Today we talk with Atlanta documentary photographer Chris Aluka Berry about long-form visual storytelling, race and class in the deep south, and raw intimacy.
Chris is a regular contributor to the European PressPhoto Agency and Reuters. His work has been published in Time Magazine, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post and many others.
For the past six years, he’s been photographing African American culture in the Appalachian Mountains for his series, Affrilachia: The Remnant that Remains.
Chris Aluka Berry's online portfolio: Aluka Storytelling Photography
Photoville: Affrilachia: The Remnant That Remains
Chris Aluka Berry on Instagram: @alukastories
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Andy: Long form visual storytelling, race and class in the deep south and raw intimacy. Today, I'm having a conversation with photographer Chris Aluka Berry, and you'll want to stick around for all of it, because he's about to give us a master class on documentary photography.
Hello, and welcome to this episode of Photo 365. My name is Andrew Haworth.
Today's guest is Atlanta-based documentary photographer, Chris Aluka Berry. Now in full disclosure. I got to know Chris over a seven-year period while we were both working at The State newspaper in Columbia, South Carolina. During his time there, he was named South Carolina's Photographer of the Year, four times, along with earning countless awards from the state press association year-after-year.
Chris is a regular contributor to the European press photo agency and Reuters. His work has been published in Time Magazine. The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, and many others. Lately he's been doing more commercial work with companies, such as Tyler Perry Studios, Amazon, Microsoft, and Coca-Cola just to name a few.
When he's not busy with corporate photography, Chris is chasing his true passion: Visual storytelling. His longform essays challenge cultural norms and racial stereotypes by exploring race, faith, and class in underrepresented communities.
For the past six years, he's been photographing African American culture in the Appalachian mountains for his series Affrilachia: The Remnant that Remains. A selection of images from that project are part of the Photoville FENCE initiative, and his photographs are currently on display outdoors on the Westside Trail of the Atlanta Beltline.
His work has been an inspiration for me for many, many years and I know he'll be an inspiration for you too. Chris, welcome to the show.
Chris: Thanks for having me, man. I really appreciate it.
Andy: Yeah. Thanks for coming on.It's great to be talking to you again and you know, why don't we just start right at the beginning? I've been following your work through the years, and one thing has remained fairly constant in that much of your work highlights communities here in the deep south. You're living in Atlanta now; did you grow up down south?
Chris: I was born in Chicago. And by the time I was seven years old, we lived in Chicago, New York, Long Island, New York, Cleveland, Ohio, Washington, DC, Maryland, Hershey, Pennsylvania.
My dad was a big time drug dealer and my dad was also a pimp. Like he pimped women out and all of that and he pimped my mom out. My mom was like this real conservative Irish, Catholic, white woman that had never dated a black man before. And she hooked up with my dad and he was a real smooth talker and blah, blah, blah. But there were times where we had to move because people were trying to kill my dad. And there was mafia involved.
And I mean, at one time we lived in a three-story house and I remember my mom wearing big, long fur coats and my parents driving Lincoln Continentals. And then when crack hit and my dad started messing around with crack, then like everything disintegrated, and we moved down south when I was seven years old and it was my mom and my dad, me and my brother and all my dad's family from New York.And they were all hustlers, and they moved outside of Charleston and bought a bunch of land.
I did not identify with the white side of my heritage at all. I identified with my dad. I remember driving around with my dad while he was selling drugs. I remember driving with my dad while he was checking on his girls on the street. I remember bagging up cocaine when I was like eight, nine years old. Because once my dad, once we moved down here, my dad split and then my mom was left with me and my brother, these two little biracial kids. And man, we got into so many fights, like fist fights with white kids and black kids in South Carolina, because they had never seen anybody like us before.
I remember kids picking on me because I didn't know how to climb a tree, you know, or stupid stuff. And then people would use the N-word all the time. And then I went to high school in St. Matthews and like, those kids could not understand where we were coming from because most of those kids had never left South Carolina.
From "Affrilachia: The Remnant That Remains"
Andy: And just for our listeners, St. Matthews is a very small little town in Calhoun County, which, not that long ago, Calhoun County was one of the most rural and one of the poorest counties in South Carolina. What, what was life like there?
Chris: It was rough man, me and my brother, we were bad little kids, man. We got into a lot of fights. I had a lot of anger inside of me back then because of my dad leaving. And my dad used to beat the shit out of my mom, like terrible, like breaking bones and stuff. Anyhow, I had a lot of anger and stuff back in the day. Even though my skin looks like a white dude, because I've got dark hair, dark eyes, my eyebrows used to be really, really thick, I did not look like the average white boy in St. Matthews. So although my skin was white, I still faced a lot of persecution within the white community.
And I'll tell you there were like two years in high school where I didn't tell people I was black, it was like peer pressure. They would call us half-breed and call me all kinds of names because I still didn't fit in with the white community.
Andy: How, out of that chaos, did you get interested in taking pictures?
