Abdulhamid Kircher Interview

5th Jul 2024

For Abdulhamid Kircher, photography is a compulsive act. After picking up a Yashica point and shoot camera as a teenager, he first dabbled in self-portraiture, uploading these images to Tumblr. Later, he began using the medium as a way to get closer to people, capturing his family and taking intimate portraits of people on the peripheries of New York (he cites Diane Arbus as a formative influence). “I have this obsessive nature of trying to document everything around me,” he says. “I was really fascinated by being in the streets and meeting random people. When I had that camera in my hand it made me feel more powerful and gave me more of a reason to go out.”

Over the course of seven years of intermittent filming, a Reely and Truly episode documents Abdul as his hairstyles change over time and his voice drops. With heightened self-awareness, he looks back at the displacement that came with his adolescence. Now, as Abdul releases his work publicly for the first time, he describes his photography as a diaristic processing of relationships. His new book, Rotting from Within, published by Loose Joints – also an exhibition at carlier | gebauer in Berlin – is a deeply personal masterclass in unearthing and understanding generational trauma and the paternal figures who surround him.

Below, DoBeDo sat down with Abdulhamid Kircher to talk about his approach to the medium, his early days on Tumblr, and his conflicted feelings about commercial photography. 

DBD: Tell me about your new exhibition in Berlin?

AK: It’s intimidating because it’s my first show, and the gallery represents a lot of big artists. I want to make sure it’s done the way it needs to be done, but I also realise that the shows they usually do may not cost this much to produce. And the amount that my work would sell for is not anywhere near their other artists. So it feels like a lot of pressure.

DBD: It’s also a super personal body of work.

AK: Yeah. My best friend is also making a documentary about the people in the work, like my grandparents, my father, my mother, and my aunt. It’s really about understanding the people you see within the book, who come to life on the screen.

DBD: Where did you grow up? And where do you live now?

AK: I was born in Berlin. Around the age of eight, after my mum and my dad split up, and she met my stepdad, we moved to Washington DC because her new husband worked in the Pentagon. After a few months, we moved to New York. From there on out, I lived in New York but would go to Berlin every summer.

DBD: Why would you go to Berlin for the summer?

AK: My family was there, all my grandparents, my mum’s family. And my Turkish side of the family too.

DBD: You mention the “rich kids” at your high school – which school was that?

AK: I went to NYC Lab. Before that, I was in one of the worst high schools called Murry Bergtraum. Luckily my mum pushed me to go to Lab. If it wasn’t for that, I don't think I would've found photography. My photography stemmed from Tumblr. I initially bought a camera to take photos of myself or have my mum take photos of me, and I would upload them on Tumblr. Naturally, from just having the camera on me all the time in the city, I started taking photos of random shit. It really clicked for me when my friend gave me a little Yashica point and shoot. From that moment on, I knew that this was what I was meant to do.

DBD: Do you remember your first camera?

AK: My first film camera was a Yashica T3. And my first digital camera was a Canon Rebel T3i with a little flip screen.

DBD: You said your friend gave you that Yashica?

AK: I'm not friends with him anymore so he doesn't need a shoutout. But he was like a brother to me. I spent a lot of time with people older than me.

DBD: So he was older?

AK: Yeah, and he treated the camera very much like a diary. He would basically take photos of everything in his life, and was getting prints made and collecting this huge archive. Seeing that early on really changed the way I treated the camera. And then I would literally just meet people in the street and see how far I could dig into their lives.

DBD: Then, when you were 19, this tall British guy says, "I want to make a film about you."

AK: I was excited. There are two people that have really impacted my frame of mind:  [Nobuyoshi] Araki and Wolfgang [Tillmans]. My way of image-making is very much Araki in the sense that I have this obsessive nature of trying to document everything around me.

DBD: Tell us about your new book, Rotting from Within? You were obsessed with these individuals who were perceived as outcasts, then in San Diego, you started shooting nature and water. Why the change of subject?

AK: San Diego was probably the lowest I've ever been in my life. I had just started dating my partner. As soon as I met her, I knew this was the person I wanted to be with forever. Having met a person like that, leaving my family home for the first time, then living by myself, in a place where you need a car to get around… It just got really bad at one point, but I'm very grateful for my time in San Diego because I tapped into this other side of myself and the way I see my work now. But I do think it had a really detrimental impact on my brain.

