Interview: Jeff Bierk

Jeff Bierk is a Toronto photographer who currently has work at Goodfellas Gallery group show “not quite Contact” and recently has been selected as one of Magenta’s Flash Forward 2012 emerging photographers. Jeff also has a Tumblr that I’ve kept in steady rotation for its unique variety of captivating photography. Jeff talked with us about his relationship with his subjects, how access impacts his photography, and more in an interview.

Questions and answers after the jump…

Modern Toronto (ModTO): Can you tell our readers a little about your art?

Jeff Bierk (JB): I’m really interested in telling stories. My camera allows me to collect stories from people and from places. At some point these narratives, either through reflection or experience reveal something of my own story. Of addiction, of loss. These revelations are what interest me now.

Tumblr (http://jeffbierkphotography.tumblr.com/) is like a sketchbook for me. It is essentially part of my daily life with a camera, but also more. I have been shooting portraits of addicts, and the homeless for a while now. I have daily interactions with most of the people I photograph, but they are on the street and accessible to anyone. The “crack house” is a continuation of these portraits, but in a more intimate way. It’s the access that takes what I have been doing to another level.

ModTO: How does the theme of ‘access’ play in your imagery that is void of human form?

JB: Access is always the challenge. It is the boundary. I guess it’s a form of defiance. I don’t like to be told I can’t be somewhere or that I’m not allowed to photograph something. There is always a way in.

ModTO: When you take the photograph, is there a moment for you, that you know when to snap?

JB: Yes, of course. Taking a photograph is a very instinctual process for me. It’s something I can’t really explain. It’s an immediate reaction – to light and to circumstance. Sometimes there are moments like that, when everything fits perfectly; other times it can be a struggle to capture and do justice to what I am seeing.

ModTO: What’s your relationship with …. the homeless, the addicts?

JB: I feel deeply connected to addicts and the homeless. As an artist I am drawn to them for one major reason – the interactions affect me in a way that nothing else does. I don’t really understand it, but I am constantly approached by strangers, mistaken for someone familiar or engaged in strange, intense conversations. It happens all the time. I think I’m just open to it. When I was young I was a clean cut straight edge kid and I got involved in a world full of junkies and drug dealers, a world I knew nothing about. I had to learn how to understand them so I could fit in. I learned how to communicate. It was exciting, completely unfamiliar and new, and I wanted to be a part of it, and I became a part of it. My own experience with addiction and loss is where I feel connected to the people I photograph. It’s twofold, when I photograph it puts me in touch with those same feelings, and in the process it allows me to tell my own story.

ModTO: Tell me about shooting up and coming Harlem rapper A$AP Rocky, how did that come about?

JB:  I approached, pulled out my camera and said, “I just need a quick portrait.” He posed – chin up, grill out – that was it. Very quick.

ModTO: Describe this scene from the above image, what happened that got the attention of security?

JB:  I was at the Eaton’s Center on my lunch break. Next to me was a homeless man that I knew. I gave him some change and a cigarette and he ate his food. The security guard came up to kick him out of the mall and I grabbed my camera and took her photograph. She wasn’t impressed and immediately focused her attention on me, she said I wasn’t allowed to take her picture. We argued back and forth and she followed me out.

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