Epiphanies of the unexpected—a conversation with photographer Cheney Orr

Photographer Cheney Orr spoke to Entropic Magazine’s Nolan Ryan Trowe and Bruce Graves to discuss an ongoing project, “Bystander,” a collection of cop photos from more than a decade of street photography in New York City. Below, you can read this conversation, in which Cheney shared, among other things, his experience of growing up in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, his love of storytelling, and his favorite detective, Derick Waller of the NYPD 12.
“Bystander” came about as a consequence of Cheney’s photography habit. Not a single photo was captured with the intent of saying something about the NYPD or to be part of this photo series. However, for many, including Cheney, the NYPD has imbued them with a ubiquitous presence, a complicated mix of adversarial memories, of fun ruining and indifferent posturing, and brilliant moments of playful spontaneity that challenged their worldviews.

Growing up in Crown Heights


Nolan: What was it like for you to grow up in Crown Heights?
Cheney: I moved to Crown Heights when I was 13. When my family moved there, there was not a lot of white people in that area. We were definitely in that way a part of the gentrification process of the neighborhood. But it didn’t really feel like it, and maybe it was because I was too young to understand the concept of gentrification.
I remember one time I got stopped by the police, in Prospect Heights, with some friends, and they looked at my ID, and they saw my address. The cop said to me, “Why do you live over there?” And I said, “What the fuck do you mean, ‘Why do I live over there?’ That’s where I live. That’s where my family is.” So the outside perception would be like it’s strange for you to be white and live in that neighborhood.



Part of the process has been just looking at my own photographs and thinking about what they mean to me and what I notice of them. I notice signs of oppression, and aggression, but I also notice signs of humanity. And I think that both are valid and important to look at.




Nolan: Why is photography dope?
Cheney: What I love about it is storytelling and just being able to tell my own stories, tell other people’s stories, and learn—both through the process of looking at photographs and the process of taking photographs.
Nolan: When did you become interested in storytelling through photos?
Cheney: I’ve always liked storytelling. My mom is a writer, and she’s told me stories since I was a kid. That was something that’s been ingrained in me. Also, photography allows stories and realities to be shared in ways that are more powerful than words can be, often, not always, because it’s more visceral, and it’s more immediate.




Nolan: What is your project’s name? Why did you call it that?
Cheney: The project’s name is “Bystander.” I called it that because that’s been my role in taking those pictures as a bystander—being on the streets, and watching the police, and watching their interactions with other people.



Bruce: How did this project manifest? What is it about?
Cheney: This project is basically a compilation of photographs that I have taken over about a decade, if not a little bit more. It came together by looking through my archive and noticing all of the photographs, over the years, that I have taken of the NYPD. That’s how it came together. It was unintentional, largely. I didn’t set out to then say, Oh, I’m going to start photographing the police and interactions on the street. That’s just what I had been doing, without thinking, over many years.
I just started pulling all these photos together because some of my favorite kind of pictures from streets and protests end up having cops in them—because those moments are moments of, often, drama and action, and these kind of things. But, then, also, as I started to sift through my pictures, I found some quieter moments of police officers and other types of images. I guess the question that you’re asking is Why did I bring all of these pictures together?



Nolan: Yeah. Or, now that you have them all together, what are they saying?
Cheney: Largely, I think that’s up for the viewer to interpret. I mean, you look at the pictures and you can come up with that on your own. For me, I hope they’re showing what’s out there and the kind of situations that the police in New York City are in. In New York City, the police are everywhere. It’s one of the largest, if not the largest in the entire United States. I guess, part of this is that these pictures show that. They show many aspects of where you can find the police in New York City and the different scenarios and situations in which the public interacts with them.
Nolan: Is there a place in the city where the police aren’t present?
Cheney: Potentially, no. You can say inside your own house, but that can change. You could say in an abandoned building, because go into an abandon building and you can kind of feel like you can do whatever you want and no one will bother you, but that changes also. A lot of those buildings are gone, and the police will go in there, too. So, no.



In certain scenarios, I didn’t have to be combative or anything towards the police. There were instances where I was being approached and harassed, and I can’t tell you with certainty why those scenarios happened.




Bruce: How has your relationship to the police changed over the years?
Cheney: I’ve had a decent amount of run-ins with the police, especially in my younger years, nothing serious, just either myself doing dumb things and being stopped and caught for them or them harassing me for no reason—no perceivable reason. I’d say when I was younger I felt a lot of anger towards the police, in general, because either I felt like they were kind of fun stoppers—they were just ruining fun—or they were just fucking with me for no reason, for no perceivable reason. There was just the general fuck-the-police attitude, when I was younger. I feel like that has changed as I’ve gotten older, because—well, first of all—I feel like I get fucked with a little bit less because I am doing less dumb stuff, and I don’t know, I guess, maybe I dress differently or look slightly different.



Bruce: Do you think it has anything to do with your perception of the cops, like the way that you interact with them, that has changed?
Cheney: Like, is that why they fuck with me less?
Bruce: Yes.
Cheney: No. Not really. Because when I was younger, there was this one cop in my neighborhood that would constantly fuck with me and ended up actually putting handcuffs on me and tried to arrest me when I was painting a mural that I was being paid to do. It happened that a neighbor of mine passed by, and she used to be a detective, in Brownsville, and stood up for me and told the guy to take the fucking handcuffs off me. In certain scenarios when I was younger, I didn’t have to be combative or anything towards the police. There were instances where I was being approached and harassed, and I can’t tell you with certainty why those scenarios happened. Maybe in some instances it was because of my own attitude and immediate combativeness towards them, but in most scenarios it really was not. It was for no perceivable reason.



