Jessica Kourkounis [pictured, below right, with chicken) is a Philadelphia-based photographer specializing in documentary, editorial and portraiture work. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, Time, The Art Economist and ESPN The Magazine. Her brother plays drums on many of the albums in your collection. Presumably.
PHAWKER: How did you get interested in photography? What was the ‘Eureka!’ moment when you decided that this is what you wanted to do with your life?
JESSICA KOURKOUNIS: I’ve been interested in photography for so long I honestly can’t even remember when it started. I know that as a young adult, I quickly discovered that I wasn’t cut out for the whole traditional college student trajectory, and so I moved to NYC with $250 to my name to couch surf and work as an apprentice with a photographer named Chris Toliver. He mostly shot portraits of musicians and that type of thing. After that I freelance assisted for a variety of other people. I learned a lot that year and I guess that’s when I realized I could actually survive doing what I love. Which was awesome because I’m the world’s shittiest waitress.
PHAWKER: What photographers influenced your work?
JESSICA KOURKOUNIS: I’ve been influenced by a handful of the usual suspects…Mary Ellen Mark and Dorothea Lange were huge early on, as was Henri Cartier-Bresson, Richard Avedon, Diane Arbus, Weegee and other big names. There are some lesser knowns like Tseng Kwong Chi and Milton Rogovin. Every day I’m impressed by work I see from my peers and contemporaries such as Damon Winter, Tyler Hicks, Cheryl Senter, Eric Thayer, Philly’s finest David Maialetti, the list goes on forever.
PHAWKER: How did you wind up in the Astrodome in the wake of Katrina?
JESSICA KOURKOUNIS: I was sent to New Orleans to cover Hurricane Katrina and the aftermath by the Houston Chronicle and then once residents were evacuated to Houston I sort of set up camp in the Astrodome. That experience was overwhelming on so many different levels. I remember one elderly woman telling me it was the first time she had ever left her neighborhood. There were a lot of heart breaking moments and encounters but there was also a realization that humans are engineered for survival even under the worst circumstances.
PHAWKER: Tell us about your Camden project — judging by the photos it looks like you were doing ride-alongs with the cops. How did your perspective on Camden — and for that matter the causes and consequences of poverty and the Drug War — evolve over the course of the project.
JESSICA KOURKOUNIS: I worked on a story for The New York Times about the surge of violence in Camden in 2008. And then in 2012 I shot another story for The Times and I met Chief of Police Scott Thomson. He was a very affable and approachable person. This is when it was first revealed that the Camden City Police force was to be disbanded and that Camden County would be taking over. Essentially every officer’s job was terminated, busting up the union, which officials claimed were making it financially impossible to keep enough officers on the street. Those who wanted to had to reapply for their job. It seemed pretty crazy to me and I asked the Chief if I could follow the first year of the take over and see how it went. It was really as simple as that. I just wanted to see what it looked like.
As for my perspective on poverty and the Drug War? I’m an empathetic person by nature and I can’t help but see situations from everyone’s viewpoint and feel like they’re all valid in their own way. Sometimes when I was out there it felt like the cops were doing what needed to be done. And many times it looked and felt like an occupation. But I’m not a cop and I’m not a resident of Camden. I’m not a drug dealer or an addict. I’m not a minority. I don’t live in a particularly poor neighborhood (or a particularly affluent one for that matter). I live a totally middle of the road life. I’m not even going to pretend I have the faintest idea of how to turn a city like Camden around, or any city for that matter. I know that it isn’t just about drug dealers and addicts and cops and criminals. Systematic failures abound in almost every city in America at this point. I think concentrating on the public education systems tops the list of problems that absolutely need to be remedied. There are so many factors at play and so much politics involved.
JESSICA KOURKOUNIS: I was piggy-backing on a project my dear friend and very talented photographer Mayra Beltran was working on. Her family came to the United States from Mexico and immigration is a topic she feels close to. I was living in Texas at the time and it was a big headline. I wasn’t really trying to get any of that work published though. I only brought one film camera and one lens and a bag of film. She had her full digital set up and has a lot of amazing images from that trip. I think my real motivation was to spend time with my friend and to learn what life was like first hand along the border. I’d say we spent equal time on both sides. We spent an evening with some nutso militia guys who were using high-powered lasers to try and expose people crossing illegally into the U.S. They ended up shining the thing right into the eyes of a border patrol officer wearing night vision goggles. A few minutes later the Border Patrol were surrounding us with all terrain vehicles and helicopters. It was wild. One of the almost cartoon-like militiamen ended up getting taken in on an outstanding warrant for failure to pay child support or something like that. Actually, I remember Mayra got a bit upset with me because I had a difficult time hiding my dislike for that group of dudes. She was right of course, it wasn’t at all professional of me to broadcast how skeeved out I was, but I just found them to be so offensive it was really difficult.
PHAWKER: Tell us about shooting Daniel Johnston’s portrait. I’m reading a lot of anguish in his face in that shot — is that accurate or am I way off?
JESSICA KOURKOUNIS: Daniel Johnston’s struggle with mental illness is pretty well documented at this point. I think he has a form of bipolar disorder. I don’t know about now, but back then he was taking a lot of medications and he was asleep when we got there. So, I don’t know if anguish would be the word I would use but he was definitely struggling. He chain-smoked and drank soda non-stop. He came to life a bit later after the caffeine kicked in.
PHAWKER: What is the story behind the photo of Henry the Dog?
JESSICA KOURKOUNIS: Henry was my best dog. He was like Winnie the Pooh or something…fully Zen, just by nature. I shot that photo in his later years in front of a storefront window on Arch Street. It was a perfect moment. I think about a month later the ceiling in that place collapsed and it blew that window out onto the sidewalk.
PHAWKER: Likewise, what is the story behind the bird you are holding in the portrait (self-?) of you in the ABOUT ME section.
JESSICA KOURKOUNIS: That’s a rooster belonging to my friend and now business partner Neal Santos. He and his partner have a farm in West Philly, Farm 51, and we were hanging out and taking portraits with chickens. That was a couple of years ago. I should update it. I wear glasses now.
JESSICA KOURKOUNIS: Oh I don’t know, a ‘good’ photo should incite a feeling or a laugh, maybe spark an idea or controversy. Teach something to the viewer. Or just look pretty. Any answer I give to that question is going to be subjective.
PHAWKER: What comes next? What projects are you currently working on?
JESSICA KOURKOUNIS: I have a few ideas bouncing around but it sometimes takes a while to get it clear in my own head. I’ve spent the last bunch of months building a studio and partnership with the aforementioned Neal Santos. Its called Rock Paper Scissors Studio and we are really just getting our feet wet. We have a lot of ideas. We also have a growing collection of portraits of each other and an army of different dogs. We spent so much time on the manual labor and planning that recently we’ve been making a point of having some fun and remembering how much we love photography. In unrelated news, I’m also involved in a new company called Kefir Pop which makes a lightly fermented, natural, fizzy soda brewed from tibicos.