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Best of ASMP 2009


Michelle Kawka stuck close to home when capturing 200 portraits for her client, Dave Kerpen’s Web site, which promotes the diversity of Queens, NY as part of his campaign for borough president. From her first approach to ask complete strangers for a portrait to gathering model releases and asking about ethnic identity, Kawka was always at ease with her subjects. The portraits on www.ThisIsOurQueens.com emerge into a cultural melting pot that confirms this county’s status as the most ethnically diverse in the world.

Michelle Kawka

Website: www.michellekawka.com

Project: Portrait of Queens, New York and its residents for www.ThisisOurQueens.com

ASMP: How long have you been in business?
MK: I have been working as a photographer since 2001, but officially incorporated since 2005.

ASMP: How long have you been an ASMP member?
MK: Since 2004.

ASMP: What are your photographic specialties?
MK: Portraiture, public relations, editorial, travel, advertising, architecture and product.

ASMP: What do you consider your most valuable piece of equipment?
MK: My eyes.

© Michelle Kawka
All images in this article © Michelle Kawka

ASMP: What is unique about your style/approach or what sets you and your work apart from other photographers?
MK: My approach is that I aim to relax my subjects in front of the camera and make them forget that they are being photographed. I do this by asking them pointed questions to elicit an emotional response in them. I then click the shutter.

© Michelle Kawka

ASMP: Please describe the processes and techniques central to the making of this work.
MK: The ability to go up to complete strangers and ask them if I could take their picture.

© Michelle Kawka

ASMP: How did you meet Dave Kerpen and get selected to shoot the portraits for the Web site, This is Your Queens.com? Did you have any involvement in Mr. Kerpen’s political campaign?
MK: Dave and I met when the local newspaper assigned me to photograph the opening of a carousel that his marketing firm, The KBuzz, was promoting for the Shops at Atlas Park. We swapped business cards and subsequently ran into each other at several other events and got to know each other. He was impressed by my work and called me when he decided to put together the Web site to promote the diversity of Queens. Shooting this project was a big part of my involvement with Dave’s campaign.

© Michelle Kawka

ASMP: What was the timeframe for the entire shoot? How much time did you spend on each portrait?
MK: The shoot was 10 days total, shooting for about 3-4 hours each day. The shots were done in about 10 minutes, using either natural light or on-camera bounce flash.

© Michelle Kawka

ASMP: Did you have a set plan in place at the beginning of the project or did your strategy evolve over time?
MK: My strategy was to choose several neighborhoods close together geographically and spend an hour or two walking around the areas where there would be a lot of people. My aim was to photograph a cross section of the population and I approached people I thought looked interesting. I would stop them on the street and explain the project. They would either want to be photographed or not. If they didn’t, I just said thank you and moved on to the next person.

© Michelle Kawka

ASMP: How did you go about finding subjects to photograph? Did you do research or use any particular guidelines to insure that your subjects accurately reflected the demographics of the area?
MK: I found the subjects several ways. One way is that I walked around the chosen neighborhoods for the day and approached people I thought looked interesting and told them about the project. They either said yes or no. If they said yes, I asked them if they would agree to sign a model release and 99 percent said yes. The second way I found people was to put out a call on Facebook and had people respond. I also asked my friends and family if they would be willing to be photographed, several of whom were more than happy to be a part of the project, including my mother. I found Stephen, the scientist whose work involves Antarctic research, because I read an article about his Antarctic expeditions and e-mailed him, asking if he would be willing to participate. Lucky for me, he said yes! Several people stopped me on the street and asked me about the project and subsequently agreed to be photographed. The guideline I used to insure that my subjects reflected the demographics of the area was just to choose a variety of people that looked interesting.

© Michelle Kawka

ASMP: How much time did you spend on research or preproduction vs shooting time? How much time did you spend on post production work?
MK: I did not spend a lot of time researching or on preproduction. Dave and I had a two-hour phone conversation where we discussed the logistics of the project and what he was looking for, but basically he gave me carte blanche to find the subjects. After every day of shooting, I sent him over a light box with the selects from the day to get his feedback. There was not a whole lot of post-production work to be done except for RAW processing. None of the images are retouched, as I wanted to accurately portray the people of Queens as they are.

