A Conversation with Jeff Bierk


Making art requires an inherent boldness of character. Toronto-based photographer Jeff Bierk is bold, and maybe one of the bravest souls I know, acutely aware of the potential hardships associated with forging an untrodden creative path. Bierk is nonetheless resilient, which allows him to create work that is not only visually breathtaking, but also deeply moving. Bierk’s portraits of a close group of his friends have a distinct aura; borne out of the juxtaposition between the harsh reality of addiction, and the warmth and camaraderie between his subjects. With his candid shots of life on the outskirts of visible society, Bierk encourages the viewer to reconsider the nature of relationships by illuminating what seemingly exists on the periphery, and how it merits our full attention. Bierk and I spoke via email about doing what you want, photography labels, and how to make art that helps.

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You mention it on your Instagram, you’ve named a show after it, it’s a major part of your recent workwhat is “the Back 40”?

The Back 40 is what we call this spot, an empty lot tucked away at the end of an alley behind my apartment in The Annex in Toronto where people hang out and sit, drink, talk and do drugs. It’s a kind of meeting place that offers some privacy, some seclusion, for us to be free. It’s close to everything: the dealers, the good panning spots on Bloor Street, the subway, the back door to the restaurants which sometimes offer a free meal. There are lots of spots like it in our neighbourhood, but this one is special to me because it’s where I met Jimmy and, over the years, a bunch of other people. It really feels like home. Jimmy calls it “our backyard” sometimes because the door to my apartment looks out over it, and to get to my apartment you have to walk through it and up my fire escape. It’s been the site of some violent, intense and beautiful moments between all of us and a place where I’ve made some real friends. It continues to change as new people come and go and as the neighbourhood itself changes. It’s definitely not the same place it was a couple of years ago. I really feel a strong sense of community in my neighbourhood, in a real way. (Just now I was interrupted by Derek knocking on my door to talk. A whole crew – Wenna, Suzy, Joe, Stonechild – are in the Back 40.)  (Actually, in the course of writing this I had three people knock on my door and was pulled down to the Back 40 to hang out each time.)   So a lot of the photographs I’ve taken are of time spent in the Back 40 or are rooted in relationships that were fostered in the Back 40.

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What attracted you to photography in the first place?

My parents were both artists and as a child I was exposed to art through their work. My Dad gave me a camera and I was very interested from a young age. For me photography is a way to speak, to articulate and to remember. I’ve been affected by drug addiction and loss and those things really formed me as a person. During those years I wasn’t taking photographs and I kind of long to have some sort of visual record of those timesmaybe to remember it, or to understand it more? Photography allows me to hold on to the people in my life in a wayit’s an obsession.

As far as your photo work goes, would you call yourself a portraitist?

Yeah sure, among other things.

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Your work deals with a theme that seems to have been recently forgotten now that everyone has a camera with them all the time: the ethics surrounding the photographic subject. In your opinion, what are the responsibilities of the photographer when you’re photographing other people?

I think the responsibility of the photographer has changed quite a bit now that almost everyone has a digital camera, because the context of the photograph is so different. But I’m speaking to the ethics of a particular kind of photography, what people call “street photography.” I only feel I have to speak to it because I started out as a kind of street photographer, and so my new work often gets viewed as, or named as, street photography. The whole idea of “street photography” is that the photographer takes photographs without being noticed by their subjectsso ultimately without their consent. I work a job at a camera store, at the frontlines of photography’s chaos, and the overwhelming majority of people buying cameras nowadays are interested in this kind of photography that places the right of the photographer over that of the subject.  

I think, in the past, this kind of work was important and innovative. If you were to look at the effect street photographers used to have on their audience, it was a kind of unifying force that allowed people to see what others were like, or offered a glimpse into “daily life” in a way that was new and different. The work of Henri-Cartier Bresson was beautiful, very formal, and to me he seemed to wield the power of taking candid images of daily life in the 1930s with great sensitivity. Robert Frank changed everything with his book “The Americans” in the late 1950s, his work challenged the formal rules of photography by showing a brutally honest portrait of postwar America.  More recently,  Vivian Maier’s photography shows us an important perspective of a working nanny in Chicago and New York in the 1950s and 1960s, and clearly she wasn’t asking anyone consent for their photograph.

