The 9th Floor, An Interview with Jessica Dimmock

By: Daria Sokolova

Torch caught up with Jessica Dimmock and talked to her about her exhibit “The Ninth Floor”, motivation to work and her other projects.

How did the project start?


   I was a photography student at the time and I was going to the International Center of Photography. It was very early onto my studies and we had to photograph a stranger. I had a digital camera that I had never used before and I had it out because I was playing with the batteries and a guy comes up to me, his name was Jim. … He lets me know that he is a cocaine dealer and that I can follow him around and photograph him. …  I spent the rest of the night walking around with him. And I also had a digital camera and in a weird way it worked because the whole situation with him was out of control and now looking at the difference between digital and film, it’s not that big deal but I had no idea about what I was doing. I had no control over the camera and the pictures are kind of like that: They are blurry, there is this crazy energy. … I followed him for couple of nights when he would let me. The last time I’ve ever saw him, he brought me to this place because he used to go and trade cocaine for heroin there. It was just one of the many many places that I went with him. But he brought me and said: “This is Jessica, my photographer”, and they let me in because I was with him, I came as a friend, instead of just going up as stranger.  … That’s how I got there.


The project took you three years. What made you stay and continue on this topic?


   When I first went there, it was overwhelming. And the thing with photography is that it gives you one slice of something very dramatic but the thing about being there, it’s 360 degrees around you. Everywhere you turn, there are needles and blood and people. I knew there was something very interesting in part because it was such a rich neighborhood. We’ve seen so many drug stories but they are always about people living in the middle of nowhere or poor areas, minorities; a lot of stories about crack and things like that. I hadn’t seen this type of behavior going on in such a rich environment. The rent downstairs was $12,000 a month so it was like a really high-end building and to see that kind of destruction in there was really interesting. That’s what made me stay on and keep going back there.


How did you break the ice when you had to get closer to your subjects?


   When Jim went to prison, I actually didn’t have anyone’s phone number and I saw one of them on the street a few weeks later. I wanted to get in touch and I had no way to do so. I made imprints and I learned that lesson and because it was the first photography project that I’ve ever did, I just said: “I’ve got these pictures, can I bring them over.” They really liked them; they put them on their walls right away. That’s what I would do often to break the ice to come over. And then I just started going all the time. Sometimes, I would hang out, sometimes, I wouldn’t shoot anything, sometimes, I would go over and watch a movie. Sometimes, I would go and the mood of the place didn’t feel quite right so I would leave. And sometimes, I would shoot a lot.


How did you go on to following specific people?


   It tended to be the people that I was the closest to. I was really close to Jessie already. I really liked her, although we got a lot closer later, but it tended to be people that I was close to and also people that I could kind of find and continue to work with. Like there were some other people that I continued to see, but they were just hard to track down.


What was the most difficult thing to get used to in the process of shooting?


   The patience was difficult to get used to and that’s the benefit of being a personal project and not an assignment. I could have never done something like this if it was an assignment because I would have stressed myself out with them not showing up and things like that. And with this it was just kind of a part of the process.


Did you have anybody looking at your pictures while you were working?


   I saw Alison Morley, who was my department chair at ICP. She was the editor of my book, so she helped in that and then I looked to people that I trusted. Simon Norfolk, he does large-scale beautiful photographs, a lot of landscapes and a lot of landscapes of environments. He was an early mentor.


Was there anything that you had learned at school that helped you during this project?


   Our teachers were amazing. Jeff Jacobson who is an amazing photographer was one of my teachers. He is all about just gut, visceral, beautiful imagery and he is not about content. … I learned a lot from him and then also just a process of being around other people that are all doing the same thing and just talking about it, just developing a vocabulary and ability to speak of these things makes you think about them. … Everything I shot at the beginning was about drugs and then I realized that I could do the whole project without ever showing a needle. And that was probably the better way to do it.


Were any images censored?


   Everything that we wanted to be in the book was there and we had total flexibility on how we designed it. If we wanted more, we could put more in. I think a few more pictures should have come out and I think that’s what always happens, that you first put in more things, then you keep editing things out. I feel very comfortable about how the book turned out to be because we’ve got to do it. They didn’t censor us at all.


Do you remember the last day of your project?


