By Eli Diker
New York City, New York
Trevor Wisecup and Sara Messinger are two New York City Street photographers and members of the New York City Street Photography Collective (NYCSPC). Their work has been featured in major publications, including The New York Times. On a Wednesday morning in August, Sara and Trevor were kind enough to sit down with me in Washington Square Park to talk about their work.
The Iris: To get started, would you talk a little bit about your origins with photography and how you got interested in street photography?
Sara Messinger: I was interested in photography for a while. I studied in Cuba the January before the pandemic, and in that class we had to go out and make photographs. So I was walking ten miles a day, taking photos just of people and whatever I saw, and I was the happiest I’ve ever been. Then the pandemic hit, and my aunt took her own life the day New York City shut down. I was super depressed and all I was thinking about was being in Cuba and photographing, and how much fun that was, and how happy I was. So I moved back to New York in August of last year, and I started taking photographs every day, and I became obsessed. It became meditative, cathartic.
Trevor Wisecup: Almost four years ago, a coworker of mine told me about Daniel Arnold and showed me his photos and I said “These are crazy. How do you take photos like this?” I had never even taken a photo before that. My dad had a Leica, so I asked him for the camera. For a long time, I wasn’t seeing things that I would see other people take. And looking back on it, I know that it just takes a long time to be able to take good photos. I would just go on the street and everything was alive, and now it’s something I can’t shut off anymore.
TI: So what were you looking for when you started to photograph, and what are you looking for now, photographing?
TW: I look for weird things, intimate moments, I do cliches, just like everybody else, kiss shots, stuff like that. That’s a tough question. It’s arbitrary. I look for facial gestures. It has to do with a lot of emotion. There’s definitely a weirder element to what I’m photographing. I’m just documenting out here.
TI: So do you consider yourself more a journalist and a documentarian, or more of an artist?
TW: I would definitely say it’s a mix.
SM: When I first got started I was pretty depressed, and I was trying to look for moments of joy, intimate moments. And when I look back at my photographs, I realize I take a lot of photos of kids, almost subconsciously. I see myself that way. I like to run around, have fun; that’s why I take photographs.
TI: On that note, Sara, I want to ask you about your project, Hasidism. Could you talk a little about how that project came about?
SM: That’s when I first started shooting film. My friend let me borrow his M2, and he was shooting in South Williamsburg, so I began to shoot there. Also, Helen Levitt’s my favorite photographer and the photographs that she makes you can’t really find those scenes in the city anymore, except for a place like South Williamsburg, so I was really drawn to that.
TI: And what kind of scenes were those?
SM: Kids just running around, freely. It’s a very special thing they’re able to have in their community. Also, as a Jewish person, it was my way of exploring my Jewish roots, which is something I was always curious about. I didn’t grow up super religious, but I just wanted to understand more. I kept kosher and kept Shabbat for a bit, just to understand.
TI: We were talking earlier about how you like to photograph in Washington Square Park. But sometimes you come here and there are twenty people running around with Leicas. So how do you make a unique photograph in these really photographed places?
SM: I get made fun of, but this is my favorite place to shoot. A lot of photographers shoot in midtown, and I don’t know what to shoot in midtown. I like parks. I like people congregating, people using public space and coming together. That’s what I’m attracted to. It’s been a big conversation lately of going to Herald Square, or coming here, and there’s a huge crowd of photographers, but it doesn’t bother me as much. I feel like I’m kind of doing my own thing.
TW: Well it’s not a competition. I don’t even think about “Oh there’s thirty photographers here. Fuck.” I’m just looking out for what I’m always looking out for. Specifically for events: it doesn’t matter that it’s a big event. I shot the Biden victory, and one of those photos ended up in the Times, but it wasn’t for the Biden celebration. So I was still taking photos the same way I do any other day.
TI: Do you shoot in midtown a lot, Trevor?
