Nightjar Creative’s “Sand County”

Jul 26, 2010
Photographer Spotlight

WM photographer Tanit Sakakini has created a fashion lookbook through her creative group Nightjar. It’s a piece that combines many media, and addresses both design and social concerns. The theme is “sustainable consumerism,” with models wearing products from environmentally-oriented companies, and it is an example of spec work made collaboratively to present directly to brands.

One designer that collaborated with Tanit on the project was Triian, a jewelry company that uses “solely synthetic and reclaimed materials” to construct unique “wearable structures.” I asked one of the founders, Brian Burkhardt, what it was like to work with Nightjar Creative. “I think our that our look and approach,” Brian told me, “really works hand in hand with the way Nightjar Creative operated.” For him, the project was “hands on,” a direct collaboration in which “each part of the puzzle really came together on set… hair, makeup, stylist, designers all worked together flawlessly.” Brian’s conclusion is that the process was just as valuable as the product: “For Triian the experience was not only memorable but alive!”

We caught up with Tanit to hear more about the thinking that went into this work, and the experience of producing it. First, watch the short video of Tanit introducing the project below; then check out the lookbook, entitled Sand County, on Nightjar’s website; finally, read her fascinating interview and tell us what you think in the comments!


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Interview: Tanit Sakakini

How did you come up with the idea for this project?

On one level, creating the Sand County lookbook was about making new work that I could use to promote myself as a photographer. But on another level, it was and is for me, about exploring new models in advertising, and more specifically creating branded entertainment.

I don’t think advertising is, any longer, just about the ad. I think it’s now as much about the community that exists around making a branded message, and the community that interacts with that message long after the creative directors have moved on. As a photographer, every time I do a shoot, and my shoots are usually pretty large, many other people become involved and invested (well, at least in theory). I kept thinking, there’s value here too, not just in the finished image, but in the energy and excitement and growth that happens each time a new group of people comes together to make something… I want to harness this.

So I decided to develop an online entertainment group called Nightjar. While the Sand County lookbook was our launch project, moving forward we’ll be focusing mainly on developing and producing fictional, narrative web series. Producing Sand County, which was pretty massive, involving thirty models and at least that many creatives, was for me and the other people involved with Nightjar, a way to begin to test out the idea that producing an entertainment/marketing piece is as much about the collaborative, creative experience as it is about the final product. Both have value, both have potential as marketing tools.

As for the actual Sand County lookbook, I teamed up with photo producers, KWC. Since I like choreographing large groups, we cast about thirty models from both agencies and city streets. We wanted to create a lookbook that had more texture and variety than ones that are shot only in studio. So we shot a few more conceptual set-ups outside, and then moved into the studio. We did the shoot in one long day. It downpoured half the time, so everyone had to huddled under tents and then sprint out for the shots.

By the time we made it to the studio portion of the shoot we were all sopping wet. And that was ironic, because the shoot was loosely based on a vision of a future where water and other natural resources become so scarce, we’ll have to change how we live dramatically. Before the shoot, I’d been reading a lot about the idea that in the coming twenty years or so, people will have to live locally, and re-use and hand-make products, wardrobe, etc since water and fossil fuels will be so scarce. I started picturing this Mad-Maxian vision of the near future. And handed that idea, along with the idea of “sustainability” over to the project’s stylists. The name, “Sand County” comes from one of the original environmentalist manifestos, “A Sand County Almanac,” by Aldo Leopold.

Who was behind the design of the clothes? Was the whole project affiliated with Levi’s, or were other entities heavily involved?