Chris: I used to work at a grocery store. I remember a buddy of mine showed me an SLR with the lenses, and I was like, oh my goodness. I want one. I want one. And he wouldn't give it to me and I didn't have money to buy one. And it kind of, I was like, oh my goodness, this seems so cool, but I didn't know how to use it. I used to steal those little disposable cameras from the grocery store. I would steal those little disposable cameras and I would take them all over the place, taking pictures with them.
And that kind of just gave me a sense of shooting and composition. And then I saved up my money. I saved up $700 and I bought me a little Nikon N6006 with a little kit lens. And I picked up the phone book. And I called a bunch of photographers, like three or four photographers in the phone book in South Carolina.
And I didn't know anything about photography. I didn't know anything about photojournalism. I didn't know anything. I just knew I wanted to be a photographer. And I called these guys and I was like, ‘Hey man, I want to be a photographer. What should I do? Should I go to college?’ And I didn't have money to go to college.
And the photographers I spoke to, I guess they were old school. Cause they all told me get a camera, shoot as much as you can, read as much as you can, shoot as much as you can. So that's what I did, bro. I bought this book, this landscape book on exposure, and I started shooting slides, started shooting chrome, ‘cause I read that that's what you need to do. And I remember being in the woods trying to figure out exposure on my own and it was so challenging bro. But then it started coming together and I did that for a few years and I remember driving by The State newspaper and thinking, ‘wow, I wonder what it would be like to be, to shoot there,’ but I didn't know anything about The State. I didn't know anything about The State's reputation as a great photography paper or any of that.
Andy: Yeah. Back in the day, the state was the largest newspaper in South Carolina. It was still part of the Knight Ridder chain of papers, and it had become really well-known as a paper that had exceptional photojournalists. And I remember it was tough to get hired there, because there were always so many good candidates for both writing and photography jobs, but eventually you managed to get in.
Chris: In ‘99, I kind of had like a little spiritual awakening and I became a Christian. And I went to this church and I met this guy named Israel Kloss, and I told him I wanted to be a photographer. And he was freelancing at The State newspaper and he was doing photography there. And Friday night football was starting up. So he brought me in, he introduced me to everybody and they let me and Israel go out and shoot a Friday night football. I had never shot sports before, I had never shot at night before, any of that. It was terrible.
We come back, we developed the film and our film gets mixed up in the machine. And as the negs are sleeved, we can't figure out whose pictures are whose, but all of the pictures were terrible. They were all terrible.
Andy: I know the feeling
Chris: And we were able to find one frame. That could go inside two columns, black and white, you know, like terrible. And we thought it was my photo. And as Israel and I were leaving the newspaper in the parking lot, I realized that that play had happened on the other side and that it was Israel's photo. And I said ‘Israel, I'm pretty sure that was your photo. We should go back upstairs and tell them it's yours, not mine.’ He said, ‘Ah, don't worry about it.’
That photo runs in the paper the next day with my name on it. After that, they quit using Israel, and they started using me, and he was like, you know, ‘I was really upset.’ And he said, ‘I prayed about it.’ And he said, ‘I felt like God told me that I'm not the photographer. You are.’
And then I started freelancing at the state consistently for $35 an assignment. And I would go out with all the different photographers -- Kim Kim, and Tracy, and everybody, and I'd just pick their brains and try to learn as much as I could. And I would, I tried to take a little bit from everybody.
Andy: You know, that's amazing. You know, once you got the part-time gig, you were able to work with a lot of the talented staff, like you mentioned, and especially two really great photo editors, Al Anderson and Chuck Dye.
Chris: Chuck turned me on to Robert Frank and the Americans, and Magnum, and Bresson, and Weegee. And the list just goes on and on. And Chuck just worked with me and taught me. And then when we hired Gerry Melendez and I saw Gerry's use of color and composition, I took everything that Chuck showed me. And then I started kind of biting off of Gerry as far as underexposing stuff and doing weird compositions that didn't follow the rules. And that's kind of how I developed my style.
And then Gerry turned me on to Alex Webb and Chuck turned me on Eugene Richards and I really wanted to be like a hybrid of Alex Webb and Eugene Richards. I was like, if I can have the color and composition of Webb, but the intimacy and the emotion of Richards, I was like, that's where I'd want to live. Just that raw intimacy.
Andy: Well, when I look at your work, that's the first word that comes to mind, intimacy. And we're going to talk about that later, but at this point you're learning from your peers. You're learning on the job. It sounds like this is actually when your photographic education, at least in photojournalism began.
Chris: a hundred percent and like Tim Dominick -- I mean, like literally I learned something from everybody there. Rich Glickstein, Tracy Glantz, Kim Kim Foster. I mean, you know, everybody. I learned a little bit from everybody and I would say, ‘Ooh, I like that.’ Even if, even if I learned what not to do from somebody, you know what I'm saying? So, yeah. I'd have all these voices in my head when I'd be shooting back in the day. Now those voices have become like my voice. I feel like.