   I remember two last days. I remember the day they got kicked out of the apartment but that was earlier on the project and the last one was Jessie in the hospital. And I had seen her many times, but she was in a hospital and she had an IV. She was getting drugs delivered to her in the hospital. It’s the only picture I have where she is looking directly at the camera and it’s the only picture that I have somebody is looking directly at the camera. It’s the last picture of the book and I don’t know if it’s the last picture I took but it feels like the last picture I took. After observing her for three years, it kind of hit me as a rockside: I know exactly where this is going. Done.


You have a mix of blurry and clear shots in your exhibition. Was it because you didn’t know how to use the camera or was it the technique that you were using?


   It’s a little bit of both. It’s kind of pushing the camera and pushing myself or anyone in this situation. It’s like pushing the camera to the limits of what it can do. In that place it was really dark and I was shooting with the Canon 10D. That was many generations before 5D which has very good lights. I would shoot 10ths of a second or 15ths of a second which is really slow for movement. And I would shoot for a quarter of a second. Part of the reason because I didn’t care about it being technically perfect. As a result, some of these images are blurry and have movement. But I like those because that’s also where you get some of this feeling. You get this from the blur, you feel the chaotic nature of things.


What criteria did you use when you were organizing your shots into the book?


   I shot thousands and thousands of images. I tried to take out the obvious things. I tried to take the tricks out. I felt like earlier versions had some tricks like a soft focus or a shallow depth of field. Those things are beautiful but if they are just tricks and just employed as tricks, then they should not be in there. I wanted to make it more natural and emotional. I just want people to look at them and feel for the people and understand what people feel like in themselves. That’s what I want people to do. I don’t want to pound people over the head. It’s not about [a] message. It’s about this crazy world and these characters in this world, and maybe if you spend a little time with them, you will see what it’s like to be them.


How do you think this work stands out among your other projects?


   This project is the first thing that I’ve ever done. I’ve done photography in college and I’ve done it in high school, but I had never done it professionally at all. I basically stopped doing any photography after college. I went to ICP and managed to get in and then had this realization: “I don’t know how to do this. I don’t know how to take pictures.” There was kind of letting go because there were no expectations. Whatever emotionally felt right.  … “The Ninth Floor” was the first thing I did and I had to get my sea legs. Some of these other projects that I did after, I was searching for the type of photographer I was going to be because I’ve done this one thing and I got attention for it and it was first thing I’ve ever did. It’s not like it was a plan, I just did it. It was almost like going in reverse a little bit. I love social issues and I love looking at situations of kids in Africa, but I don’t think that’s where my strength is and it took me awhile to figure that out. I’m better when I can connect with people. I’m better when people are very emotional and open with me.


How did this experience help you to become a better photographer?


    I did it while studying. I don’t think I could have done it any other way, or I don’t think anything would have happened, unless going this way. The difficult thing with assignments is that you have to think about someone else and what they want. And the very reason they hire you is because they want you to do it your way and it’s very difficult to not try to please other people and not to try to shoot for them.  It’s the difference between writing a term paper or an essay and writing in your diary. … It was liberating because I didn’t have to worry about anything and I could kind of figure out the way that I see this. And not worrying about wanting to see something certain way, for someone to please someone else so I just got to do it the way I saw it. I kind of knew what my photographic style is because I’ve got to just do it and not have to answer to anyone.


If you had a chance to shoot the same topic again how would you do that?


   If I could do it again, I would. I’m doing a lot of film stuff right now. Even though I think it would have made an amazing film, I’m really glad I didn’t have a video at that time because I think if I had a video, I would have done it as video and never would have been patient and stayed with it in a way that it needed to be. It just took a long time because things had to happen in their lives. … If I had done the video, I would have never gotten to that layer of knowing them for years. Probably, if I could do it again I hope that I wouldn’t do a video and I would shoot more.


What do you want the Roosevelt community to learn or see by looking at your exhibition?

I don’t want to sound like I’m ending things on a positive note, but I do think that part of the reason this story was successful and the things that I’ve done after were not is a variety of reasons. One is that I didn’t do it for money. I did it for myself. But part of the reason it’s successful [is] because I was a student and when you are a student, and you don’t have to think about making money, it’s one of the best times to really find out what you want to do and how you want to do it. I think if I’ve done other stories and then I would find this, it wouldn’t be the same because I didn’t have this freedom to think just about me. I feel like the thing to tell the Roosevelt community is that being in school is the perfect time to dive into things if they present themselves to [you]. It doesn’t always happen. But if they do, it’s the perfect time because you don’t have to think about other people.


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