2008 — student award of excellence
Robert Sukrachand is a New York City based photographer and multimedia artist. Since graduating from NYU Tisch in 2008 he has split his time between New York and South East Asia, pursuing personal projects that use collaborative documentary to explore themes of rootlessness and evolving identity.
His ongoing project 74th + Roosevelt, which affirms the personal and collective histories of a community of people struggling to survive on the streets of Jackson Heights, Queens, has received funding and recognition from the Leon and Michaela Constantiner Fellowship, the Alexia Foundation for World Peace, and PDN, amongst others. In 2010, he collaborated with the Indonesian NGO Rumah Cemara to produce a series of portraits used in their "For Life" campaign to combat stereotypes of recovering drug users and communities living with HIV. His current work in Thailand documents a fishing family and an ascetic nun living in the mountains on the borders of Laos.
The sun sets slowly on 74th and Roosevelt and the air is thick with anticipation. It’s limbo: the streets begin to clear out and soon only the wanderers remain. Tommy and John throw in for a bottle while Fay and Marianne bicker about who gets to keep a set of earrings they just found; Peter says he’ll be back in an hour: “I’m going to make some change on Queens Boulevard,” he tells us; Bugsy, looking to lighten up the mood a little, turns to me and asks jokingly, “Yo’ Bobby, if my balls were on your head, would my dick be on your mind?” We all laugh, welcoming this momentary distraction from the hustle—the ceaseless craving. John, summoning a tone somewhere between love and lament, says, “This corner is the Bermuda Triangle of Queens. Once you come in, you never know when you’re coming out.”
This was largely the scene that greeted me one year ago as I exited the Roosevelt Avenue subway station for the first time. Tommy, 50-years-old and a lifelong resident of Jackson Heights became my first friend. He could tell I was new to the neighborhood and that I needed some education. ‘Little’—as he is known locally—quickly informed me that there was a ‘crew,’ a nomadic and largely enigmatic group of people who gather on the corner of 74th St. + Roosevelt Ave.
The ‘crew’ is diverse in terms of race, gender, and age, but they are unified by a common addiction to alcohol, and in some cases, crack cocaine. Most, but not all, are homeless. The more we became friends, the more I photographed. As a deeper relationship emerged I began to see that this was not simply a story of material misfortune, but one also about a survival structure — a family — that emerges in response to the veracities of the street. The challenge became to slow down with the camera, to capture moments of hope, affection, companionship, resiliency, and the everyday struggle to survive.
But there was a hidden element — that is, an un-physical and largely un-photographable dimension to these people’s lives that I was also drawn to: their memories. As life on the corner is perpetually uneventful, days are spent telling stories and remembering past times—happy and sad, hopeful and tragic. I thought these stories might be illuminating for viewers who struggle to identify with this community otherwise, and so I began a collaborative storytelling process. The goal of this has been to provide the subjects’ some agency and the opportunity to relay their own stories.
But additionally, I found that this process produced a representation that allows the viewer to see themselves in the lives of these people. Recently, after creating postcards that contained my pictures on the front and the subjects’ stories on the back, a local waiter, after reading the story of John, explained his fear of ending up homeless, as he has been an alcoholic for over ten years. His experience was not one of looking downwardly at these people, but of using their stories to look inward at himself. To find out that the man he saw sleeping and drinking on the streets every day had — only one year ago — been a nurse with an apartment in Maryland, just a ‘normal guy,’ was alarming. He explained in a trembling pitch, “This could happen to anyone.” Quite correct. Many of the people I have met on the streets are veterans, or victims of domestic abuse, or had a tragic loss in their family many years ago, and have simply been unable to lift themselves up out of a complex structure of psychological and chemical addiction.
My challenge in continuing this collaborative documentary is to find new ways to highlight the individuality and the dignity of these people’s lives, paying careful attention not to denigrate them to symbols of the ‘homeless’ or ‘addicted.’ This can be achieved only through an exploration of their past lives as well as their current realities. Indeed, an entanglement of the two is most revealing.
Upon graduating from New York University in May, I will immerse myself deeper into the community. Pictures that evoke the reality of life on the corner will require a heightened investment of time and finance. I will also begin documenting the narrative of recovery as John addresses his alcoholism and depression in a rehabilitation program in upstate New York and Chris attempts to reunite with his family in suburban Pennsylvania.