From "Affrilachia: The Remnant That Remains"
Andy: and not long after you arrived there, you started racking up journalism awards. And yet this still wasn't your full time job.
Chris: They wouldn't hire me at the newspaper because I didn't have a college degree. And then in ‘07 or ‘08, I won more awards, like more single category awards, than any of the staffers did.
Andy: Yeah. You know, I remember that quite well, and eventually Al Anderson, who would later go on to be Pete Sousa’s photo editor in the Obama White House, but then he was running the photo department at The State, he brought you on full-time.
Chris: Al is the person that one day came to me and said, Chris, there's a job opening. And he was like, you should apply for it. And Al gave me a job, even though I didn't have a college degree.
Andy: I imagine that brought you some job stability, but now you're doing the daily grind, a run of press assignments. When did you start transitioning into long form narrative work?
Chris: I remember Al me and Al talking and Al was like, Chris, you're a photographer. You get paid to have a camera in your hand. He was like, it doesn't matter what the assignment is. You've got a camera in your hand. You need to have a smile on your face. He was like above all else, half fun. And the shittier, the assignment, the more of a challenge it is. I came to a place where. I would enjoy shooting an assignment where I was trying to make lemonade out of lemons, rather than already having the sweet lemonade in front of me.
I really started to like that challenge. And then that's when I decided I need to always have two or three photo stories that I'm working on.
Andy: One of the first photo essays. I remember you working on, was about migrant workers at a peach farm here in the Midlands. And I have really fond memories of that because I remember you would come back and time after time, you'd have a new batch of amazing images and you titled that series “A Harvest Hoped For,” and these were legal Mexican farm workers at one of the largest peach farms in the nation at that time. And you actually made two stories out of this, one about the men, and one about the women who came over to work. Did you shoot these in parallel? How did that come about?
Chris: I went and I spent that year with the men and I would sleep in the bunk houses. I took showers where they took showers and ate when they ate, I was in the fields. And then I saw the women because the women were in a completely separate camp. And I was like, I want to show the whole story. Right. I want to show everything. So I would sleep in my car. Outside of the camp in the middle of the South Carolina summer, the little fan blowing on me so that I could be there so that I could capture those different things.
Andy: You know, I'll tell you what really stood out to me in those images is that you manage to humanize a portion of the population that, I don't know, at least a decade ago was kind of overlooked here in South Carolina and, you know, the Hispanic population, it started growing around that time in our state, I believe.
But, you know, people always treat them as like ‘the other’ and very few people make an effort to understand them. But in these images, you take us inside their bedrooms, their bathrooms, into the fields where they work. You're holding up a mirror. These are folks who have hopes and dreams and basic human needs, just like we all do.
Chris: I just want to say something real quick about that, about the peach farm. My whole reason for starting on that project. Was because people would always be talking trash about the Latino communities. Oh, they're stealing our jobs and they're this, and they're all illegal. And dah, dah, dah, dah, dah, dah, dah. And I was like, these guys are not illegal. You wouldn't have those peaches on your table if it wasn't for these guys. Cause y'all, ain't willing to go out there and do the work. I don't care what color you are. We're lazy Americans compared to those folks. And I just wanted to show that these folks are the same as you are. They have wives, they have children, they work hard, they're trying to provide. And that was like my whole issue with that.
And I think like growing up, dealing with all the racism and having all these stupid people say all these stupid things. When I found that photography could give me a voice like that, that could give other people a voice. Like that was my whole point in doing that project. Hoping that some racist person, maybe not even racist, just uneducated, right. Uneducated as to what goes on in these communities. I was hoping that they would see these photos and they would see themselves in the photos. And the next time they see a Latino person, they wouldn't be so quick to say these negative things.
Andy: And if memory serves me, right. The story on the female workers never got published, is that correct?
Chris: I won an award with an NPPA photo story with that and everything, but yeah, when I went back to The State newspaper, they shot it down. And I still wish I could get that work published somewhere. I actually think about going back to the peach farm to reconnect with some of those people, because that was 10 years ago.
Andy: I mean, it has to be frustrating, not getting that work published.
Chris: The newspaper never ran that. Those photos have only been in photo contests. Those photos from the ladies at the peach farm helped me get into the New York Times portfolio review. But the people at the newspaper didn't want to run it. ‘Well, we already did a peach farm’ -- I was like, but this is the women. It's a completely different dynamic. So a lot of people at the newspaper had a very narrow scope, but it was frustrating. Yeah. I spent a year at a drug rehab center and I couldn't find a writer at the paper to write it. So I wrote it myself.
Andy: It definitely has to be frustrating when you put the work in and you, and you can't get the work out.
Chris: That's like right now I'm sitting on multiple projects that I can't find anybody to run. Like even Affrilachia, I pitched it to several news agencies. They don't care because it's not about hate. It's not about sensationalism. It's not about COVID, you know, it doesn't have a news hook. It's about people, you know, it's about life.
