why young photographer jessica lehrman finds community in hip-hop
Jessica Lehrman may have become a chronicler of hip-hop by accident, but her spontaneous and raw photographs feel far from accidental.
From spending 15 minutes alone in a room with Donald Trump to touring with rappers like Joey Bada$$ and The Underachievers, documentary photographer Jessica Lehrman has focused the majority of her career on documenting men in the spotlight. One year after she moved to New York, in the midst of shooting the Occupy Wall Street movement of 2011, she was commissioned to photograph the producer and rapper Jermaine Dupri on his cross-country tour. "I listened to the Grateful Dead growing up; I didn't listen to rap music," she says. "I listened to Dead Prez and Dilated Peoples, but not anything mainstream." Lehman, who grew up traveling the country with her family while being homeschooled, accompanied Dupri to clubs in the Deep South, leading to a "very rich and visceral" introduction to the rap world. After the tour, she began focusing on the new generation of New York hip-hop, starting with the Queens collective World's Fair, which introduced her to artists in the Beast Coast movement.
Now, at age 27, Lehrman focuses her photography more on politics and less on music, although she counts the Flatbush Zombies, Bodega Bamz, and Denzel Curry, among many others, as family. This summer she toured with the Zombies, Remy Banks, and A$AP Twelvyy, as well as documented protests outside both the Republican and Democratic National Conventions. We spoke with Lehrman about what it's like to be a female in what is often considered a misogynistic community.
I'm curious as to how you fit into the hip-hop community. It can be a difficult place for women to feel at ease.
I'm not sure I really fit into any community. I feel myself sway in and out of shooting hip-hop because of how some of the more mainstream artists talk about women in their lyrics. That being said, I don't feel that way at all about the group of friends that I will forever shoot in rap and I have found an incredible community in hip-hop. The guys I photograph talk about their lives and their families and share stories of triumph—not violence towards women—and treat me as an equal or a younger sister. They are my brothers; they look out for me. On the last tour, they [the Zombies, A$AP Twelvyy, and Remy Banks] were mad at me because I wanted to wear an outfit that they thought was too revealing. It sucks that it is sexist, but I'd rather be seen as a little sister and have people be protective of me than feel like I have predators.
Because so many of the people that I love to photograph happen to be rappers, I have gotten a lot of assignments to shoot other people in rap that are more popular; that tends to be when I'm not as in love with the industry. I think there is a definite misogyny in the music industry in general and I try to stick with the people who I know respect me and my work, and build from there.
What about women on the photography side, rather than talent side, of the community?
When I first started shooting music, particularly rap music in New York, I remember being in the photo pit, looking to my left and right, and not seeing one other woman. If I did, I would run up to her and be like, "Yo, who are you, can we be friends?" Today I look around and there are so many girls that they might actually outnumber the boys. It's awesome. There is a camaraderie that forms in every photo pit—especially when shit gets crazy, barriers get broken down, people start moshing, cameras drop, etcetera—and it's nice to have a group of badass women standing next to you, swapping memory cards or batteries if need be.
In the photo world, it's always like, "There are not enough jobs, I have to secure my spot and keep it." I hate that shit. It's kind of set up to be dog-eat-dog or girl-against-girl because we're told there's only enough room for one of us. I feel like the more you allow other people to shoot what you're shooting, the better you're going to have to be to stand out, and having more friends and a community is going to make it so much more fun. Isn't that the point of shooting, shouldn't we have a cool crew, have fun, and love what we're doing?
Throughout your career you have put a lot of focus on documenting the lives of men, or women in relation to men. Why do you think you're drawn toward male subjects?
I think I'm drawn to the concept of community and teamwork, and I have seen that exist more in groups of men. I'm not saying it doesn't exist in groups of women, but there seems to be something different about the way boys and girls are raised in America; women grow up feeling that other women are a threat to them and men want their friends to be their brothers and to rise up together. This is not always the case, but within music I have stumbled into a male-dominated crew of guys that love and respect each other. They want to see and help every one of their friends succeed, which is inspiring to me regardless of gender.
Text Emily McDermott
Photography courtesy Jessica Lehrman