Street photography series by Deborah Barak
Please tell us a little background about yourself, and how you came to photography.
I was born in Johannesburg, South Africa, and grew up in what can be most simply described as a spiritually focused commune made up of ex-hippies (transitioned into the 80’s as “conscious yuppies.”) My mother was born in Egypt, and emigrated to South Africa as a child. My father is American, of Russian and Polish descent. I was always surrounded by a wide diversity of experiences, views and relationships. I existed in a very liberal, safe place that was tucked inside the larger environment of a very segregated and violent Apartheid South Africa in the 80’s, then a blossoming and hopeful, but still violent country in the 90’s.
At 22 I headed to the US. I never intended to stay more than a couple years, but I got sucked in to New York as people do, the sense of freedom and potential so irresistible, the diversity of the city both so familiar and so different from what I was used to.
My interest in photography began early, sparked by my father’s own photography. He was always the guy with a camera or video camera in his hands. I spent hours going through his binders of negatives, contact sheets and black and white prints from the 70’s, and was inspired to create. I have always felt a pull to tell stories of real human experience, but the medium has changed over time. I wrote some, and I dabbled with photography on and off in my teens and twenties, but cameras were stolen, lost or broken. I put almost all my energy into documentary films and television, and made production my career, first in South Africa, and then as a TV producer in New York.
In 2011 I got an iPhone and started taking pictures with it. I couldn’t stop. At first I was just amazed with what could be achieved with a phone camera. I discovered photographers who were using Instagram as a serious place for sharing and learning, and I dove in. I began to photograph on the street, in the subway, thrilled by the moments of humanity and character, the traces of a story, that I could capture with the phone. But by 2013 I was hankering for more control, and I bought another DSLR.
My world expanded from there. I photograph all sorts of subjects now, working with families and artists, as well as on the streets wherever I travel, but whatever I’m shooting, I approach as a documentarian.
I don’t think I really knew of street photography as a genre before 2013, but when I look back at photos I took in my short bursts of shooting throughout the years, I see that I was always doing it. I think growing up in the unusual environment that I did made me interested in diversity of experience, seeking candid moments that make me feel connected to those whose lives may be far removed from mine.
What is the inspiration for your Beach Bodies series?
It’s really all about that thong. The Beach Bodies series was born during a two week holiday to Rio de Janeiro in 2014.
What struck me almost immediately upon arriving at the beach was how women of every imaginable body type seemed to feel so at home in their own skin. Not just there, but out there in all their glory, and without shame or regard for shape or age. Thong bikinis were not reserved for those with toned and tight behinds. So many women claiming the beach as their own within the space, claiming the right to be there in their bodies just as they were. To be comfortable, to be sexy for their own sake, to be physical and to bare their bums and bellies to the sun, to walk and run and stretch and enjoy. I bought a purple thong bikini from a vendor on the beach and joined in. It gave me a freedom and comfort I had never experienced in a swimsuit before. It’s a feeling that has stayed with me. So I began to photograph the Beach Bodies I saw that inspire me with their unselfconsciousness, both male and female. They give me permission to be that comfortable in my own skin. I’m on the lookout whenever I hit the beach, in any country on any continent.
Do you find it different to be shooting on the beach than any other locales, a different mindset for your approach?
I’m trying to capture people in a moment that is particularly unselfconscious, so I try to be even more discreet than I would on the street, where I care less about being noticed with my camera. I don’t want to make anyone feel uncomfortable or under scrutiny, which would be contrary to what inspired me in the first place, so even though I’m usually shooting undetected, I always maintain a respect for my subject and I hope this comes across in the images I’ve chosen to include in the series.
Do you think being a woman has an affect on your approach?
It certainly has an effect on the subjects I choose and the way that I see, which I think is with an empathetic and strongly feminine quality. And it definitely has an effect on how I am perceived on the street with my camera. But my womanhood is inextricably tied up with all the other things shape my vision — being a 5 foot tall, introverted, white girl from Africa just to name a few. Which has more effect on my approach? I don’t know.