On Photos of the Revolution, the Streets Talk

Photographer Steven Irby talks to GARAGE about the art show and charity auction that will donate 100% of proceeds to anti-racist and pro-LGBTQIA organizations.

by Sophie Kemp
Jun 22 2020, 8:14pm

Photos of the Revolution is not just an art show. The collaboration between artists Christelle de Castro, Steven Irby, Nicolas Heller of @newyorknico, and Darkroom, is an urgent snapshot into what is happening in the world right now. With 100% of the proceeds from the sale of prints going to a series of anti-racist and pro-LGBTQIA mutual aid funds and mentorship programs, it highlights what it feels like to be on the streets right now, protesting and letting the energy and movement around you work as a conduit for change. There's a photo of essential workers coming outside a hospital to support Black Lives Matter protestors, taken by Mark Clennon, as well as a photo of a young skater with George Floyd's name written in black marker on the back of their board, captured by Daniel Arnold. There's also incredibly intimate portraits of two women doing vogue hands in East Baltimore by Shan Wallace, and a bucolic shot of a little blue house in Jamaica, by Shaniqwa Jarvis. All of these photos are a study of love; they document communities in moments of unrest and in moments of serene calm.

GARAGE spoke to Irby, a lifelong New Yorker who is the co-founder of the underground magazine Street Dreams, about his experiences of putting this print sale project together—which runs until June 25—and what it means to make art with a very 2020 energy.

How did this print sale come to be? How did you get in touch with Christelle de Castro and New York Nico?
Nico and I have known each other for a couple of years now. The first time I met Nico was a couple of years ago at West Fourth. When I bumped into him to finally link up, he was chilling with Jeff Garlin in the middle of a random coffee shop. I was like, "What the hell is going on? You're chilling with the GOAT, Jeff Garlin?" We hit it off immediately. He's another New Yorker—I'm a born and raised New Yorker—[and] he calls himself the unofficial talent scout of NYC. We both look for like, the real stories of the truthful, the loving, the authentic kind of New York experiences.

Actually at the beginning of the year, he [did] another contest called Best New York Photo, and they had an opportunity to raise $250,000 and submit photos and really try to help push for something like that. So during this whole civil rights movement, and the Black Trans Lives Matters movement and just even like the fucked-up shit that's happening in Yemen right now, we just felt like it was a really strong opportunity to use these photos that we’ve been gathering and capturing and projecting onto ourselves—because we were all hurt as well too—to really actually do something and give back. [Nico has] worked a lot with Christelle. He was really good friends with Christelle, and I hadn't met her before, but then as soon as we all been in this group chat, we've been tight as shit ever since. We all have the same level of energy and love and tenacity going after something that we all really truly care for. So I think it's really dope that you have the Italian Jew, the Black guy, and the Asian gay girl who all work together on something like this to really give back to our city. This is our shit, so I feel like we actually are protecting it.

The photos that are for sale on the website are incredibly contemporary and very revolutionary.
Oh, for sure. I have one of the photos inside of the gallery right now that we're presenting, and I shot that photo on assignment for The New Yorker. I remember that night vividly in my head. While we were walking down the street on 86th Street, or 90th, there were so many people. There were people banging pots out the window. There's everybody just being in unison. You feel the love. This was the first night of curfew. Then out of nowhere, we kind of literally walk into this car because there's literally tens of thousands of people outside. And this guy is sitting on top of his whip. He's blasting Pop Smoke out of it. It felt like the revolution. And then I just turned around and I saw everybody was just dancing, and Black, white, Asian, gay, straight, Indian, everybody, we were all there in unison. And even talking about it now, I still get fucking goosebumps even thinking about it. And it just happened maybe like less than a week ago, and now we're selling this photo a week later, and now it's going to live in somebody's home forever. It's like encapsulating these quick moments during our civil rights movement. This is our story to tell.

How does it feel, as you were just saying, to have taken this photo like, basically last week, and now know that it's going to be in somebody's home?
For me, personally, it's the most humbling and I'm grateful. I'm a morbid, kind of realistic person, so I know that I can die tomorrow. Then the fact that you have something from me that could last, you can pass onto your family, and then I know that the amount of love and energy and empathy that I'm putting into my work. I can't even ask you to buy it. I'm just happy that you have it in your crib, to be honest with you. Obviously I know that's not the right answer, and I know that we need to make money as artists, but I just want people to have my shit, and then especially when it goes towards a cause and we're having something that's way more deeper.

Tell me about some of the other photos in the exhibit that are for sale right now that you really love.
I definitely love Christelle's black-and-white photo [of activist Jane Elliott]. I'm black-and-white biased. I've been shooting black-and-white photos for like, three years now, so anything that I see black and white is pretty much an automatic sell for me. I also love the photo by Flat Top, he's a newer photographer—Kenny Cousins, who goes by Flat Top Photography. He has the photo of the little kid hanging out the window. That one's absolutely incredible. I love to just look at my photo with the older dude on top of the car with his fist up and the little kid with his fist up. It kind of feels like this weird kind of timeline of life. There's a photo [by Marcus Maddox] of the guy tying his T-shirt behind his head in front of the police. That's heavy. I love that image. And you don't even know if they got it shaken, but it was that energy. It literally is that 2020 energy. I feel like the 2020 energy is like, Fuck it, I had enough. And everybody, literally everybody's at that point.

There's a couple days left in the sale, and you've already raised close to $70,000. What else has been rewarding about the experience for you?
I just love hearing the stories of people connecting with the art. I think one of the most supportive things is I'm just getting a flood of DMs lately of just people that have been wanting to buy our prints for a long time, and then trying to figure out a way to really give back, and they don't understand how to. It's hard to do the work. There's a lot of work that goes into that. So us creating a lane where people can not only gravitate and find the photos that they've been seeing on the Instagram for the last couple of weeks, but at the same time, they could actually give back towards an initiative that is not going to just suckle their money away is the dopest shit in the world. I'm a simple man. I have simple things. I just want people to obtain art and then actually give back towards something where it means something.

Money is something that's incredibly tangible, and also being able to buy art that documents what's going on right now feels particularly potent.
This is our time. This is our story. This is the only other time in the world where information is found all over the place, but the people have the sauce. We are the ones who are really dictating what's going on. And that's why I love that Dave Chappelle bit so much. He's like, "Do you really want to hear what a comedian has to say right now? A celebrity? No, this is the streets talking," and this is literally legit. It is the fucking truth. This is the streets talking, and it feels good to be a part of it.

Photos of the Revolution
Steve Irby