Reacquainted with the streets

When I was a very young child, my family subscribed to the National Geographic. Each month I found myself grabbing for the magazine and frantically flipping through to see all the photographs from cover to cover. My eyes then my mind exploded with excitement and curiosity once a month. A seed was being planted.

National Geographic was my gateway to places very different from my own.  

One day I opened the magazine and there was an article about the Kyabé village in Chad with women wearing lip plates, and another article showing the Kayan people who elongate their necks with multiple rings. This was the first time I stopped and wondered what their lives were like, their homes, friends, family, mothers, fathers. How did they go to a movie? Where was the nearest doctor? Why would you do that to your body?  

It left a mysterious impression and one that needed attention and solving, but a few more elements needed to be introduced before I would discover it was photography.

I spent most of my time from then on staring out of windows wondering about all the possibilities. I grew more curious and went deeper into my head. Report cards were littered with carbon-copy hand-written notes to my parents, “Kevin continues to spend a lot of time day dreaming … ” I wanted to watch people, and study what they were wearing, how they spoke and their body language. But staring was rude. So I would get a visual, and crawl deep inside my head and finish out the stories.  

About 10 years later, a high school dorm mate had an accident inside the dorm, and died. It was just before 9 p.m. and I was on my way back into my dorm to order Domino’s Pizza.  As I entered the dorm I felt a silence as if I were deaf, yet I could easily see there was panic and people running in all directions.  "Cory hung himself!" one of the dormates screamed as he grabbed my shoulders.  I stood in once place in shock and he was taken away on a stretcher to the hospital.  He was brain dead, but considered alive.  

I was 15, and so was Cory.

I wanted a picture of Cory for my wall to remember him every day so I marched off to the high school darkroom, where a harried staffer gave me a cursory tutorial and set me loose.  I emerged 8 hours later with my first true passion. Within days, I had a Canon AE-1 camera and a few lenses (Thanks, Dad!) 

Shortly afterward, I started shooting on the streets in San Francisco, Berkeley and the Bay Area without any knowledge of why or what I was doing. It seemed like a natural direction just like any calling. What I did not know was that I was laying the foundation for some pretty incredible projects that would come out of the street work and change my life and career path that has led me to where I stand today.  

I did not know anything about "street photography" nor the masters who preceded me. I didn’t think I invented anything fantastic, but my inspiration was drawn from the voice of passion and interest inside my head and not by others' work. Street photography chose me, really. It’s where I subconsciously discovered a wonderful place to dig into my own head, create art and carry out my voyeuristic obsessions I was given at birth.  

When my working career took off in 1999, the streets became a thing of the past. Most of my formative years in documentary photography were spent creating long-term documentary essays that took years.  Between 1990 and 1994 I photographed two projects all within a four-block radius. To continue that type of commitment caused me anxiety with a full-time schedule.  So, I quit my personal work. I felt like if I can’t do it at 500 percent, then don’t do it at all.

Not until my life was turned upside down and I moved back to California 15 years after leaving San Francisco was I reacquainted with the streets. But this time in Southern California. Initially, the iPhone started to rekindle my love for doing personal work back in Chicago.  I finally had a camera that was not a DSLR and was with me at all times.  It's been more than a year now since I started taking a small camera with me everywhere I go (not my iPhone). I am excited to now have a perfect place to share my personal work as I take to the streets again after a 15-year break.   

Unlike the previous stint with the streets, I find myself comfortable and thriving off the spontaneity of life around me. For now, the freedom to see without constraints feels right. My street work today compared to a year ago is already a story in itself. Every now and then I see themes building in my work which is exciting and new for me. Normally my images are bound together by a topic (like my trans-sexual street prostitute series shot from 1990-1992, the street kids series from 1992-1994 or the gangs I worked with in 1996) and not by composition, light, subject matter or critical thought.  A theme is less obvious than a project title and one that takes time to organically evolve.  I want my pictures to tell me where and what to photograph, not the other way around.  The latter is called commercial work and that is how I make money.      

And who knows, maybe in the future I might want to dig deeper into someone else's soul again and spend a year inside their home photographing them until 4 am like the old days.   

For now, enjoy the journey with me. Here are a few of my favorites.