Sebastian Siadecki is a photographer who has lived and worked in New York City since 2001. He works in color and primarily with film, and he has been a member of the NYC Street Photography Collective since 2016.
RV: Hi Sebastian, welcome to APF. I am writing to you from sunny, New Delhi/ India and I hope the weather is not that crazy in New York as it was last week. Please start by telling our readers about yourself. Where are you originally from? What is your day job?
SS : That sounds wonderful… I’m jealous! The weather has been crazy in New York for the last month. And very cold. But spring is coming. I have faith.
About me… I’m from suburban New Jersey originally, about a 40 minute drive from Manhattan. I’ve lived in New York City since I started college in 2001. My “day job” – though often it’s an overnight job as well – is as an emergency room physician in a large hospital in Manhattan.
RV : How did you get involved with photography and why street photography?
SS : It happened very gradually. My father was a pretty avid amateur photographer, though never with any artistic inclinations. But he showed me the basics of how to work a camera. From the time I was in high school until about 4 years ago I intermittently dabbled with photography. But it was never a consistent effort and I had no idea what I was doing.
At some point I decided to buy myself a decent camera, mainly for travel. But then, over a year or two, my interest got reawakened in a much more serious way. I went to the big Garry Winogrand retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2014, and though I didn’t immediately run out and shoot on the street, it was around that time that street photography started to really interest me. I began reading, watching documentaries and videos on YouTube and got myself more and more excited about it. Eventually in 2015 I went out one day with the specific intention of shooting on the street… and I’ve been really serious about it ever since.
Why street photography? I think the element of chance is what attracts me to it the most. You never know what you will encounter out there. And I love the instantaneous and intuitive aspect of it. I’m always amazed to find things in my photos that excite me but that I didn’t even notice at the time. There’s also an interesting paradox in that sometimes going out into the whirlpool of activity in a place like midtown Manhattan is quite soothing – despite being on a crowded street, I feel a certain sense of calm when I’m out shooting.
That said, my interest definitely isn’t limited to what would be considered street photography – I’m into all kinds of photography that involve an unplanned encounter with the real world. And I’m trying to expand my own shooting into other places and parts of my life.
RV : Over the years street photography keeps pushing boundaries. Privacy continues to be a battle street photographers have to fight on a daily basis. Tell us about the street photography scene in New York.
SS : In terms of privacy and ease of taking photos, the scene in New York is as open and relaxed as it could be. People generally don’t react at all to the presence of a photographer and while uncomfortable encounters sometimes occur, they’re quite rare in my experience. New Yorkers are assertive, and I think if you are assertive and confident and look comfortable in what you’re doing, people generally respond to that energy. There are a lot of street photographers in New York, but I think the scene is very open and inclusive; other photographers seem mostly happy to meet and share ideas and experiences.
RV : Have you ever got into trouble while shooting on the streets?
SS : I think everyone who shoots on the street, even in New York, runs into some unpleasant situations. But I don’t find it very exciting to talk about because it has little to do with photography itself. I think if you believe in what you’re doing, the occasional bad encounter won’t stop you. I’ve been yelled at, grabbed and even spit on once but compared to the amount of time I spend shooting, these episodes are very rare – and they’ve become even more rare as I’ve learned how to maneuver on the street.
But you have to remember that most of the people you encounter won’t have any concept of what street photography is… or be able to relate to the fact that you are out there – in their way – trying to make something beautiful. So I don’t blame someone for not understanding. Ultimately, I try to stay confident in what I’m doing and remember that I’m out there with only good intentions. If maintain that attitude then it’s hard to go wrong.
RV : What makes you keep shooting with a film camera? What are some of the films that you love shooting on?
SS : It’s hard to explain why I choose to shoot film. There isn’t any single clear reason. Probably because almost all of my photography heroes shot film, it always just made sense to me to do the same. I love the look of film, I love the feel of a mechanical film camera, and I think not being able to look at my photographs immediately is very good – it keeps me paying attention to what I see and creates an important distance and objectivity, since it’s usually a few weeks before I see the pictures. I have nothing against digital, and I shoot digitally often when I travel. But for my primary work in New York I want to keep shooting film as long as it’s available. I also started doing color darkroom printing about a year ago, and that really renewed my excitement about using film. Anyone who has access to a darkroom – especially a color darkroom – should take a stab at making prints. Creating an analog print from your own work is an incredible experience.
