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Kourosh Keynejad on Globetrotting and Photography

The Illusionist, 2018. Photos courtesy of the artist

By COLTER RULAND, May 2019

When I was younger, I had this book, what one might call a coffee table book, about remote islands that no one would ever visit. It contained hand drawn atlases with elevations and coordinates of their locations, but they all seemed to be distant, indescribable, often unreachable places. These places were simply out of reach. Now, when I look at a photograph by artist Kourosh Keynejad, I know that such places—indeed remote, indeed just as sublime—not only exist, but someone has actually set foot in them. 

Keynejad is a globetrotter, a wanderluster. Born in the United Kingdom, much of his time growing up was spent traveling the world to visit family, engendering what would later become a voracious appetite for global travel. As a teenager, his mother also gave him his first camera, which he used for the next ten years or so to take photographs but only as a pastime. The world was out there and he saw much of it during his career in international affairs and financial services, but it was perhaps a more passive way of seeing. 

Hidden Cenote, 2017

Then, taking a seven-month sabbatical from his career, he visited Asia for the first time. Japan, in particular, was pivotal in shaping his photography career. He stayed at the Benesse House on the island town of Naoshima. An experimental combination between museum and hotel, the Benesse House offered Keynejad an engagement with art, nature, and architecture unlike any other. “Basically,” says Keynejad, “I was getting high on art.” From Monet’s Water Lilies to the architecture of Tadao Ando, from the curated environs to onsite spas, the facility was artistic nurturing. In the week he ended up staying there, he knew he wanted to pursue art full time. “Everything about it was so different from what I had experienced,” he says. In many ways, being in Japan was like a whole new way of thinking and seeing. “A lot of people don’t know that Japan is 70% mountainous,” Keynejad tells me. Such a fact seems extraneous at first, but it is obvious to anyone that Keynejad is bursting with curiosity—curiosity for the natural world, for other cultures, for connection, for travel itself. 

In German, there is a word for the opposite of homesickness: Fernweh, or “farsickness,” the pain of not being out in the far-off reaches of the world. Keynejad has no doubt been stung by this irresistible pain, traveling to over fifty-five countries on five continents, and looking for more. “The traveling came first,” he explains, but the photography takes precedent. 

Light's Shadow, 2018

Of course, Keynejad describes himself as an adrenaline junkie, but that high, the kind he got his first taste of in Japan, is always focused and never sporadic, channeled through his camera lens. There is immense preparation ahead of traveling to the locales he has set his sights on. Instagram, he explains, is a great source of inspiration as a “seas of images” that act like stimuli. He then spends about a week researching. “You don’t know what’s going to be there or who’s going to be there,” he says, meaning one can only plan so much. 

Of course, just as randomness is an unavoidable aspect of daily life, so is it an unavoidable quality of Keynejad’s work. “I have to adapt to conditions,” he says. “It might be random, but you still have choices.” These choices result in some astonishing photographs, where scale, color, and sheer gall all come together to create something that almost looks as if it is staged, so precise are the resulting compositions. Aerial shots can present their own unique logistical challenges. He has lost drones a number of times. Once in Scandinavia where he lost contact with a drone because of the aurora borealis. Once when he flew a drone over a small mountain and lost contact with it only for it to come back online four minutes later already returning back home. Keynejad’s camera, whether it is in his hands or hovering in the air, is indeed his third eye. He remembers once taking a photography class and the instructor, taking them outside into the world, telling them what to photograph. “Everyone was shooting the same thing,” says Keynejad. “I didn’t want to do what everyone else was doing.” He wanted to get a different angle, a different perspective, to add nuance and even spectacle to what was expected. This is why he goes to such extreme lengths to get the photographs that he does. 

Amongst the Giants, 2018

Whereas inevitable randomness and variables occur out in the world while he travels, back in New York it is as precise as it can be when it comes to producing his own work. “Making magic,” he calls it, meaning when he prints his own photographs in his studio which is also his apartment. To take something that was contained on a single little drive as a digital file and manifest it onto physical paper still astounds him. He takes the prints right from the printer and uses 2,000 pounds of pressure to press them into acrylic. The papers he uses can range from metallic to pearl, and the types of acrylics can be anything from matte to glossy. This is all to say that “these pieces are completely customizable,” as Keynejad explains, who, in opposition to the frenetic nature of traveling, wants to control every aspect of his own production. “Maybe that comes from my time working in manufacturing,” he wonders. 

A Queen, 2018

Of course, Keynejad has been hard at work producing photographs to exhibit at various galleries and events. Most recently he exhibited work in partnership with Marcel Katz’s The Art Plug at Art Palm Beach, showcasing luminous orange and black photographs of sand dunes in Namibia and striking portraits of wild animals. But, drawing from his experience at the Benesse House in Japan, the exhibit was also sensory and immersive. It is not enough for Keynejad to simply hang his work on the wall. “Anyone can look at a photograph, but so what?” Keynejad tells me, meaning he is always looking to add some extra quality to his work, whether it is this immersive element in exhibitions, or the mini-stories that accompany his Instagram posts. In this way, Keynejad can highlight not only his brilliant photographs but the stories behind them, too. His work with wildlife, for instance, is usually always tied with a larger concern for preservation. Taking photographs of work elephants in Indonesia is also a way of calling out the illicit ivory trade.  

Keynejad is now aiming for bolder, bigger projects by going to more far-flung places in the world and trying out more techniques. Already he is planning trips to the tundras of Greenland and Antarctica. He hopes to go to Tanzania and climb Mt. Kilimanjaro, where, he tells me, there is less and less snow. By going to these lauded and potentially dangerous places, Keynejad will no doubt show us what it means to be awestruck by the world we inhabit but will most likely never be able to see fully. What Keynejad ultimately aims for is a kind of global consciousness and to reach as many corners of this world as he can. WM

Colter Ruland

Colter Ruland lives and writes outside of Los Angeles. His work has appeared in Territory, Cosmonauts Avenue, Fiction Advocate, Goodnight Sweet Prince, The Thought Erotic, Switchback, and elsewhere. He is working on his first novel.

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