From "Affrilachia: The Remnant That Remains"
Andy: That’s a good segue actually. Let's talk about Affrilachia, because this set of images got me really excited when I saw you post them. I guess it was on social media sometime last year. You're documenting black life in the Appalachian mountains. Now, I apologize in advance if I come off sounding really ignorant here, but I had no idea there were African-American folks in Appalachia. I mean, is that the general perception?
Chris: Well, I’ll tell you what, that is the perception. I have been in the mountains talking to white people that were born and raised in the mountains. They didn't know there were black people in the mountains. You know what I'm saying? And that's exactly what happened to me, man. I've been going up to the mountains ever since I was in my late teens, early twenties. And because I come from this racial kind of background, I kind of pay attention to that kind of stuff. And, and like, yeah, I never saw any black folks in the mountains. And it was really weird. And then my ex-wife was in college and she had a classmate that was a black woman whose family was from the north Georgia mountains.
And she was telling my ex how her grandmother would do these home remedies with the plants and the roots and this and this and that. And I was in Atlanta. Struggling to survive. I was doing journalism for New York Times and Reuters and some different places. But the assignments that they were giving me were just like run-of-the-mill assignments. It wasn't anything with any real depth, and I didn't have a photo project to work on for two years. And that was like the first time since I'd become a photojournalist, I didn't have a photo project. And it was like killing me. I was making really good money, shooting all this corporate stuff and flying all over the place. But man, I had this huge hole inside of me and I felt like what's the point?
And so I went up to the mountains and started asking around like, ‘Hey man, where's the black community, man.’ They said, ‘oh, well, there's this woman down here. Go talk to this woman.’ And I met this woman named Shirley who had a soul food restaurant. And then somehow the word got back to this woman named Marie Cochran. Who is now a really great friend. And she'd started this project called the Appalachian artists project.
Anyhow, it's so weird. On a Sunday morning, I get this call from a woman named Marie. I had never even heard the word ‘Affrilachian’ and someone had told her that I was photographing the oldest black folks in the mountains, which wasn't even true. We decided to meet and we met and we hit it off and she was all about, ‘Hey, these black folks were in the mountains and more people need to know about it and they need to know about their contributions and everything.’
And then when I went up there, I realized, okay, there's African-Americans that have been in the mountains for hundreds of years. Most people don't know about this history and culture. And the more I learned about it, the more fascinating it was because African Americans had been in the mountains for as long as white folks have. You know, contributing in so many different ways, but because of all these different things, it's like they're behind the veil. It's like, they're hidden. It's like they're forgotten.
And then I started doing Google searches and I could find some writings about it. I actually have a little small library now, but I couldn't find any photography. I couldn't find any contemporary photography. I could find some like studio portraits and some things like that. And then I realized that this isn't being represented. And then Marie, I was like, ‘Look Marie all I need you to do is get me a foot in the door. All I need you to do is introduce me to like one place and I can take it from there.’ You know? And I mean, that was a little bold on my part, but I knew all I need is an introduction. Right. And she took me to this little small church in Cullowhee, North Carolina, on Easter Sunday, there were like five people in the church.
And as I'm waiting for people to arrive. The pastor goes and there's this old woman. She was the matriarch, the oldest woman, Ms. May Louise Allen. And I see them carrying -- there's no handicap ramp -- they carry her up. And Ms. May Louise comes in and she kisses her sister on the cheek, who she can only see at church because they're both like she's in a nursing home. And I spoke to Ms. May Louise. And she's a beautiful woman. And I said, ‘Hey, can I come back in a few weeks? I want to interview you because I've been doing these oral histories.’ This was the very beginning. Actually I wanted to do oral histories. She was like, ‘Yeah, honey. Yeah, honey, you come back.’ And she died two weeks later.
Andy: Oh, no.
Chris: And that's when I realized that this is a part of American history that is disappearing. There's all these little communities that you would never know were there unless you know, knew to look for them. Right. And then brother, it just started growing. I went to this camp meeting where people have been meeting on the same ground since 1886, the structure that was built by freed slaves still stands there.
And the first time I went up there and it used to be everyone camped out overnight and all this and all that. The first night I'm up there, they did all the preaching and all the singing. Everybody went home, but I stayed right. And the next morning everybody was like, wow, he stayed up here by himself. They were like, aren't you scared of the bears? Weren't you scared of this? Weren't you scared of that? I was like, no, man. I'm not really worried about all of that, but, it was like, I was on this sacred ground all by myself. And then I've gone up there every year since and camped out. And it's like, I'm Brother Chris, you know what I'm saying?
And I'm just straight up with people. I'm like, ‘Hey, you know that when people think about the mountains, they don't know y'all are here. They think it's all white folks and the people are always like, ‘Yeah, that's, that's true.’ But at the same time, there's a lot of African-Americans in the mountains that identify, they identify just as much being Appalachian as they do with being African-American. Andy: That is absolutely fascinating.
