Cheryl Dunn on finding your voice in a world of noise

Cheryl Dunn on finding your voice in a world of noise

Heroes of Independence — To celebrate a decade of self-rule, we caught up with icons who personify the spirit of independence. In this instalment, photographer Cheryl Dunn guides us through the importance of creative resilience, craving knowledge and making sacrifices to do what you love.

Photographer and filmmaker Cheryl Dunn has been documenting life, in her own imitable style, for over 20 years.

After being gifted with a camera while still in school, she honed her style while travelling around Europe and began working as a photography assistant in New York.

That job allowed Cheryl to learn from the mistakes of others – a crucial part of her development – but, even still, trying to catch a break and get commissioned proved difficult.

Instead, she just gave herself assignments. Using some contacts she had in New Jersey’s boxing scene, Cheryl focused on capturing the frenetic flow of the ring.

From there, she turned to the streets and the assorted characters that personify urban life: from graffiti writers and protesters to skaters and bikers.

But whatever subject she shot, the photographer kept on targeting moments of authenticity: slivers of un-self-consciousness, flashes of unguarded emotion.

Teasing those out became a dance unique to every situation, shaping a body of work uninfluenced by any worldview or agenda except her own.

You’ve been documenting youth culture’s ebb and flow – music, skateboarding, kids at festivals – for years. What keeps drawing you in?

Extreme enthusiasm, idealism; the feeling that anything is possible; behaviour that is a more direct reflex of instinct and emotion.

Everyone’s a photographer now thanks to cheap tech and social media. How can we find our voice in all the noise?

There is the thought that the quantity of noise enables us to see the good stuff because we are looking all the time… Hopefully we become better critics because we are constantly considering this visual language.

On the maker side of things, I think what needs to be learned is how to be a better editor. It’s a hard and time-consuming skill but if you want your work to resonate, you have to consider how someone is affected by your images.

If someone says, ‘Hey, do you want to see pictures from my vacation?’ and they show you five to 10 knockout shots, it’s great. But if they show you 50, your eyes roll back in your head and you don’t remember the five great ones anymore.

What does independence mean to you? And what’s the hardest part of maintaining it?

Independence means not owing anyone anything and being free to do whatever you want because of it, creatively speaking.

It is hard to maintain it. The bigger your projects, the more they cost and unless you’re independently wealthy, you will have to be beholden to someone or something at times.

I have to do jobs that I don’t love to be able to make the things I do love. I just stay positive and keep that in mind.

Even if you have to do the worst things, you will always learn something if you look for the knowledge. All life experiences help you be smarter and aid you in making more compelling work.

What advice would you have for someone who doesn’t feel they have ownership over their own life?

Society celebrates youth accomplishments. You shouldn’t buy into that. Everyone has different advantages or disadvantages and you should try not to judge yourself against others. Things can take a long time.

In hindsight, the projects I may have been frustrated having to do over long periods of time for whatever reason were always better because of it. I became better in the process. I made more informed decisions and the projects had more depth.

You also have to make things happen for yourself. Think about what you want and go get it, or at least try. You have nothing to lose. You may be rejected. But so what? Try again.

No one owes you anything. You have to pitch ideas. I psych myself up by thinking about how someone I’m pitching to should be happy to hear what I have to say – that I’m giving them something.

Who are your heroes of independence – and why?

Mary Ellen Mark. Jill Freedman. Kim Gordon. Anita Hill. Pina Bausch… usually fearless woman who went against societal norms to break the mould and make shit happen for themselves.

When you look around at the world today, why does independence matter?

If you equate independent people to intelligent, free-thinking people, then it does matter because you will have a smarter and more compassionate society.

The world is moving in the opposite direction because some governments view this way of being as threatening.

But I know from myself and having the opportunity to travel all over the world for work that my understanding of different cultures and ways of life has given me great insight.

People are generally afraid of what they don’t know. Fear inspires aggression; understanding inspires compassion.

Cheryl Dunn.

Cheryl Dunn.

This article has been expanded from  Huck 56 – The Independence IssueBuy it in the Huck Shop now or subscribe today to make sure you never miss another issue.

Find out more about Cheryl Dunn.
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