Jeremy Fokkens

New York City | Dancing Underground

I apologize for this late post as it is a series of photographs from my recent trip to New York City this past summer where a chance encounter led to an amazing experience. To my defense I have been extremely busy working on a variety of projects here in Calgary and committing to a total renovation of a home I recently purchased. Again my apologies and I hope you enjoy this post. It was July 13th and I was leaving New York City in three days after already spending an incredible three weeks in the big apple. I was taking the express train from Harlem into Manhattan to return a set of stands that I had rented for a previous shoot for a Tap Dancing Company a couple days prior. As I made my way onto the train squeezing myself into any available space I could find, I jammed myself up against a door mid way down the cart, with my stands tucked between my legs trying not to injure anyone in the process. As soon as the train started to proceed to the next station, there was this sudden "WHAT TIME IS IT?" at the top of someone's lungs immediately followed by "IT'S SHOWTIME" from what sounded like a few other young boys. Then again the same words repeated"WHAT TIME IS IT?" ....then "IT'S SHOWTIME". That's when it all happened. A group of five young boys started dancing in the middle of the train cart accompanied by a very loud portable speaker system that was strapped to a make shift grocery dolly playing some old school funk. In the span of 3 minutes these boys took turns dancing in a space that was no larger than six feet by six feet successfully landing and performing head-spins, front flips, freezes, floor work, table tops, and even gymnastic flares. Their feet, hands, and bodies came within centimeters of the commuters where even the slightest change of their positions would have left someone severely bruised or badly injured. Some people watched in absolute amazement, others did not even look to see or acknowledge what was going on. At one moment one of the boys jumped above someone sitting down where he grabbed the hand rail above the woman then threw his body into a complete flip pushing himself off the bar and landing back on his feet in front of the same woman sitting down. She did not even flinch as she was on her phone.

Once the music stopped, some people started clapping, cheering, and began taking photographs with their phones. The group of boys thanked the crowd and made their way around the train cart with an empty baseball cap in their hands accepting any cash people were willing to give. I waited till one of the boys came past me where I handed him five dollar note. Immediately I thought to myself I have to follow these guys around for a day. The train was about 30 seconds from the next stop so I quickly pulled one of the boys aside and told them who I was, what I was doing in New York, and if I could photograph the five of them for an entire day. They gave me their number and told me to call them that night to set up a time.

The next day I met up with the five boys; Angel, Ouba, Aidan, Josh, and Stefy. Angel and Josh are brothers and the other boys came from other b-boy crews where they  created their own called "2 Real 2 True 4 Breakin". The boys do not just choose any train to dance on, they choose to ride the same route all day getting on only the express line and returning to the loop over and over again which allows the group to dance longer with fewer stops. Once the group arrives on the platform they quickly choose their commuter cart carefully looking for the group size of commuters to generate more tips but not to many so they are unable to have room to dance. Once we got onto the train and the doors closed, the boys immediately sprang into action. Josh immediately shouting the same words I heard the day before "WHAT TIME IS IT?".... and the rest of the boys responding "IT'S SHOWTIME". The music starts, they clear the space, and they waste no time and start performing as people are still trying to figure out what is happening on their daily commute. Each of boys takes a turn dancing, showcasing their moves while anticipating the trains movement so they don't fall or accidentally collide with any bystanders. The song finishes and they proceed through the crowd collecting any cash they can before the train reaches the next station. We get off and wait for the train to take us back the other way. We complete this cycle over and over again over a span of 5 hours running from car to car to find the best train cars to dance on.

Sometimes when trains are running late the boys will practice moves and techniques on the platform, listen to music, count the tips they have made, or chat with other crews that are also dancing on the subway to earn some extra cash. On average the group earns about $250 in three to four hours and all money is divided evenly amongst the group. The five of them are all born and raised in New York and they live in Bronx. Some of the boys parents support what they do, others do not as they are are encouraged to pursue other avenues of earning extra cash.

