tyree harris is feeling grateful, despite not being able to do what he does best right now.
by Joanne Xu
As a creative who’s known for his documentarian approach to photographing Los Angeles hallmarks, like Venice basketball culture or LA’s notorious transportation system, the social limitations of quarantine have been tough on Harris’ ongoing projects. LA culture moves quick and in nuanced beats — its best moments live quietly between the flashy, incomplete portrayals of the city that dominate Instagram feeds. And so any accurate illustration of LA’s diverse community life rests on a photographer’s ability to fully interact with his subjects and their routines.
With so many of those in-between stills — a person at a bus stop, a basketball player taking a water break — paused or missing in our daily lives now, Harris has turned his lens to other avenues, exploring just how far his creativity can stretch when he’s not restricted to just one medium.
The Recreationalist sat down with Harris to discuss the many awakenings, cultural and creative alike, that can be born from crisis.
01. It’s been an overwhelming few months. What have you made of it all?
It’s definitely been some weird times, especially as a photographer. Right now is a revolutionary moment. All these circumstances, whether it be the pandemic, or unemployment rates in L.A. County, or all this police brutality and the George Floyd murder — it’s a perfect storm that’s created a lot of outrage, not just in the Black community but in the whole American experience. This is something that everyone needs to be fighting for. It doesn’t matter if you’re in the Appalachians or in Austin, Los Angeles, Minneapolis. This is all of our futures.
02. You have a degree in journalism. So how did you end up in photography?
My whole plan was to graduate college and be a column writer at some publication. And then I had this realization of ‘oh wait, I’ve got to pay the bills man.’ Because of that, I started working as a commercial writer in advertising, but became a bit jaded with writing and lost my own voice. Randomly, my mom got me this starter Canon Rebel DSLR and I thought I may as well do something with it. So I went down to the Venice basketball community where they play every week and sort of re-channeled that journalistic storytelling instinct that I’d spent four, five years crafting in college. And it reopened my voice for me.
03. What would you say to young creatives that want to branch outside of their specializations?
When you’re a storyteller or you want to tell a story, the medium is secondary. If I want to write an article, I think about what my voice is, what I want to say, how I express that. You know, what language am I using, how am I composing my sentences? Those same thoughts are in photography. Ultimately you’re trying to communicate something to somebody, craft an emotion, make a case. It doesn’t matter if you’re writing or taking a photo, those same principles are there. It’s just a matter of honing the craft around it. Your voice will translate into everything that you do, once you understand what you want to say.
Photos by Tyree Harris.
04. How do you start finding your voice?
There’s no real shortcut. It’s about doing things wrong a thousand ways until finally it feels the way that you feel and sounds the way that you hear it. But in general, be aware of what your stance is on life and the matters around you. And then it’s just about re-articulating those values over and over again.
05. You’ve coined an underlying philosophy for your work called “optimism in unfamiliar spaces.” Can you tell us about that?
It’s based on the idea that there are a lot of stories of struggle and oppression, and of people that come from struggle and oppression. And a lot of times they’re only depicted as people who struggle and are oppressed. That can be a very alienating and one-sided perspective of their lives. They have dreams and aspirations. They want to be somewhere different. So a lot of my work is trying to humanize and tell the stories of those people.
YOUR VOICE WILL TRANSLATE INTO EVERYTHING THAT YOU DO, ONCE YOU UNDERSTAND WHAT YOU WANT TO SAY.
06. How did that philosophy translate into your photographic style?
I was trying to figure out how you communicate hope, and turned to this German fashion photographer Juergen Teller who shot a lot of super iconic fashion in the 90s. I always loved how glamorous and decadent his subjects would look, and I wanted to bring that feel to the streets. To people who maybe don’t have that spotlight on them. So my literal interpretation of a spotlight was incorporating harsh flash and the LA sunscape to my photos. It’s almost like putting a spotlight on people in their natural environment adds an element of surrealness and magic to their experiences.
07. How has your work helped your relationship with the LA community?
It’s taught me a lot about the diversity of experiences in LA. There are so many different people and so many walks of life. It’s also reminded me that as well known as LA is, there’s still so much that we’re sweeping under the rug — that there’s a lot we don’t understand about the people who live here and that there’s so much work to be done wherever you go.
07. What are you working on now?
I’m chipping away at a project that’s about mobility justice in Los Angeles called “Nobody Rides The Bus In LA”. It’s exploring this idea that ‘no one’ is riding the bus here, but when you actually look at the numbers, millions of people are using public transportation in this city. You start to realize the only reason people say that ‘no one’ is riding the bus is because the people that do are always called the nobodies.
08. Was there a moment where this idea clicked for you?
When I just moved to LA I didn’t have a license, and as you may know LA is not a place to not have a license. So in not driving, I was pretty shocked to see this supposedly modern city with really no strong access to public transportation. That inspired me to talk about and address that. Mobility justice in LA is such a hot button issue, especially because the 2028 olympics in LA are going to be here soon. So now there’s this mad dash to make sure LA looks like a modern city, and all of a sudden people that are going to be here for a month are getting more priority and treatment than people that have been living here their whole life.
10. How have you kept your creativity moving while you’re not out taking photos?
It’s tough. Photography is a super important way that I express my voice, and I feel strange bringing a camera to people’s faces while everyone’s just trying to make it through [COVID-19]. But one of the things it’s reminding me of is that the medium is not the message. Maybe I’m not doing photography right now, but the story should continue to live on. I can still write, work on ideas for other pitches, or research potential projects that come up after all of this. The world is frozen but the bills are still coming. So you’ve just got to evolve with the times.
This interview was edited for clarity and length.