Where did you grow up and did you always want to be a photographer?
I grew up in Baltimore. My father and uncle owned a family camera store and so I had a camera in nursery school. That means I’ve been photographing for more than 70 years.
Did you pursue photography right out of school?
I thought I might want to go into anthropology. I did one year Masters and then went into the Peace Corps. I worked in an anthropology museum at Yale for a year when I decided I didn’t want to be inside looking at artifacts. I’d rather be outside. However, I approach photography with an anthropologist’s view.
You’re well known for chronicling of the '70s graffiti artists in New York. What brought you to the city?
I moved to New York in 1975 because I thought I wanted to work for a newspaper, since that was the road to National Geographic. I got a job at the New York Post where I was a staff photographer for three years. I was going all over the five boroughs. Every day I would drive through the Lower East Side and use up my film taking pictures of kids doing creative things. [Eventually] I did a book, “Street Play”, about kids inventing art forms.
When you go out to shoot, do you already have a sense of the kinds of photographs you want to take?
When you choose a subject to photograph, you choose it for a number of reasons beyond making a nice picture. I tend to gravitate towards images that fall into categories I’ve already established. For example, every day art is a category. So are hand painted signs, graffiti, customizations like hairstyles or someone who has taken a t-shirt that they’ve cut.
Since you take a lot of your pictures in low come areas and you’ve witnessed a fair amount of poverty, did you ever feel compelled to take action beyond photography?
I show people that even in the poorest of neighborhoods, creativity can blossom. When you look at my pictures, you see the upside and not the downside of the neighborhoods. I’m more interested in the community and culture than righting the wrongs. It’s more about how people are surviving and triumphing over these terrible conditions.
You eventually shifted your focus to Baltimore. Why?
I didn’t feel like I could do it New York anymore since it’d become sort of overdeveloped. So I came to Baltimore where they filmed the Wire and I bought a house in the worst of the worst neighborhoods. It’s called Sowebo (South West Baltimore), and for ten years I went back and forth on the bus from New York. [I took] over 200 bus trips.
What did people think of you as a newcomer?
I wanted to document this neighborhood and so I had to establish rapport with the people. I took down their addresses and handed out thousands of photos. They called me the “Picture Lady”.
In your collaboration with Brazilian artist Mundano, on his project Pimp my Carroça, you photographed Catadores, the people who pick up cans on the street. Given that you were a non-native, were they wary of having their picture taken?
Getting access to the culture is always an important thing. [When I collaborated with Mundano], the recyclers all knew him. So I was able to fly in under his auspices and I didn’t have to make my own connections there. Many times that’s how I work. [For example], with someone in Haiti who had researched voodoo for many years. She was an anthropologist and had taken the time to establish the rapport. There was no way I could go shoot that without her. I just think photographers are dependent on establishing rapport with their subjects and that goes a long way.
What are people mostly concerned about in having their picture taken?
Back in the day people usually thought [having a camera] was TV news. Now there is a sense you might be exploiting them and they’re worried about it. You can’t go in with your guns blazing, your cameras snapping, without talking people.
You’ll be at this year’s Academy in Baltimore. What will you be doing?
You never know exactly! This will be my third Academy. I was the one who said why don’t you do Baltimore? I’m so glad they did. It’s wonderful to see these are amazing, dedicated, intelligent young people helping their communities. They’re super enthusiastic and just need a little bit direction.
Martha Cooper Instagram