But as we look closer, some upsetting—even bleak—details glare at us from within the frame: a hairbrush shares the seat with a capped hypodermic needle, or an oxygen tube curls weakly against a full carton of cigarettes.
I discovered this series when Stacey Baker, photo editor at the New York Times Magazine, selected it as her juror’s pick in this year’s Exposure Awards. About the series, Baker writes, “Casteel’s project is a thoughtful reconsideration of what most of us would never take the time to look at. And the collective body of work makes me uncomfortable in a way that being in a stranger’s bedroom or closet would. It’s hard to look away, and I’m so grateful for that.”
The image that I found most powerful is also the most innocuous. The composition is the same: the photograph is taken from the driver’s seat, and the viewer is presented with a neat car, its interior unblemished and seats bare save a piece of white paper. Up until this moment, American Interiors has primed us to connect an environment in disarray with inner turmoil. This image breaks the pattern. Daylight slanting in the window highlights a line of text on the sheet of paper: “Wellness Recovery Action Plan (W.R.A.P.).” Don’t be deceived by appearances, Casteel seems to say. War impacts everyone who experiences it, but it leaves its mark in myriad, capricious ways.
LC: I read that you created this series—American Interiors—when you were working as a valet. Can you tell me how that job catalyzed the project?
MLC: Well, I had just moved back to North Carolina, and I needed a job. I got an interview to park cars at the Veteran Affairs Hospital—this was about ten years ago now—and I eventually became the manager of the valet service, so I was spending a good 50-plus hours a week at the hospital.
I was the first person that people would see when they came to the hospital, so I really developed a kinship with many of the patients and their family members. Some of them came quite frequently—on a daily basis, for a few—so I really got to know them.
LC: Did the series always take the form of car interiors? Or did it shift and change over time?
MLC: It’s funny you ask that—in fact, in the beginning, I actually conceived the series as a set of portraits. I would meet with various veterans that I thought were interesting, I’d make portraits of them, and then many of them became my friends.
Without being too diaristic, I would say that I was seeing some things that most people would never see. When I would visit with them, we would have a lovely conversation, and they would pull out some old photo albums. After we chatted, I would poke around their house and make pictures, and take some portraits. It was a nice exchange. But, it was not capturing what I wanted for the project…it was pretty milquetoast, to be honest. The pictures I was making, they felt quasi-journalistic, and they didn’t really say anything.
I was very influenced by the experiences and the stories the veterans would impart, and eventually I started to think to myself, “How can I make a project that somehow encapsulates the things that I’m hearing as well as my own experience?” That was the beginning of American Interiors.
LC: So this series was initially comprised of traditional portraits mixed with documentary-style environmental shots?
MLC: For the most part, yes. I was actually shooting 4x5, and often bringing a light kit. So the series really went from one extreme to the other! When I sat down with all of these portraits and looked at them, I realized that they weren’t saying anything back to me. I think with any project you make, if you can’t answer the question “Why would anyone care about this?” then you’re in trouble.
LC: Did you feel that the portraits weren’t saying anything back to you, or that they weren’t saying anything new back to you?
MLC: Definitely the latter. The group of portraits I made are fine for what they are, and I like some of them, but in the larger context of what the veteran experience is, I didn’t feel like they were adding much to the dialogue. I actually thought a lot about a comment that a friend of mine made. I had shared some of my portraits with him early on, and he said they were “too NPR.”
That moment will always stick with me, because once I thought about it, they really were…and that didn’t feel like me. I kept thinking, “What is it that I’m seeing, and where is my voice in this?” That’s what led me back to the cars, because I knew they would offer a unique perspective—it was the part that I saw every day, day in and day out, that no one else was really seeing.
LC: So, how did you move from traditional portraits to photographing the insides of their cars? Can you map that progression for us and tell us what you think it adds to the conversation?
MLC: One of the things that pointed me in that direction was a conversation I had with someone about my job. I hadn’t seen this person in a number of years, and I was telling them that I was managing a valet service, and they said, “Oh wow! I bet you see some really nice cars. Are you driving Lamborghinis or something?”
So then I said, “Well, I’m actually parking cars at the VA hospital…” and the conversation immediately turned. Right away, they said “Wow, I bet those cars are pretty fucked up.” So we started talking about the cars themselves, and that exchange really made an impact, because it was a big part of my experience interacting with the veterans—some of those cars were in rough shape. And the more I thought about it, the more I realized that I spent so many hours, five days a week, sitting in these cars that were in varying states of disrepair. It dawned on me that the condition of the vehicles was likely speaking to something greater.
So that was the point of traction. I started by asking the veterans, “Hey, do you mind if I pop out and make some pictures of your car?” The more pictures I made, the more I started to feel like there was something there. It felt a bit like looking into someone’s closet or chest of drawers, but it also afforded them more privacy, in a way. Eventually I thought to myself, “Why not do this with the cars I’m driving every day?” So I started taking my camera to work with me. I made thousands of pictures.
LC: That sounds like a serious departure from how you were working before, with the 4x5 and the lighting kit. How did that affect the work?
MLC: Yes, it was very different. I had it all figured out before, and now I had this tiny digital camera that I could put in my pocket and take with me to work. But there was no turning back.
