*note: this interview was published in the first issue of the aforementioned ISO magazine
As with many things, it was a product of chance that initiated Robert Sukrachand’s interaction with the locals of 74th and Roosevelt Avenue in Jackson Heights, Queens. In December 2006, as he emerged from the Subway, he was greeted by a man named Tommy who yelled, “Yo, Mafioso, want to take my picture?” To this day Sukrachand, who has since graduated from the Tisch Department of Photography & Imaging, continues his documentation of the crew he happened upon almost two years ago. The cinematic feeling that emanates from the images serves to recognize Sukrachand’s honest relationship that has formed over time. Rather than develop this relationship on my own terms, I instead invite you to read through our conversation and discover for yourself the lessons to be learned from “the corner.”
MG: There are various differences between you and the residents of 74th and Roosevelt. After all, you began this series as a student. In what ways would you say you currently (or already did) relate to them?
RS: For a long time, I would just go to the corner whenever I could, not really thinking about why. Something kept drawing me back, and there was a point when I realized it wasn’t just the photography, but there was genuine friendship there, and my interactions with these people provided something that interactions with the rest of NYC did not. A certain honesty and straightforwardness, a group of people who weren’t afraid to tell me what they thought of me, the world around them, and the state of their lives. In the beginning it was subconscious, but I have always felt a kinship with these people. We share a disillusionment with the world and a homesickness. They teach me things – but not really about themselves, more about myself and the world around me. We are all wanderers in today’s world, homeless in some way.
MG: You say we are all “homeless in some way.” Is this the result of our break into adulthood? In some ways, it’s impossible to describe home. How would you?
RS: Well, I think that home is a place where we don’t feel alienated or anxious. A place that feels naturally comfortable. This is hard to find today when we live in a world that is so diffused culturally, racially, religiously, and geographically. I don’t think we are yet at the point where society has broadly been able to accept the fact that this new, globalized world can still be a home. Instead I think many people often cling to orthodoxy, ideology, and things that give them a concrete picture of home. In today’s world, unless you’re born in some rural village and never leave that place, you are likely to feel alienated and homeless in someway because the world you interact with is so complex, so modern and diffused.
MG: Was the photographic element a consequence of your relationship or does your relationship with the group exist as a photographer?
RS: The relationship is complex and varies from person to person. For a while I was known as a photographer to those I was not close to but I often go to the corner with or without a camera. In either case I’m just Bobby. Marianne sees me and says “Bobby!” and comes and gives me a hug. I find myself doing things like driving people to detox centers or visiting them at hospitals almost more than I’m photographing now. The photos began out of the conversation I had with Tommy one random day, and they all developed out of my relationships. They can’t be separated. My being who I am, I could not have photographed these people without the relationship I’ve had with them.
MG: For your senior thesis show, you printed the images on postcards and accompanied them with personal stories from the people of the corner. I presume this was to open up a dialogue between students, others, and those portrayed. What do you feel is the importance of this dialogue?
RS: The point of the postcards was that it was an easy way to put the stories of these people in direct interaction with the photos and also an easy way to send these stories out. That’s the most important part, some bit of agency for the subject… But also, it is meant to follow the theme of being a wanderer – because what do you when you’re homesick? Send out a postcard home. It is also perhaps a way to describe the adventures you are currently experiencing so that it’s not a negative form of communication. I liked its open-endedness. The dialogue you point to is very important, but I don’t think it’s feasible, honestly. The average NYU student or person who sees my work is not going to get up and go to Jackson Heights and start hanging out with these people. Nor is it likely that they’ll consciously think about my photos in the future. What I hope is that subconsciously the photos and stories may have fostered some small bit of mutual understanding and help the viewer initiate an internal dialogue about their own lives and/or the communities that immediately surround them.
MG: Your more recent images appear to extend outside the microcosm of the corner. What is your intent in this extension? Is the series becoming more about the people and less about the place?
