The people and history behind the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant are deeply entwined with Hip-Hop and African American culture. It is a rich tapestry that kept Zurich-based photographer Jens Krauer coming back time and time again. Through his long-term documentary series, aptly named Bed-Stuy Project, Jens explores the human stories behind the neighborhood’s rich history.
Phoblographer: Hi, Jens! You’ve been working on your Bed-Stuy Project for some time now. When did you begin putting the series together?
Jens Krauer: I have been photographing in New York regularly for years now, up to last year mainly to work on my street photography. Last summer, prior to a three month stay, I decided to start a documentary project. I wanted to embed myself with my subjects to get as close and unfiltered as possible. I was aware of where to start and equally aware that the final narrative will develop during the execution of the project. While in my street photography I often do not look at what I shoot until months after, within this scope I was continually looking back at the work, carving out the pillars of the story based on what I could get to and how I was able to visualize it in order to define the subsequent steps on the spot. To me, documentary work requires a very different approach than street photography in working with the images.
Phoblographer: The Brooklyn neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant is the heart of the Bed-Stuy Project. As a native of Zurich, Switzerland, what was it about Bed-Stuy that caught your attention? What kept you coming back?
Jens: I love New York. The first time I arrived in NY I immediately felt like I arrived in a place I know. I am familiar to Bed-Stuy through Hip-Hop Culture and the artists that evolved out of Bed-Stuy and Brooklyn. Being an active part of Hip-Hop Culture for over 20 years, many places were strangely familiar to me at first sight. During my very first stay in New York years ago, I deliberately choose Bedford-Stuyvesant as a home-base to explore the city as a whole. Further, a close friend of mine who now lives in Switzerland grew up in Bed-Stuy during the 1980s and 1990s, on the same street corner that I found myself at when I started working on this documentary. I was familiar with a lot of the background, the stories and the legends surrounding the area before I got there myself. I went back and forth for years until I was able and wanted to access the environment that I photographed for this work. Last year, it became very clear to me that I had to use the skills I learned on the streets to tell more narrative-driven stories with purpose. Besides going to Manhattan and shooting street photography every day, I started spending a lot of time downstairs and around the corner from my apartment in Bed-Stuy and getting to know the neighborhood. It has began to truly feel like home when I go back to Bed-Stuy. I felt welcome and discovered a strong community that is looking out for each other and strongly cares about the neighborhood and its culture. As I do not live in NY, I spend several months a year in the city to work on my projects and will continue to do so.
Phoblographer: Do you intend for Bed-Stuy Project to be more of an ongoing series or do you envision some sort of finality to the project?
Jens: It is definitely ongoing, and what I can show now is the first part of a larger context. As my starting point was the more gritty aspects, I feel obliged to live up to reality and to also tell the story of a strong community. I feel strongly that there is much more that needs to be covered to tell the complete story. I want it to evolve into a portrait of a neighborhood over generations, spanning back from the 1970s to now. During the last decades, Brooklyn has changed into an area dealing with gentrification while holding onto its own culture despite being pushed aside by new arrivals. I am looking at structures and ways of living that were dominant for a long time and now become less and less relevant as the social environment changes. There is also an aspect of how America deals with minorities and social classes, and what communities that have or had to take care of many aspects of daily life on their own do. I do not have a specific deadline or end for this project. I am aiming at a form and home for the pictures in the years to come, but to me, it will be final when I have been able to cover the different aspects that matter to the story without which it would not be complete or accurate.
Phoblographer: Bed-Stuy is a predominantly African American neighborhood. How did you go about embedding yourself amongst the locals?
Jens: Mainly by being me and being human. I am genuinely interested in people and life stories as well as circumstances and individual realities. My personal belief is that we do not differ as humans. I grew up in an environment where the race questions are much less charged than they are in the US. That might make it easier for me to just approach any culture with an honest interest in primarily finding similarities. Culture and class might divide us looking back, but up close and personal, as humans, we can always find a way to connect. Then, I never hide, I expose myself by declaring my intentions, sharing my images and building ties through exchange and conversation. I do not judge; I observe and document. I try to make it clear that I am present to tell a story with a realistic eye, trying to do justice to “what is” rather than putting my own spin on it. That is my main mission and I seek understanding and support in this mission with my subjects. I try to collaborate and be clear about my intentions while always respecting lines and restrictions of my subjects. I sure did spark questions and raise eyebrows with my presence, as well as with my intention, but that cannot be avoided, so I face it every time it comes my way. Time is the critical element to establish these relationships. Trust is not built in a day and intentions show over time. I lived in the neighborhood for three months, hanging out, eating, discussing and getting to know everybody who was open to exchange with me.
Phoblographer: As a stranger in a foreign environment, what thoughts and emotions went through your head as you were navigating Bed-Stuy with your camera? What emotions would you like to convey to the audience of Bed-Stuy Project?
Jens: My biggest fear was to be misunderstood in my intentions. Equally, my biggest joy was to be able to connect. In between there are a lot of emotions happening. Every situation and new person I approach has a potential to not work out. As this can be a very thin line, I am mostly very focused on minimizing this potential and to get into a relationship that allows me to declare myself and my intentions, creating the circumstance for a common understanding. I wanted to avoid to be seen as an intruder or, even worse, using somebody as the carrier of stigmas or projections from my end. This process can take hours, days, or months and even then there is no security in getting a good image that speaks for the story. Insecurity if things happened and if I am being misunderstood are with me all the time and my method of dealing with this is to be completely open at all points along the way, towards myself and the subjects. Whenever I am given the trust the work demands, I am very careful to not abuse it or to create any negative consequences for the subject.