Chris: Yeah. It's a really cool dichotomy brother.
Andy: You know what I appreciate most with this Affrilachian series is that you have pulled back the curtain on this -- I guess we can call it a hidden subculture. You're showing the world something that very few people see. That's a real gift. How do you think your own biracial background has informed this type of work that you're doing here?
Chris: You know, I, I really think experiencing all that racism and, and then growing up, having money and then being poor. You know, my middle name is Aluka, right? It means ‘all love understanding kindness always.’
Andy: Oh, that's great.
Chris: And although my father was a drug-dealing pimp, he gave me that name. He made that name up and my father taught me two things. He said, ‘Chris manners will take you where money won't.’ And I use that with my photography all the time, manners will take you where money won't. And he said, if you ever get into a fight, pick up the closest thing you can and hit that person in the head ‘cause there's no such thing as a fair fight. That's quite a dichotomy, but -- Andy: That's good advice!
Chris: I don't know. That trust with people really is like the hardest part. But having empathy -- I think we all want to feel like we're important. Right? And I think once people can trust you that you're not there to harm them, that you're there to -- I don't know -- I can't even say that you're there to help them, you know, but you're just there to, to say that, ‘Hey, your life is important on some level.’ And I try, even outside of photography -- and this might sound cliche -- but it's true, man. Like I just try and treat people the way I want to be treated.
If someone lets me in their home, I kind of imagine that I'm letting them in my home. Like what would I want them to photograph or not photograph? And I just really, really try and be in tune with their tone. And their body language. And I tell you what, I am so in tune with my tone and my body language, if someone talks fast, I talk fast. If someone talks slow, I talk slow. I normally will sit on the floor. I will take the seat of the lower place in the house. If someone offers me something to eat or drink, I always take it. Whether it's moonshine or chicken feet, you know, stuff that I am not down with eating. Right? But, I feel like, um, they're giving me a gift by letting me into their house, you know what I mean? Or letting me into their lives. So I just do everything that I can. And when I see that that body language starts to become closed off. Then I chill.
Andy: That's really great advice for any discipline. And you know, this is really helpful because, we tend to fixate on the technical aspects of photography, you know, how to get a good exposure or some new trick we've, we've seen on the internet or that we've read about. But this is the stuff that you don't learn in books.
Chris: This type of photography is about selling yourself, right? Like, like you said, like all of us understand the exposure triangle and rule of thirds and all that great stuff. You know what I'm saying? Like, once you're a photographer, you're a photographer, you understand that stuff. But like, I feel like so often I'm like selling myself. So if I'm in the black community after a little while, I'll share with them that my father was black and that knocks down a lot of walls. And, um, I do whatever I can to relate to people. And some people are cool. And of course you'll never see the photos where people told me ‘no,’ you know, and, and it's like, they say photography is like 90 something percent rejection. I mean, not rejection, but 97% failure. Not only is it 90 something percent failure when you're shooting -- like you might take a hundred photos to get one nice one -- but it's like 90 something percent failure when you're trying to ask people, ‘Hey, can I come inside of your house?’
I'll tell you something. I learned as a salesman at Sears and I use this in photography. They said someone needs to tell you no, three times to really mean it. Okay. So if I say, ‘Hey man, dah, dah, dah, do you mind if they were shooting in the front yard?’ And I say, ‘Hey, do you mind if I come inside the house and photograph the -- and they say, no, no, no, that's not cool. My wife wouldn't be cool with it.’ Then you always agree with them. I'd say, ‘You know what? I totally understand. My wife wouldn't agree with it either. I know that's a hard ask.’
And then a little bit later, I'll say, ‘But, you know, man, if I come in. If there's something that you don't’ -- a lot of times, it's fear a lot of times it's fear why people won't let you do anything in this life -- And then at some point later I'll just act like, ‘Hey, that's cool. No problem.’ Right? And then a little bit later, I'll ask them again. Or maybe I come back a week later, ‘Hey, can I come back next week, ask your wife and see if she thinks it's cool or not.’ And then sometimes it's still no, but then a lot of times, once you agree with the person and they feel like you understand where they're coming from, then they'll be like, ‘You know what, man, come on in. You know, come on in, are you hungry? You want something to eat?’ And then, and then sometimes I won't even make any photos.
Andy: The persistence is paying off for you because you've uncovered something really unique here. And I know it's an ongoing project for you and a very small portion of the work is being exhibited right now. So where do you ultimately want to take this project?
From "Fear, Death, and the Other Side"
Chris: Well, thanks man. I'm just thankful to have been doing it and to keep doing it and yeah, I might be printing a book, hopefully, with the University of Kentucky. They're doing a whole series on diversity in the mountains. And then, the work is slowly getting out there, but I tell you it's so disappointing when I've pitched it to like news organizations and they're just not interested. And it's like, don't y'all get it. Like, this is important, you know? I know we’ve got to do stories on COVID and I know we've got to do stories on all these terrible racial things and all of that, but don't you know, that people also want to have stories that educate them and enlighten them and let them experience something that they wouldn't experience?
