For this week's Mahal, I got to meet up and talk photography with Cheney Orr. When he is not traveling the Middle East, “hunting for light,” he can be found tramping around New York City, documenting its youth and culture. Take a look at some of his latest photos and check out what he has to say about the psychological hazards of documentary photography.
VICE: I know a lot of kids nowadays are shooting with film because it is cool, but you have been doing it all of your life. Why do still you use film?
Cheney Orr: I don't know. I've dabbled in digital, but I can never stick with it. Too many buttons, switches, and settings. I like film. I like to process it myself, and I like to print in the darkroom. I like the fact that I have to wait and be separated from the image between the moment of capture, until it is processed and printed. I enjoy holding and collecting negatives as opposed to fleeting digital files. But at the end of it, really, I don't know. I probably shouldn't be using film anymore. It might be slowing me down too much. I haven't really done much of anything with any of my photos for the past year and a half. Although, I continue to shoot and continue to collect. And sometimes it drives me totally mad because I don't even know why I am doing it.
Hence the name of your blog. How do you, in fact, "hunt light"?
Photography is simply the process of capturing light as it reflects off surfaces. I guess I just thought it was a clever way of describing the photographic process, but I have been told repeatedly that it sounds very corny. It was some shit I came up with when I was a senior in high school. I can't catch a break. Ha.
Who are your inspirations?
My mom. She is the hardest working, most dedicated, self-motivated, loving, caring person I know and has always supported me, for good or bad. I know that’s a cheesy answer, but it's true. In terms of photographic inspiration, I enjoy a lot of documentary and photojournalist stuff. Heidi Levine is an old family friend, an amazing photojournalist of the Israel-Palestine conflict for the past several decades and much more. I don't know if I'll ever take such important images, but she is another dedicated person and an inspiration.
How did you get into photographing kids in NYC?
My camera used to go everywhere with me. I don't even remember taking some of my best pictures ‘cause I was shit-faced. I dropped the thing a couple times, but somehow it has always made it back home in one piece. I don't think I missed out on being a kid because I was too busy shooting when I was out partying, lurking, etc. Everybody takes photos when they do that shit. I guess I just have a different camera and shoot a lot more and sometimes use it at times that others would not.
You don't seem to ever place a boundary on what you shoot. Has there ever been a moment that was too fucked up for you to photograph?
Nothing I can think of. Not in NYC, at least. Afghanistan was a lot of that, though. There is just so much poverty. Life is hard out there. Hard to say. Whenever someone brings up the ethics of documentary photography, I can’t help but think of the story of Kevin Carter. Great photojournalist in the 80s and early 90s, member of the Bang-Bang Club. He has that amazing photo he won a Pulitzer for, of an emaciated child in Sudan crawling on the ground with a vulture patiently waiting in the background. The photo generated tons of attention and aid for Sudan, to a country of people enduring severe drought and famine.
But after Carter won the Pulitzer, people would often ask him what happened to the girl in the photo. He had to say that he didn't know. In fact, he had sat there and waited for the vulture to open its wings to make for a more dramatic photograph. He waited and waited and waited. Finally, he gave up and went and slumped by a tree. Another photojournalist and member of the Bang-Bang Club came up to him. Carter described the amazing shot he had just got. The other journalist ran to go find the scene and both the girl and vulture were gone. Shortly after winning the Pulitzer, Carter shot himself in the head. So while he took a photo that inspired tons of donated aid and saved many lives, he never helped that one girl who he instead just sat and watched and pointed his camera at. I imagine that tormented him. I have never even come close in my photography to such a moral impasse. If I ever do, I honestly don't know how I would react. For now most of what I shoot is just playful shit in the streets. It ain't that serious.
I don't know. Nothings next. Just keep shooting I guess.
Photos by Cheney Orr and words by Taji Ameen.