The corner of 125th and Lexington in Harlem, NYC is an area where few photographers go. Yet of the few that do none have managed to capture the raw intimacy and light of its visitors more so than Khalik Allah. A relative newcomer to photography, yet an experienced filmmaker, the 29 year old native of Long Island is establishing himself as one of the biggest talents in street photography today.
Shot almost exclusively at night, in an area of Harlem notorious for its high crime and police surveillance, Khalik employs the use of a 35mm film camera with a low film speed (160 ISO) and no flash. The result is a dark, contrasty image illuminated solely by neon street lights and shop windows.
“I shoot at night because that’s when the conflict between light and darkness is most evident. Our mind’s freedom depends on this choice. Every moment we’re making a decision for one or the other: love or fear. I enter the dark but bring the light with me. My camera is a lantern showing people that don’t come to the hood what it’s really like; that’s it’s all good here, and there’s love here” Khalik Allah (Interview with FRANK151)
Gaining the trust and permission to photograph strangers can be challenging, yet Khalik manages to achieve this in an honest and evocative way that provides the viewer with a glimpse into the soul of lives many will never know. Most are shot close up and some faces feature more than once. One face which features prominently belongs to a homeless man known in the streets as Frenchie.
“I met him 3AM one night when I was out shooting. I walked into a congregation of “crack-heads” and took a shot. Back then I used a flash. When I took the shot the flash scared them. Frenchie had his hands up as if I was trying to arrest him. When I developed the film I made a mental note to look for him and shoot him if I ever see him again. That was in 2012.
A few weeks later I ran into him again. He was with a group of young thugs off Lexington smoking K2. They waited until the blunt had virtually dissolved before they passed it to him. I remember feeling sympathetic towards him. The clip was so small he couldn’t put it to his lips to smoke; he had to hold it to his nose and pull the smoke through his nostrils just to hit it. I took a few pictures of this. The whole scene impressed me. That’s when I knew we were going to work together. That’s how it all began”. Khalik Allah (Interview with Fotografia)
Khalik Allah’s latest film ‘Field Niggas’ features many of the same characters in his photographs. The film is an interesting blend between still and motion, a 60 minute living documentary through the streets of Lexington. Filmed over several nights in the summer 2014, the film is a gritty portrayal of street life as told by the people who know it best. Shot in slow motion and dubbed with out of sync audio, the film feels like a series of living photographs. The viewing experience is only enhanced when you hear what is the presumed voices of the characters shown. The stories and perspectives of the film’s characters is juxtaposed against a background of constant police presence and presents a raw, authentic and unapologetic view into one of NYC’s poorest neighbourhoods.
You can watch a Q&A with Khalik Allah here
All photographs © with permission by Khalik Allah
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