Hurricane Sandy came up in conversation last weekend at my friend's house and he was telling me about a friend of his who took really great photographs of the aftermath. Not that hurricanes and destruction are great things, but the style of the photography was very refreshing to me. I scrolled through her blog and was really impressed with the quality and perspective of her eye. There was everything from underground live hip-hop photos, to Occupy Wall Street coverage and I wanted to know more. I sat down a couple of days ago and talked to Jessica Lehrman while I was in my nice cozy room and she was inside of a New York café seeking refuge from a blizzard. She was kind enough to go ahead with the interview even while she was almost locked in towards the end and ultimately had to leave. So part of this interview was outside in an actual blizzard. Some of her clients include Rolling Stone, Billboard, Spin, and Vice, among many others. She's based out of NYC and I asked her a few questions about her photography and some of her experiences.
"I LOOKED UP ON THE INTERNET ON HOW TO HELP THE WORLD"
How long have you been shooting for now?
How old am I? Seven years? Yeah seven.
How did you get your break in the industry?
I lived in Central America for awhile and I brought my camera there. I started getting exposure and came back and met a woman at a yard sale who was the photo editor of the newspaper in Santa Monica. She said, "Oh I'm going to hire you," and so I started working for two years in L.A. for the newspaper there doing photojournalism. When I came here, I started shooting bands all of the time. I don't know if I've had a break yet, you know what I mean?
What's in your bag?
Um, I've got it right here next to me…5D (Mark 1), 24-70mm 2.8, and a 50mm that was like a hundred bucks and is awesome, (everyone should have one). A 580 flash and for portraits I use a Hasselblad 503 c with an 80mm 2.8.
Do you consider yourself more of a photojournalist?
No. I consider myself a documentary photographer, I'm not a photojournalist.
They're all very strict as to how they shoot and I'm very biased. I would just tell my story more than a photojournalist would. My opinion is very obvious in my photos.
What's your thought process when you're taking an image?
It's kind of intuitive a bit. I find myself kind of not really thinking about it to be honest. I just try to live in the moment and let it unfold and then have it happen to me, then I happen to take a picture of it. My thought process is to put myself into really weird situations and have my camera ready when the weird shit happens right in front of me.
What is one of your favorite images you've taken?
The picture of the guy from Flatbush Zombies and he's just fallen into the crowd. The first photo I ever took, I really like that picture. It was of this man passed out with a lit cigarette in his mouth on Fair St. in Providence Rhode Island and I actually got run down six blocks by all of his friends who were screaming at me for taking the photo.
You seem to be in the center of everything, from the unfortunate hurricane and even back to when Occupy Wall Street was in full swing. Do you find your surroundings have really been an advantage to your work?
I would never not be in New York. This is the center of the universe, there is no place better than New York City and it is impossible here. I see people give up all of the time all around me, but it's beautiful and incredible and intense. I like being in this environment, and I feel like this is the time and the place - this is where I need to be. There is an insane hip-hop movement happening right now that's completely revolutionary and I'm in the center of that. It feels like we're meant to be here and help document and be apart of this, so I definitely can't leave New York.
How did you get involved in the hip-hop scene there?
It happened by accident. I got hired to shoot tour footage for Jermaine Dupri like a year ago and I didn't know who he was. I grew up in the middle of nowhere in an RV with hippie parents, so we didn't know anything about hip-hop or rap. I came back to New York and got involved with all of these more underground rappers and it was like a community. In a way it kind of mimics my hippie upbringing, because they're all talking about spirituality and community. They're all bringing each other up together, essentially, and they rep their hoods and their people, they're political in their own way and it's not typical rap music because to me it's a revolution. People listen to rappers and they have political power and I'm interested in capturing that new take on hip-hop. I'm capturing it from a very tourist perspective because I don't understand it, but I'm very embedded. Why don't more people know about it? It's funny because I pitch this stuff to Rolling Stone. I send them like eighty-three pitches a week! I have all of these ideas that involve the underground hip-hop scene and they always turn me down and say, "We don't cover that." The other day they sent me a message back and told me I was like an ADHD child on crack. I was laughing but I was thinking, one day you guys are going to be writing about these people and I fucking told you first!
How do you approach portraiture? I'm not very logical, I'm more in the moment. I get hired to do portraits a lot and I don't really plan them before. I go in and try to get to know the person and try to find that spark. I don't really have a look that I like, I like interesting people. I don't care about hot people. When I'm taking a portrait I want to get to the point. What photographers are you influenced by? I think Annie Leibovitz is one of my biggest influences. I'm her age when she was working for Rolling Stone. I don't think our styles are similar, but in terms of her career I definitely look up to her. People that I'm influenced by now are my peers and people who I shoot along with because I have a very strong community in the arts that I've developed through Occupy Wall Street and shooting current events. We have photo clubs and we compare our work and talk to each other. I think that's where I get most of my inspiration. How did going to India come about? I had a mid-life crisis in college and felt that I needed to help out the world, so I looked up on the internet on how to help the world. There was this orphanage in India that was going to shut down because they didn't have volunteers during the summer and had a ton of kids. I thought that would be perfect, so I raised like six thousand dollars and my friend Avery and I went there and kind of ran the orphanage for the summer. I got swine flu and almost died but yeah that's how we ended up there.
What did you learn about humanity in India and what do you think you gained from that experience? The biggest thing was perspective. As Americans we have the perspective that if other people aren't living like we're living then they're wrong and they need help. In reality, when I was in India - in the slums - the middle of nowhere, living in the fuckin' jungle, people were eight million times happier than anyone I know in New York. It's when Americans go in there and try to change things, that's when shit gets fucked up. The community there is just so much deeper than anything we could ever have. What do you think the advantages or disadvantages are from being a female photographer opposed to being a male photographer? No one ever asks me this question and it's so funny because I have very strong opinions on it. I think male photographers may be under the impression that I get work because I'm a cute girl and I have big boobs. It is so fucking hard to be a girl in this photo world. All the boys think I have one up and that people treat me different because I'm a girl. People don't value your work. I'm twenty-three years old and if I tell them I'm twenty-three, they won't look at my portfolio. I always lie and tell them I'm thirty-four and it's been working for me because people will actually take me seriously and listen to my stories. Maybe one advantage of being a girl is trust, you know what I mean? People trust you more...like I'm not going to be the crazy rapist.