Film-wise, I shoot exclusively color and almost always negative film. I primarily use Kodak Ultramax 400, Lomography 800 (which is rebranded Kodak film), and sometimes Fuji Superia. All of these are considered consumer grade films and I primarily use them because they’re the least expensive. That said, I generally don’t aim for a lot of grain or a really gritty look – I prefer cleaner images. But I’m finding that the secret with color negative film is overexposing it a bit. I’m usually about 1 stop overexposed – or at least exposed for the shadows – and I find that these cheaper films all respond really well when given a lot of light.
RV : You are a member of the NYC street photography collective. Tell us more about that.
SS : Yes! It’s something I’m very excited about. NYCSPC was started by my good friend Jorge Garcia in 2015, and I’ve been involved for about 2 years. It’s a group of street photographers in NYC that meets monthly to look at and critique each other’s work, and we also publish zines of our work and organize events such as gallery shows and print swaps. And we’ve recently started teaching workshops. We’re probably the only big online photography collective that actually meets in person. There are 21 members but anyone is welcome to attend our meetings and participate. We try to be as inclusive and supportive as possible.
We also recently received official nonprofit status. Our ultimate goal one day is to have a permanent gallery and lab space that we can use to stage our shows, workshops, and meetings – essentially to be a physical home for the street photography community in New York City.
RV : Please tell us about some of the photographers who have inspired you over the years.
SS : There are many! Probably my biggest inspiration in photography is William Eggleston. His work was the first that I saw that really got me excited about photography in a deep way, and made me aware of the power of photography to turn the seemingly banal or mundane into something extraordinary. Even though his work can’t really be called street photography, his use of color, his sense of humor, and the strong personal vision that permeates all of his work have always been a huge inspiration.
In the realm of classic street photography, my other main influences are Joel Meyerowitz (especially his color work from the 1970s), Garry Winogrand, Lee Friedlander, William Klein, and Saul Leiter. As far as more contemporary street photographers, my main influences are probably Jeff Mermelstein and Gus Powell. A few of my other favorite contemporary photographers are Jason Fulford, Ed Panar, Alec Soth, and Justine Kurland.
There are also quite a few great photographers who I’ve become aware of through Instagram and other online platforms. Some of my favorites are Noel Camardo, Missy Prince, Daniel Arnold, Aaron Berger, Todd Gross, Kevin Samuels, and Jerry Pena. And of course, I’m constantly influenced and inspired by my peers in NYCSPC… all of them are making awesome work and I’m humbled to be included with them.
RV : A good street photograph has the power to…..Please complete that statement for us and do elaborate.
SS : … change the way the viewer sees the world. I would broaden that beyond street photography to say that is the power of all good photography… maybe even all good art. It changes perception. It creates a greater understanding. Recently I was walking with my girlfriend in Mexico City and I pointed out something interesting – I don’t even remember what it was, maybe someone’s gesture or some other small thing – and she mentioned that she would have never noticed that, and observed that my photography practice has changed the way that I see. But I believe that change can also carry over from the photographer to the viewer. Ultimately, I think street photography is a humanistic pursuit; maybe by seeing and noticing those around us more, we come to care more about each other. One can hope, anyway.
Beyond that, as the photographer, my photographs also have the ability to teach me about myself. I get to go out and try to create something in a very quick and intuitive way, and then I get to analyze the pictures that I made, and the things that drew my attention, and learn about what my own interests are.
RV : What is it you hope to achieve, either on a personal or professional level?
SS : I don’t have any professional ambitions in photography. I’m incredibly lucky that I have a fulfilling career that still allows me the time and space to pursue this passion in a deep and wholehearted way. I think if I had to shoot for a living it wouldn’t be the same. And conversely, I’m confident that I would still do this if nobody every saw it. More than anything, though, I want to keep making work; I want to keep pushing myself to do more, keep growing, and one day be able to look back at a body of work that I can be proud of. My dream would be to publish a book one day… but that’s not something I really think about much. My focus right now is on making good work.
I also want to continue to help NYCSPC grow; I believe it has the potential to become something really meaningful and unique.
RV : Lastly, any advice that you would like to share with other street photographer?
SS : Put in the time. Walk. Get out there. And don’t get frustrated if your pictures aren’t as good as you want them to be. It will take time. When I first started I had no clue how much time or effort it takes to even begin to become competent at something like street photography… or any creative pursuit. Art is long, life is short. But if you truly put in the work, eventually you will get pictures that surprise and excite you. And only then does the real enjoyment begin.
Do follow his work on Instagram: Here
In conversation with Rohit Vohra/ APF
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