But I don’t think this way of making images (given our current context with the digital camera, the cell phone, and the instant proliferation of images of unwitting subjects through digital platforms) has the same effect of bringing people closer together. To me, this kind of street photography now contributes to segregation. It contributes to a culture interested in looking at the Other and gawking, or maybe even defining who is the Other through gawking. Modern day street photography has become more about the perspective of the photographer, usually one that exoticizes, one that distances, and one that reduces people to aesthetics.  And I see it doing more harm than good. I ask myself how important is the perspective of the average privileged person with a cell phone camera? What new can they lend to a worldview that we don’t already know about? To me, this kind of crass, exploitative photography that is taken without the consent of the subject actually just reinforces this idea of  Us and Them, and expands the digital divide. You can’t really dismiss this kind of street photography, even if it’s just made by the average person with a digital camera or a smartphone posting on social media, because these platforms contribute culturally to what people think is acceptable behaviour, and what people think is art, and what people think is a good way to relate to each other.  

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How have you adapted “street photography” then?

I came at this kind of photography in much the same way that I’m critical of today. I was influenced heavily by photographers like Jessica Dimmock, Boris Mikhailov, Stacy Kranitz, and other kind of social documentary photographers. For years I’d been obsessively photographing portraits of people sleeping on the streets without their consent. I understood the images as an articulation of my own narrative of loss and addiction. (You can read about that in this interview I did for VICE years and years and years ago that’s a good window into the way I was thinking at that time). Like a lot of popular contemporary street photography, my work at the time spoke to the beauty of unwitting people, but probably more to my own arrogance. I had so many blind spots and was completely unaware of my own privilege. I received an offer to publish a book of these sleep images and I became gravely uncomfortable with the lack of consent between myself and the people I was photographing.

On one hand I thought the images were important as a kind of evidence of poverty in Toronto, but ultimately the images would be used for my gain, a sort of artistic cache, in a way that was unethical concerning the rights of my subjects. I started to wonder: Is my own narrative more important than those of the unnamed sleepers? Is the dialogue about homelessness in art circles engaged, or humane enough for the photographs to resonate positively or bring about change? Was the exploitative nature of my work actually something worth showing? And I was really devastated and conflicted about not publishing this work because these opportunities don’t come often, but I just couldn’t do it. So with these questions in mind, I began to look for something new in the way I was making photographs. I came to understand portraiture as collaboration. At this point, in the work I’m making now, consent isn’t enough. I can’t just walk up to a person on the street and ask “Can I take your picture?” and then feel good about it. Because why stop there? There are so many other questions to ask: “Can I publish your image?”  “Can I sell your image?”  “Can I talk about your image with other people?” and you can really only come to all these questions through a relationship.  So I seek complete transparency:  collaborative portraiture.

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The way that I go through the world is partly revealed in my photography and it’s partly not.   Quite generally my artistic process is my life, and what’s going on in my life is the subject. In this world, we really don’t have muchpeople don’t have much except themselves, so to take that away from people seems so crass.  Or to use the image of someone to shock others into paying attention to you as an artist seems so disgusting. These are things I wrestle with now only insofar as how people perceive my work.  But it can’t change my condition as a photographer; I am inherently a photographer and an artist and so I document the people around me, with respect, with thought and with sensitivity, and I do it collaboratively. All my friends that I photograph know exactly what I intend to do with their imagewe talk about it all the time and in very specific terms. They know who is going to see it, they get to decide which image they like etc. and more importantly they have the choice to decide what is shown (seen) and what isn’t. The viewer of the photograph isn’t just the person who sees it in a gallery, or on the internet, but the person who is photographed.  People are critical of the technical aspects of digital photography as opposed to film, what it has taken away, but to me it’s the most democratic way of doing this collaborative work, because of its immediacy: someone seeing themselves photographed right away and being able to make a decision. I have some friends who I photograph consistently, but they are never comfortable with their image being shown, and I respect that and those aren’t images that anyone will ever see.

