The background is dark, gritty and in constant shift. But the portraits gaze back in warmth and openness. Despite the disorienting sense of urgency we glimpse of their lives, the resilient, street-tough gazes trust the photographer. That would be Jo Ann Santangelo, who, for the past year, has been documenting the late-night Christopher Street scene. “Walking the Block”, an exhibition of this work is now on view at Campbell Soady Gallery (208 West 13th Street). I spoke with Jo Ann at the opening on Thursday, and viewed her four minute multi-media work of her photographs accompanied by sounds she has recorded while capturing the West Side community of LGBT sex workers.
The work evokes so much so quickly; its raw, complex, emotional, beautiful and compassionate. We hear how the systematic sanitation/high-rise-ification of New York City displaces the middle class, but we don’t typically get to know how it dislocates the marginalized, and that’s where Jo Ann feels most comfortable working: “…I have always been an on-street, documentary photographer who feels most at home around the hidden, marginalized and often overlooked populations. I identify with those who do not fit into the mainstream, the voiceless.” Jo Ann was kind enough to indulge my curiosity about her process with this project. What follows is an edited interview with Jo Ann.
Patricia: Their trust in you is apparent. How did that develop?
Jo Ann Santangelo: Fairly quickly. One evening last May, I went to Christopher Street in search of Damion, a homeless transgender teenager I had been hanging out with. Walking to the piers, I passed Chi Chi’s bar, a mostly African American gay men’s and transgender women’s bar. The sidewalk scene in front of Chi Chi’s was something I had never witnessed before. I continued to look for Damion but he was no where to be found. So I headed back to Chi Chi’s, camera tucked in my bag. After finally getting the courage to enter with a fellow classmate, we ordered a drink and started chatting with the folks around us.
Everyone was very friendly, until we went back outside. You could tell we were now making some folks nervous. Not only were we the only white women, we were the only biological women. One of the ladies asked if we were cops, saying our presence was making some of them nervous. I admitted we were photo students and I was looking for one homeless trans kid, and she replied “ Well, we all aren’t homeless.” I said, “I know, that is why I’m here…I don’t mean any harm.” Qwana replied “I know. That is why you are still here.”
When I came back the next night, Apollo said, “Wow, you came back…lots of photographers come down here and want to take our photos, but we don’t allow them.” For some reason, they allowed me to not only take their photos, but welcomed me into their family. Night after night I went back down to Christopher Street.
Patricia: How do your contacts within this scene feel about the documentation?
Jo Ann: A lot of them still wonder why I want to take their photo. Most of them love it and ask me to take their picture. I’ve been honest with them from the beginning.
Patricia: Have they seen your work?
Jo Ann: Yes, I always try to give them a photo. Usually, most are happy. Apollo was a huge advocate of my work, constantly telling the others, “it was art”.
Patricia: What percentage of the community are homeless youth working the street for survival?
Jo Ann: I don’t know the exact percentage, but I have noticed the crowd getting a lot younger.
Patricia: How is femininity defined in this circle?
Jo Ann: It depends. It’s definitely all about the clothes you wear, how you dress for both sexes. The men are considered feminine by how they dance at the Balls. The Balls are a big part of this community.
Patricia: Is there hierarchy?
Jo Ann: Oh yes, they are all family down there. The ones who have been walking the block for 5, 10 years definitely get more respect. They are referred to as mother, father, then you have the newbies: son, daughter.
How does this group protect itself, and each other?
Jo Ann: They are a tight-knit circle who, like most communities, watch out for one another against outsiders. Most of the threats and a lot of the violence comes from within: jealousy, envy, inner circle fighting, that is what I witnessed most.
Patricia: In the year that you have documented this group, how has it changed?
Jo Ann: I have noticed a lot of new faces, a much younger crowd. Stores on the streets are changing. Upscale clothing shops and cafes from Bleecker Street have crept onto Christopher Street. More Condos in the area, with this — more police presence. Loyalties change, it is very clicky on Christopher Street. I am in with a few of the clicks—it’s funny because enemies of those clicks question me with their looks. Friendships change quickly.
What stays the same? The energy is the same — the constant movement — no one really stays still for too long, the police are constantly shuffling them around.
Patricia: What are the emotional ramifications of working on this project?
Jo Ann: Exhaustion. Working on this project took a toll on me at first. Trying to finish my studies while staying up all night was making me somewhat crazed. After school ended, it was about finding balance. Figuring out that I don’t have to go there every night. That it’s best if I don’t. That I don’t have to be constantly taking pictures while I am there. Watching, observing, waiting, participating in conversations are all very important. This taught me to relax, be patient, but also be present. A lot of nights it can be boring, but I hang out anyway. I am working. I am there for a reason. I was welcomed for a reason and I need to keep coming back.
“Walking the Block” will be at the Campbell Soady Gallery (208 West 13th Street) until September 8, 2010. Jo Ann photographs portraits of LGBT Veterans and documents NYC’s late night Christopher Street scene. Jo Ann’s photography has been published in Food & Wine, The Washington Post, Austin Monthly, Austin Woman, The Boston Phoenix and the Austin Chronicle. “Proud to Serve – Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Veterans” was featured in the November 2009 issue of The Advocate Magazine. While attending the International Center of Photography in New York she was awarded The New York Times Foundation Scholarship. Learn more about Jo Ann and her work at here.