In the Streets and Beyond: Jake Cunningham’s Artistic Vision


My photography has become the way I give back and respond to the world around me. In the streets, in the clubs and in the studio, photography allows me to make art and tell stories in ways I never would have been able to experience without it. 

When I discovered the craft in high school, long before it became my everyday, photography was an act of convenience. I got sick of showing up to Fredricksburg shows two hours early and offering to carry equipment or run the door – anything I could do to talk my way into shows for free. Eventually, I traded out hauling half-stack amps for shooting the bands and sneaking in the backdoor with a guitar and a camera.

In the back log of one-hour photo prints from that time, there are records of some of the earliest Mass Movement of the Moth shows — before Christian Brady took over main vocals and long before Ashley Arnwine was touring with Des Ark. You might say it was climbing around the stage behind bands like Race The Sun and Forever In A Day that got me hooked. 

In 2005 I moved to Richmond, where I started shooting friends and documenting art projects for school. It was then that I became involved in the anti-war movement and began taking my camera with me into the streets. It was as if I had found a new way to use my camera. I learned to react quickly and when to push back. 

After I failed to win a spot in Virginia Commonwealth University’s sculpture department, I spent a year lost in crafts. I worked with textiles, felt like I wasn’t getting anywhere, and worried I would be cranking out half-assed ceramics pieces for the rest of my life. 

During the summer of ’07, I spent every Wednesday in the VCU Photo and Film Office begging for a spot in the major, which paid off by August. I spent the next six months catching up to my classmates, a year behind in school and without the four years of darkroom experience most everyone had on me in the department.

Throughout this time, the student anti-war and social justice movements were gaining momentum and with them, my collection of protest photos. Over the past three years of marches, demonstrations and near riots, I’ve learned my camera is its own kind of weapon. I’ve learned the act of taking photographs and documenting the world at street level can be a radical action. In the practice of photography and protest I’ve found myself in some strange and terrifying situations. From hiding in St. Paul, Minn. basements for the police raids we were sure were would come, to pepper spray, rubber bullets, tear gas, to facing down the National Guard at the 2008 Republican National Convention. 

In the classroom and fine art world, I try to make work that unsettles my viewers. When I’m constructing events for the camera, I try to find that fraction of real experience that exists within the few minutes my subjects interact with the scenario.

If I’ve learned nothing else in the practice of photography, I’ve learned how to talk people into body bags. Well, body bags, handcuffs, zip ties, face paint, blindfolds and occasionally being covered from head to toe in ash. All this to communicate the need for people to engage in a dialogue about human suffering.

Be it alone or in groups, our fears and experiences shape our daily interactions, reflect on our capacity for help and harm, and affect our ability as people to change our world and one another for better or for worse.  I find myself more committed every day to art and documentary work that poses a question: can we do better?     

Visit Jake’s Flickr Page to see more of his work.

RVA Staff

RVA Staff

Since 2005, the dedicated team at RVA Magazine, known as RVA Staff, has been delivering the cultural news that matters in Richmond, VA. This talented group of professionals is committed to keeping you informed about the events and happenings in the city.

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