DBD: Did that push you to find new subjects to photograph?

AK: I turned to inanimate stuff because I had just built this immense archive of all these people, and all of a sudden, there were no people around me. I had always been drawn to photographing everything around me, and when I started going to the beach, I just noticed the environment evolving or changing every time I went. I felt like I still needed to be taking photos, even if it was just for the act of it.

DBD: Was the program your first time studying photography?

AK: I never went to photo school – I studied culture and media in undergrad and was actually the only photographer in my cohort in grad school. But at The New School, I would take random photography classes that I merely used to get access to the facilities and equipment. I had a few friends in photo programmes and everyone's work just looked the same. I didn’t want to fall into that place because I already had my own vision and how I was making work. I put a lot of energy into making sure that I was staying true to myself and my work.

DBD: How did your girlfriend play a part in Rotting from Within?

AK: In the back of the book, she narrates my diary entries. It was so important to have her involved because she was the catalyst for me understanding my relationship with my father and just the work in general. At grad school, I knew I wanted to focus on that body of work, but I was still struggling with how to grapple it. It wouldn't have been possible without her, so she needed to be part of it because she was there when I was uncovering everything. She understands me almost better than I do myself.

DBD: So she was able to thread it together?

AK: Exactly. Even with my thesis paper, it was all a jumble of thoughts and ideas, and she's very good at bringing it all together and making my brain make sense.

DBD: What does she do? Is she a photographer too?

AK: No, she hates photography. She just likes working on my stuff, which is good for me. She writes and is an actor mainly, but she's working on her own scripts as well.

DBD: What’s next for you?

AK: Hopefully my work picks up a bit after the show and the book, and I can do more shows around the world. Then I can think about restarting the process and focusing on another body of work, zone out for a bit, just scan everything, print everything, make selections, and start from square one. It's just a matter of deciding which body of work is next. It could be the Tony one, or this other part of my family, or an abstract book.

DBD: How have you been able to pay for life in New York while doing fine art photography?

AK: Before grad school I was babysitting while living at home. I would literally just make money so I could pay for film. While I was in grad school, I started assisting Rosie [Marks]. That really changed the way I was able to live my life. My thesis show cost me $20,000. And I did this job with Rosie right before that, I think I made $10,000 or something crazy like that. The overtime was crazy, we were shooting late into the night every day.

That's what I'm still doing now. Somehow every time I'm about to be completely broke, some assisting job comes through. And if you're making $700-800 a day, even if you just do two or three jobs a month, that's enough to cover rent and expenses. Assisting has allowed me to focus on my work and travel and do all these things without being tied to anything.

DBD: Does assisting also help from a technical perspective? Have you learned how to light things differently, for example?

AK: Not really because, funnily enough, I don't use lighting for my work. I've also totally weaned flash out of my work. I love trying to reach the purest form of taking a photo and documenting something exactly how it is being presented to me.

DBD: Would you ever shoot commercially?

AK: Yes and no. I feel very conflicted. In a way it feels like I'm not succumbing to this capitalistic world. But I am because I'm still supporting it by assisting and reaping the benefits. I've spent a lot of time and energy trying to not make commercial work. And I’m not shunning anyone that does it, but photography plays this very specific role in my life. Once I turn it into this capitalistic tool, it will ruin it for me. I have tried to do some little editorials here and there, and they made me feel really bad.

Watch Reely & Truly Epsiode 3: Abdulhamid Kircher

Abdulhamid Kircher (b. 1996) is an artist from Queens, New York. He was born in Berlin to German and Turkish parents, and immigrated with his mother to the United States at the age of eight. His work is a living archive of place and people, as it is also a dedication to the language of photography, the mechanics and aesthetic possibilities of the form. Through his devotion to classical forms of image making and the radical experimentation required for each of his subjects, his process bridges the idea between document and narrative. He received his BA in Culture and Media from The New School in 2018 and his MFA in Visual Arts from the University of California San Diego in 2022.

Abdulhamid Kircher