Armand Thomas is an Egyptian-born Canadian with a background in journalism whose life has been dedicated to travel and street photography. He moved to Las Vegas 11 years ago with Cirque du Soleil, where he worked as artistic director, stage manager and director of creation for various Las Vegas shows.
Thomas is the second artist to be featured at the Window at the Ogden, where his photography is on display during a three-month artist residency, which includes evenings of slide shows, stories and live music, each event using a theme to take viewers to the streets. In August, it was barbershops. In September, it’s women and in October, Las Vegas.
What spurred your interest in travel? I started off meekly taking trips to Florida with my buddies. After that it was Mexico. Then it became my absolute passion. It became almost an obsession. I was in the film industry in Montreal. A set prop man and a decorator. You get a gig working for three very hard, intense months and get paid well. Then I’d go travel for three months. I thought, life is a candy store. I work at this job, which is really thrilling. I get to meet Donald Sutherland and Jeremy Irons, and then for the next three months I walk around Southeast Asia.
What are you most interested in shooting? Whatever tells the story of a place. I want to see something that I’ll be able to show people who haven’t been there. You might think that Japan is Mount Fuji, but have you ever been in the backstreets of Tokyo and seen the hundreds of five-seat restaurants in that alleyway?
What did you find in barbershops? A barbershop is a place where people share stories to talk about their cultures, to make community. I started shooting barbershops by reflex, just because they’re so much part of the community. What a barbershop looks like in Brazil and in Cuba is very similar and very different. A barbershop in Egypt will never have titties. They’re all over the place in Italy. In these pious countries you will have all those prophet sayings. In Brazil it’s like porn on the walls.
Is there a place that’s most meaningful to you? I hate that question, because each one of them is my children. I love Turkey. It’s an amazing place. It has everything from the sea to the mountains to the modern to the traditional. Cambodia stole my heart, but it also broke it. Egypt was emotional for me, going back to the place where I grew up.
And now you’re shooting Las Vegas? I’ve booked my hotel Downtown. I’m going to enact traveling to Vegas as if I was in Istanbul. I will do it as if I’m discovering it for the first time, because we never have the same eyes as we do when we first encounter a place. That initial perspective is quickly lost. I’m going to shoot things that are everyday, but which I hope to turn into art and stories.
Do you still travel? During Viva Elvis I was diagnosed with a rare form of blood cancer, Waldenström’s macroglobulinemia. They said, “Please sit down,” and that was the beginning. I realized my life will never be the same.
I slid down the corporate ladder and went down to stage management. It’s much less intense. It’s not the same rhythm. Show creation, you’re basically in the emergency room for two to three years. What I’m doing now is working the seventh-floor geriatrics.
Do you get away? Basically, I’m taking care of myself as much as I can. But I thought, screw it, I’m going to travel. I went to Cambodia and Vietnam in January. On the way back I started feeling bad. I couldn’t return to work, because I felt increasingly weak to a point I had trouble walking. I was diagnosed with having something called Guillain-Barré syndrome. I caught an infection. The infection went away, but the immune system didn’t stop attacking. It attacks the nervous system. Slowly I was going paralyzed from my feet. By the time I got to the hospital I couldn’t walk anymore. After that I was out three months learning how to walk again.
Is it terminal? It’s treatable. Non-curable. It’s Whac-A-Mole. It doesn’t have a single described treatment plan, because each person manifests different symptoms.
Why do this at the Window? You make connections, but they’re very ephemeral. There’s a deep sense of loneliness over time. I look back at those pictures and they’re like ghosts. I develop a connection and it’s very intense, but I’m alone. Who am I going to tell? And so events like this, I can bring those ghosts back to life. All of that solitude and selfishness of the road can finally be shared. This is an opportunity to do it on a personal level, rather than leaving them on a wall. These events are culturally, communally relevant. Because we keep thinking that the world is smaller now and we’re interconnected and it’s the global village. Is it really?
Window on the World: Photographs, Stories, Music September 26, 7:30 p.m. & October 30, 7 p.m. The Window, 150 Las Vegas Blvd. N., 702-854-1440.