Eric: While surfing the web, I came upon the work of Chris Sorensen, who had an amazing portfolio of black and white street portraits. I was captivated by the depth and humanity of his images, and I feel that every face he captured had a unique story to tell. If you look at each of these images, they show the true character and soul of the person that Chris captures. I extend a warm introduction to Chris, and I hope you enjoy this feature.
Chris: The studio where I live and work is on the edge of Bed-Stuy, a historically African-American neighborhood in Brooklyn probably best known outside of New York as the setting for Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing. It is to Brooklyn what Harlem is to Manhattan. Over the years it’s also become home to large numbers of immigrants; originally from the American South, Latin America and the West Indies, and more recently from Africa and Haiti. It’s a very culturally diverse neighborhood where, unlike my previous apartment in Manhattan, I am the minority.
But that’s starting to change. The gentrification that’s occurred in many areas of Brooklyn is beginning to happen here. In the two and a half years I’ve been here I’ve already seen a big transformation. This street portrait project is an attempt to document the people of Fulton Street before the face of Bed-Stuy changes forever. And personally, it is also a way for me, as a white person in an overwhelmingly black neighborhood, to connect with the people in the community I live in, many of whom probably regard me as part of the gentrification.
Once a week I set up on Fulton Street a half block from where I live and spend a couple hours asking those who walk by if they have 5 seconds for a portrait for an art project. Sometimes that’s all it takes, often it requires more convincing or explanation. Some say no, some say yes and literally give me 5 seconds, walking away when they hear the shutter click. Some give me a few more seconds for a few more snaps. And some stay and talk for a bit.
I’d be lying if I didn’t say that I was nervous as hell the first time. But it got easier that first day, and since then I can’t wait to go back out, in large part because of incredible people I’ve meet and the openness with which many have shared with a complete stranger. For example, the man below walked by and I asked if I could shoot him. He said yes, and as he was getting in position I asked if he could take off his sunglasses. He said no, he’d just lost an eye to cancer and people didn’t react well to how he looked without the glasses.
I took a couple shots, and then said that if he didn’t mind, I would not be bothered by however he looked under the glasses and would be honored to shoot him how he is. He thought for a moment and then took off the glasses, revealing gauze in an empty socket.
Fifteen minutes later I shot the guy below. As we talked afterwards he told me I should’ve shot him across the street because he’d burned down a building there as a teen. He had some burn scars on his neck, so I asked if that had happened then. He said no, an ex-girlfriend had thrown acid on him.
I asked if we could we do a couple more shots with him more in profile to show the scars a little better. He said ok, and I thought he was just going to turn to the side, but he surprised me by taking off his doo-rag and hat, revealing much more extensive scarring than I thought.
And then he turned and looked at me, this huge man with half his head melted away.
I’ve shot 200 people so far for the project; drug dealers and cops, the homeless and bankers, Catholic nuns and Muslims in hijabs. It’s been an amazing experience and I’m grateful to the wonderful people of Bed-Stuy for letting me document it.
A few more images from the project.
The ‘Godfather’ saw me from across the street and yelled out to ask what I was doing. When I said taking pictures he said, you’ll take my picture? Yes, I said, if you come over to where I was set up. He was a huge man, 6’3″ and probably close to 400 pounds, but he came across the street. His ankles hung over the top of his hightops and he was in obvious pain, but despite this, he had the most amazing positive energy. After we were done he said he was struggling to get home because he didn’t have money for the bus. I gladly gave him bus fare.
For those curious about technical details, you can see my setup in this shot; a piece of white seamless taped to a north-facing wall so that the people (and their pitbulls) are in open shade. And all shots were taken with the Canon 50mm 1.8 Nifty Fifty on a Canon 5DmkII.
Most of the Muslim woman in my neighborhood are very reluctant to have their picture taken. So when I saw her I was prepared to really do some convincing. But she said yes right away and was excited to be participating in the project. Afterwards we were talking and she said her name was Christiana. When I asked how a Muslim woman in a hijab was named Christiana she said she didn’t want to change it after she converted. And she also had a nose ring. Very unique and interesting person to meet and talk to. Not your traditional older Muslim woman despite the traditional garb.
You can see many more images from the project at http://www.chris-sorensen.com/fulton-street. I’ll gladly answer any questions about the project in the comments.