 

New York City | Dancing Underground

 

 

Love: Stranger Series New York City

There is something to be said about going for a walk. I find walking alone especially with a camera can be one of the most calming and exhilarating experiences as a photographer because you never know who or what your going to run into and it forces you to slow down and really look at your surrounding environment. On one particular day as I was just spending the day... you guessed it... walking, I came to the intersection of Tillary street and the entry route onto the Brooklyn bridge. At this intersection I noticed a man walking from car to car as they were stopped at the intersections red light. As I walked a little closer, I noticed the man was quite well dressed and in one arm he had a hand full of the newspapers and in the other hand a stack of ready made six inch pies. Now I have seen people in other countries selling flowers, fruit, and even tombstones to people in parked cars but never pie and the daily news from a single person. As I made my way over to the side of the road where he was conducting his business with the temporarily stopped cars, it was surprising to see he was making quite a few sales in the short amount time I had since noticed him. The street light turned green, the cars drove away, and the man waited patiently along the side of the road for the next set of traffic to stop at the lights. I walked over to see this man and asked him what he was selling. It turned out to be sweet potato pies and the local newspaper. When I asked for his name he stumbled his words and said "Ahhh... My name is Love". I was surprised by the name but didn't question how or where he got his name from. I tried asking him more about his life but he insisted right away he did not want to talk about himself, so Instead I asked if I could take his picture. Again his demeanor changed instantly from the smiley happy pie and paper salesman to becoming a little anxious and questioned me why I wanted to photograph him. I told him what I was doing, where the photographs would end up, and for more peace of mind I gave him my business card. By this time more cars had stopped at the intersection and I told him to think about it and go look after his customers. After the light had turned green, Love walked back to where I was standing and happily agreed.

 

 

 

Ahmed: Stranger Series New York City

As I was walking the Brooklyn Bridge in New York City this past summer (2013), I noticed a elderly man on the pedestrian path was selling water out of a portable cooler on a dolly. Now if you have never been to New York City in the summer time it gets ridiculously hot especially during the heat waves, and just my luck the entire three weeks I was there it was 35 degrees every day. As soon as I heard this man shout out "COLD WATER.... ONLY ONE DOLLA" in his Arabic accent I could not resist. Gulping down the water as quickly as I gave the man my money I decided to see if he would allow me to take his photo. The man graciously said yes and we exchanged names. His name was Ahmed and he had been in New York for the past 6 weeks and was headed back to Egypt to see his family at the end of the summer. After our small and brief conversation Ahmed immediately asked a passing tourist to take a photo of the two of us on his mobile phone. We thanked each other for the encounter and we went our separate ways.  

Lilly

I recently went to New York City for three weeks for a project that I am working on involving the New York City dance community. Usually when I travel for an extended period of time for a specific project, I try to allocate a few days where I just walk with my camera photographing only what I see in that moment with no prior intent, concept, or idea. These are some of my favorite experiences I have when traveling because there is no set destination and there is no pressure from any outside influence; it is just me, my camera, and the outside elements. On one particular day I decided to walk North from Brooklyn at 4:30pm and after 15km in 40 degree heat, I came across a woman who I noticed was collecting bottles from trash bags that were placed on the curb/sidewalks in front of what looked like an upscale restaurant in mid town Manhattan. As I walked by, I briefly made eye contact with the woman where we both exchanged a quick smile and as quick as she looked up her attention was back to the task at hand, collecting bottles out of the 12 or more large bags that engulfed her tiny body. As I kept walking, I stopped just over thirty feet past her casually leaning against the adjacent building watching her activity intently. After about five minutes this tiny woman starts carrying one of the large plastic bags that she has filled with aluminum cans and drags it to a shopping cart next to her. She struggles to tie the bag of cans to the already hanging six or so bags of cans and bottles that have swallowed her shopping cart. Noticing her dilemma,  I quickly walk over and offer some help by tying the full bag to anything that would hold it's weight without it's contents spilling onto the street. Once the bag was secure the woman looked at me and gave me the biggest smile and in broken English said "Thank-you". I realized this would be a great opportunity asking her to take her photo. Given my experience of being denied photographing woman in similar circumstances, I was surprisingly shocked when she immediately agreed where I then snapped off ten or so frames. After I finished the last frame, she gently tapped her chest and said "Me... Lilly". We both smile, I tell her my name mimicking her hand to chest motion and end our encounter with a friendly handshake and we go our separate ways. It was only after I had walked 50 feet that I quickly turned around and went back to ask Lilly another question seeing the potential in our chance encounter. As I came around the corner and coming face to face with my new friend, I asked her if I could follow her for an entire day photographing her daily life and activities. Realizing that she spoke very little English and only Mandarin, I was quickly faced with difficult language barriers I had in Bangladesh re-living that sense of helplessness and in a city where English is one of the first spoken languages. After many attempts at trying to find out where she would be in the afternoon the next day, we both realized and knew the language barrier was too great. Not giving up, I asked for her mobile number in very poor hand signals in hopes of calling her the next day to try again. She agreed and gave me her number.

