Herbert Von King Park is a popular park in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, where I live. It’s a place where everyone in the neighborhood can get together. Some train, others walk their dog or play basketball. Many people go there for a barbecue or have birthday parties for their children. I’ve lived in Bed-Stuy since 2015 and I shoot a lot in Von King Park because people relax so they can generally take a moment.
These three girls were sitting on a ledge. The middle one was on his phone. They are quite young, so I got the impression that they were happy that someone in their group had a phone. You never really know if a photo will work or if people will feel too awkward. But once the girl hung up her phone, we spent some time together. For me, these are always very quick exchanges. I just take two frames. I don’t want to take up people’s time, even young girls who seem to have all the time in the world. They are there to socialize, not to participate in a woman’s project.
From left to right are Linda, Chastity and Jada. Usually I don’t get names but this was nominated for an award and exhibited at the National Portrait Gallery in London as part of a Taylor Wessing exhibition in 2019. When it was nominated I had to find the daughters and obtain signatures from their Parents.
Many of my Bed-Stuy photos are of people in relationships: couples, friends, families. I was drawn to the friendship you can see between the young trio. I love the way they look at the camera: it’s a real girl power photo. Looks like they’re going to be really strong women. We have problems in America with issues like gun control and racial injustice. So for me, photography is a real antidepressant. I photograph to meet people one-on-one and have personal exchanges.
Bed-Stuy is a huge neighborhood. It’s very lively, very interactive and very community driven. I was immediately struck by these qualities – I made one of my first portraits before the moving truck had even left the sidewalk. Historically, it’s a black community, but it’s quite diverse today. Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing – a stunning film that depicts racial tensions in the neighborhood – was filmed here.
I shoot with a Rolleiflex 3.5F Planar film camera, a really old school model that is very different from today’s cameras – and something these young girls had probably never seen. For street portrait photography, there isn’t a lot of arranging or staging. I just shoot from the side of the street with my favorite lighting, which is shadow.
Asking someone if you can take their portrait is a shortcut to saying, “I like you.” This should never be hard to tell a stranger, but somehow it is. There are studies showing that when you look someone in the eye, oxytocin is released, a hormone that makes you feel good and connected, neutralizing the stress hormone cortisol. All of my Bed-Stuy photos have strong eye contact. There is a transfer of happiness. I understand. This is why I have been photographing strangers in the street for 20 years.
Personal Links: Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn by Amy Touchette is now available, published by Schilt. www.amytouchette.com. Follow Amy on @amy_touchette.
Amy Touchette’s Resume
Born: New York, 1970.
Qualified: International Center of Photography, New York.
Influence : Diane Arbus, Helen Levitt, August Sander, the Maysles brothers.
High point: “Receiving leather pants from Arbus, which fit me perfectly.”
Low point: “Learn that [local cop] “Scooter Joe” Willins passed away in the spring of 2020. He was an inspirational person I photographed while creating Personal Ties.
Trick : “If you want your subjects to feel calm, comfortable, and authentic, then feel calm, comfortable, and authentic when you approach them.”