Aviva Klein is a self-taught photographer born and raised in Brooklyn, NY. Klein found her career in the music industry enjoyable, but it wasn’t rewarding her in the ways she had hoped. Deciding to quit her job in entertainment marketing, she used an ex-boyfriends camera to explore photography. Alex and I sat down with Aviva to discuss her interests in music, people, and portraiture as well as the struggles of staying satisfied as an artist.
LISA GONZALEZ: What was it like being a kid from Sheepshead Bay?
AVIVA KLEIN: The neighborhood was pretty diverse. There were a bunch of us that hung out together from the neighborhood when we were in junior high school and I’m still really good friends with some of them. We didn’t go to the same schools but somehow we befriended each other through this little skate scene that was happening in Brooklyn at the time. Only in my early years we’d hang out on the corner and talk shit. Or on someone’s stoop. Just like in the movies. Sometimes it was a little creepy, weird people at night, but I loved and hated it at the same time.
LG: And your parents still live there?
LG: And they’ll never leave?
LG: Was a career in the arts something plausible while you were growing up?
AK: When I was in high school I had no idea what I wanted to do. I’d been working ever since I was 15.
LG: What was your first job?
AK: I worked at a pharmacy-gift store. I blew up balloons and sold lotto tickets. From that job, one of my co-workers worked at some sort of indie record label, and that was my first exposure to a career in the music industry. That’s what really sparked it for me.
LG: So how did that develop?
AK: In college I first majored in film, but I never really explored it, and it was really expensive. This was before digital. I was splicing super 8 film in class and I had to get it developed. It wasn’t something could afford at the time. I think I also kinda didn’t want to do it. We had a silent film assignment and I had no idea what I was doing. I ended up doing some bullshit story, and that’s when I was like, “why am I doing this?” So I changed majors and majored in communications. Sophomore year I got an internship at Sony. I then became a college rep for Sony, where you market a lot of their music to college kids on various campuses. I liked the job and I was working on my own terms a lot of the time. I was traveling around a bit, but I didn’t like the music. I hated it. I was in the rock department. That was the problem. Don’t get me wrong, there were some acts that were fun, ya know, but the music- I couldn’t relate to. But I didn’t know what marketing was until I got that job.
LG: Did you keep going?
AK: So upon graduation they offered me a full-time job but I hadn’t really graduated. I just told them I did. I left school with half a credit left or something. So I took the job, and like, five years later I took a class at FIT, some darkroom class, to get the last part finished. At Sony I was an assistant to a senior level executive in urban music which I was really excited about. I felt like I was at home.
LG: Was music a big influence when you were growing up?
AK: Yea, it was. When I left my parents house I left hundreds of ticket stubs. I’m talking, hundreds. But they [my parents] probably tossed ‘em out. My brother and I had been going to concerts since we were kids. Ever since I was probably 15 or 16 that’s what I did. There was one show that was a monthly thing it was called Black Lillies at this venue that closed in New York called Wetlands. It was the greatest thing; Sunday nights. Erykah Badu, The Roots – this was before some people were really big. It was surprise guests and you never knew who was going to come and it was really special. It was a really great time in New York music.
LG: How did photography happen for you?
AK: I had moved to CA to follow some guy. He had a camera. I would mess around with it, and I loved it. He had given it to me, and we broke up and he wanted it back. But I told him, “No, I’m not giving you the camera back.” I moved back to Brooklyn and I took the camera with me. That’s how I got into it, using his camera. And when I was in music I started to see how being a photographer could be a career. The woman I assisted was the head of marketing. She was responsible for creating the image of the artist. She would have agencies bring their books and it was the first time I saw portfolios. I was so mesmerized with these huge books. That’s when I realized you could do this for a living. But it scared me. I knew at the time I wanted to be a music executive. I photographed throughout my time in the music industry, then decided to make a little rinky-dink website. It got to the point music just wasn’t working out so I told myself if I don’t get promoted I’m going to be a photographer.
LG: What was that a difficult decision to come by?
AK: There was nothing hard about it for me at all. It was natural. Maybe I just don’t remember. I probably mulled it over a bit. Once I reached the decision I was totally OK with it. I wasn’t worried about what I was going to do the next day. So when I quit I moved to Puerto Rico. I was a waitress my entire time there but I made work. Even when I moved back to NY I had to wait tables, and I was serving people who were at one time my peers which was weird. Even at that point I was still figuring out how to work with light. I was only beginning to see shadows, and I had a lot to learn.
LG: Whose work informs yours?
LG: At what point did you start calling yourself a photographer?
AK: It was something I struggled with for a very long time. When I was making money I made less work for myself and I felt like a fake. A fraud. But that’s me being hard on myself. I feel like most artists feel like they don’t make enough of their own work. There are a lot of days and weeks I don’t show up for work (mentally). Making your own work is a job and you’ve got to show up.
LG: Why do you think you’re inclined to photograph people?
AK: I’m an emotional person. Seeing it in other people, makes me feel like – a way to understand them. I’ve only held onto one picture of a person smiling, though. I think because I’m up and down, when I see it in other people too. That’s the way I communicate with myself, letting the subject speak to you. They’re projecting something rather than you constructing an emotion or somethin’. Most of the images I make are self-portraits.
LG: It’s like you’re using these people to communicate what you’re feeling?
AK: Right. Yes, exactly. Most of the people I shoot I don’t know. I don’t really understand them initially so I have to find a way to understand them.
LG: What’s the hard part about photographing people?
AK: Showing up. Like, me showing up and doing it, not them. If it’s a [commissioned] job, obviously I’m going to show. But if I have ideas for a project, the difficulty can be me showing up to do it.
LG: Tell me a bit about your project, Bandana Culture.
AK: I think the story is relevant. Once day I was talking to photo colleagues and it just came to me. People wear bandanas in all of these different ways. You can wear it to signify you’re in a gang, or how to tell a guy how you like to fuck, or maybe you’re having a bad hair day. It’s used for so many different ways to communicate.
LG: Do you photograph strangers for the project?
Yes. I think that might be why I put a pause on it. I got in the way of myself. There was one old guy who was wearing one on the train- around his neck. He had it like a collar. I asked to photograph him but he said no. I was trying to set up a time but, it wasn’t happening. For a really long time I thought it was me. But the more I talk to photographers, I find it’s part of the game. It’s hard.
If I’m not making work my life is not good. That’s the weird relationship I have with my work. I need to make work to feel good about myself and to feel good about life in general. If I’m not, I feel awful and terribly depressed. It’s like a marriage that sometimes I wish I didn’t get into. But I would never leave it either. The longest break I’ve had was a couple of months. And I couldn’t believe I couldn’t give a fuck. But at that point I thought I just didn’t care.
LG: How did you get out of it?
AK: I took a picture.