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The political elements of your work make them feel like narrative journalism. However, the large-scale presentation of the pieces, as well as your recent foray into cyanotypes, make your images feel like art. Is this an intentional dichotomy? How do you personally reconcile photography’s position in both of those worlds?

Well, I don’t really see myself sitting comfortably in either world. Not in fine art as it is now, because I’m not making art in a way that panders to a commercial gallery’s motives, or panders to rich collectors. I don’t present the dominant notions of beauty, as I have no interest in models or youth or things like that.  Making my work is something I have to do, to communicate, to make sense of things. And I also don’t feel comfortable as a photojournalist, because I don’t maintain a pretense of objectivity like so many photojournalists do. I feel like I just happen to operate outside of both art institutions and journalism.

I don’t condemn narrative journalism, but I am definitely critical of it, or question how people make careers out of it. I guess part of me is really attracted to the adventure and high intensity of photojournalism, but when I question where I want to position myself in the world, it’s not as an intrepid force that makes their way around to different sites of conflict with no commitment to the place. So with the Back 40 and the work I’m making now, I’m documenting this place where I live, and that I’m around, and that I haven’t left in 4 years. My work is an ongoing documentation of my life and my friends. I’m not done documenting it. I am where I am and I photograph it how it is.

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But again, I’m conflicted because I have definitely been deeply affected by narrative photojournalism, despite questioning if it really has the power to change anything. I’ll always remember the first time I saw Dominic Nahr’s photography of the Gaza Strip in 2006, and how it profoundly affected how I understood Palestine. I guess a new awareness can change how you understand truth. Maybe it doesn’t change what you do, but it might if one day you encounter an opportunity or a context to have an effect over something. Most photojournalists are working with a clear understanding of their patron or boss’s idea of what kind of story they should tell. They are either agreeing with it or they are looking to expand it, or confront it-whatever the case. They are necessarily in dialogue with it.  And I’m not trapped in that conversation, as an artist I’m free of it.  And I’m free, too, of any constraints on my medium (other than my own means.) That’s how I got into cyanotypes; I was given one of those pre-made kits as a gift, and became obsessed with them. 

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While I’m not in conversation with an editorial imperative, I’m still making art that’s in conversation with other artists, in the past or the present, and more importantly with other people right now, and with people in power. Right now what I’m seeing in art is an utter disinterest in a conversation about ethics, and that’s because most of the people buying art don’t really care for that discussion.  

But there are other other conversations beyond the ethics of my practice that are affected by photojournalism. There’s the conversation about the content of the work.  A friend of mine once said that they see it akin to photojournalism that documents conflict, like war photography or something.  And I see the parallel, sure—in our society the people perpetrating violence, or benefiting from violence against others, (whether it’s colonial violence, or violence of the rich on the poor, or violence towards the land) are guarded from it—they/we don’t inflict it directly. People who are poor or people who are colonized, end up having bodies that are sites of this conflict. So many people who are audience to the portraits of my friends can’t see them as anything other than sites of this kind of violence. But here I see the problem with the lens of photo journalism again, and how it has formed contemporary viewers, because people are trained to see models and wealth as beauty, and reality as horror or shock or something. And I can’t accept that.  I can only offer the work and another understanding of it: the purpose of my work is honouring the beauty of my friends, and our relationship. Giving people regard in their wholeness. Honoring the joy I get from relationships on a regular basis. So my work is in resistance to two things: one is the dominant society that doesn’t want to recognize my friends or their beauty as they pass them on the street.  And the other is the media industrial complex that wants to profit from tragic story telling.

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You’ve recently made a music video. Do you consider that to be an extension of your photo work? Is music an influence for you?  

I guess in a way I consider it to be an extension of my photo work in the sense that it’s another way of documenting what I see.  Photography is an intuitive method for me, and I guess video feels somewhat the same.  Art is life. My partner is a musician and a brilliant artist and we collaborate in this beautiful way (among many). I am definitely influenced and completely affected by music.