But man, my long-term goal is to get these photos in the African-American Smithsonian in Washington, DC. That's where the photos need to live. Like when I'm dead and gone, these photos need to live there because this is a representation of that no one else has. That's just all there is to it. It's a part of African-American history that museum needs to have. I've had the hardest time. I can't get in touch with anybody there. I've emailed. I've called man. I can't, I don't even know what to do, but hopefully, I mean, that's my long-term goal, man. I mean, and I'm trying to work towards that and it's challenging and it's so challenging to get the work out there.
Andy: And you've been shooting Affrilachia since when exactly?
Chris: I started in April of 2016.
Chris: Yeah, brother.
Andy: Yeah. Well, that sounds like it's been a real journey for you.
Chris: Yeah. I just started pushing into Tennessee because I mainly been focusing on north Georgia, western North Carolina, a little bit of South Carolina, but I'm going to start pushing into Tennessee. So once I get my second COVID shot in a few weeks, I'm going to go back up there and probably stay for like a week. And, uh, yeah, just keep pushing. This is the longest I've ever spent on one single project.
Andy: That's incredible.
Chris: And I might work on it until the day I die. I tell you what I struggle sometimes. I just, I want to give up sometimes. I'm like, ‘Ah, I'm just done.’ Because in my mind, I start thinking about having to sell myself and having to try and get inside of someone's house. And I've had so many people say, well, ‘Chris, why don't you just do a portrait series?’
Chris: I always feel like that's such an easy way out. And I've even had some really great photo editors work with me who have told me, ‘You know, you should do portraits while you're up there.’ And I'm like, ‘Well, I'm not a portrait photographer.’ I could care less about portraits. You know, that's not who I am. That's not what I want to do. But it is hard sometimes to ask those questions and to be rejected.
And I mean, sometimes I just go and knock on people's doors. ‘Hey, excuse me. My name's Chris.’ I'll drop some names. ‘And I'm doing this project and can I hang out?’ And, you know, some people are like, cool. And some people are like, ‘No!’ So you have to be in the right frame of mind to be willing to accept that. And I think that's probably the biggest difference in this type of photography and other photography. I knock on someone's door and said, ‘Hey, can I do a portrait of you on your front porch?’ A lot of people might say, yes, But if you say, ‘Hey, can I come inside and just pretend like I'm not here for a few hours?’ I mean, I'd be weird with someone wanting to do that at my house. Right? You know, so if I have to like psych myself out, man, cause it's, uh, It's a mind game.
Andy: Well, that's actually a good transition, speaking of mind games. Let's talk about politicians. You’ve photographed the Bush family, Obama, the Clintons, Trump, Stacey Abrams, and so on. And you have a very unique approach when it comes to political subjects. For instance, I remember seeing a recent photo you made of Trump and it was actually from behind him and it was back lit, but you knew exactly who it was because of this big highlight on his hair, which immediately identifies him.
You seem to have a lot of fun with political subjects. Is there a certain politician you enjoy shooting more than others?
Chris: You know, I have some favorite photos. You know, I hate politics. A lot of people won't respect me for this, but I don't vote. I've never voted in my entire life. Um, I feel like it's all bullshit. I've been around enough politicians. I don't trust any of them. And people say, ‘Well, you got to vote for the lesser of the two evils.’ I'm like, ‘Whatever. I don't care about all of that.’ And it keeps me unbiased when I'm covering journalism assignments. Because a lot of the assignments I get from major publications are like political assignments.
I mean, I loved Obama, you know, I, I remember when I was working on the terrible school systems in South Carolina. President Obama visited the school when he was just a senator. And I remember the first time hearing him speak. I was like, ‘If I were to vote for someone, this might be the guy who I would vote for.’ I don't know. He just had that swagger to him. He just is so well-spoken and all that stuff. Opposite of that is that when I photographed Trump for the first time. I could care less about Trump, but I was like, you know what? This guy's not a politician when he says something, even though it may not be something that I agree with, he believes what he's saying, you know? He says stuff he shouldn't say, but at least you can believe what he's saying, he believes, you know? Now as his term went on, you could tell it was a lot more scripted and things, but the very, very beginning before he was president.
But I don't know. I like photographing Hillary. I have photographed Hillary in so many different places.
Chris: And I like Hillary and like, no, I'm not talking about politics, but there's something about Hillary that I like. And Bill's pretty cool too. Last time I photographed them was at the grand opening of Tyler Perry Studios. And I remember photographing them with some other celebrities and then the CIA running up to me and saying, ‘Hey, can we get a copy of that photo? And when the CIA first run up to you -- I mean Secret Service -- at first, you get a little nervous. You're like, oh, the Secret Service is like literally running towards me. And then they're like, ‘Oh, hey, how can we get a copy of that photo?’ I'm like, ‘Well, you're going to have to talk to Mr. Tyler Perry about that because these are his photos,’ but, um, I don't know.