We needed to outfit thirty models. Since this was a spec project, it was difficult to get our hands on that much of any one brand. So we decided to come up with a theme for the wardrobe and props that could incorporate different brands, but still have a cohesive vision. “Reused” or “sustainable fashion” with a futuristic twist became our meta-theme. All the wardrobe had to have a sustainable element. Levi’s, because they just launched a campaign to recycle their jeans, was a clear fit. We could also find a lot of vintage denim under their label. We chose Triian, a boutique jewelry line, because they hand-fashions faux minerals to avoid destructive mining practices. While we were deciding on brands for this piece, we were introduced to Barefoot Power, a small company that’s making solar-powered lights for villagers in Africa to reduce dependency on kerosene. Even though this was outside the fashion theme, they tied in so nicely to our broader theme of future sustainability that we wanted to bring them into the shoot.

In the end, we had about twenty-five outfits with not a single piece of off-the-rack “first generation” clothing. Everything was completely reused. My wardrobe stylist, Amanda Sonnenfeld came up with the look. My creative partner and fine art sculptor, Brian Burkhardt hand made a lot of the larger pieces, especially the hats.

What is “sustainable consumerism”?

Well, it kind of looks like it could mean spending in a way so you can keep on spending. But here we mean it more as a practice of being mindful of the humanitarian and environmental impact certain products and brands deliver, either in a positive or negative way, and hopefully making choices that support the former.

What do you hope to achieve with the strategy of presenting spec work directly to brands?

On a general level, I think the times are shifting in really interesting ways, where the traditional top-down, client to agency to artist to audience relationship is changing shape. Artists are building and engaging communities, brands are connecting directly with artists, and agencies, at least the more nimble ones, are finding new, interesting ways to shape these relationships and conversations.

So, our showing spec work directly to brands is less about saying, “hire us to make these images” and more to say, the people in this lookbook and the people who helped make this project, are the kind of people we’re engaging. We deliberately cast not just models but actors, musicians, dancers, artists. They’re typically between 20-30 yrs old, live in large cities and are involved in the arts or other creative pursuits. For Nightjar, the lookbook is a way to show brands who our audience is, and how we (will) integrate brands and larger messaging into what we hope is also an entertaining product.

How does collaboration change the creative process, and how did the comic book idea come up?

So, I’m not sure how other photographers and directors work. I’m sure there’s a huge range on the collaboration scale. But with projects I initiate, I usually start with a general idea and then turn to people who have complimentary talents and who I think would connect with the particular mood or aesthetic I’m hoping to achieve. Sometimes things go in a direction I really hadn’t envisioned, and then it’s always a question of “is this OK? or not?” Usually I like it when things take a different turn and challenge the way I’d been approaching the project. In fact, I like to work with people who will take things to a new and different level and get me to think outside my particular vision. The only time collaboration doesn’t work for me is when someone isn’t trying their hardest, or bringing a level of quality to their work. But if they are, then there are an infinite number of possible creative outcomes that can result from a collaboration, and who’s to say that one is any better than another, so long as we’re growing and having fun and making something we’re proud of.

For Sand County and pretty much any project that Nightjar takes on, we work with people whose work we like and who are friends, or hopefully become friends. We seldom have real budgets to pay creatives, so the incentive becomes about making a project with other artists of a similar standard. People get on board because they believe in the quality of the project we’ll produce, and believe it will benefit their portfolio and show off their work in the process. All this means that people become more invested in the outcome and that the project inherently becomes more collaborative, since it’s less of a top-down, work-for-hire model. I think the fine and commercial art world operates on this below-the-surface barter system where people invest in helping other artists in order to help their own portfolio. Nightjar’s production model is really based on this.

Brian Burkhardt introduced me to the fine artist Fionn McCabe. We’d invited Fionn to the set to create some drawings of the scene. The images have this very edgy graphic novel feeling and seemed to work side by side with the photos, so we asked him to take a handful of the shots and develop out this photo/illustration style. That evolved into developing the entire lookbook as a graphic novel. It was an interesting experience willingly sublimating the photography to the illustration and design. At first I felt a little weird about it, but it was a good exercise in letting go, and I loved seeing what Fionn was producing, so very quickly it became not about showcasing my photography or Fionn’s drawings, but about making this different form that we were both really excited about.