LC: Did you talk to your coworkers about the project?
MLC: They knew I was working on something involving veterans, and it spawned some really interesting conversations. We would talk about the state of those cars a lot. Many of them were in such rough shape. So I subtly started asking, “Why do you think that is?” That became an interesting topic of discussion. I started to look at things through this lens of environmental photography, where the physical space around you impacts your personal psychology, which in turn infects the space. It’s a cyclical thing, and I began to see these semi-private, pseudo-public spaces—the inside of someone’s car—as an intimate journal of someone’s experience.
When I was making portraits, I would take photographs of the items in people’s homes. I was always interested in what their belongings said about them. I think of cars as an undesigned interior—you aren’t really decorating your car with intention, most of the time. So it felt more honest, in a way.
LC: Earlier, when you say that your portraits didn’t add much to “the dialogue” about veterans, what did you mean?
MLC: The takeaway from my experience working with the veterans is that they’re a very underserved population. In many cases, some of these folks have really put their life on the line. A lot of the people I worked with were Vietnam-era veterans, so many of them were drafted—meaning their service was involuntary—though a lot of them enlisted as well.
I think in the United States, there’s an understanding that there’s something different about veterans. An undercurrent of trauma. And now, of course, we’ve started learning more and more about post traumatic stress disorder, brain injuries, all of that—but for many of these people, it’s just a part of their daily lives.
What I didn’t realize until I had the opportunity and privilege to work with the vets is that a lot of these folks, they’re just living their lives, but a lot of their lives are pretty broken.
As much as I was seeing the veteran population that I had access to as a microcosm of US culture and society, there’s that one big differentiating factor, which is that many of them have seen the horrors of war and conflict firsthand. So the understanding—or the dialogue, as you said—is tied to this damage.
LC: I can’t get your friend’s reaction out of my head. There’s an understanding that veterans have experienced something life-changing, and I think there’s also a divide in our population: people who have seen war, and people who haven’t.
MLC: Yeah. In my book, there’s an essay by Ken MacLeish that speaks to this idea that you can never understand a veteran’s experience because you weren’t there. You didn’t see what they saw, so you wouldn’t understand. But as Ken points out, there’s also something happening in the US where war is this multi-tentacled thing that reaches into everyday life and touches people in ways that you may not expect. That’s what I started seeing in the cars. Someone would pull up at the VA Hospital with an open bottle of whiskey in their side panel, you know? Or with guns and other weapons in the seat. And then, of course, there were vets who—from the outside—looked like they had it together. Clean cars, all that. It’s a spectrum.
LC: It’s easy to say “damaged” and have that be a one-dimensional description, with no depth. In reality, most vets deal with the repercussions of their experience daily.
LC: Sometimes when I come across environmental projects like yours, the photographs will be coupled with a description—someone’s age, or name, or location. It strikes me as important that you didn’t include any of that information here. Were you thinking about preserving their privacy, or did you have other reasons?
MLC: That choice was important for a few reasons. First, I wasn’t interested in saying anything about one person in particular, and I also didn’t feel that I would be qualified to say, “Oh, I parked this person’s car for a week and I can infer these things about them.” Even with some of the folks that I do know well, it’s still a jump.
But really, the core of this project was the idea that you’re looking at these car interiors from an anonymous perspective. All of these photographs were made from the driver’s seat, and that’s very important. You are the driver. It puts you into a place where you’re kind of complicit.
LC: When I first saw this work, I was struck by the sensitivity of it. You communicate so much, and yet your subjects retain 100% of their privacy. I think about this a lot in the realm of documentary photography. I’m always moved by work that makes a statement but without taking anything away from the people in the photos.
MLC: I’m so glad to hear you say that. The series really comes from a place of empathy and respect. There are a lot of discussions about photography as an exploitative medium, and it certainly can be.
Many things are important to document, of course, But…I don’t know. I think a lot about whether or not it’s possible to represent someone fairly and with absolute agency. That was my issue with the portraits—is it ok for me to use someone else’s likeness to say something I think or feel? I’m just not sure.
LC: Is there something in particular you hoped your viewer would take away from looking at American Interiors?
MLC: My hope is that this series makes a nuanced statement about the general treatment of veterans and the support that I believe is lacking. I hope the images give the viewer incentive to dig deeper, ask why things are they way they are, and to push for reform and assistance where it’s clearly needed.
Not to dodge the question, but I want the series to be interpretive. There are multiple perspectives possible for just about any photograph. I can make a photo that means something specific to me, but it won’t necessarily mean anything to anyone else, because maybe my life experiences color the image.
Photographs are great at being descriptive and offering a surface view, but to dive in deeper…it’s a hard thing to ask of an image. That’s why I present them the way that I do. People come into the series knowing that the photographs are about veterans, but that’s all the information they’re getting. They can draw their own conclusions about what the images mean.
Obviously it isn’t free of an agenda—I’m an anti-war person—but at the end of the day, I think if there’s one thing I’m trying to say, it’s that war often wrecks people’s lives, and not necessarily in the ways that are commonly understood.
—M L Casteel interviewed by Coralie Kraft
The photographs in American Interiors are also compiled in a book produced by Dewi Lewis Publishing.