Now I do have a technique that I like to do with politicians, and I haven't done it a whole lot, but I love if I can get really close to them, like say they're campaigning and they're in a restaurant. I love to shoot their faces with the 300mm. I love to get super, super, super tight on their faces, you know, and show the lines and the wrinkles and, and, and sometimes the ugliness of it all I know, there's something I really dig about that.
Andy: Well, I'll tell you, it's interesting that you mentioned that technique because you have this image of Hilary on your website, and it's almost nothing but her teeth, and there's a disturbing quality to it in a way. But at the same time, you know it's a Chris Berry photo the minute you see it, because, you know, again, that intimacy. It's there, even in that photo. What keeps you pushing forward and getting up close and personal with folks like this?
Chris: With my other projects, I'm trying to get close and wide, you know, like a lot of times, like with the peach farm, that was almost all shot with the 16-35mm because Eugene Richards said a long time ago, that he likes to be close enough to touch somebody when he's photographing them. And that was always in the back of my head. I knew I wanted to be close enough to touch them when I'm photographing them. That's what really gives you that intimate feel a lot of times as being super, super close. You have to watch out for distortion and stuff, when you're that close, but politicians, you can't get that close to them. You know, normally you can't be like that, like two feet away from their face, but with the 300mm you can, right?
Andy: I imagine a lot of folks use a 300mm to get up close and personal, but there is something unique in the way that you employ, whether it's even a wide angle or a 300mm, you always bring some sort of really unique view to these subjects.
Chris: Normally when you're photographing politics, especially major people like that, there's so many other photographers around you, right? And a lot of times you kind of feel like what's the point of me even being here. Like we're all shooting the same person. Yeah the photos look a little different, like vertical or horizontal. But so when I'm shooting politics, of course, I'm always trying to think, how can I shoot this? How can I get a photo that the guy next to me or the woman next to me isn't getting. And maybe someone else has gotten those photos, but I haven't seen them. I love dissecting people and I love shooting something to where you can't see the person's face, but you know who it is.
Andy: Yeah. I love that. That's great.
Chris: The older I've gotten as a photographer, I love photography that triggers your imagination, that doesn't give you all of the answers, where your brain has to fill in the blanks.
Andy: Right. Right.
Chris: And so I think about that a lot too.
Andy: Last summer you photographed the funeral services for Congressman John Lewis. Now, did you already have something of a rapport with him?
Chris: I photographed him multiple times. Being in Atlanta, you know, I remember being on an elevator with him when he was receiving some award. See, the cool thing about shooting corporate events is that you get access that you don't -- like a photojournalist gets great access --
Chris: -- But like that back room kind of stuff. It's stuff that they don't want the public to see. And when I do the corporate stuff, I'm hired by whoever it is. So it's not going to be released to the public. But he always smiled at me and was really, really cool with me. But normally I was photographing him at these corporate things and then I would get a photojournalism assignment to go photograph him.
But I was always thinking that this man is only going to be around for so long and I need to make photos that'll carry on. And then when I got the assignment to photograph his funeral services and everything, that was really epic.
The Funeral for Congressman John Lewis, Crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge, 2020
Andy: Yeah. I can imagine that. Must've been a little strange at the same time. Looking through your gallery from that day. I paused at the image of the funeral procession going over the Pettus Bridge. Now, knowing his history with that bridge in 1965, a day that would later become known as ‘Bloody Sunday’ -- he was nearly beaten to death on that bridge. And here you've captured this moment where he's literally being ferried back across the bridge in the afterlife. It's haunting.
Chris: You know how it is. You're always trying to find an angle where the other photographers aren't and sometimes you hit a home run. Sometimes you get the base hit. Sometimes you strike out. You know, I knew I was taking a chance because all the other photographers were on the other side of the bridge or most of the photographers were right there at the bridge to get it coming over. But I knew that if I was in front of him, I would just be getting the front of the horse drawn carriage. So yeah, I shot it from behind and took a chance and yeah, I'm thankful that I did.
I’ll tell you an interesting story about covering that funeral services. When you photograph a funeral, trying to get from the funeral service to the burial service is always challenging because you're trying to outrun the processional and so I was downtown and it was trying to outrun the processional and it was going to a side of town I'd never been to. And I got to the cemetery and I didn't know how many photographers they were going to let in. And I didn't want someone to tell me ‘no.’ So I didn't even go to where all the other photographers were.
I was driving, trying to find a parking spot, and I found the part where the fence had been laid down in the back of the cemetery. And I crossed over the fence and there were some people in the neighborhood that crossed over the fence. And I'm kinda like hiding out behind some gravestones with long glass. And I got all these photos that no one else got, but the coolest thing was, as I was leaving, I looked up on the hill and there were these people with their phones and just looking and paying their respects. And I just made like two or three frames as I was walking out. And that photo ran like four or five columns in the Washington Post. And it was kind of iconic for me. And it was like, you know, if I had gone where everyone else was, I would have never gotten that.
