Photographer Antonio Bolfo started photographing “NYPD: Operation Impact 1,” in 2008, two years after he became a police officer. During the span of two years, Bolfo captured a rare glimpse into the work lives of New York’s housing officers. His images showcase the chaos, the stress, and the humanity of being an officer.
CV: Let’s chat about your “NYPD: Operation Impact” project. I’ve read that you joined the police force, and after a couple years, started to bring your camera along. Looking back at your project, what do you think you learned from that experience?
AB: Me bringing my $100 point-and-shoot camera had little impact on my final body of work. When I was working as a police officer, my main focus was on the job at hand, not taking photos. The camera came out during the times when I was bored and there was nothing going on in the neighborhood. However, I did learn that taking pictures became a form of therapy. That’s what really got me into serious picture making. Many people ask me if being a cop prepared me for working in crisis situations. The main thing that I take from police work is how to not freak out when shit hits the fan, and how to talk to people in a sincere and respectful way so as to not escalate a situation. I see many photographers and journalists talk to their subjects like crap, as if their subjects owe them something. Photography is a very intimate and invasive thing, and treating your subjects with respect and dignity is absolutely essential.
CV: How many images did you take? What was your editing process?
AB: I spent a little over two years, on and off, with my NYPD story. I have no idea how many photos I took. Thousands. The NYPD story was my first real photo project, and I had no idea how to tell a story through still photography. I did know that I wanted to illustrate a more personal, intimate side of cops. It’s the part of them that they hide when working. The average person rarely gets to see the human side of these people, so I thought it was important to tell that story. I was still in photo school when I started the project, so I had a lot of help from different faculty members and other students in the editing process. I still suck at editing my own work.
CV: As a former cop, and and now as a photographer, what advice would you give to young journalists on how to approach shooting on the streets, or photographing the police?
AB: Photographing strangers on the street is not an exact science, and my advice would change from person to person. The ultimate goal is bring down a person’s defenses, so that they feel comfortable displaying their true self. People skills are something that comes with time and experience. The reason why I value my police experience so highly is that it forced me to talk to thousands and thousands of strangers. I had to learn to calm them down, get them interested, get them disinterested, make them laugh, and make them willing to do what I wanted without a fight. One thing that all people can recognize is dishonesty, no matter what country they come from or what language they speak. If you approach a stranger on the street and you are nervous, are hiding something, or have ulterior motives, your subject is going to pick up on that, unless you are a really, really good liar.
If you find yourself confronted by police it is important to always treat the officer with respect. You are not required by law to do this, but it is common sense, even if the cop is an absolute a-hole. Even if you are right and the cop is wrong, let him have his way (unless his actions are endangering you, in which case you call 911). If you really feel your rights have been violated, then you can take it up at the precinct with a supervisor, or in court. But it’s not worth arguing with a cop on the street, because he will win 100% of the time. . . You don’t want to be arrested for some bullshit reason just because you wanted to throw your ego in some cop’s face.
CV:You studied film and animation at RISD, how did that transition into photography? Also, what was your approach to building a solid body of work?
AB: I think my film background makes me subconsciously look for moments that are cinematic, in terms of composition, lighting, and content. But at the end of the day, I believe we use the exact same process for all mediums of visual art. It’s about dissecting the visual world into relationships of form, shapes, color and saturation. It really is all the same thing: drawing, sculpting, taking pictures, ceramics, etc. More than my studies in film and animation, it is my 30 years of experience in drawing that really influences my photography. Drawing from life is the best form of training a visual artist can have. If you can draw, you can easily transition into any visual medium. It’s especially true for photographers: by drawing from life you train yourself to understand the relationships of the forms that make up whatever you see. A huge part of photography is understanding those relationships very quickly, to the point where you are not even consciously reconstructing the image in your head and viewfinder. I am not saying you need to draw to make good pictures; I am saying it would help a lot.
CV: You’ve mentioned in a past interview that as a photographer you would never be an impartial observer, stating you wanted to make photos that were more personal and interpretative. Could you elaborate?
AB: Being an objective, impartial observer is like making a list of facts. That’s a recipe for a boring and uninspiring story. I like stories that are more personal and intimate, where the photographer clearly cares about his subjects and has something to say. That personal interpretation is important to make your story stand out and to tell people how you feel. It also adds a human element to it. Clearly there are boundaries that you cannot cross in journalism, but within the framework of telling an accurate account of events, a photographer definitely has room to apply his own perspective.
CV: What are your current projects?
AB: Due to safety concerns, I unfortunately cannot discuss my current photo project that at this time. But for the last few years I have also been involved in the development of a online storytelling platform that redefines how people tell stories. We are still keeping things very secretive, but you will be hearing about it soon.
CV: What mistakes do you see young photojournalists making?
AB: I don’t like to call them mistakes. I prefer the term “learning experiences.” Because any experience that you can walk away from is a good one. From the creative side of things, I don’t like it when young or old photojournalists try to make a story that their audience will like. The most important thing is to make a picture story that you love, not that someone else will love. If you don’t love it, how do you expect others to love it? Don’t try to placate the masses. This goes back to having your own perspective in a photo story; making pictures that you feel personal and emotional about.
From the business side of things, up and coming photographers need to think about new ways to publish and expand their audience. There are so many other venues to have your work seen besides magazines and newspapers. Don’t leave it up to magazine or newspaper editors to judge your work and determine how worthy your work is for publication. Rejection is a common by-product of the news industry, so it is important to keep your head up. Most of the time, rejection has nothing to do with how good the photos are, or how good the story is. If an amazing story doesn’t fit a magazine’s editorial voice, or doesn’t ride the news cycle, then there is a good chance that it won’t be published. I’ve seen incredible photo essays never see the light of day because of these issues. On the flip side, I have seen poor, ethically-questionable photos published just because it fits a publication’s content strategy that month. Stay true to yourself, make stories that you want to make, and remember that your value and your story’s value does not depend on whether it is published or not.
One last thing I want to address is the influence that photo competitions have on photographers. A lot of new photographers see these competitions as a way to get recognized and push their work. While winning awards can achieve this, it is also dangerous to place too much weight on them. I feel many young (and old) photographers focus on winning awards, as opposed to making an ethical and original story. Photos of death, violence, shock and awe, win competitions, and I’m afraid that this is creating a standard that the industry is abiding by. Young photographers need to understand that good photography is not about shocking the viewer; it’s about creating an emotional bridge between the viewer and subject. A corpse, drug use, or other grotesque material may be a big part of the story, but too often it becomes the focus of pictures, and the respect of the subjects becomes totally lost.
CV: Any parting advice you would like to dispense?
AB: Stay true to yourself. Listen to editors and colleagues, and take their advice constructively. But don’t let them determine what kind of photos you want to make. That needs to be your call.