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Where do you see yourself headed with your new work?

I had a show about a year ago, of “The Back 40” work, curated by Lili Huston-Herterich, and with the help of my friends, in a basement studio. No commercial gallery wanted to show the kind of work I was making, so I had to do it myself. I was so proud of the work and I spent a lot of my own money to print, mount and frame the work properlycustom frames, museum glass all that shit it looked beautiful. All of the collaborative portraits were shown with an understanding that any work sold would be a 50/50 split between myself and the collaborator. It was a great successall my friends came and there was complete mixture of all kinds of people at the opening.

My friend Ramses (whose image and poems were included in the show) gave an impromptu kind of free prose speech which was incredible. Jimmy came late and made an entrance like a star. My friend Cree was there trying to shmooze with everyone and sell my work by telling the stories of our friends in the photographs. Everyone got to see it, and to this day, and in the Back 40, it’s brought up all the time in such a nice way that really honours that night. The problem for me was that I spent a bunch of money I didn’t have on work that didn’t sellso I ended up with all of those framed photographs sitting in my apartment just taking up space and reminding me of how it was going to be hard to pay rent AND pay the framers the money I owed them.

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At this time I was also thinking a lot about the sleep images, like I was telling you beforeif they were effective in bringing some awareness and change to the dire housing situation in Toronto.  It was the winter, and every day I would pass my friend Carl sleeping on the hot air grate at Victoria and Queen, sometimes wrapped in a thin, almost see through “Toronto Emergency Services” orange blanket and I would wonder each time how he had survived through the night when it was so cold. I thought a lot about my friend Sid who died on the streets, about all the nights we would call and try to find him a bed in a shelter, always being told the same thing, “there are no beds available.” I spoke about him at City Hall and left feeling like it was very meaningful to speak, but also that it was probably not going to change a thing. I found fulfillment in documenting and participating in direct action protest demanding the city to open more shelters—more so in these actions than in the kind of sympathetic, compassionate responses I would sometimes get to the photographs.

With all these things in mind I thought it would be interesting to imagine printing images in a way that they could be shown in a gallery, or exhibition format, but also have some use afterward. So, in thinking about all of these things I started to make digital prints on fleece blankets—the nature of the fabric itself, (the folds and sheen, the way they hang) being incredibly beautiful, but also giving them a purpose outside, off of the gallery wall, as blankets to keep people warm. I also started to make some prints on silk really just out of experimentation, but also considering the esteem of the fabric itself in context to the images printed on them. These silks and blankets really have given my friends the most joy in seeing, more than any other kind of print. Jimmy has a silk that I made him of himself on his wall at home; he actually freaked out when he saw them and his image on a blanket. He kept bringing people over to my apartment to see them, or when we were all hanging out he would ask me to go upstairs to show people.

I’m interested in recontextualizing images through different mediums and different ways of printing for aesthetic reasons, but also as a way of talking about the current state of photography and image printing.

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I’ve been making the sleep images again, this time with consent and it’s been the most positive and transformative experience for me. What I’ve found is that through this complete transparencythe most incredible conversations have taken place and generally the subjects of the photographs are now more than willing participantsthey have become very supportive of the project and the intent of the images.  The photographs themselves are just as powerful and haven’t lost anything because they aren’t candid.

I’ve been making a lot of cyanotypes; it’s fun and I am obsessed. It’s a way of taking a digital image back to a really simple form. It’s hands on. It replaces, for me, a lot of what I lost when I stopped shooting and developing film. I find the palette to be really beautiful too.

Generally speaking, I’m trying to push the idea of collaborative portraiture further. The criticism of my work always seems to be about agencyan assumed lack of agency on the part of my subjects, collaborators, friends. I felt like the Back 40 series spoke to that directly, but the work I’m making now takes it a step further. I’ve been really interested in giving my camera to my friends when we are hanging out and becoming the subject. Divesting the power that I carry by always being the photographer, and them always being the subject.