Kingston Sessions: Exploring Jamaica's Music, Art and Street Culture

By Conor Risch

© Alexander Richter
The interior of Rockers International, a legendary record store opened by the late musician Augustus Pablo on what is locally known as "Beat Street." Click on the Photo Gallery link below to see more images.

One of the major benefits of the democratization of publishing in recent years is the autonomy it offers photographers who want to find audiences for their personal work. Now, photographers not only challenge themselves creatively with their self-assigned projects, they often also test their abilities as publishers and collaborators.

For Alexander Richter, who works primarily as an editorial and commercial photographer in New York City for clients like Atlantic Records, Nike, Rolling Stone, Mass Appeal and XXL, traveling to Kingston, Jamaica, to produce a body of work was about challenging himself to go abroad with no backing and create photo stories through force of determination and his ability to persuade subjects to participate. It was also an opportunity to collaborate with a writer and art director to publish and find an audience for the work.

Richter’s interest in exploring life and culture in Kingston grew from his longtime appreciation for reggae and dancehall music, two art forms for which the city is famous. Through Tumblr, Richter had connected with writer Sean Stewart, who was born and raised in Kingston. After they decided to collaborate on what they envisioned as a print and digital project, they traveled to Kingston in August 2012 to work for seven days.

They created roughly two stories per day, Richter says. “The goal was to cover music, explore art and sport culture, as well as some of the nefarious elements that exist … The idea was to show modern Kingston, its beauty and its underbelly, so once we landed it was nonstop—search, shoot and drive, day and night, to find the story.”

Richter and Stewart had local help from a friend of Stewart’s, who made introductions for them, but as on all the best journeys, one connection led to another. A shoot with popular dancehall artist Tommy Lee led to an introduction to a fashion designer, who then introduced them to a tattoo artist. Other stories include a snapshot of Kingston gun culture, and profiles of a prominent local music promoter, a boxing legend and an Australian abstract sculptor who runs a gallery in a former Red Stripe beer factory.

Approaching people and convincing them to participate depended heavily on the personalities of the photographer and writer. Richter brought business cards with some of his portraits of well-known musicians printed on them, but otherwise they relied on “the energy that we presented [subjects] with at that moment,” Richter says. “So it was kind of run and gun.”

Once he had permission to photograph, however, Richter’s experience shooting editorial portraits helped him connect with his subjects. “I think the main thing that allowed me to do the work was just personality and the ability to have a very genuine interaction with whomever it was,” Richter says. “If you’re able to interact and create a natural connection there, and they can tell that you’re feeling that moment, they tend to relax and have a connection with you that’s a bit more authentic.”

On their first night in Kingston, Richter defined the visual style he’d use for the project almost by default. Out at 2 AM documenting the prostitutes who work Ripon Road, he decided not to use a flash to limit the attention he was already drawing to himself and Stewart. He liked the look of the ambient light, and decided to shoot without flash throughout the project. An interior shot of a man holding a pistol, for instance, was lit using a Blackberry, Richter says. His photographs include documentary-style images, posed portraits, and details that pay special attention to atmosphere and place.

Early on in his career, he says, he was gear-oriented, but work like he did in Jamaica has helped him develop a natural-light esthetic that he’s carried into his day-to-day work. “I can move people around and find places to make stuff happen that I think is interesting, but that doesn’t anchor me to outlets or battery packs,” he says.

When they returned from Kingston, Richter and Stewart connected via Instagram with Anthony Harrison, a designer in Portland, Oregon, who agreed to collaborate with them to publish the work digitally and in print. Richter and his collaborators dubbed the project “Sevens Clash,” a reference to a seminal roots reggae album by the group Culture, and built a brand around the work. While the ultimate goal was a print piece, which they created and released in December 2013 as a limited-edition zine, the digital component of “Sevens Clash” was essential to helping them find an audience.

By publishing their stories as digital features throughout 2013, and sharing them on social media sites like Instagram and Facebook, Richter, Stewart, and Harrison built a following that resulted in features on WIRED’s Raw File blog and the now-defunct Tumblr Storyboard, among other media outlets. The work also led to commercial assignments for Richter for a major brand and creative firm. (Richter asked we keep the clients’ names quiet.) And when they published their zine, which included eight of their features, they sold out the limited edition of 100 quickly, with some of those copies purchased by fellow photographers Richter admires.

“It was inspirational to see that the work resonated with people,” Richter says. “I already have a few other things that I’m ready to move forward with, because in the end I know I can do it independently.”

Related Article:

Alexander Richter Photo Gallery

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