January 3, 2011
NYC's Teenage Eyes
If you’ve spent any time walking the streets of New York City, you might have seen Taji Ameen. He’s the 20-year-old kid who looks like he could be 14, usually on a skateboard, and always with a camera slung around his neck. While Taji is still in school, his photos are already a regular feature in VICE Magazine, and he’s already developing a reputation as one of those born-and-bred New York photographers who documents the weird, the unexpected, and sometimes the starkly beautiful moments that the city provides. We caught up with Taji over lunch and asked him about getting permission to photograph freaks, black and white versus color, and why he doesn’t use digital.
You grew up in New York City, right? Since I moved here, I always wondered what it would be like to be here as a kid…are you like totally jaded about everything at this point?
I guess I’m just used to everything that goes on. There’s always some kind of event or thing to go to. I just see wild stuff every day. It’s gets a little repetitive after a while, kind of overwhelming.
Yeah, here you’ll see a full-on transvestite in a minidress and it’ll seem totally normal.
It’s cool to find those little things and see if you can photograph them. Sometimes it’s difficult to shoot people, you’ve got to figure out if they’re cool with it, if they’re about it.
Does anyone ever get pissed at you for taking their photo?
Not too often. Usually I’ll ask, or there’ll be some kind of agreement that I can shoot the photo. I don’t like to just run up to people and take their photo.
But it is legal to take someone’s picture without asking if they’re in the street, right?
Yeah, it’s called public consent or something. You can take a photo. It just depends, they might try to kick your ass. That’s outside of the law, you know? I’m usually pretty careful. It helps when I’m with friends, it makes it easier than being alone shooting photos.
Do you ever take photos in the studio, or are you specifically a street photographer?
I try to set up some stuff in the studio. It can be hard though to really do some interesting stuff without the environment as a backdrop. But if I find interesting people who are down to go to the studio, it’s cool to do that.
When people know that they’re posing, does that make it more artificial, do you think?
Sometimes. You can get cool moments sometimes in the studio, if you’re hanging out and people are comfortable, you know? Not like, trying to do some kind of model-y thing.
A lot of your photos seem to be in black and white. Do you work exclusively in black and white?
No, I shoot a lot of color galleries too. I just went over to black and white for a little while. I’ve been processing the film myself and printing it myself. It’s just easier than having to take it somewhere.
Oh, so you don’t use digital.
I shoot some digital. I shot a bunch of parties with digital. It’s just easier for me to shoot film, because I’ve got a nice littler point and shoot camera that I’m really psyched on—it’s got a great lens on it. I don’t want to carry around a big SLR with me. Film has almost the same quality as [SLR]. It looks more crispy, too. More raw. Like if I was taking all the shots with digital it would have a completely different feel, I think.
There’s something to be said for developing the film yourself, too, having to go through that whole process.
It’s fun; it’s cheap too. All you have to do is buy the film. At my school it’s free to use all the chemicals, so all I do is buy the film and shoot it.
Nice. Where do you go to school?
I go to Parsons. They’ve got nice facilities. And if I do shoot color, I just scan it there. I haven’t printed in color in a while though. As far as the black and white thing goes, I like how the city looks in black and white, especially at night it looks cool.
Black and white also gives photos a kind of timeless feel.
Yeah, that too, they could have been created back in the day.
Like back in the 40s.
Yeah, because black and white was all they had back then. I don’t really like to shoot super-modern-looking things in black and white. Like if it’s a party, it’s usually better for digital. It’s probably going to be an artificial environment.
Are you talking about those high-society parties that hire photographers, or just gatherings of your friends?
Both. I like to shoot at any party. A lot of people are down to have their picture taken, you know? They’re out on the town or whatever, so they’re psyched. And some funny stuff happens too. You can come up to someone and go, “Hey, let me take your picture! You’re crazy-looking!” In the street, it’s harder to approach these people.