Street chat with Ali Cherkis
Please tell us a little about yourself. Where are you from, where do you live now? Your background with photography, how and when you were drawn to the street genre.
I was born in NYC and grew up in the mountains of Western Massachusetts. I’ve been living in London for the past year and a half now, and before that I was in Manhattan for a few years.
I was drawn to the street genre in NY, while studying and assistant teaching at the International Center of Photography. The city is a beast, a character with its own flesh and bones. It’s a place where peoples’ lives play out in public. I would see make outs and break ups in the subway, sad business men and jaded young women on the street. I’d be going through my own journey and would find myself drawn to these strangers’ lives. I’d see myself in them, in a way.
And then I would see the light bouncing off the buildings, illuminating individuals in a crowd. The yellow or green hue of the subway cars. It’s such a dramatic and comedic and heartbreaking city. It’s beautiful. NYC was my teacher. It became my foundation in street photography and visual storytelling.
How do you define “street photography” for yourself?
I see street photography as a core piece of the big story of who we are as humans. Making a documentation as we are in this moment. Each photographer, though always at a distance as a stranger, will invariably be connected to the subject because they have chosen that person, that moment, that scene. It’s a reflection of the photographer in that way. My favorite work is vulnerable and personal, whether it’s a close up portrait or a street scene.
Does your local situation affect how you are able to shoot? Is there a political climate, social attitudes (or laws) about photographing people in public, or another local factor?
I think that now, being an American woman in London, I’m very aware of my role as an outsider. I’m very aware that when I open my mouth, some folks might not respond well to my accent. But on the other side of that, the Brexit/Trump connection runs deep. There’s a lot of empathy and love in London between the UK and US because of it. It’s been a weird few months.
But aside from the political climate, I feel that if I am photographing people in public, and I always approach a scene with respect and care, then it’s ok. I personally don’t like to photograph those who are in vulnerable positions — homeless people, drug addicts, etc. Just not my thing.
In what ways do you think being a woman has affected your work?
The other day I was shooting around the market in Whitechapel, and my energy was off. It was my first day out shooting in a while, and I just couldn’t get into the flow — couldn’t make any good images. I started to head home when I felt someone watching me. This dude began to follow me for about 20 minutes, smiling like a creep every time I turned around — until he finally cornered me under a bridge (I refused to NOT walk under the bridge). I sprinted into a cafe a couple minutes down the road and waited there for a while until I calmed down. The woman working in the cafe helped me chill out and then told me that I shouldn’t be walking around with my camera around my neck.
I was angry. It wasn’t the first time it had happened to me. It makes me jealous of male photographers, who don’t have to think about that kind of stuff — who can just go out and shoot and not worry about anything but the photograph. Each time this kind of shit happens, I carry a little more weight on my shoulders — and the camera strap should be enough.
On another vibe, being a woman brings sensitivity to my images. I find myself connecting more often with female subjects rather than male ones. I see myself in young women falling in love and grandmothers with a full face of make up. It’s sisterhood. It’s a powerful feeling.
What photographers can you name who are the most inspirational to you?
Nan Goldin, Philip-Lorca diCorcia, Alessandra Sanguinetti, and Rineke Dijkstra, to name a few…
Is there a special project you are working on? Or recurring themes you are often drawn to?
I’ve got a few projects in the oven. My themes tend to emerge from my day to day images — my visual diary. I’ll often have dreams or fantasies about scenes or images and keep those in my mind when I’m making photos, then they become part of the whole. I find my paths in that way and they take me on a journey.