In Conversation with Amy Touchette

Interviewed by Timothy Frazier
Photos by Amy Touchette

TF: How did you get into photography?

AT: It was pretty dramatic and emotional, actually. I was working in the publishing industry in New York City as a writer, then an editor, then a managing editor when I realized how completely unfulfilling office life was. It was a depressing epiphany, because I felt very driven and inspired in my twenties, but somehow along the way I got lost grabbing at the next thing and found myself somewhere I didn’t want to be—at all. So my solution was to work less overtime and spend more time on a series of large-scale black-and-white oil paintings of jazz musicians that I had been making for a while. A few months later, September 11th happened and everything changed for me.

AT: Outside looked like an apocalypse. No cars were allowed in the West Village (where I was living then) because of its proximity to the Twin Towers—an eerie sight of a city that never sleeps—and a sickening stench of death and destruction pervaded the air. Worse, the streets were filled with pictures of people and their loved ones’ desperate pleas to find them, but they were all dead. I was so scared and so sad. And I remember just wanting to connect with people, or at the very least look them in the eye—something I was too busy and scattered to do before. It felt to be the only antidote to the violence and hatred that was suddenly in my world.

AT: After some really honest conversations with myself about who I was, what my natural skills were, and what I wanted out of life ideally, I decided to look into photography, hoping it wouldn’t feel as lonely as writing and painting. Not knowing what an f-stop or a shutter speed were, I enrolled in Photo I at the International Center of Photography with street photographer Jeff Mermelstein. Four months later, I quit my job and became a freelance writer and slowly began creating a life as a photographer. It’s crazy to me that an event so tragic and full of loss inspired one of the best things in my life, but it did. There’s a lesson in there, and it’s one I try to remember every day.

TF: Tell me about your project, “The Insiders”. 

AT: “The Insiders” is largely rooted in my love for New York City. After observing the city streets for several years, I realized that no one could be a misfit in a city as diverse as New York. Not belonging was expected here; ride a subway and take a look around and that’s very clear. New York has its neighborhoods with communities that are specific to various tribes, but for the most part we are not with our own, and we are used to that feeling.

AT: Having this realization made me want to look more closely at the experience of individuality here. So I began photographing people who I felt somehow embodied singularity, being alone. And what I saw in all of them was this beautiful marriage of vulnerability and liberation, a sort of calm, honest, susceptible strength.

AT: One of the most magical, often under acknowledged attributes of photography is that it can put people from different places and times next to one another. You can make photos of people in this country, in that country, ten years ago, five years ago, today, and if they have a link and you put them side by side, it can be a really powerful visual. This is something I’ve been preoccupied with for a while, discerning patterns in humanity and cataloguing them to a degree, making those connections and observing the various manifestations.

TF: Tell me about your project, “New York Young”.

AT: I grew up in the suburbs of Syracuse, New York, in a pretty homogenous town that insulated me from the world for a while. As a teenager, I wasn’t nearly as worldly and cool as the teenagers here. And similar to “The Insiders,” I just wanted to get a closer look at this set. As I walked the streets, I noticed how they gave off this really compelling paradox of confidence and naivety. They also have a comfort in front of the lens that other age groups don’t usually have, so I was also fascinated by the added layer their presentation cast over their portraits.

AT: Inspired to compare and contrast New York’s teenagers with others in the world, I went on to make portraits of teenagers in O’ahu, Hawaii, and Tokyo, Japan, and presented all three subsets together in “The Young Series.”

TF: What drew you to shooting street portraiture? 

AT: I was inspired by the people on the street as soon as I moved to New York; and eventually they were what made me look into photography. Truth is stranger than fiction, and I saw so many characters in New York City that proved that. Nonfiction is so inherently fascinating, I knew all the stories I cared to hear were already out there and that they were pretty much at my disposal to discover.

AT: Before becoming a photographer, I only knew writing, drawing, and painting. And as wonderfully focused and peaceful as they all were to do, they were also really fucking lonely. Being trapped in a room, either among wafts of turpentine or at the mercy of a keyboard, I always heard the world going on outside my window and yearned to be out in it. When I realized there was an art where you could be out among life and make impressions of what you saw, I had to give it a try. And once I did, it felt so right I never really looked back. Although I support my fine art career as a freelance writer—writing about photography for magazines and websites, in addition to doing other kinds of writing—I never write creatively like I used to, and I haven’t painted since.

TF: What’s your favorite thing about living in Brooklyn? 

AT: That’s a loaded question, because Brooklyn is huge and full of everything, so I will answer in terms of the neighborhood I live in now, Bed-Stuy.

AT: Since moving to New York in 1997, I’ve lived in Manhattan on the Upper East Side, Spanish Harlem, and the West Village, and in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, but none of those neighborhoods endeared me quite like Bed-Stuy. The moving truck was still parked out in front of my apartment when I made my first portrait. There is a palpable charge in the air here, a collective electricity comprising every nuance on the spectrum of joy to pain. Like old time New York, a lot of life is lived out on the streets, in public, in Bed-Stuy, so if you are paying attention (or sometimes even if you are not!), you are privy to so much. Lots of truth; beautiful real stuff that just keeps you honest. That’s my favorite thing about living in Brooklyn.

TF: If you could have one superpower, what would it be and why?

AT: Fly! Doesn’t everyone say that? I experienced it in a dream once and I must say it takes the cake—soaring and feeling the world to be yours. And as a photographer, the idea of swooping in on random places seems fantastic—the ultimate road trip!

AT: But if I could fly, I’d also want to be able to perch somewhere, sit and hang for a bit at eye level and not have to hover from above the whole time.

TF: Future plans or upcoming projects? 

AT: I’m giving a photography workshop in Oaxaca, Mexico, March 7-12, 2019. We have conversations about photography in the mornings, photograph in various inspiring settings in the afternoons, and then evenings are reserved for editing and relaxing, either with the class or alone, whichever students prefer. I gave the same workshop last year and it was so incredible. Mexico is a visual treasure trove: there is so much color in that culture, so many beautiful older faces that tell decades of stories, so many heartwarming younger faces that epitomize innocence and love; I saw pictures everywhere. Teaching in that kind of environment is ideal, so I’m really looking forward to doing it again. It also happens to be quite inexpensive and full of super friendly, generous people—plus the food there is out-of-control delicious. More details about the workshop are available here.

AT: Recently a couple of my photographs from “Us” were included in Brooklyn Photographs Now, a book published by Rizzoli reflecting the avant-garde spirit of the borough. But for the most part I’m focused on a series of street portraits of Bed-Stuy. I’ve been working on them for a few years, and this year went so well I just feeling like pulling the metaphorical cloth over my head for as long as a decade even and not saying a word or presenting, etc.

AT: As Lisette Model said, “the world is so big and so free, and there’s so much.” I just want to see as much of it as I can.

Amy Touchette is a Brooklyn-based fine art photographer who specializes in street portraiture. Trained at the International Center of Photography, her first monograph, Shoot the Arrow: A Portrait of The World Famous *BOB*, was published by Un-Gyve Press. Her photographs have been published in The New York Times, the New York Observer, BuzzFeed, and BUST magazine, and have exhibited at the Hamburg Triennial of Photography, MoMA-Moscow, and Leica Gallery-Warsaw. She is represented by ClampArt in New York City.

You may see more of Amy’s work on her website,