Charles Caesar, photography in New York City

We met Charles Caesar in New York to discuss his work, the purpose of his photography and why film still matters. Interview and photography by Nicolò Bernardi

[dropcap type=”1″]I [/dropcap]would like to start from the beginning. How did you start taking pictures?
I was in high school and they gave me this 4 MP camera. In my hometown there is a serious youth culture for house parties and a lot of parties on the beach. It is pretty much just about parties.

Which is your home town?
St Petersburg, Florida. Beautiful place, I love it.

Why did you come here?
To study photography, I got accepted at Parsons and I moved here to study there.

Basically you just had this 4 MP camera and you where partying with that right?
Yes, I had that 4 mp camera and I was taking it at parties, at friends houses and I had all these great photographs.

Do you still have those?
Yes they are somewhere on the internet, old social networks profiles and stuff. A lot of those pictures still exist. It is crazy you see just how crazy we where at that time, it is hilarious to see. After that I was studying at school and I got used to the darkroom. I could tell from the first time that I was minty interested in photographing people, I was also interested in photographing space but photographing spaces in the same way I took pictures of people, I wanted to make “portraits” of spaces, not just landscapes or normal pictures.

Can I say that people are your main interest?
I would hesitate to say that. I would say my main interest is portraiture, but it doesn’t mean it is just about people, it could be a portrait of a place, or there could be a portrait of a regular human being, or two people interacting in a place it’s a portraiture of a whole experience. I would never go that far to say that my one experience can speck for everybodyy but my photography is also about me living this “experience”. At the time I was in high school my grandfather was also a photographer, I recently found his extremely extensive archive of works. He shot from basically the end of World War II till two years ago. He was photographing just around St. Petersbur but you can really see how the city developed. He was also traveling a lot, which was unusual for that time, he was in Alaska, Africa, Guinea. He was still around when I started college, lot of credits to him for that.

Who are your photography influences?
My grandfather. He is one of my art heroes. I am a photography nerd when it comes to photographers, I had an huge interest in Juergen Teller work, Anne Leibovitz and also Ren Hang. All those people led me to the people and artist I am now.

Do think that the academic background in a way influenced the way you are photographing right now? Wasn’t it more candid and spontaneous the way you used the 4 MP camera. Do you see an improvement in your photography or wasn’t it better to stay with the 4 MP camera?
No, because oven though that same sort of my hand is just the extension of my eyes. It was in hight school and it is now so i think just my education gave me a better background and help me understand the meaning of what i am doing but i am still doing it the same way. Formally it is getting better and better cause obviously the more you practice the better it gets but it is exactly the same. I actually had to defend myself and it was hard to explain myself during school, people just sort of didn’t understand where this eye and vision was coming from and i didn’t know if it was a matter of me don’t explaining that or whatever but finally I got the anwer.

So what is the meaning or purpose of your photography?
It is helping people.

Not everybody has a purpose when it comes to photography…
Yes, not everybody. A lot of people just take pictures just because they feel they like or need to do it but they don’t think about what they are doing, I think about it a lot, I have now reached the point where I can show not just people partying, which can help people too but I want to show also more meaningful images.

And how do you think that these pictures can help people? Is it something valid right now or is it something you are planning to do better in the future?
I am able to do it right now and I want to extend it in the future, and I think I will. You know, it is 2017 and visibility has never been so important for black people, gay people, trans people. Visibility is better for them now than in the past, but within that it is also a very dangerous time. I think people outside of those experiences or even people into these experiences can be very influenced by these pictures. I mean, if they see people living their lives with joy and ultimately surviving they can understand what all of this is about. I remember growing up as a gay guy that watching films like Brokeback Mountain, even if it wasn’t the perfect representation of my life it helped me understand that out of these 4 walls there were people living their lives in that way and it is alright. I think the world is becoming more about intersections, people are not just black, people are black plus… I want people to see those people in an human way. I had done a pitch with this magazine called Tabula Rasa earlier this year, it was about 6 portraits and interviews of people that i think represent intersections, and I want people to see them like entire persons, like we all are.

How do you approach people you photograph? Are they mainly your friends or are they people you see on the streets? I mean, do you already know them or do you meet them while working on other projects?
It is happening both ways, I often stop people on the streets. Maybe it is a thing about New York but nobody has never said no, which is a thing I love. I stop people cause I found them interesting for whatever reason. People seem just very very interested having me photographing them. I think people can tell about my disposition, that I respect them. I do photograph also my friends in my social circle, if I find someone interesting for the project I am working on.

Do you plan your projects before starting shooting or do you just shoot and then you collect all the material and you choose the story you want to tell afterwards?
It is both, it depends on the project I am working on, something like XXX on my website, those are just the result of shooting non stop and then editing after. I have another project called Vignette and thats about casting an planning the project, I guess it really depends on the project I am working on but for my larger practice it is shooting what I find interesting and then collecting it into a body of work. I have to say that we are living in both beautiful and ugly days and I want to use my photography to explain people this world we are living, I want basically to decrease ignorance and limit preconceptions.

I understand what you are talking about, they have a kind of grace, it is more about dignity of people, I think you could show more dirty and raw photos. But am I right saying that this is not your choice?
I think one can be raw dirty and nasty and still have a dignity in his life. If I am photographing someone in that way even if they are dirty and nasty the final image is going to be one with dignity as well. I don’t want making anyone other than what they are. I think a lot of people photographing that kind of people, they don’t have total respect for that person, they think it is just weird or they don’t get it but I am not approaching you as a person in that way, for me it is more about seeking and understanding.

Are you looking for a deeper understanding of things in your photographs?
I definitely am, I live in a quite interesting intersection as a human being but there are a lot of things that I don’t want to understand more.

Do you shoot only with film?
Yes, I do. I also believe that it is not about the camera, it is not about the tool but I feel that to get what I want it has to come from film, I had lot of digital pictures but this is just what it is. It has to do with the process, you don’t see them immediately, there is some time to marinate them and when you get them back you can be surprised. It makes editing a lot easier. I get what I want but it is expensive, its crazy. For now I am just making this film thing and i have to keep it going.

Do you always shot with the same film?
I recently changed from Fuji 200 to Kodak Color Plus 400, I think Kodak has a bit warmer tone. If i shoot black an white I use TX 400. If I shoot polaroids I use Kodak Color Plus, I have a refrigerator full of them at my place, if I have money I buy it in boxes because there are times I can’t afford them. I have worked with a lot of films but my favourite is probably Kodak. I love also Fuji 100 speed color film, they have the worlds finest grain. I like grain and having worked with Fuji 100 it is soo nice.

Do you think this comes from your personal perspective? Do you think being gay influences you?
Totally, I am 100% sure about this. I think a lot about Robert Mapplethorpe, I think what I want is to add an additional perspective on that. I always consider who these humans are, I always want to know more. I am much more than a gay person, there is a lot more than that. I want give a broader perspective about what being gay is. I think everyone deserves to be represented but I really want to give importance to all the people that have been ignored or misrepresented in the past.

Charles Caesar by Nicolò Bernardi
Charles Caesar by Nicolò Bernardi

Photos by Charles Caesar from the project XXX.


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