I started my project on this topic in 2017 for a class at the International Center for Photography (ICP) in New York City. Queens, New York is the most ethnically diverse area in the U.S., representing 120 countries and over 100 languages. Queens is residential, commercial and industrial. Queens is vibrant. There is life in the street and in the stores and with people on the job. But mostly,it’s a hard-working population of immigrants striving for the American dream.
I witnessed this drive, this passion firsthand because I grew up there. I was born to immigrant Greek parents and spent my formative years attending parochial school in Queens. I’m excited to photograph people in their daily lives in Queens, an environment that is so familiar and, in many ways, nostalgic. The center of attention is always the people, yet their background and environment are just as important.
The collection of photographs presented in this article are a subset of my overall project.
It’s a chapter (hopefully, one day part of book) I call, “Day In Day Out, Queens At Work”. This project has become very personal in that I’m reminded of numerous times when my father, a tradesman, worked hard to provide for his family, was determined to climb the next economic step and persevered against tough odds, encouraging me at every turn to pursue an advanced education. I developed a strong sense of empathy for those working the unglamourous jobs. My parents instilled strong ethics, hard work and the message ‘never give up’. I see that same drive in the people I photograph.
As I walk the streets of Queens, I’m immediately drawn to those exerting physical labor, doing repetitive tasks from morning til night and taking tremendous pride in their work.
I prefer to make pictures that are candid. However, sometimes I’m in a situation where I have no choice but to ask permission for a photograph, which can result in a very posed shot. I quickly devise a plan to distract my subject with engaging chatter, hoping to create a spontaneous moment. Before I venture out and traverse the streets, I need to mentally prepare myself, since approaching people and crossing into their comfort zone requires adrenaline, agility and a smile.
Even when I run errands, I go camera in hand because one never knows. I often spot something outside a store window and venture inside for further investigation. Or I pass someone who, on first glance, appears uninteresting and then without realizing it, my eye discovers something unseen, and I either back up or turn around. And when it works, I’m over the moon.
Irving Penn documented skilled workers of various professions during the mid-20th century in a series called “Small Trades”. Although, Penn’s photographs are formal portraits, his collection left an indelible impression. We share an awareness that some of these trades may disappear. There is the person who repairs shoes, or cars, or drives an uber. There is the woman behind the counter, or over the grill or selling trinkets on the street. Hard work, long hours – they just grin and bear it. I have enormous respect and empathy for these individuals.
Other photographers who have influenced my work include Robert Doisneau, Lisette Model, Eugene Richards, Harvey Stein and Peter Turnley. In the same spirit as the “humanists”, I strive to capture people on camera as they go about their daily routines, rarely posing or using artificial elements as one would find in traditional portrait photography. My objective is to capture the moment and the emotion. Photography for me is a very personal and evolving path which allows me to constantly investigate and deepen my understanding of people’s themes of life.