Leon Cato is a NYC based photographer who's been digging below the surface of NYC and its inhabitants. His recent project 'Inside New York' captures interior spaces that strangers, friends and family alike inhabit and rings true to the expression 'never judge a person on first appearance', as everyone has their own story and their home tells just a slice of it. Leon lent a few New York minutes to talk photography and city views.
Hey Leon. Tell us where you live?
Well I was born in Tooting, South London to Guyanese parents who emigrated to London in the sixties. My mom then immigrated to NY when I was three. I grew up there, but always felt very connected to London. Following a dismal post 9/11 job market I decided to take a chance and return to London in 2004, but after 8 years came back to NY to assist with a family emergency in 2012 and I've stayed since.
The two cities are very similar and very different at the same time. The cultural and creative influences and output are endless and constantly evolving. NY is a city that’s all about hustle to the fullest – it’s basically a more intense version of London. Everything moves fast here and is more extreme – even the weather. It made me realize why people who visit NY often say, “It’s just like in the movies”. It is quite a story-tale type of town where anything and everything can happen.
True, every one is in their own movie in NY! So what first got you interested in photography?
My earliest and fondest memories of London were through photographs that my mom kept. She is an avid snap shooter documenting decades through her point and shoot film camera (until finally upgrading to digital this year). Photographs were always sentimental and slightly romantic to me.
During the early 2000s I worked full-time while completing my Masters Degree in Business. In 2002, once I had completed my degree I found that I had time on my hands after my 9-5 job so took a non-credit photography course. I borrowed my uncles Minolta Tr 101 fully manual film camera and photography began to swallow me whole. When I moved to London the costs of continuing with film became difficult so I invested in my first Digital SLR and opportunities started to open up.
So you’re currently a full time photographer?
Yes, I started out part time with my day job but then decided I didn't want a boss anymore so went for my own photography business. The adjustment has been difficult but I wouldn't change it for anything. Clients currently include Pepsico, Kick The Can Entertainment, Airbnb and Pants to Poverty.
Amazing. So - your 'Inside New York' project – tell me about that...
It was so great being able to connect with so many individuals and their stories. What was really interesting is that many homes that could have easily belonged to an artist were decorated with care by the lawyer or advertising exec who lived there. I find it incredibly fascinating how people choose to decorate their homes. It is a true extension of their individuality and is the one place people can feel free to be themselves - fully. I was blown away by some homes and I love how people carve out their little space within this sprawling behemoth of concrete and glass.
What brought them or their parents/ancestors to NYC also came up frequently. City dwellers tend to contain many layers and often have very intriguing paths that brought them to New York. You can never make even the slightest assumption based on appearance - lest you lose an opportunity to meet a truly outstanding individual. It stands to reason that the city attracts the best, brightest and most interesting. But I do love that we are all generally the same under those layers and connecting with others through my work is more than I could have ever hoped for.
I marvel at the amount of diversity that is contained in one city. It makes it difficult to imagine not living in a city where I can meet and interact with so many people with endless permutations.
Why do you think the project appeals to people?
The home is a place where there is generally little access. People are voyeuristic by nature and this is a great opportunity to see how others live. This is the reason why The Neighbors by Arne Svenson was such an amazing project (check out the story on the controversial project on the Guardian here). What are people doing in their home? What do people do in private? This will always be a source of endless appeal for so many of us. I wanted to give viewers unique access into the dynamic and amazing New Yorker.
I've been told by people who have moved here from other cities and countries that NYC is a very, "let's meet out at at a venue and catch up" city and people here are not likely to invite you into their homes. This is a chance for even NYers to see how other NYers fix up their digs.
Can you mention a few other projects you've worked on or are going to be working on?
I am currently scripting a documentary project that will incorporate stills and video and chronicles a neighborhood on the brink of change. This project analyzes another aspect of the concepts explored in the 'Inside New York' project. It focuses on one neighborhood in a part of the city that is on the verge of gentrification as well as infrastructural and demographic change. I will document the change over a number of years.
In 2012 just before moving back to NY I completed a one-year documentary project titled Adams Apple that details my cousin's gender transition from female to male. What started out as a series of portraits evolved into a full chronicling of Naechane and his life and journey into self realization.
And finally, what would be your dream project / person to photograph?
My dream person to photograph would be Prince. I am a lifelong fan of his music but also an admirer of his longevity in the music business as well as his endless creativity and passion.
I would also like to move into film and direct a feature film eventually. My projects are leaning towards the film side of things and I find myself jotting down script ideas on a regular basis. This is a long term dream aspiration of mine and one that I intend to manifest. And after all, I'm living in a city where anything is possible...
Check out Leon's work including his 'En Route' collection like this one above, 'Knockin' on Heavens Door' over at www.leoncato.com