In our conversation with Cheryl Dunn, she recounts something Jill Freedman told her while Dunn was making her seminal street photography documentary, Everybody Street. "She’d be shooting very gut-wrenching things, often murders," she explains. "Sometimes it would be difficult and she would just tell herself, 'I better take the picture. Okay, take the goddamn picture. It's your job. Take the picture.' Even though it wasn't an assignment, this was her initiative. I'll see something and it's so easy to be lazy," Dunn continues. "But then I have that thing that Jill said, 'Take the goddamn picture.' I will go back. Not every time, but I'll go back and I'll take the goddamn picture. Because this is what I do, take the picture."
It's moments like these, stories of experience, pieces of wisdom, bits of inspiration, that make it so worthwhile to talk to and learn as much as you can from other photographers and creatives. With that in mind, what better person to talk to than Cheryl Dunn. Last weekend the self-taught photographer and filmmaker led a Juxtapoz-curated Vans Vision Walk in Lower Manhattan, imparting wisdom, stories, and advice she has learned shooting fashion, boxing, the streets, music, friends, art, and from making an entire film about her own photographic heroes and icons of street photography.
Below is a little sneak peek of the Vision Walk and an excerpt from our interview with her. A full interview and video will be released on Monday, July 30th so stay tuned!!
Alex Nicholson: Do you mix it up when you're on the street, remain a fly on the wall but also approach people if they seem interesting?
Cheryl Dunn: Every situation is really different just like people are different. I try to not break the thing that struck me, why I wanted to take the picture because when you engage in something, in someone, everything changes. I try to get that, but that's not always easy, nothing is ever easy actually. Also, I try not to be exploitive and hurt people's feelings. Sometimes you’re just like, "Wow, you have awesome style." And sometimes I completely fail and sometimes someone's really great and I then I have a minute to actually compose and get something better. I'm drawn to people's signs and people panhandling and I usually try to get it and then talk to them. I'll give them some money and then I'll ask them for some more pictures. I love seeing the word on the street, you know? People that are compelled to go to the street to hold a sign, to say something, to communicate with others in a really big, visual way. I guess because I love graffiti, so it's just more written words on the street, but in a kind of different way.
Is there anything that you learned from making films that translated back into your still photography?
For my 16mm, I have this weirdo 6 mm TV lens, it's wide as hell. I learned how close I can get to someone, and them not even notice me. I've taught a few workshops and I tell the kids, most people are afraid to get close to strangers or they won't get in their face, because it's ethical, it's whatever, it's weird. I tell them, "Step closer, see how many steps closer you get before someone even notices you're standing there. you'll be surprised.”
Especially in New York.
When you're in crowds, you can get away with a lot of shit. And if you're in crowds with people that are taking pictures, like in a tourist place, no one even sees you.
Photo by Cheryl Dunn
Was there any point along the way where you felt like you should be doing something else? What made you realize, "Alright. This is the only thing I want to or can be doing."
I really remember when I decided that I would pursue this. I had no frame of reference for what you could do as a career and I didn't come from anybody in a family that had any job like this or whatever. I initially started working in fashion and was in an office and I was like, "Hell, no. I'm not doing this." And then I worked on a photo shoot with someone and thought, "Well, maybe I could do a part of this." You know, you pick the thing... I had a boyfriend at the time who got scouted on the streets in New York to be a model in Milan, so I'm like, "Fuck, I'm going." So I just busted out of New York and I went to Europe and lived really cheaply and just started shooting, really naively, thinking, "Oh, I'm gonna be a fashion photographer." Being young and naïve is really important and you should never listen to older people going like, "You can't do that" or "Be afraid." Which, particularly for a woman, they're like, "You can't go to Europe by yourself.” I'm like, "What?" Like be afraid, be afraid. A lot of people like to throw fear onto chicks. Maybe they don't do that anymore. But I thought, I'll be afraid when I have my own bummer experience, but until then I'm gonna be careful, but I'm not gonna buy into your fears.
When I started to shoot, I was just like, "Everything about this engages me. I'm not bored. My mind is not wandering. I'm interested in all of this, so I guess this is what I'm doing." But, yeah, it was a struggle. You know New York City is not cheap. When I came back I had to pay the rent and I have to shoot and buy equipment. I didn't really have any fallback plan. I was like, "If I don't keep working, I'm gonna be the chick living in a box in the street." It was just like kind of no choice.
So it was a gamble. It was a big gamble. But being freelance is a gamble, right? You just have to believe the possibilities. You have to put that energy in the world or else you're shot. Because you get that job and you're freelance. You don't have a job. I haven't had a job since, for 30 years. You just have to believe. And you have to keep putting things in the world. Making zines. Making things. I think that people respond to passion, to people that are psyched and passionate about what they do.