A Devotion To The Road With Photographer Jessica Lehrman
For some, #vanlife is merely an aesthetic, a lifestyle veneer they aspire to. But for WNW Member Jessica Lehrman, it's all she knows. Growing up mostly in an RV, Jessica traveled the country as a kid: living in Seattle, Tucson, Colorado, Los Angeles, Purchase, and currently Brooklyn (clocking in at over 6 years). Through her upbringing, a natural inquisitiveness for people emerged. Jessica has since been able to translate this into a passion: today she is a world-renowned and highly sought after photographer and photojournalist. She documents everything from the underground rap community in New York to political organizing and protests.
In our interview below, Jessica talks about the dynamics of family road trips, the second family she's found in Brooklyn's underground hip hop scene, and where her craft may take her next. "I think it's in my blood to be continually moving and floating around. I kind of just go where the wind takes me and end up in some pretty starkly different realities and lives. I'm attracted to the most intense aspects of devotion: to one's craft, to one's family, to music, to politics, to love or god. I will follow people across the world for any of those things."
Tell us a little bit about your creative background. Who is Jessica Lehrman, and how did she get here?
I grew up with an incredibly supportive family that nurtured the idea that your artistic endeavor should exist at the center of your life. My childhood was spent bouncing around between different states, cities, schools, RV's, and situations based on that guiding principle. Whether I was living unschooled in the mountains of Colorado, or trying to figure it out as a teenager in Venice Beach working for a newspaper, my parents had instilled in my sister and I a sense that life was the biggest art project. And further, that we should set our lives up as creatively and as in support of others as possible.
I wanted to be a lot of things growing up but all of those things involved art and social documentation in some way or another - most I was pretty bad at (although my parents would tell me otherwise.) It wasn't until I discovered photography that I truly felt I had found my instrument with which to tell stories.
I’m not quite sure where “here” is yet, as I feel every day I am changing my mind on where “there” is that I'm trying to get to. But I would say I got to where I'm at by lots of chance meetings with magical people along my path, who have been interested in the stories I want to document and have helped them to be seen. That might involve dropping out of college, going to India, huddling under small umbrellas with strangers at Occupy Wall Street, or getting sent on rap tours or anti-fracking buses.
Do you have a signature style or process that links all of your projects, or are you more interested in approaching each shoot or experience with spontaneity?
I think I have a pretty distinctive style that fortunately or unfortunately I can't seem to change. My work is extremely personal and no matter what I'm photographing I tend to approach it in the same ways. First, by getting completely entrenched in the world I'm documenting and believing in it and rooting for it and loving it as much as I can, probably for the rest of my life. And secondly, if I can't find common ground or understanding or if I am shooting something that is based out of a culture of hate or discrimination, such as a Trump Rally, I try to go into the experience with as much of an open mind as I can and shoot from somewhat of a blank slate.
How did you first get involved in documenting the New York rap scene? And how has this ongoing interest developed?
I’ve pretty much always shot music. In college, I went to the very music-focused SUNY Purchase and would shoot every act that came there. A lot of my friends were in bands and I would shoot their promos and go on mini-tours and go to the city with them when they had shows.
When I left school and moved to Brooklyn, I continued to shoot bands and protests, my two main focuses, both equally electrifying movements. In 2011 I was spending most of my days at Zuccotti Park during Occupy Wall Street, and was very broke and had lost weight from not having money for food AND a metro card. I then got a call to go on a 14-day tour across the South with Jermaine Dupri (whom I didn't know anything about at the time, to be honest) for what at that time was “a small fortune.” I said yes and left the following week and fell in love with touring, and with hip hop. When I came home I fell back into days at Occupy and nights shooting rap shows. Brooklyn is small and so is the music scene, and underground hip-hop in Brooklyn is even smaller. I met the group World's Fair at Fools Gold Day Off and they became my family and some of my best friends for life. They introduced me to Bodega Bamz and The Underachievers; fast forward and the stories of the artists in that group of friends became ones I felt I wanted to help share with the world. Those guys are all family.
It seems like movement has been a central theme in your life, from childhood to shooting the Beast Coastal tour and the 2016 election. Can you talk about that and how it informs your creative process?
I think it's in my blood to be continually moving and floating around. I kind of just go where the wind takes me and end up in some pretty starkly different realities and lives. I'm attracted to the most intense aspects of devotion: to one's craft, to one's family, to music, to politics, to love or god. I will follow people across the world for any of those things, and all of the stories I've spent some time on share that in common.
Have you considered testing the waters of videography?
Yes, I have done a bit of directing but haven't really found my voice in that medium yet. I would actually like to do more and maybe just need an excuse to do so.
In what unexpected places do you find creative inspiration?
Dance. I love watching people dance. It might go with my obsession with movement and intense emotions but I feel like dance performances encompass so much passion that I want to capture in my work. I’m also very intrigued by and have started to experiment with quilting and textile arts, but I don't want to say too much before I put out some work in that medium.
You’ve seen artists and friends you started with early on go on to flourish with their craft. Joey Badass and Flatbush Zombies, who are now Billboard-charting international stars, come to mind. What has it been like witnessing that growth process firsthand?
Honestly, it makes me want to cry with happiness. I want nothing more in life than to see my friends succeed and get the platform they deserve. I love all those guys dearly and am more than excited for everything they are getting!
Through your work, you’ve traveled extensively. What is it like working from the road? What’s the one or two pieces of equipment you can’t travel without?
I LOVE working from the road. I love touring because it's traveling with your best friends and having slumber parties and getting to experience newness but also familiarity. As for equipment, I seriously never change what I have if I'm on the road or here, and it's very little: I have a 5D and a 24-70L and a flash. I'm little and I don't like to carry more than I need and have found that to be all I need for anything. There are little non-photography things I have been very happy to have on the road, such as a headlamp for in the bunk on a tour bus when you are looking for your socks, a fanny pack for batteries when you don't want to carry your whole backpack, Wellness Formula so you don't get sick, and face wipes because the number of times you are showering is very little.
You experienced a pretty unique gypsy summer with your parents and sister a few years back. What advice and lessons learned can you offer to making the most of family road trips?
I think compassion is key with family road trips. It's something that I am forever working on and that my sister and I run into issues with when we are crammed together in a small sedan for days on end. I think learning to be patient and understanding and see things from another's perspective is so important with family in general. Road trips just emphasize whatever issues you have with whomever you are traveling. For me that's my biggest problem I want to work on and my sister helps me with that. Families are great for teaching you lessons about yourself as they know just how to push your buttons. But if you can address those reactions in your family, I feel like they become an issue you don't have to deal with in other relationships.
Do you see yourself settling down in New York or do particular places you visited often call to you?
I would like to live in nature and have a stream nearby and a treehouse and room to make art and travel for work. Not sure NYC is the place for that but I haven't really found it yet so until then I'm here.
What part of being a photographer keeps you most fulfilled?
Sometimes I feel like being a photographer is just a cheat code for getting to go experience whatever part of life you can imagine and having an excuse to do so. I don't know that the act of taking photos is very fulfilling to me, but getting to know new people constantly and hear new stories and fall in love over and over again with humanity is more what keeps me fulfilled.