Laurent Chevalier collects ordinary moments of Black lives in New York. Last year, he documented the 20th anniversary of the Million Man March, which recalled the historic gathering of a million black men at the National Mall in 1995.
Presided over by Minister Louis Farrakhan, both events called for commitment to justice and community. Laurent is drawn to scenes and stories that are noisy, but can be retold via focus on a single face. He’s thoughtful about portraiture, and moving through crowds as a photographer of color.
Emily von Hoffmann: Much of your work centers on public spaces — streets and protests, for instance — what draws you to these scenes?
Laurent Chevalier: I’ve generally always been an observer of sorts, from an outside perspective. So what I’m drawn to in my photography, and the projects that I like to create, share my observations of life’s occurrences. I think there are so many interesting things you can learn if you just sit and look at what is going on around you. Also, there are so many interesting and beautiful moments that are constantly swirling about us. Our human tendency is to be very individually focused, and technology has only enhanced that. So, I am drawn to candid moments in streets and various phases of life, in order to show people what is happening around them. Currently I am working on a project for a book, consisting of collections of those sort of moments within Black Lives.
EvH: You photographed the 20 year anniversary of the Million Man March in a series of portraits and micro-interviews — can you tell us about that experience? What was it like to navigate the crowd as a photographer?
LC: The experience itself was beautiful. Just the opportunity to be surrounded by all these representations of blackness, in such a concentrated collection and central area was amazing. And not only that, but the spirit of unity and desire for elevation in the air was unparalleled. Therefore, when it came navigating that crowd as a photographer, it was a very warm experience. I saw so many stories happening within the moments around me. Another great thing was the receptiveness of the crowd. Seeing me as a Black photographer seemed to excite and encourage people.
As I continued to talk to people that day, I heard a common refrain concerning my importance in being there and capturing the moments that were occurring. People were glad I was there because they said I needed to share what was happening.
The idea to attend, as most good ideas go, was initially brought up to me by my girlfriend. She mentioned that we should go down to check it out and support, and I agreed. Later, I was discussing the plan with some friends of mine. We recently started a creative collective called The Coleman Henson Society. The basis of this group is traveling and telling these underrepresented stories through various mediums, so we agreed the march would be something important to attend and document.
There certainly is a personal significance to me with this collection of work and what it represents, because the underlying reason for the March’s existence is the treatment of people of color in the US. Considering I am a person of color, I find both the subject matter of the March and the need for disseminating images of it very important. The effect that ultimately has on my work is that I am attempting to tell the stories that speak to and for me. From the old man who had a different experience than I in his youth, to the young who will have their future lives shaped by their presence at this event, all of these stories need to be exchanged.
EvH: People on that day also shared “things they’d like the next generation to remember in 20 years.” Can you share any of the responses that most stood out in your mind? Were there any other interactions that defined that shoot for you?
LC: What was most powerful to me, was that practically every response to that question contained some desire that this would the last time an event like the Million Man March had to happen. There was a sense of exhaustion and hope mixed in most of the responses. Despite the beauty of the event, everyone lamented the need for its existence.
EvH: What is an image of which you are particularly proud? What do you treasure about it?
LC: This image, also from the Million Man March, is one of my current favorites. It says so many different things to me. This girl is holding the red black and green flag, and triumphantly raising it to the sky. The flag lines up with the flare in the lens from the sun. It is almost as if she is drawing power from another source. And to her left and right, she is flanked by these serious adult figures. When I see them, I see the people who had to sacrifice through their own experiences and work, in order to provide the sense of strength the little girl is able to feel. To me, this photo is the story of several generations.
EvH: You said that you recently returned from your first trip to Paris! What was that like? Can you tell us about your work on that trip, and any first impressions you’d like to share?
LC: Paris was such a great city. I flew out there on Thanksgiving day, and got to stay for about 6 days. This is significant because it was very shortly after the attacks at the Bataclan. I’m sad that I did not get to see the city around less troublesome times, but I am glad that I ultimately kept my plans to go despite the attack. Im sure every generation of Parisian discusses the city around certain times, a la “I wish you could have seen it before the Bataclan attacks”, “I wish you could have seen it before the War” etc. But like people, cities are shaped by the experiences they undergo. My goal in the trip was to take my eye, and my desire to document life through various moments, to this place that was foreign to me. I ended up with about 200 photos that I think are at least interesting and potentially useful to cull from, so now I just need to determine exactly what outlet those will take.
Coming to Paris from New York was interesting. Many people told me that the city felt different since the attack, and that there was such a heavy police presence. But compared to the constant climate in New York, Paris felt calm, peaceful, and relatively police free. One visit to Penn Station in New York and it feels like you are visiting Fort Knox. I never felt anything that strong in Paris.
For first impressions, I miss just the vibe of a city that knows how to sit, have “un café” and relax.
EvH: Can you recall a first instant — a great photo you took, person you met, event you worked — that confirmed your interest in photography as a career? How did you get started as a photographer?
LC: There are a couple steps along the way that have served as indications I’m heading in the right direction with photography.
My first introduction into photography was while I was in college, at the time studying journalism. As an elective, I took a “History Of Photography” course. I really wish I could remember my teacher’s name, cause I’m indebted to her for really allowing my interest to spark. It was at the end of that class, that she told us she wanted us to apply some of the history and heart we learned, and shoot our own photo essay. I am guessing that she saw I had some interest in it, but no tools, so she let me borrow her camera to shoot my essay. After that class I brought my own camera and putzed around with a terrible lens, wondering why I wasn’t getting good images.
The other moment that made me realize that photography was a tool, that I (at least at times) could wield with some affect, was when I posted a photograph I took of a child on the bus. In response to my posting it, a couple friends remarked that they loved it and they wanted to purchase a print of it. Something clicked then in my head, and I thought “Maybe I can do this”.
Also underlying all of this, was the fact that my grandfather was a photographer, and he was kind enough to give me a ton of great equipment when I saw that I was really interested in it. He told me, “Hey, if you’re serious about this, come on out for a weekend and I’ve got some stuff to show you.” Much love to him.
EvH: What is something you’ve learned that you’d like to share with up-and-coming photographers among our readers?
LC: What I have learned (and this comes from those before me), is that within photography it takes time to find your voice, style and place within your work. I’d say to anyone feeling unsure about it, is to shoot a lot. Shoot everything that is remotely interesting to you, and shoot it all different ways. After a while, as you look through the photographs, you will see something start to appear. Especially look at your earliest work. Sometimes, that is when your voice will be its clearest, even if it lacks some of the technical ability in its manifestation.
EvH: What is a cultural artifact (audio, visual, or anything else) that really does it for you right now? What influences you creatively?
LC: Music is a big thing for me. Generally when I am out photographing on the street, I set some tunes that allow me to vibe out and fall into the rhythm of the city. Some especially inspiring tunes this past year have been Kamasi Washington — The Epic, Kendrick Lamar — TPAB, and Makaya McCraven — In The Moment. Jazz is generally my street photography vibe. I actually made a jazz playlist to take me through a few hours of street shooting call “Music To Take Pictures To.” I couldn’t think of anything more creative.