Cheryl Dunn has spent the last two decades proving that she’s just as good as the guys, if not better. From legendary films like the art-documentary “Backworlds for Words” capturing Mark Gonzalez’s choreographed skate ballet to endless photo stories of graffiti artists, homelessness and heavyweight boxers in their most vulnerable form, Dunn managed to elbow her way into a crowd that was clearly designated as “boys only”. And once she was in, they welcomed her with open arms. Collaborating with a variety of artists and creative types, Dunn has continued to build something beautiful and today, something that is increasingly worth paying attention to.
She discussed her career and upcoming work with Working Class before flying off to South Africa for a photo shoot.
WC: What is your process for shooting?
CD: I would consider myself a documentary photographer, to me a lot of it is chance and just being out and about and ready at any moment to capture something striking. I always have a camera ready, on a rare occasion when I’m without it I’ll see something and hide my eyes because I’m just riddled with anxiety that I’m not getting that picture. Sometimes I’m exhausted by it, but if I don’t attempt it then I feel like shit, you know?
WC: You shoot all film?
CD: Yeah, I mean I’m forced to shoot digital. I do commercial jobs and they pull it off my website and say, ‘We want it just like this but we have to shoot with these cameras.’ That’s like telling a carpenter what kind of tool he can use to build a house. They don’t always understand it, but it’s about speed and competency. For my personal work I shoot film, and then commercial jobs I use digital.
WC: You started out as a fashion photographer and now your work is very different from that, what made you decide to make that transition?
CD: At that time there was an incredible amount of European magazines that were really incredible and creative. It wasn’t like now where you have to put advertisers in the pictures; you could get a 20-page story. In my naivety, I figured I could be whatever I wanted, and I could move to Milan and be a photographer and I could live there for no money.
Women’s clothes were versatile, I could find things at Salvation Army and shit. It was way more fun; there wasn’t an agenda. In the early ‘90s the economy crashed in New York, and there was no work and things really changed at that point. It was all about the advertisers. A big turning point for me was when I made my first film in 1997 and I had the experience of collaborating with artists, visual artists and real people. This was not a creative thing; it was more of a documentary. I remember going to the Marc Jacobs show right after I shot that film and being so whatever about it. I enjoy fashion, but it was no longer exciting for me. I got the opportunity to change the course of my work, and I took it.
WC: Speaking of opportunity, I feel like you’ve had a lot of success in your photography. What are a few things you’d attribute to your success, aside from luck.
CD: Never giving up. I’ve been doing it for so long, been in so much debt because I’d have to finance a job and wait forever to get paid. You have to keep putting money back into what you’re making happen.
I would create documentary projects for myself that were long and on-going that I could hone my skills and I do that constantly. In the ‘80s I documented this scene of pro-boxers that was pretty closed off. It taught me how to be hyper-aware and really fast at shooting action, and getting shots and then dealing with all these professional, chauvinistic guys, which comes in handy in business as a woman.
This summer I made this film about street photographers and I got to work with and meet a lot of people that I admire and I did a lot of research on my subjects. Like Mary Ellen Mark, she’s intense, and in her whole career she didn’t wait for anyone to give her the time. She went after everything she got. She made that happen, and I think it’s a really important thing to do because you direct your body of work. Maybe in the beginning you feel like you’re beating your head against the wall, but if you’re passionate about what you’re doing, people respond to your genuine excitement and sooner or later they’ll come around.
Photography is changing course; documentary is big now. So it might take awhile, but sometimes what you perceive as a failure is later on more of a realization that that wasn’t the right course for you.
WC: Your photographs tell a story about the current world we’re living in and include a lot of working class or homeless subject matter. Do you feel drawn to that or is that just because you’re out in the streets?
CD: I’m interested in politics. I’m interested in the status of economic equality. I’m interested in the fringes of society. When I photograph a homeless person, it’s not like oh look at this guy, it’s more like, this is a symbol of the situation. It’s more of a statement of uncomfortable things.
WC: You have a strong presence as a woman in a man’s world. Do you see being a female as a help or a hindrance?
CD: Women are not less good at anything in my opinion, and yet there is so much imbalance in certain fields. Ultimately, it’s about opportunity and getting considered for positions, and that is way more challenging for a woman. But once you get in a door, you stay there.
WC: How did you start documenting all these street artists?
CD: I was friends with Aaron Rose and I wanted to do a collaboration with one of the street artists. I did a trade with him because he did some masks for me and then we became friends and I started documenting this world that I really knew nothing about.
I was just genuinely interested in this world, and in that case being a woman was helpful because I was so unchallenging. I just did it, I was like, ‘Can I come?’
I remember being in San Francisco and they were going in the trains and I was hanging in the studio, and they didn’t ask me to come. I was just hanging in the studio, and I was like ‘I wanna come, can I?’ and they were like, ‘Okay.’ So I did. Then I started having this really pretty document of what they were doing, at the time I didn’t think much of it. But I was helping them document this process, and they were open to that.
It was these relationships that I nurtured over time. Then a lot of other people started doing it and coming around, and by that time I was done.