TW: I do shoot in midtown quite a bit. I’m shooting there today and Sara’s coming with me. Because she doesn’t shoot there enough, and I was telling her the other day “You should shoot in other places,” not that you don’t.
TW: I think midtown is hard to get a good photograph.
SM: Especially now, it just looks so different…
TW: Then it used to be.
TI: But now that the city’s coming back, do you think it’ll go back to what it used to be?
TW: I do. The past three weeks, it’s been very reminiscent of the old midtown, before the pandemic. Yesterday was a weird day. I shot a lot of weird things.
TI: And how was photographing through the pandemic? Did you photograph during the first lockdown?
TW: I still have a lot of photographs that I’ve never seen, on around 30 undeveloped rolls of film. I took photos of a lot of empty streets, because I don’t think we’re going to see that again for a while. All of May I photographed around midtown. And then the George Floyd protests started happening, and I shot a lot of that that no one’s ever seen. I haven't even seen that.
TI: And what was that like for you, photographing through a historic moment, or several historic moments all happening at the same time?
TW: When there was looting going on on 14th street, I went out a few nights and shot that. It just felt like being in a movie, and when I was shooting I knew that this is going to be important one day. My intent with photographing both the protests and the looting was not to share it or exploit people in those photographs. I wanted to capture it just for history.
TI: For both of you, shooting film seems like a really important part of your processes. Could you talk about why you shoot film?
SM: When I shoot film, I feel like I shoot from the heart. It makes me more selective in the photographs I make. I was shooting an assignment one day, and I was shooting digital, and I took like 500 photographs and they all sucked. I took 500 photos because I could, because the thought process is different. And it was awful. Shooting digital is really hard for me now, and I don’t like the look.
TW: I shot digital for like three days. And the first day I shot digital I took like 1,000 photos, and they all were not good. I don’t even have them anymore. I just like the process of shooting film, being more selective, and not having the freedom to shoot shoot shoot allowed me to home in how I look at things.
TI: Could you talk about why you choose to shoot black and white as opposed to color?
TW: I think it just depends on the photographer. When they’re taking the photo, some people just see in color, and some just see in black and white. With black and white it’s all about the moment, but with color it’s the moment, and then they’re other variables that could go into the photograph that I really enjoy.
SM: When I first started taking photographs, I shot a few rolls of film, but I’d bring it to the lab and it would cost so much money. I then started volunteering at the NYCSPC and then I was like “Shit I can afford this now!” But we don’t develop black and white.
TI: So because there are more variables, do you think it’s harder to make a great color photograph?
TW: I don’t think it’s harder, I think it’s different. Because if I were to put a black and white roll in my camera I would shoot it the same, but I don’t think the photos would be as good. I would have to shoot it completely differently.
TI: You guys are the first generation of photographers to photograph with already established social media. What does that do to your photography, and what are the advantages?
TW: The advantages are exposure. Getting your work out. There are plenty of people who have big social media followings but still save work just for them, or for a book later. I think social media is definitely very useful for exposure and getting your work seen. I never would’ve gotten any jobs if it weren’t for social media.
SM: Starting out, social media helped me find a community of photographers. I first met a lot of my friends through Instagram, [and] got connected with them on the streets eventually. I share work with them, I learn from them. It allowed me to find that community.
TW: Wait, did you know who I was before we met?
SM: I knew who you were before I even started taking photos. I was like “Shit he’s doing it! I gotta do it!” And then I didn’t do it for so long. I feel like I was almost studying in a way.
TW: I completely agree with Sara. I met a lot of my friends through there. I saw their work and I love their work, and I love them as people. I don’t have a lot of friends that aren’t photographers. I relate best to photographers.
SM: We interact with the world in the same way. There was one night where we were sitting here, everybody was partying, and we were like “Look at that guy.” We’re just observing everything.
SM: We just want to talk with everyone, and take photographs. That’s it. But I feel like the disadvantage of Instagram is there’s so much photography on there, and when you’re on the street, it’s hard to clear your head of all these references.
This interview has been edited for concision and clarity.