For the next installment in our 10 Questions series, we caught up with photographer and documentary filmmaker Cheryl Dunn. Whether she’s shooting photos on the streets of New York or working for commercial clients like Nike or Adidas, Cheryl immerses herself fully in the lives of the people she is documenting and it shows in her work. We talked about her documentary film Everybody Street, New York City, and her evolution as a photographer and filmmaker.
1. Tell us about your first camera and some of your earliest experiences shooting.
My first camera was a Rollei 35mm with a pop-out lens. I still have it. Reminds me, I should use it. I think I used it to shoot friends and sports. I was a gymnast so we would try to catch each other in mid-flip. Then I used this camera when I backpacked through Europe for three months. It was very small, like a little box. But the boxes and boxes of photos that were in our house that my mother took, as well as 8mm films of every event, informed mostly my notion of pictures and film. I think I have a good memory but it is all because of this extensive document of my life. And I just continue with that document.
2. You have worked with clients such as Adidas, Nike, Wesc, and the T: New York Times Style Magazine, to name a few. How did you evolve into a commercial photographer and filmmaker?
After graduating college I got a low level job in fashion but being contained in the office was not for me. All I wanted to do so was get out into the world (Joel Meyerowitz actually says this about himself in my film). I had the opportunity to work on a fashion shoot and thought, “Maybe I could do this”. Photography was the only thing that fully engaged me. So I decided to move to Milan to pursue it, naively. Cut to living there for two and a half years—walking the street shooting, writing, reading, and looking at art. When I returned I vowed to do what I love and try my hardest to make a living at it. I didn’t have a back-up plan; I had to make it work. I assisted other photographers and learned the business of photography and shot all the time, making up documentary projects for myself that weren’t for anyone—like boxing. I documented it for ten years. But when you have bills to pay to survive in New York City, you have to work really hard. You just have to be willing to live on the edge and believe in yourself no matter what.
3. You have shot a variety of documentary photo series. What was the inspiration behind your music fan images?
I love going to music festivals. I don’t think there is anything more magical or better than dancing around outside in a sea of people to great music. I am interested in fans with extreme, real emotion and elation. I am often in the photo pit and shoot the bands, but what’s interesting to me is turning the camera on the crowd—the kids in the trenches that waited all day in that spot to be front row, that saved up for months to get that ticket to this festival. They are so stoked. Being in a sea of 100,000 people dancing and happy is amazing and real.
4. What is your approach when it comes to shooting documentary photographs?
In street photography I want to capture the scene that struck me initially, unaltered by me. With other forms of documentary, I participate, I ask questions, I try to get inside and, most importantly, I genuinely listen to people.
5. You have been living in New York for many years now and the city is a subject in much of your work. What effect has it had on you as an artist?
Well my education is in art history and I always think of each moment being very special, never repeatable. I take the art of capturing those moments seriously. I am never without a camera. Sometimes things that you shot years ago only reveal their power later in life. Maybe twenty years can pass and those images have a newfound importance. I guess the effect on me as an artist would be always be ready and don’t be lazy. Unexpected things constantly happen here and you have to jump. Anything and everything is possible in the city.
6. New York continues to change immensely year after year and is a completely different world from when you first moved here. What in art, music and New York culture attracts your attention today?
I just like the way young people keep pouring in and they work with variables. They create within that environment to realize their creative dreams, just like artists who came here in the 70s or 50s did. The reflection of the times in art is interesting to me. You can read the paper and know what is generally up in a city but it’s the art that gives you insight into feelings. The one thing that New York needs though is cultural preservation. They should have protected CBGBs but instead now it is a clothing store. Downtown was made desirable because of the artist and now the artists can’t afford to live there and that sucks.
7. Your documentary film, Everybody Street, has had a great reception. What has the experience of creating and promoting the film been like?
Creating the film was a deep, lengthy and hard thing, like any feature film, because you spend a lot of time by yourself in post-production. It is super isolating and you start to lose frame of reference. When you get to finally put it in the world and experience people’s reactions to it, it is super cool. That makes all the hard work worth it. I am particularly enjoying the invitations to show the film in far away countries that I have yet to go to. This film is particular in the way that it showcases other masters’ work that I can help get far and wide to places that may not have access to their photo books but they might have access to this film.
8. The photographers in the film, and most creatives in general, have an obsessive personality when it comes to their work and getting the images they want. Can you relate to that?
Yes, for sure. I think you have to have a level of obsessiveness. It comes from caring a lot about your practice and striving for perfection.
9. Many aspiring photographers and filmmakers do not have the funds available for all the camera and lighting accessories they may want. Did you have to deal with this early on in your career?
Absolutely. It would take me like a year to save up to buy a lens, another year to save up for something else. There were photographers all around me that had everything at their fingertips. In some art schools (I did not go to art school) they are required to own a lot of equipment already so they hit New York with everything they needed. But good photography and film-making is not necessarily about good gear; it’s about you, your will, your drive and what you want to say. Now more than ever that is true. There are documentaries that are nominated for Academy Awards, shot on camera phones and crappy video cameras.
10. What are your plans for the year?
I have another documentary in the works and two book projects. I am continuing to promote Everybody Street, doing a lot more theatrical screenings. You can host a theatrical screening in your community. Go to our site to find out how.
All photos © Cheryl Dunn