Sara Galbiati, Peter Helles Eriksen and Tobias Selnæs Markussen, Phenomena

JTF (just the facts): Published by André Frère Éditions in 2016 (here). Hardcover, 176 pages, with 150 color photographs. Includes two booklet inserts and an essay by the artists. (Cover and spread shots below.) 

Comments/Context:  “What makes the UFO phenomena? Is it a commercially profitable story, a delusion with social consequences, a religious myth or an actual physical phenomenon?”

This was the fundamental question asked by Sara Galbiati, Peter Helles Eriksen and Tobias Selnæs Markussen, the three members of a Copenhagen-based photo collective. The artists shared a mutual interest and genuine fascination with the subject of extraterrestrial life and Unidentified Flying Objects (UFOs), and so they decided to collaborate on a story documenting the world of UFOs and the stories told by its most ardent believers. The project took them on an investigative road trip throughout the southwestern United States, the part of the country most known for its attraction to the UFO, and the result of their research was recently published as the photobook Phenomena. As stated in the introduction, they “have aimed to maintain a non-judgmental mind-set when interviewing the informants” – they are not interested in the legitimacy of the stories, but rather in exploring the wide range of narratives that shape the subculture of UFO believers.

The photobook’s cover is an image depicting a metal shelf full with folders containing documents, with the title appearing underneath in a frame – without giving away its content, it prepares us for the investigative nature of this narrative. The reflective tinfoil end papers offer a contrasting feel – long a symbol of crazy people wearing makeshift tinfoil hats to communicate with the stars, the shiny aluminum thoughtfully alludes to this eccentric underside to their story. In the first photograph, they connect the two ideas – a man, deep in his thoughts, looks through the window of what seems to be a container block; light from the window illuminates otherwise dark image. The photo is simple and mesmerizing, mixing moods of tranquility and mystery.

Most of the photographs appear without captions or descriptions, leaving us to puzzle over their significance: a McDonald’s restaurant shaped like a flying saucer; a radio telescope in the middle of nowhere; a redhead girl with two tinfoil antennas; people eating UFO shaped cupcakes; a brown suitcase; a UFO fountain and sculptures. Seen together, they start to make sense as an overall atmospheric framework, their muted washed out colors leading to a sense of soft indefinite obscurity – we definitely don’t have all the information.

Geographically, the book’s narrative moves through the states of New Mexico, Nevada and Arizona, covering some of the country’s most iconic destinations for UFO sightings, including  the mysterious Area 51, the remote U.S. Air Force facility in Nevada known for development and testing of experimental aircraft. As the photographers travelled around these areas and small towns, they met people who, surprisingly or not surprisingly, were very eager to share their stories.

Phenomena brings together sixteen stories told by a diverse cast of intriguing characters. Among them are Travis Walton who claims to have been kidnapped by aliens; Bob Lazar, a living legend in UFO community and the whistleblower who revealed the secret Area 51; John Alexander, a retired military officer who formed a secret program to investigate the possibility that aliens were visiting our planet; and Melinda Leslie who offers money-back guaranteed UFO tours in Arizona. While their experiences are fascinating and often beyond belief, their portraits are uniformly quiet and dreamy, their vulnerability and openness captured with direct honesty.

One image depicts the location of what is believed to be the first major UFO crash back in 1947 – the infamous Roswell site. It is followed by the story of Frank Kimbler. Kimbler is an assistant professor of Earth Science at the New Mexico Military Institute and spends his spare time collecting evidence of the historic incident. Next to an interview with him is his portrait: the sky takes most of the frame and Kimbler appears as a tiny figure walking with a metal detector in a field. Using this equipment, he was able to find strange debris that he was unable to identify; when he finally got the results back from one of the test laboratories, they showed possible extraterrestrial origin. 

Meisha Johnson says that she started having extraterrestrial experiences when she was just three years old. She has two sons and a granddaughter on Earth; but Meisha believes she also has 13 hybrid children in space. A portrait shows Meisha seated on a sofa in a room; her eyes are closed and she hold a crystal on a string. She looks calm and focused.

Two small booklets inserted into the book add further layers of details, facts, and distractions, bringing in images of documents (eyewitness drawings and private UFO photographs) and objects related to specific UFO sightings and crashes (a piece of metal found at the Roswell crash site, alien tequila, alien figurines, etc.). The book also includes quotes from scientists and senior officials. One of them is a tweet by John Podesta, former Presidential Counsellor, who on his last day at the White House expressed regret for failing to disclose official UFO files, leaving open yet another round of tantalizing questions and conspiracy theories.

By avoiding the often oversimplified representation of oddball UFO believers, Phenomena creates a visual narrative which keeps the viewer consistently intrigued and off balance. Using an anthropological approach, the team collected information from a variety of sources, presenting them equally and without any hint of judgment or criticism. Of course, Phenomena leaves us with the feel of fiction, as we can’t help but wonder about the veracity of some of these wild stories. But the book also invites us to take a measured and unbiased approach to the complex and constantly changing subject of extraterrestrial life and UFOs. Perhaps the truth is indeed still out there.

Collector’s POV: Phenomena Collective is represented by East Wing Gallery in Dubai (here). Their works have yet to reach the secondary markets, so gallery retail or direct connection to the photographers via their websites remain the best options for those collectors interested in following up.

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