Since November 2011, photographer and filmmaker Khalik Allah has been documenting the corner of 125th Street and Lexington Avenue. First drawn to Harlem as a teenager, Allah is deeply familiar with the particular energy of the intersection: on one of the city’s most iconic thoroughfares, crowds flow in and out of the 4/5/6 station, rushing past a congregating point for some of the city’s downtrodden — homeless men and women, addicts and drunks, individuals suffering from mental illness gone untreated.
Where many see only devastation or obstacles to be avoided, Allah says that “All I see is light.” His work reveals the story of this corner not through its streetscapes, but through the faces of the forgotten or neglected that too often fade into the background. He shoots primarily at night, using only the light from street lamps and surrounding stores to illuminate his subjects. His stunning, unflinching portraits demand attention for the overlooked or willfully avoided, confronting questions of perception and fear while recognizing humanity and beauty within the darkness. Here, Allah shares with us the technique and work that make visible this unique corner and focuses our sights firmly on the individuals that many people choose not to see. –J.T.
What do you do?
I’m a self-taught street photographer and filmmaker in New York City. Some people call me a portrait photographer, but I don’t pigeon-hole myself. Most street photographers don’t consider themselves portrait artists because they want to capture the story of what’s already going on, so they just photograph a scene. But I feel like there is so much in a person eyes and facial expression that you can fill in blanks and form a story in your mind. The landscape of my photography is the human face.
My purpose in photography is to document the underprivileged, people who, for the most part, haven’t had a photograph taken of them in 10 years. Many of the people I’m documenting are coming out of prison. The last time they had a photograph taken, it was a mug shot or in a hospital.
Do you have an agenda with this body of work?
I like to say that not looking at problems is how problems are prolonged. My camera is a witness to those who would easily go overlooked or consciously avoided. I’m looking at what society wants to forget. I want to shine a light on the fear behind that and show that there’s really nothing to fear in the universe. So I shoot at night in one of the roughest areas of New York City, and through my work I can tell people that this is a loving, kind area. Regardless of its exterior, there is still a lot of beauty within the darkness.
I’m trying to touch people on that level, where they can see the humanity there. Why did I think that person was going to stick me up and rob me in the past? Now I can understand why they’re desperate, and I can be more compassionate rather than calling the cops, looking away, hiding my purse, or avoiding them.
Why did you pick the intersection of 125th Street and Lexington Avenue as a focus for your work? How did you come to know it?
I’ve been navigating the city all my life. I grew up living on Long Island, but all my family’s business was in Manhattan, Queens, and Brooklyn, so I was constantly here. I only started going to Harlem after I got left back in 8th grade. I wanted to go into the streets and get street knowledge. Harlem became a Mecca for me: it was where books and information were, and at that point in my life and to this day the Five Percent Nation was very pivotal in my growth and development. I wasn’t coming to create art; I was coming for the esoteric books being sold on the street, to hear the wise man on the corner. 125th and Lexington was a corner I used to avoid because it seemed that there was no knowledge or light there, nothing except drugs and so on. It took going through the knowledge that Harlem offered to heighten my perception of life and to say, you know what, there’s beauty here.
When I started coming to Harlem, I was studying the great photographer Joel Meyerowitz and he used to talk about how Park Avenue was his hub. He said that its width allowed certain light to come in at different times of the day. So after thinking about that, I was like, yo, I need to get my own corner. The implication is that drug dealers are the only people that “own corners.” As a kid listening to hip hop — GZA’s Liquid Swords or Method Man — people would say, “I own this corner.” It stuck with me, and I thought, damn, it would be crazy to be a drug dealer and own a whole corner. So I feel that I’m an old school gangster — even though I’m one of the nicest, most nonviolent guys — and I’m slinging visual crack that’s healing people instead of killing them.
When I finally became a photographer, almost 5 years ago, I didn’t settle onto Lexington immediately. I was in the LES for two years, and when I started coming to Harlem in the afternoons, I gravitated towards Lexington. On November 21st, 2011, I came out with the resolution that I was going to shoot all night. My cargo pants and both pockets were filled to the brim with rolls of film. Around 2am I turned the corner, and I shot — I was using flash at the time — and this man in a cipher — a circle — of people who I figured were smoking crack just put his hands up. And after I saw that picture, I said if I see this man again I’m going to develop a body of work with him. And that was Frenchie, who is in my first two films about the corner, Urban Rashomon and Antonyms of Beauty.
