Photographer Alex Welsh sat down with friend and fellow photographer Bryan Derballa to talk about his project "Indian Summer."
This interview has been edited.
B. So you moved from San Francisco where you were going to school, to Brooklyn, in the summer of 2009, it a difficult move?
A. I moved to Brooklyn because I was working on a project about the Hunters Point area of San Francisco and the public housing there. It was a very impoverished area and there was a lot of gang activity. I became very close with someone I was photographing. He was involved in a gang and he was killed, and at that point my safety felt compromised. I didn’t feel safe anymore, and decided it was time to stop, so I left San Francisco to stay with a friend in New York.
B. What was your emotional state like at the point?
A. It was bad. I was real depressed and scared. It was a traumatic move. I didn't really like New York when I first came because the decision to move felt forced on me.
B. How long before you went back to San Francisco?
A. Well, I had to come back to graduate college. I started to visit again after that, but I had to lay low and not go back to the areas I once photographed.
B. Is that where a lot of these pictures came from?
A. Yes, a lot of them are from those months when I was living in New York, but visiting San Francisco. I was visiting where I had left but still saw as home.
B. What was it like coming back?
A. It was wonderful seeing friends and going back to something I had missed all summer being in New York. I felt very nostalgic for San Francisco.
I thought I’d never experience it again, I thought I was missing out on a lot. It was hard being in a city that didn’t feel like mine anymore, it was confusing.
B. It was bittersweet?
A. Ya definitely, but now a lot of those friends live in New York.
B. You think there is any subconscious connection between your difficult move to New York and those subsequent trips back to San Francisco? Was there a catharsis in photographing your friends? What were you getting out of it?
A. It was exciting to be back. It was something I had been thinking about all summer.
Being away makes you miss you realize everything you have taken for granted, and that excitement is back when you see your friends again. It makes you think “Geez, this is what really matters. This is where my happiness comes from.” Photographing those trips were really an act of appreciation.
It's so easy to get caught up with what you want to do with your life, you forget that you have these people right in front of you that have formed your life.
B. You see that in the photos. There is a lightness and a tenderness in the photos. For those who know your other work, it's nice looking at these because your documentary work is very dark and heavy.
Seeing these you understand who you are as a person, not just who you are as a professional.
The collection is called “Indian Summer,” which is an extension of something, it's a postponement.
A. Much of that time felt like I was in a bad dream. Going back to San Francisco felt like I was picking up where I left off.
B. How does New York feel different than San Francisco?
A. The Bay Area is where I grew up, it's my home. New York is now a second home, but it’s still different.
B. It has been a few years since those photos were taken, you’ve been in New York for a while now. How have your views changed about the cities? Does having more friends in New York change the way you see it?
A. My existence is just the relationships I have. So now that a lot of my friends are in New York and I have a community, it feels better, but my family is still in the Bay Area which is really hard. I don’t know if I can ever fully make New York my home because of that.
B. There are some photos of your brother and parents in here as well. Tell me about that.
A. Ya two of my brothers and two of my parents. I actually named my brother. I wanted to name him after the kid in ET and my parents thought it was a good name. So they let me name him Elliott.
B. You are close to your bother?
A. Halloween one year, I went as Catwoman and he went as Batman, and he is three years younger than me.
B. So you said you don’t shoot as much now and you don’t shoot your friends now that you live in New York? What has changed?
A. I shoot a fair amount in New York, but I have to feel relaxed enough. When I feel discouraged in my professional work that filters over to how I photograph my friends.
B. So when you are discouraged on a professional level you take comfort in photographing your friends?
A. Yeah, I'd like to disconnect the two and just enjoy my time, but it's hard not to connect them.
B. Do you wish you shot more friends regularly?
A. Yeah, I do. Looking back at my family photo albums makes me want to do it more. It all comes down to my emotions, really. I have to learn to be happy even when things aren’t going well.
That’s the whole point in life, I think--to enjoy what you have and not to worry about what you don’t, and I get caught up a lot in what I don’t have.
B. But in San Francisco you were experiencing a temporary exuberance?
B. You often photograph the in-between moments that give a deeps sense in who someone is. There is a photo of people trying to climb on a truck. Most people I feel would have waited till everyone was on and dancing, but you shot before that moment. There is a tension and build up there that I like. You can tell they are doing something they shouldn’t be, and there is an urgency with the outstretched arms. What's the story there?
A. We were at a bar, and we were going home. I never really stayed out that late when I lived there, but this night I stayed out till like 4:00 am. I didn’t even know people did that. So the bars closed and we went back to a friends to hang out more. We just walked by this truck and they were so excited to get on this random car.
B. You're not the first person to shoot friends enjoying their life. There are young twenty-somethings what many would call hipsters or the “tragically hip.” Your photos though seem more intimate and sensitive than the ways others have photographed it.
A. I’ve always felt I’ve been able to make sincere invested friendships in a culture that is often shallow and “tragically hip.” Not to say other peoples relationships are shallow.
All the “hipster” stuff is just the decoration around a culture, I love it, but I’ve never seen it as important to the pictures. I don’t see it like that, I just see my friends. Someone else looking at them I’m sure sees all that, but for me it's just about a sincere relationship with the people in the pictures.
B. How would you describe your social scene?
A. These are friends I made in college, that’s where most people make friends. We happen to be a part of a creative community in the city.
Going to school in a big city is different than a lot of college experiences. It was the culture of college.
B. What do you think these photo will mean to you when you are 40 or 50?
A. They will be nice to look back at. I'll probably see them as me in my 20s and young and idealistic. I hope I will look back on them with pleasure.
I’m often too hard on myself, I have a hard time enjoying the moment for what it is. A lot of time I have a lot of anxiety of where I should be in my life, so I hope when I’m older I look at these and say “Hey I had a wonderful life, I had wonderful friends, and should have enjoyed it too the fullest when I was in the moment.”
B. You can take that advice now.
A. I should, I try to. The attitude that these photos embody is something I wish I could tap into more in my life.
I wish I could have that raw enjoyment with my friends and give up my own bullshit to see that those people still surround me and that is something I should be grateful for.
Does it really take that much happening in a situation to be aware I’m surrounded by wonderful people? It shouldn’t take so much. There is a real power in being able to recognize the things in your life.
That’s where I want to be in life. To see what’s around me and find the beauty in that because its always there, but I often look over it.