RS: First, the pictures were always about the people and the place. The place is what brings this community together, and only to that extent does it have any significance. I would have no interest in it otherwise. I should just say broadly that I no longer have any intentions, and I think that premeditation and a plan when photographing something like this is dangerous because your vision as a photographer can impose on and overwhelm the reality. I just try to be open. I follow the people and the story and my relationships with them wherever they take me, and I photograph that. Over the summer, being able to spend days at a time with these people, I found them bringing me into their personal spaces – the van where Willy sleeps at night, the hut where Marianne and Dougie live. These are intimate areas, like our own bedrooms, the places we can perhaps relate to and see the similarities we have with these people. Unfortunately, these can also be destructive habitats— the places where drugs are used as seen in some of my photos. But they are safe, communal, intimate, and warm. Some of the most peaceful photos that I have taken happened there, and it is often right at the second when the crack pipe lights up. Contrary to the image we have of people smoking crack, that is when the tension is released and things become more calm.
MG: It seems important to you that the series is not labeled as “concerned photography.” In what ways, while shooting and editing, have you been able to steer away from this?
RS: I don’t really like labels including photojournalism, social documentary, fine art, etc. However, to the extent that I am concerned and I am a photographer, this is concerned photography. Even the kind of progressive genre of concerned photography can end up having its own set of conventions and rules that pigeonhole the content. What I hate far worse, however, than what someone might say the genre of my work is, is the oversimplification done to the subject matter. For example, the other day at Thanksgiving dinner a second cousin of mine comes up to me and says, “How are you, Bob? Your photography going well? Your mom told me you’ve been working on this project about the homeless?” and I got so angry inside because this work for me has never been about the homeless. Some of the people pictured are homeless, but that’s not what it is about. This happens all the time when people try to describe my work because people search for these generalities to make sense of things. We like the idea of ‘homeless,’ ‘down-and-out,’ or ‘addicted’ because they completely cut through the complexity of these people’s lives as though the fact that someone is homeless explains away everything else that is important in their life. If I was going to do a story about you, the reader, would I call it a story about someone who has a home? No, it would be a story about you being the unique individual that you are. I do my best, only sometimes successfully, to present this work in a way where it is not so explicitly about a social ill. In terms of my practice while shooting and editing, these things just internalize, and you try not to fall prey to the photographic conventions that connote victimization, pity, down-and-outness, etc. Often, this happens in the editing process. There are some strong pictures I have taken, which I don’t show sometimes. I try to do justice to the fullness of these people’s lives as much as I can from a photographic standpoint, but this has been my biggest struggle as I am still growing as a photographer and my pictures are too often straightforward, repetitive, predictable, or formally conventional. What I love about shooting is how difficult it is to bring in some kind of unison between how complex these people’s lives are and how I frame their lives photographically. This is really hard, and why I still have so much learning and growing to do as a photographer.
MG: Up to this point, what have you learned from the corner?
RS: We all have anxieties, insecurities, problems, and to the extent that they linger in us, even if subconsciously, we find ways to numb them. You and I, Joe the plumber, whoever that mythical ‘normal person’ is supposed to be, we have our own opiates: the pursuit of wealth, the cult of celebrity, sex, ideology, aspirations to get the best job, buy a new house, car, various worldly possessions – the so-called “American dream.” We tell ourselves that we can’t live without such things; well, my photos prove that some people can. Those pictured by me have their own problems, and their method of forgetting is an opaque one, often erosive – alcohol, crack cocaine, and other hard drugs. It’s devastating to witness, but we cannot pity them or patronize them. In a sense they are just being more honest than the rest of us about their problems. It’s like ‘fuck you, I don’t have to hide. I have issues, and I have trouble dealing with them.’ I think these photos and stories are successful only to the extent that we see ourselves and the foolishness of our own lives in them. I would hope that people might begin to understand the lives of others through my photos and to allow that understanding to trigger their consciousness about what’s important in life in their own immediate environments. I’ve learned not to expect anyone to want to go to 74th and Roosevelt and help Tommy or Fay or Marianne, but if they did, I would be delighted and surprised.
To read personal stories and learn more about the corner, please visit www.74thandroosevelt.com