Even though my understanding of the police and my feeling that it’s the system that needs to be blamed more than the individual officer has changed, I don’t think that that really happens to contribute to my own interactions. I think that I am just older and dress a little bit nicer and just don’t get messed with as much.
Bruce: But yet you still think it’s useful for people to, despite their own negative interactions with the police, make an effort to humanize them in a way that acknowledges both their terrible behavior but also the unexpected silliness of some cops in your photography?
Cheney: Yes, but I think there are larger problems than individual police. The cops are also humans, and the job comes with a certain amount of pressures and requirements and bullshit, and so it’s all just trickling down on them. For example, in Crown Heights, during the J’Ouvert and the West Indian parade, they would gather the police, and you would see them, on Franklin Avenue, Eastern Parkway, hundreds of cops. They would hype them up. They tell them how dangerous it is. They tell them that everyone has guns out. They feed them this kind of fear. You can’t necessarily 100% blame an individual cop for his actions when there’s an entire system above him forcing fears and bullshit onto him.



Bruce: What role did photography play in your changing perspective of cops?
Cheney: Part of the process has been just looking at my own photographs and thinking about what they mean to me and what I notice of them. I notice signs of oppression, and aggression, but I also notice signs of humanity. And I think that both are valid and important to look at.


That’s the kind of policing that there needs to be; I mean, he’s solving problems. However big or small it is, you see him solving problems by just being a person.




Bruce: Can you tell us about some of the photos in the series?
Cheney: Off the bat, we can talk about skate cop. There are two photos of that officer. His name is detective Derick Waller. Basically, this dude is my hero, as a cop, because of the way he interacts with the public.



About a month after I took those photos, he went on NBC with 11 other active NYPD officers to announce their class action lawsuit against the New York City police department for enforcing illegal quotas and pushing cops to stop and frisk and arrest young people of color. The interaction that I had with him, as an active police officer on duty, was different from any other interaction that I’ve had with a police officer, ever, because he let his humanity show. He interacted with myself and my friends in a way that was almost as equals. He was just kind of being a person, a human being.
Bruce: Can you give some examples?
Cheney: I can go through the scenario in which he was skateboarding and those pictures were taken. We were on Franklin Avenue, in Crown Heights, right near my mom’s house. I was with some friends, and we were a part of this photo shoot, and him and his partner rolled up in their car and initially seemed as if they were there to bust our balls for one reason or another. He kind of came out all tough guy like: “What’s up?! What are you guys doin’?!” We said we were just doing this photo shoot thing, blah, blah, blah, and then he said, “Hey, can I see that skateboard?” And he just started skating down Franklin Avenue against traffic. He actually wasn’t trying to bust our balls at all. He was just kind of trying to have a good time. He flipped the switch on us. It was, really, a pleasant interaction. He was like impersonating what we expected from a police officer and completely reversed that.
He was also in this documentary called “Crime + Punishment”. Because it’s documenting these NYPD 12, it has multiple looks into the problems of corruption in the police department. You should really watch that documentary and hear him talk.
He says, something like, a lot of other officers don’t know how to talk to people, and don’t know how to interact, and don’t know how to solve problems without being aggressive or being combative in some way. In that documentary, you actually see him in a scenario on Franklin Avenue, there is some argument with a guy, in a bodega, and one of the patrons, and he just kind of defuses the whole thing just by talking, telling the guy, “Don’t spend your money in this bodega, then. Just go. There’s like ten other bodegas on this block.” The other cop who was there first on the scene—Detective Waller just pushes him aside and handles the situation, and then there’s no problems. It’s just kind of taken care of. And that’s the kind of policing that there needs to be; I mean, he’s solving problems. However big or small it is, you see him solving problems by just being a person.
Bruce: Which photo do you suppose is most significant to the project?
Cheney: The most important picture, for me in this series, is going to be a picture like Skate Cop because it creates a balance and creates a conversation around the humanity of individuals and looking at the structures that make all the other pictures what they are.
Nolan: What kind of photos do you plan on adding to the project?
Cheney: Quieter moments, and moments where you feel the humanity of individual police officers, as opposed to feeling as though they are a part of this kind of machine. I am looking at these pictures right now. The police are always closing in. I feel like they are closing in, in one way or another, in all these pictures.



Bruce: How does photography help people to possibly look at the structure that cops emerge from rather than fixate on them as individuals?
Cheney: The power of photography, in general, is that it connects people who wouldn’t normally relate to each other.
That’s the whole idea behind effective photojournalism—and effective documentary photography and storytelling—that you’re able to relate to the people in the photographs even if they’re from another country, another class, another race—another anything, another time. You can empathize with those people and relate to them by showing human moments.


This Q & A was edited for clarity, readability and editorial standards. Captions of photos were deliberately removed to add to the reader’s experience of the article.
Nolan Ryan Trowe is a freelance photographer and writer based in Baltimore, MD.
Bruce Graves is a writer and web developer based in Los Angeles.
All photos were taken by Cheney Orr.
Check out Entropic’s photo gallery.


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