The next day I called Lilly at noon asking her where she was and within minutes it was the same scenario from our first encounter the day before. Neither of us could understand one another and we were both reluctant to hang up the phone but we knew it was inevitable and after a a couple minutes our phone call had ended. Sitting on the sidewalk with my back to a building, I knew I could make this meeting happen. I looked up and saw a food truck. Never denying myself food and always being able to think better with something in my stomach, I decided to eat as it might be a good idea so I can come up with a different approach to meeting up with Lilly. As I glanced at the menu from the hole in the wall food truck, I ordered my chicken paratha (South Asian oily flat bread). Waiting for my order, I noticed an Asian man walk up behind me also wanting to place an order. I immediately turned to the man and said "I know this may sound crazy but do you happen to speak Cantonese or Mandarin"? The gentleman looked at me a bit puzzled, then smiled and said "I actually speak both languages fluently but I am Malaysian". I then told him who I was and that I wanted to photograph this woman but was unable to communicate with her. I suggested to the man I call Lilly from my phone and from there he can immediately take over the conversation and essentially be my translator and get her location. The friendly man agreed. I quickly dialed the number, Lilly answered, I tell her it's Jeremy, and then I pass the phone to the gentleman. After 20 seconds he starts talking with her and within 2 minutes Lilly tells the man her location and the conversation ends. I thank the man offering to pay for his meal, he declines, we shake hands, he wishes me good luck, and I am off running towards the nearest subway, chicken paratha in hand making my way down to West 4st.

Once I make it down town I had no problems finding Lilly. She was just as smiley and friendly the evening I met her. I tried explaining why I wanted to photograph her that day but again the language barrier was to difficult and I was yet again on a mission in search for another stranger who could speak Mandarin for me. After many "no's" from various foot traffic, I finally came across a woman who was more than willing to help translate some questions I had for Lilly. Within 10 minutes or so everyone was on the same page and Lilly was more than happy to let me follow her around photographing her daily routine.

Lilly is 58 years old and comes from a small village in China. She lives in New York City with her husband and has for the past 13 years. Lilly used to work in a restaurant in China Town, however the restaurant has shut down and she tells me it is hard to find work because she does not speak English. She spends her days collecting glass bottles and aluminum cans from various store fronts and apartment buildings where the owners and general public greet Lilly as if she were their closest friends. Back in China Lilly has two children where her daughter is in her 20's and is a house keeper and her son is in his 30's and is a driver for a local company. I could not help notice the amount of recyclables Lilly collects on a daily basis and I was curious to find out how much she makes on a average day. It turns out she collects $20-$30 worth of cans and bottles in a 10 hour day.

Ruth Renner

I met Ruth through a chance encounter while I was photographing a local blacksmith named Marshall who does a large amount of shoeing for the equestrian community in Calgary and surrounding area. I asked Marshall after I had finished photographing him if he knew of any woman specifically in the ranching/agriculture community that are older than seventy-five and still working. Thinking this was a complete long shot and not even expecting an answer, Marshall immediately started describing the exact individual I had in my head. I asked Marshall if I could meet this woman and he said “Sure, we just have to travel to the other side of the highway”. Marshall and Ruth were literally neighbors living within throwing distance of each other. When I met Ruth it was later in the evening around 8:30pm. Marshall was kind enough to introduce me to Ruth at her home leaving only a twenty four hour notice. As soon as Ruth answered the door I was amazed on how mobile she was. Already Knowing she was 86 years old prior to arriving, I pictured in my head an elderly woman with a cane, neatly dressed, and softly spoken. I could not have been more wrong, shocked on how her ability to speak with such confidence and eloquence, and to add insult to injury Ruth was covered in dirt and debris from the days work on her farm. Ruth was born in 1925 in Montana USA and when she was six months old her parents migrated to Calgary where she has lived ever since. Ruth grew up raising horses, pigs, chickens and growing hay. Attending University at Cornell University and University of Alberta (UofA), Ruth studied animal science while earning her masters in agriculture. After university she became a professor at the U of A for twenty-five years before coming back to Calgary to work the same land her parents bought back in 1925. To this day Ruth still runs the farm checking the troughs, the cattle, and attending to the daily maintenance that is always needed. Given her age, Ruth has had to bring on a few helpers as she is going blind. After Ruth passes, she plans to donate the land to the Nature Conservancy so that the land will have beneficial value due to the nutrient soil rather than selling it off to a developer where it could potentially threaten and destroy the area. Before my interview with Ruth came to an end, this was her last statement “There is a limited amount of black soil out here and it is the most productive and it would be a shame to put it under concrete and condo’s. It should be used productively for growing and producing, that is what should happen to good land”.