The first of five Self Made stories from the streets of New York City sees a glimpse of the motivation behind portrait photographer Sunny Shokrae.
Even if you’ve never been, you already know what New York looks like. The most photogenic city in the world, endless images of glittering skyscrapers, yellow taxis and clouds of steam rising from the subway are etched into our minds from an early age. One giant film set, whether we like it or not we all fall in love with The Big Apple at some point.
With its towering skyline up top and frantic pace in the streets below, it’s little wonder that photographers travel here from all over the world not just to capture the celebrity of the city but to seek inspiration and bond with like-minded souls. Iranian-born photographer Sunny Shokrae was one of these people who made the journey to the bright lights and over the last four years she’s made the city her own. Her candid approach to verité photography has been widely praised and she has recently collaborated with fashion houses Opening Ceremony and Vena Cava.
How do you spend your time in the city that never sleeps?
Sunny Shokrae: Taking photos, looking at photos, fixing photos, storing photos, backing up hard-drives. When that’s all done and I feel good for the day, I’m all about watering my plants, exploring the city I live in, making trouble and remembering to call my family at least once a week.
Which path led you here?
When I was young I got into photography to keep an archive of my personal history as it was happening. It was a way for me to visually communicate the admiration and affection I felt towards the people and things around me.
It quickly turned into something that I never stopped doing. I was mostly self-taught, and eventually after a degree in politics and working for a few years in LA, I moved to New York to do an intensive year-long programme at ICP [International Center of Photography] in photography. I’ve just been learning and growing ever since, whether from a job I just did or the people around me doing the same thing. It’s always evolving and getting better and better.
What is it about photography that you love?
I can’t imagine doing anything else. It’s amazing to visually relate to, excite, inform or communicate with people I’ve never met and never will meet. It’s a way to talk to the world however you want to. It’s endlessly satisfying and the day that it isn’t anymore, I will find a better or new way to do it.
How do you keep yourself motivated when managing your own career?
You have no one but yourself to kick your ass into gear. You have to create your world, to meet the people that facilitate and nurture your work. And you have to know the business side as well as the creative side. But the feeling you get after you nail a project or assignment or shoot ¬makes you feel so accomplished and driven to move on to the next thing and nail that too.
What role has the city played in pushing you to succeed?
I moved here in May 2008 because it’s the place to be if you’re pursuing photography as a career. There are so many doors to open; there’s so much going on. There are so many people doing exactly what you’re doing that it really pushes you to work your ass off and try to set yourself apart. It’s a constant motivation and the resources and opportunities here are endless. You just have to make it happen.
I’ve learned a lot about what I do and who I am by being here, but I think that happens with any big change or move. I assumed I would only last in NYC two years max, but every year that goes by makes it harder to imagine living anywhere else. It sucks you in pretty hard.
Where are your favourite spots?
It’s an impossible question as it’s constantly changing. I love it all.
Which cameras do you always carry in your kit bag?
The list is long, but if I were to name four that are always in rotation, they’d be: Canon 5D, Mamiya 7, Hasselblad 500C/M and the Yashica T5.
Photo: Sunny Shokrae