New York's Peter Pan: Street Photographer Sara Messinger
Erin Clifforda year ago
Photo by Sara Messinger

When I spot Sara Messinger, she is perched on the South side rim of the Washington Square Park fountain reading Lunch Poems by Frank O’Hara — a fellow masterful observer — with the arch and the fountain water as her backdrop. Yep, this is her - exactly where she should be. 

Sara has made this park - and all of New York - her home after photographing the city every day for the last year. She told me that her work could be described as seeing the city through the eyes of a kid - and it is - it’s intimate, youthful, and does not ask permission when it makes you feel the way that it does.

Sara is a New York City Street Photography Collective fellow whose commissions include The New York Times, The New York Times Magazine, Major League Soccer, and Dr. Martens.

How would you describe yourself?

Sara:  I would say I am a youthful, energetic introvert running around with my camera -  just wanting to engage with anyone that will give me a second. 

How would you describe your work? 

Sara: It definitely has a youthful sense. I mean, I like to photograph kids. I think that has to do with wanting to be a kid.

Growing up, my favorite movie was Peter Pan. I told my parents I'm never growing up and every birthday, they were like, “You're growing up.” And I was like, “No, I’m not.” I think that's why I like to photograph kids. I'll be like, on the ground, photographing them, trying to get down to their level. 

Photo by Sara Messinger

I am talking to a random stranger, and I want to describe your work to them. What should I say? 

Sara: These are harder than the warm up round. I want to say, “Seeing New York through the eyes of a kid,” but I'm not a kid. I feel sometimes when I run around with a camera, it's me kind of pretending I'm still a kid. It's a very freeing feeling for me. 

Do you think that you're more introverted or extroverted? 

Sara:  I'm definitely introverted. I would say that I use my camera as an excuse to talk to people because I'm very, very curious. Before I started taking photographs, I would sit in the park for hours and hours not talking to anyone.

Once I started carrying my camera around, it felt like it kind of opened the world to me. I finally felt brave enough to go up to this person or that person and ask them what they're doing and why they're doing what they're doing.

I just love photography, and when I'm excited about something, it just kind of brings me out of my shell. I feel like with my camera, it kind of lets me be extroverted. 

Photo by Sara Messinger

You’re a part of New York City Street Photography Collective. What do you feel like you learn from the photographers around you? How do they inspire you? 

Sara: I work as a lab tech at our contact photo lab. The best days are when there are a few of us there — all developing and scanning our work — and we can turn to each other and be like, “What do you think about this one? What do you think about that photo? What worked here? What doesn't?” I feel like that community is what allowed me to grow as a photographer this past year. 

I have [the book] Lunch Poems here. I told Jonathan Walker, who is in the [photography] collective, “I need inspiration that's not photography for my work. I am feeling uninspired, what should I do?” He was like, “Oh, definitely pick up a copy of Lunch Poems. It's one of my favorites.” So, yeah, just things like that. 

Outside of photography and Lunch Poems, what else is inspiring you lately? 

Sara: I would say — I guess this is still photography — my friends, who all happen to be  photographers. Just to see what they're going through in life and how that attracts them to what they want to photograph. I feel like they're always working hard and pushing themselves, and it makes me want to push myself even more as well. 

Photo by Sara Messinger

When did you start photographing every day? 

Sara: I started photographing every day almost exactly a year ago. On the day that New York City shut down, I had lost my aunt who was almost like a second mother to me, so the pandemic was a really dark time for me and my family. I was back in New Jersey with them. 

Right before the pandemic, I had taken a class in Cuba for a January term. It was travel writing and photography - pretty much documenting your own experience. That was the first time that I would go out with my camera and shoot and walk for 10 miles a day. I was the happiest I've ever been.

When I was really depressed in quarantine, I was staring at my camera and I was like, “I just want to be out in New York and going up and down the streets.” When I moved back [to New York] in August, I finally committed myself to doing that. I haven't stopped since. It's just become an obsession. 

What's your relationship to the city now? 

Sara: As a kid, I was obsessed with New York. I had so much family here. I think every free weekend, I would ask my mom if we could go [to New York City]. When we were driving through New York City, I would have my forehead smashed against the window, like trying to breathe in the dirt of the city.

I think I was always interested in photography, and I was obsessed with New York. I was like, “I have to do whatever it takes to move to New York.” I think in this city is the first time in my life that I feel like myself. I just never felt that in the suburban towns in New Jersey.

Photo by Sara Messinger

So what do you think younger kid Sara would say about you now? 

Sara:  I think younger Sara would be proud in the way that I feel like who I am now is who I always felt deep down. Growing up, soccer was what I did every day after school. I always flirted with this idea of photography. I knew who all of these photographers were, but in college in DC I never had the opportunity to go and try that because I went to school to play soccer. 

When I quit [soccer], I was like, “College is a time where you're supposed to try other things and figure out who you are.” And that's when I was like, “I'm quitting soccer,” which was really scary for me, but then I was like, “Who am I?” And I moved to New York. That was when I finally slowly started getting into [photography]. 

Why do you photograph in South Williamsburg?

Sara: It kind of goes back to me quitting soccer and moving to New York. Soccer was my identity. I was a soccer player. That was all I knew about myself, so I was trying to explore other things. And what were other things about me? Oh, I was Jewish.

I started exploring my Jewish identity and, for me, to understand why someone does something I have to do it. So I kept kosher. I kept Shabbat. This was all for a very short period of time. It was just me trying to learn about my heritage, I guess.

When I moved back to New York after the pandemic, I think that's why I so naturally went to South Williamsburg with that same bit of curiosity of trying to figure out my family's past. So, yeah, that was kind of just where my curiosity has led me. 

Photo by Sara Messinger

What do you want people to feel when they look at your work?

Sara: I don't know if my work is there yet. But when I look at my work, it's a reflection of how I feel. I want that feeling and that emotion— whatever that abstract thing is that I can't explain in words— to come out in my photographs. 

I don't know, I don't think that I'm there yet. I'm really hard on myself, and there's a lot of photographers out on the street. I tell myself, “If my work doesn't have feeling, if it doesn't have emotion, why am I out here? And what am I trying to do?”

Any photographers you think inbtwn. readers should check out? 

@__andresrios @visualchaski @scottrossii @undertonecommunication @tinadelpino

by Erin Clifford
Erin is a writer and photographer at inbtwn.

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