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It’s a hot day in July in New York City. I can see the Brooklyn Bridge through the train window. I’m on my way to Flatbush to speak with Joseph Michael. We’ve known each other for five years. When I reach his apartment, I find myself surrounded by cameras, prints and pictures. Lopez’s love for his work and his hometown are certainly no secret.  

When did you start documenting the streets of New York and what triggered you to do so?

When I returned to New York I was working for Bruce Weber as an analog cinematographer and at some point the fashion story wasn’t really me; I want-ed to know more, and have deeper meaning in my life. What triggered me to go on the streets was the fact that I didn’t know who I was yet, I was super energized and naive and I wanted to really comprehend life; but I will say that Bruce was such an early inspiration and had such an impact on the pursuit of owning my visual voice.

Do you think your cultural background has influenced your photographic work?

Completely. I think my cultural heritage and my bloodline have been transferred to me in a manner that resonates with that of a freedom warrior. I was born in Washington Heights, my father is Puerto Rican and my mother arrived here from Cienfuegos, Cuba, in 1967, fleeing from Fidel Castro’s revolution. My grandfather and my uncle were political prisoners, so the reality of liberty and the actualities of freedom of expression trickled into me and my narrative in a deep way.

It can be really challenging to find your own voice in such an over-photographed city as New York: you have to struggle to find your angle, your unique perspective for telling a story.

I struggled in many different ways, but my aesthetics, my voice and my photography have followed a gradual evolution, a process of growing up and being comfortable with myself, along with continuously challenging myself. It’s about channeling what’s in your heart, putting it in the frame and finding out where you need to stand, and what you need to stand for. I think it comes down to whether you really have something to say.

What camera are you working with and why did you choose Leica?

I chose a Leica before I was even capable of taking a good picture. I was really drawn to its history and I wanted to figure it out. It was a challenge at first but I wanted to master it and make it my own. My analog MP 0.58 is it. The biggest factor for me was being able to stay with the subject without an SLR’s mirror interfering.

Interview: Francesca Gennari. Born in Parma, Italy in 1988, Gennari is Picture Editor at Burn Magazine, as well as a free-lance photographer. She lives in New York.

Colour photos: In collaboration with the Museum of the City of New York: New York at Its Core: Future City Lab

You can find more photos and the complete interview in
LFI 7/2017.
© Larry Fink

Joseph Michael Lopez

Born in New York in 1973. Lopez moved to Florida where he became a documentary film-maker. In 2009 he qualified to do his Master’s at Columbia University. After returning to his hometown, Lopez began to focus on street photography. His New York at Its Core: Future City Lab belongs to the Museum of the City of New York.

Joseph Michael Lopez shares his skills in workshops for the Penumbra Foundation.
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