Eventually the nighttime swallowed me; it became addictive. Some people like jumping from great heights — I like photographing this corner in the middle of the night.
125th is this incredibly iconic street, and as a main thoroughfare of Harlem, it has such an important role in the physical city as well as its imaginary. And it has been shot before. How does the way you’ve shot it show the street in a different light?
I don’t want there to be any intermediary between the streets and me. I’m trying to subtract my ego totally and not even put it into the equation. Shooting on film enables that. People can see the graininess, the way that film absorbs light, and the way that it depicts people in a more nostalgic way.
Many photographers have documented the street, from Gordon Parks to Bruce Davidson, but I want to remain true to the way I saw it as a child. At 14, I saw nothing glamorous about Harlem; it was always hardcore. So the way I’m shooting the city, specifically that corner, is homage to the early visions that I had of that era, which were visceral — even violent or disgusting. Even now when I’m shooting there, I’m stepping over piss, throw-up. I love all of that. When you look at my photographs I want you to say, damn, what would I feel like if I were walking there right now?
What’s unique about this intersection within the neighborhood or city? Are there distinct subsections to it?
Harlem is regarded as Mecca in America for black history, a hub of intellect, art, and music. This one particular corner seems to be devoid of all of that in a sense, but at the same time represent all of the best of what Harlem could be. It’s East Harlem I’m shooting. People are leaving, exiting, getting out of Harlem when they head toward Lexington and 125th. The corner contains its own energy that’s been there for decades. Where everywhere else is being changed, for better or for worse, this one corner remains like the last frontier, with the last of the legit drug addicts.
The intersection itself is a big place. It’s a nucleus. The northeast corner is where the McDonald’s is, and that’s the only corner where there is no subway entrance, so that corner is dead. There’s not much going on at the northwest corner either. The southwest corner is what I focus on; that’s where everything takes place. Technically as well, the light on that corner is unique. As a photographer who doesn’t shoot with flash, that attracted me. There’s a pizza shop that has these big windows that let incandescent light into the street. I light so many of my subjects with that. There’s also a corner store there. I’ve been documenting the area so much that I automatically know the settings to use just depending on where I’m standing. I can tell when a light has been removed or when pizza boxes are blocking the light.
You mentioned that a core aspect of your photography is making people look at things that traditionally get ignored. How do you do this technically, both in your photography and in your films?
With my film and photography, I’m shooting at night and creating hard contrasts between the subject’s face and a deep black background. That makes you focus on the subject’s face and specifically their eyes. I’m always focusing on the persons’ eyes.
For my film Field Niggas, I shot in slow motion, which facilitates a few different things. It gives people the time to absorb and to see the beauty in something that they would have easily overlooked or avoided. When you see something in slow motion you are apt to pay a little bit more attention to the detail. And with my portrait-style shots, this makes viewers look at the people in a more dignified fashion.
125th and Lex is also so fast paced that it’s good to slow it down so you can see it from a different perspective. The 4/5/6 subway station is right there, and this creates a force field of energy. The average person who’s going through there is running to get into or out of the subway, and to avoid some of the elements they see on the corner.
Tell me about the title of the film — where does that come from?
First off, I feel that as people we totally forgot that we invented words and feel that these things that we invented are now controlling us. The word “nigger” in terms of Field Niggas is a term of endearment. It comes from a Malcolm X speech, “Message to the Grassroots,” where Malcolm X describes the two different kind of slaves that existed during the plantation days. You had the house slave who felt a little bit more privileged than his brothers and sisters that were in the field because he was closer to the master, sleeping in the master’s house, and wearing the hand-me-downs of the master. The slave in the field was getting the brunt of the punishment, the worst food, and no education.
As a photographer entering 125th and Lexington at night, I feel that I’m giving a voice to modern-day field slaves. I knew that the title Field Niggas would make people think, damn, this is so unapologetic. I said listen, keep this shit as raw as possible — there is nothing more gangster or real than field slaves like Nat Turner and Denmark Vesey that led insurrections and rebellions against slave masters. I have the same respect for my brothers in the streets as I do for Harriet Tubman and runaway slaves. And by being there with the camera, I’m also trying to encourage an insurrection — not in a violent way, but a rebellion against their economic situation.
