Ysa Pérez is a portrait and documentary photographer who was born in Puerto Rico and raised in Rochester, New York. In late summer 2017, she spent time in South Williamsburg getting to know a Brooklyn-based group of boys.
I was walking my friend to the Marcy train station in September when I saw these two dudes whiz by on matching royal blue dirt bikes.
I ditched my friend immediately and asked if I could take their photograph. “What are your names?” I asked. “Kay” and “Noah,” they told me. We’re both eyeing each other up and down, but within a few minutes, I’m on the back of Noah’s bike off to Kay's house to kick it. It was way too late at night to shoot, but I wanted to introduce myself, get to know them, and establish a friendship.
For the next few days, I tried to link up with Kay, short for Kahlil, through DMs and random appearances in his building. But we kept missing each other. Eventually, I received a phone call from Kahlil. He apologized, told me that Labor Day was wild, and asked if I could come through.
I showed up to a project building I’d never been to with five or six guys I’d never met. I recognized Kay, or 'Lil, next to his bike, Baby Blue, and I knew I was good. He was my connect, my guy, my new friend. He explained that I wasn’t the police, that I was just trying to kick it and make some pictures.
That day I met everyone. There was Chris, the jokester of the group, who was also so sweet. During our second encounter, after watching me struggle, he offered to carry my photo bag—nobody does that shit. Joel had dark hair and beautiful green eyes, which we both agreed was rare for a Hispanic dude. Ted was a bit shy, but when he did speak, it was always of value. I didn't mind because I was an outsider. I was just appreciative of being in their space, in their world. He lived with his younger brother TyTy, who impressed me with his style and maturity. Jared and Darius, the homies, would sometimes roll through, too. These were the usual suspects. These were my guys.
For the next few weeks, I dedicated a lot of energy to coming over and experiencing their world. I was the “camera lady” to their friends, and sometimes the mom trying to buy pizza for everyone. The more they got to know me, I eventually became a part of the clique, laughing and joking with them as real friends. Kahlil and I bonded the most through our mutual love for Baby Blue. He’d be outside my building, revving it up, and I’d run outside, no question, and jump on like, “Let’s go.” I knew he had me like I had him. He trusted me enough to allow a stranger into his room, introduce me to his mother and friends, and show me his world, so I trusted him enough with my life.
After a few weeks in New York, I was ready to move on to the next place, because I never really stay put. When I started saying my goodbyes, I sensed Kahlil thought we wouldn’t talk again—that he was just another project for me. “It happens to us all the time,” he told me on Chris’s bed. Then he showed me a picture of a dude who had photographed him years before with similar intimacy, and I thought, How could you lose touch with these guys? How could you just take from a group and not give back? Or say, 'What up?' years later?
Although I had to leave, I had no intention of ghosting him and his friends. I was actually looking forward to the day I’d come back, and we’d all reunite. So I started crying a bit, quite embarrassed. I was supposed to be the adult and have my shit together. “Nah, it’s fine," Chris said to me. "That’s how you know it’s real. It's not everyday you meet someone on the street and form a real bond like we did with you.”
On my third to last day, Chris told me Kahlil went to sell his bike. My heart broke a little, as I pretended to be unaffected. When I saw Kahlil I asked, “You sold it?” “Yeah,” he shrugged, but he assured me he’s going to get a proper one. “But I’m going to miss that bike,” I confided in him. “It’s the first one I fell in love with,” Kahlil agreed.
Saying our goodbyes, he showed me on my phone the new bike he’s going to get. It’s a real one. Probably one I won’t be brave enough to get on. I realized then why I felt sad. The loss of the bike was his innocence shedding. He’s getting older, and he’s maturing, confronting more actual danger by taking a greater real risk. But it’s a part of him becoming a man. So I accept it.
I haven’t seen the boys since September 2017. We DM one another. I watch their stories from afar, like a concerned older sister seeing if they’re doing alright. I miss them. I miss their energy and laughter. I miss absorbing their youth. But what I mostly miss is our process. To see their faces as they glanced through polaroids, to see them understand how someone else perceived them—somebody who believes in them—meant everything.
The bond is for life, and these photographs are my memories of that.