The Queens Photographer Building a Legacy for His Friends
Dean Majd, freddy (hyper dark) (detail), 2019
In one of Dean Majd’s photographs, a young man slowly spits into an empty film cannister. The photograph is drenched in ruby red. The shot is close, close enough to make you squirm at the sight of the gob unspooling. The spit makes the photo harsh, but the red makes it soft, bleeding the subject into the surrounding environment in a hazy wash of neon light. It’s an image that is crude, an image that is beautiful. Majd’s ongoing series Hard Feelings doggedly walks this line between two sensations.
Majd started Hard Feelings in 2016. The arena is the skateboarding and graffiti scene in Queens, and the photographs are mostly of men. Men sprawled on cluttered beds or clutching a bloodied hand; men who have hurt themselves; men softening into a pool of water or a pool of light. “There’s something about the men that I photograph—there’s both a sensitivity and a hardness,” Majd tells me during a call over FaceTime. “As men, we’re not supposed to express our feelings, we’re not supposed to act a certain way.” But he and his friends are the opposite, they “do all that.” Majd’s friends cry with their faces in full view of the camera.
He met many of these men several years ago, after he had become disconnected from the skateboarding scene, focusing on his studies in international relations and creative writing at City College of New York, in Upper Manhattan. He’d reunited with an old friend, James, at his local skatepark in Astoria. A week later, James suddenly passed away. Majd was the last person to photograph him. In the wake of this loss, Majd met James’s friends, a tightknit community of skaters and artists. “It just happened naturally that we all became super close,” he says. “And they were willing to be photographed.”
Traces of loss flit through Hard Feelings. James, he says, is always “hovering over the images.” In the ruby-drenched portrait spit (2017), the subject is shirtless. On his lower abdomen is a just-visible tattoo of the letters “DE” in bubbled graffiti styling. The full word is “DECE,” in homage to James’s nickname and graffiti tag, the art he used to mark his place.
Majd used his father’s hand-me-down Olympus point-and-shoot as a kid, photographing parties and concerts. But he didn’t think of becoming a professional photographer. His parents are immigrants from Palestine, and Majd’s imagined career choices were shaped by the classic first-gen decree: doctor, lawyer, or engineer. Still, his passion for photography persisted, and at around age eighteen, he came across Nan Goldin’s The Ballad of Sexual Dependency (Aperture, 1986). “That was the book for me,” he said. “That opened everything.” Majd fell in love with Goldin’s breathtakingly unguarded shots of her New York community. Spending time with Goldin’s work has sharpened his own artistic purpose: “to build a legacy for my friends, for Queens.”
Since then, Majd has stayed steady with his photographic origins: his camera, almost always, is a point-and-shoot. Compact, fast, discrete. “If someone is off guard,” he says, “in order to keep it as authentic as possible, I need to be quick with it.” Unmediated moments are critical, and Majd catches his friends in visceral, vulnerable flashes. In bobby and caleb (bear hug) (2018), one young man clutches another, his expression riveted by private sadness. A glaze of green tones covers the photograph, underscoring the unease that likely prompted the embrace. rissa (2018) is an arresting departure, in which Majd turns his lens on one of the women in his friend group; her black eye is painful to witness, but the camera’s gaze is one of care, and her own is both candid and trusting. self-mutilation (2018), a photograph of a friend’s arm lined with self-inflicted cuts, is bathed in warm hues. Majd’s documentation is uncensored and frank, but never cold or stark.
As with those early rolls, Majd seldom appears in the frame, but self-portraiture is a difficult muscle he is committed to working. “There are instances where I’ve been with people in the darkest times of their lives,” he tells me. “It would be disingenuous to not do the same. If someone is offering themselves, in every aspect, to be photographed, I can only counter that by saying, I’m doing the same with myself.”
In one such self-portrait, the ruby-red lighting returns. Majd photographs his face from below, framed against graffiti-covered interior walls—perhaps he’s at a concert. Blurred, out-of-focus, his silhouette appears ghostly, intentionally indistinct from the constellation of graffiti tags that, one can imagine, different members of Majd’s community have inscribed over different seasons.
“This work began with a death,” Majd says. At the end of October, another loss: one of Majd’s close friends died unexpectedly. “He was someone that I photographed all the time.” Majd photographed him less than a week before his passing, just like he had James. Now, when Majd looks through Hard Feelings, he greets griefs past and present. “It’s hard to even call the people in my images ‘subjects,’ because this goes beyond a photographic relationship,” Majd says. “The people in my images are my family, my blood. I don’t know what my life would be without them. I love them deeply, and through that love, these images are made.” Born of hurt, laden with tenderness, Hard Feelings is a remembrance, a gathering place, a legacy for those he loves.
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