In Field Niggas there are interludes where you are driving or landscape shots instead of portraits. What are you doing or seeing there?
The film needed to be punctuated. When you have close-ups of faces, it’s good to break that up with something. And although the movie focuses on one corner, I also wanted to capture how I navigate the place. You see me driving down the FDR, leaving, at different points. A lot of those brothers on 125th and Lex never leave. They don’t come downtown. They don’t come to Brooklyn. Most of the people that view the film are going to be people that move. It’s going to make them feel the luxury I have, and they have, of being able to leave that environment, whereas for many of my brothers that corner is a prison.
A person in the film characterizes 125th as a prison as well, and it really hits you. As dynamic as this corner is, and even though the street and subway are usually associated with movement, how is that stasis or permanence manifested in other ways?
That’s another contrast — it’s a prison for some but a launching point for others. For the homeless people that stay there, that’s their life, and the area is conducive to that. You’ve got the subway vents heating people as they sleep, and there are bunch of clinics in the area that eject people into the streets. And although they are homeless, people stick together. That corner has a legacy of those brothers and sisters coming together and having each other’s back.
I’ve seen my brothers go through the criminal justice system on that corner. I’ll hear that somebody I just befriended is in prison and then see him again maybe a year later on the day he got out. I’ve seen brothers living the same lifestyle that brought them into prison. I see some brothers go and never come back, and then there are people that were locked up before I was shooting, and they come out and they are like who the fuck are you?
One of my inspirations behind this work is going through my family’s photo albums. I feel like I’m going to 125th and Lex and making a family photo album of the homeless. These people came to the streets as individuals under different circumstances, and they forged a relationship as a family. So besides accolades or notoriety, there’s a whole other satisfaction when people respond to the work and say, yo, that’s my dad. That’s my cousin; he’s in jail now. She’s in the psychiatric ward. That person is dead. Someone has literally looked at a picture and said that he died on the train tracks.
How has your perception of the area changed over your time shooting it?
I first saw the corner as this wide-open, infinite area where I could create anything in this world. After doing so many different photographs coming from a technical standpoint — where the light is, where the people were — it became a little smaller. I was getting too used to the area. I started switching it up: coming out later, coming out earlier, approaching different people. I also started turning inward. My personal philosophy is that the world is not outside of you; this is going on inside of me. That’s how grand and big the mind is. So if this is all a part of me; what part of me do I want to show? And I said, the realest part of me. I would try to find that in other people too. But after awhile I had to stop trying to order my thoughts, and just go out there and shoot as a therapeutic tool, go out there and free my mind, like how some men go fishing.
How do you see your photography and films about 125th and Lex fitting into future work?
It’s like Dragon Ball Z — I’m like Vegeta Super Saiyan; I’m constantly trying to evolve. I want you to look at Field Niggas ten years from now and say Khalik did that? No way! I’m trying to really put myself into environments that most people wouldn’t go to. Not that I’m trying to court danger, but I know there’s a different perspective on it.
Whatever it is, all I know is that it’s always going to be god-centered; it’s always going to lead to a spiritual implication. If I can take the work and inspire people and make them think: I would have never even stopped to take this person’s picture, and this person did and it is beautiful; I know a person like that on my corner, but I’ve never looked at them this way. People have said this shot of Frenchie makes him look like some sort of prophet and to me that’s what he is. This is a man who was diagnosed as bipolar schizophrenic. I never considered him that; what does that even mean? To me he was one of the illest, most open, free people I know. The cost of his freedom is homelessness, and he’s willing to pay it.
People always ask me, do you see yourself leaving 125th and Lexington at some point? And I tell them yeah! I’m always going to have different projects going on, but 125th is my heart. The body has many organs —expect more cerebral work from me, expect more filtration, kidney-type work from me, you know what I’m saying. I’m making a body here, but 125th is my heart. I’m planning to do what I did in Harlem on many different corners across the world. I know Africa’s got some wild-ass corners. I want to explore.
Photographs by Khalik Allah. All rights reserved.