As mentioned before, this part of the story is to be integrated into a larger context and not to be reduced to its current state. But it is a part of a reality that exists and therefore deserves to be documented. Bed-Stuy has a long history of street corners and related territorial interests. It so happened that my starting point was there. The corner store culture and the social structures surrounding it, have been and are very much a key part of the area for a long time. What I see in the neighborhood is struggle, difficult lives and violence but equally pride, opportunity, love and community in the light of struggle and pressure.
Phoblographer: You got up close and personal with your subjects in some of the images in Bed-Stuy Project. Talk to us about your approach.
Jens: I believe that in documentary work you cannot hide as often as is the case in street photography. You cannot steal an image and if you do so there will be some ethical issues in this context. I decided to put myself out there and to practice honesty and transparency in the exchange with all people I met and meet along this way. In order to establish a connection I have to give to get. And I have to accept that I will get refused on a regular basis. Dedicating time and being truly interested in the stories, backgrounds and circumstance is a basic necessity and also a question of respect. I believe practicing a heartfelt, honest interest paired with respect and patience can open doors as it did for me. Then, once I am allowed to, I am just there. That also means I do not shy away when things get more tricky. I never influence what happens around me; I am thankful to be there as an observer. I spend a lot of time, have a lot of conversations and integrate to the best of my abilities. Then, when the time comes, me and my camera are accepted and I can document without having to explain myself in the moment. It takes time, not only for me, but also for the subject to adapt to the circumstance that there is always a camera. Over time, through getting accustomed to each other and knowing the motives and the driver, taking pictures becomes natural in the execution.
Phoblographer: In a previous interview, we delved into your mantra that “You don’t become a street photographer, you realize you are one.” Is this something that still holds true for you today?
Jens: It sure does when it comes to how I discovered photography as a medium for me. I never wanted to be a photographer until a few years ago. This came to me and I embrace it. Now, after a few years on the street, changing into a different photography field, it is less relevant as a principle due to the nature of the documentary genre. In reportage or documentary the approach is much more deliberate and planned in setting up the project and executing on it. Things still do develop in front of my camera without me influencing them, but my presence is very planned. I cannot leave “being there” to coincidence in this line of work anymore. I have a narrative in mind that I follow and that evolves around the initial idea through working with and being around my subjects.
Phoblographer: Like much of your other work, Bed-Stuy Project is presented in black and white. Talk about why you chose to process your images in black and white rather than in color.
Jens: Black and white, to me, is a very pure form of creating an image. The reduction to structure, light and content creates clarity and has to combine many elements very precisely to work well. I like this challenge, especially in very busy environments like inner cities. In my street photography it helps me single out aspects that might get lost in color or would not speak as loud if color would distract from them. I believe that bodies of work should have a unifying aesthetic to tie them together. Therefore, as I have started this way, I will continue to shoot black and white for my street photography.
Phoblographer: While we’re on the subject of post-processing, what program(s) are you using? How would you describe your editing process?
Jens: I work with all my images in Adobe Lightroom as the main processing and sorting tool. My black and white development is using the B&W conversion that Lightroom offers on the top right. One click. I keep the editing process to a minimum. To me, everything that can be done in a darkroom is within my range of options when it comes to developing digital files. I think in gray-scales, contrast, composition and light. White point / black point, contrast, etc. Those are the tools I use to emphasize the essence of the picture, rather than changing its nature or content. Finally, I use DXOs Silver FX to create a consistent look across all images. I am very much persuaded that I have to push myself to make the picture in-camera as much as possible. In the documentary line of work this becomes even more important to me as I avoid any manipulation beyond the basic development of a file.
Phoblographer: What are you shooting with these days?
Jens: Different cameras in the Fujifilm lineup. As a Fujifilm Ambassador I very much believe in the Fujifilm lineup of cameras as great tools. On the street I am still profoundly in love with the Fujifilm X-T3 in combination with the Fujinon 56mm 1.2. It became my setup of choice over the last years and I doubt this will change soon. I occasionally change the lens to the 35mm 1.4 or the 23mm 1.4. In my documentary work I really appreciate the X-Pro 3 due to it being so small, unobtrusive and minimal. It really just works great and seamlessly, and is so easy to handle in any situation. I do make different lens choices when working documentary, using the Fujinon 16mm 1.4 and sometimes the 23mm 1.4. Going wide makes sense to me in this line of work, as I am very close a lot of times and do not want to put distance between me and what is happening in front of me. It also allows to navigate tight spaces and situations without having to interfere with the action or move myself, which would draw attention to me. I truly appreciate the 16mm 1.4 as an excellent tool for this.
Phoblographer: COVID-19 has had a profound effect on the world. With that in mind, what’s in store for you for the rest of 2020? Do you have any projects on the horizon that we should be on the lookout for?
Jens: My plan is to go back to New York for an extended period of time as soon as possible to continue the project. I am also planning and started working on other documentary stories that I am developing. Of course I continue to shoot street with passion whenever and wherever possible. I am about to publish a new street portfolio within the next weeks to show my street work from the last two years. Otherwise, I am looking forward to launch a new podcast soon with an amazing partner to talk to interesting personalities in the world of photography and hopefully add value to the photography of the future listeners. I have been working on video and web content in regard to education, and while COVID-19 is a major disruption for many projects that are planned or in the making it might speed up this side of the development, and I embrace that. The world of photography has not been easy before COVID-19 and it will most likely not be easier after that, so we should brace for impact and work on plans how to overcome and grow.