© Michelle Kawka

ASMP: Of all the portraits you shot for this project, which is your favorite and why?
MK: My favorite portrait is of Arlene, who lives in Cambria Heights, is from the island of Jamaica and identifies as “A Servant of God.” I saw her on Jamaica Avenue. She was wearing a feather boa and I thought that anyone who wears a feather boa on the street has to be interesting. When I asked her about being photographed, she paused for a moment before agreeing, turned to me and said “The Lord Jesus Christ has sent you to me and says YES, I should be photographed my child ! So, YES, I will pose for you, because the Lord Jesus has sent you to me.” She then proceeded to bless me as I snapped away, waving her hands over me and saying “Blessings, blessings, the blessings of Jesus upon you.” She gave me two sheets of looseleaf paper covered in Bible verses and the address of her church and an invitation to stop by anytime.

© Michelle Kawka

ASMP: What is your favorite neighborhood in Queens? Did you make any new or surprising discoveries about the borough you live in as a result of this project?
MK: My favorite neighborhood in Queens is Astoria — I love the diversity, and it has some of the best restaurants in NYC. The discovery I made about Queens as a result of the project is that Queens truly exemplifies the ideal on which the United States was founded. I am constantly amazed at the diversity of the residents and how groups that wage war against each other in their home country literally live and work next door to each other here peacefully.

© Michelle Kawka

ASMP: Did you encounter any resistance to being photographed among any of your subjects and, if so, how did you deal with this? Given the vast demographic of this area, did you encounter any language barriers during your shoots?
MK: There are many Korean immigrants in the borough of Queens and it was essential that we had photos of people from the community. Sanghee, my assistant for the project is Korean and spoke with the Korean shopkeepers. He asked them if they would agree to be part of the project. Most likely they would not have agreed to be photographed if he had not spoken with them first and made a proper introduction.

© Michelle Kawka

ASMP: What kind of advance direction (if any) did you give to your subjects in order to prepare for their shoot? Please describe the interaction you had with your subjects on location.
MK: Basically I just talked with them and tried to make them forget they were being photographed so I could capture their aura. Some of the subjects came alive in front of the camera, others needed a little coaxing.

© Michelle Kawka

ASMP: Did you work with any assistants or support crew such as hair, makeup or styling during this shoot? If so, please describe how the team was assembled and the responsibilities each member had.
MK: I only worked with one assistant for three days of shooting. Sanghee Lee, who also worked on Dave’s campaign, was the key person to help with this project. Otherwise I was out on my own.

© Michelle Kawka

ASMP: Was any other type of content (audio, written word or video footage) captured in addition to your still images? If so please describe the workflow between still captures and other content.
MK: Everyone who agreed to be photographed was asked several questions to accompany their photos — where they were from, where they live, where they work and how they identify themselves ethnically. The questions were listed at the bottom of the model release. We had some pretty interesting responses to the identification of ethnicity ranging from “American” to “A citizen of the world” to my personal favorite “A servant of God.”

© Michelle Kawka

ASMP: Did you ask your subjects to sign model releases? If so, did you run into any complications given the wide range of cultures and languages you were dealing with?
MK: Yes, all the subjects were required to sign model releases. Usually if the person did not speak English well, they were with someone who did and was able to explain the model release to them.

© Michelle Kawka

ASMP: Has this project resulted in any new opportunities or assignments for you? Do you have plans to use the images for your own purposes?
MK: The project has certainly increased my visibility as a photographer and I am getting some very good press about it. I am organizing a large exhibition of all 200 portraits. Ideally, I would want this exhibit to be held at the Queen Museum of Art in the next 6 to 8 months.

© Michelle Kawka

ASMP: How were the images selected for use on the Web site www.ThisIsOurQueens.com, and what was your input in the selection process?
MK: The images were selected by myself with some input from the Web desginer Mike McCloy and Sanghee Lee, my assistant for the project. I made the final decisions on which photos were to be used. I was looking for a good range of poses and expressions.

© Michelle Kawka

ASMP: Have you considered giving Brooklyn a look?
MK: Yes, I have considered giving Brooklyn a look.

© Michelle Kawka