Herbert Von King Park is a popular park in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, where I live. It’s a place where everyone in the neighbourhood can convene. Some work out, others walk their dogs or play basketball. Lots of people go there for a barbecue or have birthday parties for their kids. I’ve lived in Bed-Stuy since 2015 and photograph at Von King Park a lot because people are chilling out so they can usually spare a moment.
These three girls were sitting on a ledge. The one in the middle was on her phone. They’re pretty young, so I got the feeling they were excited that someone in their group had a phone. You never really know if a photo is going to work out or if the people will feel too self-conscious. But once the girl got off her phone, we spent a little 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’re there to hang out with one another, not to participate in some woman’s project.
Left to right, they are Linda, Chastity and Jada. Usually I don’t get names, but this was nominated for a prize and exhibited at the National Portrait Gallery in London as part of a Taylor Wessing exhibition in 2019. When it got nominated, I had to find the girls and get signatures from their parents.
A lot of my photos from Bed-Stuy are about people in relationships: couples, friends, families. I was attracted by the friendship you can see between the young threesome. I love the way they’re staring down the camera: this is a real “girl power” picture. They look like they’re going to turn into 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-to-one and have personal exchanges.
Bed-Stuy is a huge neighbourhood. It’s very vivid, very interactive and very community-oriented. I was immediately struck by these qualities – I took one of my first portraits before the removals truck had even left the kerb. Historically, it’s a Black community, but it’s pretty diverse today. Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing – an amazing film that portrays the racial tensions in the neighbourhood – was filmed here.
I photograph with a Rolleiflex 3.5F Planar film camera, a really old school model that looks very different from cameras today – and something these young girls had probably never seen. For street portrait photography, there’s not a lot of arranging or directing. I just photograph on the side of the street with the lighting I prefer, which is shade.
Asking someone if you can take their portrait is shorthand for saying: “I like you.” That should never be hard to say to 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, counteracting the stress hormone cortisol. All my photos from Bed-Stuy have strong eye contact. There’s a transference of happiness. I get that. That’s why I’ve been photographing strangers on the street for 20 years.
Personal Ties: Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn by Amy Touchette is out now, published by Schilt. www.amytouchette.com. Follow Amy at @amy_touchette.
Amy Touchette’s CV
Born: New York, 1970.
Trained: International Center of Photography, New York.
Influences: Diane Arbus, Helen Levitt, August Sander, the Maysles brothers.
High point: “Being given a pair of Arbus’s leather pants, which fitted me perfectly.”
Low point: “Learning that [local cop] ‘Scooter Joe’ Willins had passed away in spring 2020. He was an inspirational person I photographed while making Personal Ties.”
Top tip: “If you want your subjects to feel calm, comfortable and genuine, then feel calm, comfortable and genuine when you approach them.”