Before catching Ned Castle’s work at L/A Arts this month or his talk Thursday at the Lewiston Public Library, learn more about the photographer’s inspiration behind a photo project that had him re-enacting homeless and runaway youths’ best and worst memories.

Also: Why and when he became a photographer and what he’d pack if he was stranded for the winter on a Maine island.

We ask all the tough questions here.

Name: Ned Castle

Age: 34

Lives: Brooklyn, New York, and Burlington, Vermont

How did the HIGHLOW Project start? The project got started following a series of short photo profiles I had been hired to produce for the Vermont Coalition of Runaway and Homeless Youth Programs (VCRHYP). For those profiles, the focus was really the youth service programs and program impacts, but in the process I met a number of inspiring young people, and the experience left me wanting to learn more about at-risk youth experience in Vermont.

So, I proposed to the VCRHYP staff that we explore a project that focused entirely on the youth experience. Working closely with VCRHYP and staff at some of the coalition agencies, we designed the concept of asking youth to share “high” and “low” moments from their lives. Our hope was that this conceptual container would provide guidance, while also leaving lots of space for the young people to tell their own stories. The stylistic photographic format of the project was inspired by the work of two artists I was captivated by at the time, Gregory Crewdson and Taryn Simon. In fact, in the early stages, before I had photo samples from our project to share with perspective participants, I would bring along “The Innocents” (Simon) and “Beneath the Roses” (Crewdson) to help give the young people I was meeting something concrete look at and better understand what we were asking them to be a part of.

Any stories from participants that have stayed with you? I can say, without exaggeration, that all the stories have stayed with me, including many more that are not captured in the exhibit itself. I will encounter something in my daily life that triggers a memory of a story, or more often, an experience I had with the youths themselves. The project process was fairly involved: introducing the concept, getting informed consent from the youth, parents and sometimes others, selecting high and low moments to share, planning the photographs, scouting locations, making the photographs, and then recording the stories and making final image selections. So by the end of it, I had come to know the participants well. While I believe the stories they shared in the exhibit were defining moments for each of them, at the same time, these moments don’t define them.

What do you hope people take away from seeing the project in Lewiston? Our aspiration for the project has always been that visitors will find the time and space to slow down and be present as they listen to the stories, in the hopes that they will be able to empathize with these young people, who very well may have been through experiences that are vastly different from their own.

What’s your photography and documentary background? My “photographer creation myth” began as a high-schooler wandering around the woods in Vermont exploring. Photography remained a means of exploration, mostly in nature, until late in my college years when I crossed paths with a teacher that inspired me to begin photographing people. I remember boarding an overnight train to Rome after the death of Pope John Paul II and spending the night in St. Peter’s Square photographing the people that had come from all over the world. From that point on, my photographic curiosity shifts to people. I attended a master’s program at the School of Visual Arts in NYC and then landed at the Vermont Folklife Center, where I was mentored by an ethnographer, and eventual dear friend, Gregory Sharrow. The collaborative approach that guided the HIGHLOW Project was nurtured by Greg and others at the Folklife Center, who believe in the radical notion that empathetic stories can help to make us more visible to one another.

You just finished a documentary about the Grange in Vermont — can you tell a bit about that film and the process? I recently co-directed a feature length documentary film that followed the activities of two Granges in Vermont for a calendar year. The film, “Rooted: Cultivating Community in the Vermont Grange,” was a partnership between the Vermont Folklife Center and Historic New England. I worked closely with Charlotte Barrett from HNE. Charlotte really deserves the credit for building meaningful relationships with the Grangers that would eventually become our “gatekeepers” to the organization, to steal a term from the Grange ritual.

The film profiles two community-level Granges — Riverside Grange in West Topsham and Middle Branch Grange in East Bethel — and attempts to give viewers a glimpse into the workings of the organization today. Charlotte and I spent a year dropping into film meetings, gatherings and other community events. That documentation, along with nearly a dozen interviews, forms the narrative structure of the film.

Maine has so much in common with Vermont. One very-Vermont thing that might surprise us? When I travel around the country, I often hear people remarking about the “Maine accent,” and in fact, although it’s fading fast and you need to get out into the more rural areas to hear it, Vermonter’s have an accent of their own that rivals the Maine one in terms of thickness, uniqueness and sense of place.

While visiting Maine, you’re suddenly stranded on an island. Winter is coming. Three things you’d have on the island to keep you entertained for the next four snowy months: A thick wet suit, my surfboard and a stack of books!

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Ned Castle (Submitted photo)

The HIGHLOW Project

Photographer Ned Castle’s HIGHLOW Project will be showcased at L/A Arts through the month of November, timed in honor of National Runaway and Homeless Youth Prevention Month, co-hosted by L/A Arts and New Beginnings.

Gallery hours are noon to 4 p.m. Wednesday, Thursday and Friday and 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. on weekends.

Castle will also give a free public talk at Lewiston Public Library’s Callahan Hall on Nov. 8 from 6 to 7 p.m.


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