But yeah to be in Selma, Alabama, with John Lewis crossing over that bridge, man, that's like one of those assignments that I'll never forget, you know.
Andy: I'm not going to lie. That that photo was, was emotional for me. Just knowing the history and the symbolic, circular life and death narrative that was ingrained in that image.
Chris: Ah, man, it makes me so happy that you had an emotional response because for me, like with my photography now I want so much of it to be like metaphor.
You know, I don't want it to be on the surface. I'm not trying to tell you the whole story necessarily, but I want it to be metaphor. I want it to be deeper. And that's why you have to have people that can think like that, people that can recognize symbolism and can recognize what it may mean on a deeper level. If you look at my site, there's a project on there called ‘Fear, Death, and the Other Side.’
Andy: Oh yeah.
Chris: And that's completely different than any of my other work. And it's all about metaphor, you know? And it's all about looking with, with deeper eyes. That's why a lot of times I have a problem with social, with Instagram. I'm like people don't take the time to really digest it.
Andy: No, they really don't. You know, in one of the earlier episodes of this podcast, I mentioned the importance of looking at actual printed images and photo books. And you're absolutely correct. A tiny photo on a phone screen is not how most artists want their work to be seen.
Chris: That's why I love the idea now of trying to focus more on galleries and books, where if you go to a gallery, then you're going to appreciate that art. Right? And if you buy a book, you're going to appreciate it. You go to Instagram and swipe through for a few minutes. You’ll say that that's really nice, but for me, to me, that's like the highest level right now is to, um, have that deeper connection.
Andy: Absolutely. One of the themes of this show is how to be creative every day. As someone who's almost constantly in a creative state. How do you maintain that level of energy?
Chris: Well, first of all, it's extremely challenging. You know, there's a quote that says, ‘Man can climb the highest mountain, but he can't stay there long.’ You know, and there's peaks and there's valleys and there's a season for everything. I'd say the first thing is don't beat yourself up when you're in a dry spell; it's okay. Either you're going to die or you're going to live. And if you die, who cares? And if you live, you live to take another photo.
But for me, I think the biggest thing I would say is, find something that you're interested in, find something that you want to learn more about. Let it be a game of exploration. Like that's how it is with me. In Affrilachia I'm like, what am I going to find in Tennessee? You know, like I love, Bill Allard, you know, he's like the king of serendipity.
You know, a lot of times people want to sit at home and wait for inspiration. No, you got to go. You've got to get out there. Right? Now you can find inspiration in your own house. I mean, you'd be amazed with COVID, you've seen all these people just photographing in their homes, but for a lot of us like me, I can only get someone so much inspiration at the house.
Chris: But like, just go, just pick up your camera and go. And it doesn't have to be that you have to come back with a great photo for it to be a success. It is a success just because you went.
Andy: That's a beautiful philosophy.
From "Fear, Death, and the Other Side"
Chris: There's this great author named Melissa Robbins. And it's the five second rule. If you want to do something, this is especially relevant with photography, especially if you're trying to approach someone or go take a photo, count backwards from five and do it.
You see a photo, don't sit there and try and logic out this five, four, three, two, one, bam! Go do it. Go do it. What's the worst that could happen? You know, I've never had anybody punch me in the face for making their photo. I've had people threaten to do that, but I would say that first of all, you have to love yourself and recognize that brother, you can't be out all day everyday making great work.
It's just the way it is. Sometimes you go out and you don't make one single image. And then sometimes you go out, you'll come back with like three home runs. It's like, bam, bam, bam. It's like the stars just line up, you know?
Andy: Absolutely. Chris, thanks for this amazing advice. And for the energy that you bring to photography and for sharing your story with me today. I think I could talk to you endlessly about your process. I know I learned a lot today and I'm sure our listeners will also.
Be sure to check out Chris's work at alukastories.com. And if you're in the Atlanta area, you can see images from his series Affrilachia: The Remnant that Remains in an outdoor exhibition on the Westside trail of the Atlanta Beltline. I'll post links to both of these in the show notes.
Chris, it's been a real treat catching up with you today.
Chris: It was a great pleasure, man. It's so good seeing you and talking about the photography and just thank you so much.
Andy: No, thank you. And we'll do it again soon!
That was Atlanta based documentary photographer Chris Aluka Berry coming to us via Zoom today. We certainly appreciate him taking the time out of his day to speak with us and give us all these great tips on how to be better visual storytellers.
That's going to do it for this episode of the Photo 365 podcast. If you enjoyed the show, please share it with a friend and help us get the word out. You can check out all the episodes, detailed show notes and full transcriptions of each episode at photo365podcast.com.
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Keep looking out for great images, keep shooting. We'll see you next time.