David ‘Dee’ Delgado traverses New York’s five boroughs with respect and sincerity
‘Stories aren’t just a one-off and I move on. … I constantly go back and revisit. That kind of respect really makes a difference.’
Infused with a profound sense of community, connection, and creativity, native New Yorker David ‘Dee’ Delgado hit the streets of his hometown as a teen with a passion for freedom and discovery. His family is from Puerto Rico and he grew up in the Bronx, instilled with principles of respect, honesty, and sincerity, which enable him to rock on any block with ease.
After starting as a graphic designer, Delgado realized the corporate lifestyle was not for him. Yearning for the independence to create his own work, he took a leap of faith and began working as a freelance photojournalist in 2016. His clients now include Getty Images, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and Bloomberg. Delgado keeps his ear to the street, catching news stories as they break. “It’s always a blur to me,” Delgado said of his typical week, scrolling his Instagram as a visual diary of the who, what, where and when he encounters while traversing the five boroughs of the city that never sleeps.
Folkus is an ongoing series created with Getty Images that features Black photographers who put the focus on folks like us.
“It’s a day-to-day hustle,” said Delgado, who wouldn’t want to be doing anything else. Personal projects fuel his creativity, including street photography and his series, On My Block, a collection of large format portraits and landscapes of New York communities on the verge of disappearing due to gentrification. “When things get thick, we band together and you can see who the real New Yorkers are by these experiences and what they stick through,” he said. “People ask me, ‘You ever see yourself leaving New York?’ and I’m like, ‘No. New York is always home. I can never see myself living anywhere else.’ ”
Whether photographing the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, the uprising in the wake of the murder of George Floyd by police, or his fellow New Yorkers making a way through it all, Delgado uses photography to witness, testify, and provide a record that stands the test of time.
Here Delgado looks back at his journey to tell stories on his terms.
Could you tell us about your family and any wisdom they imparted to you?
My parents are from Puerto Rico and come from very different backgrounds. My mother is from Bayamón, which is closer to the city and more advanced. My father is from Morovis, the countryside, where he started working in the sugar cane fields at age 13 with my grandfather. My father didn’t graduate high school and was a blue-collar worker all his life: a cab driver, a truck driver and a factory worker.
My mother has been a homemaker her entire life. She also didn’t graduate high school, so one of the most important things when we were growing up was education. That wasn’t for me. I was always the person, you give me a book and I’m falling asleep — but if you tell me, ‘Figure this out,’ I will sit there until it’s done. So that’s where my parents and I butted heads, but they instilled values like humanity and compassion in me. They always taught my siblings and me to do the right thing so that when I approach people, it’s with honest intentions. It was just nurtured in me and I don’t know any other way.
Could you tell us about growing up in New York City in the 1980s and ’90s and how it shaped your worldview?
I was born and raised in the Bronx. I’m the youngest of seven kids: three older brothers and three older sisters. One of my brothers gave me a boombox in the ’80s, and that’s how I was introduced to hip-hop; Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s ‘The Message’ was a lyrical portrait of our community. I remember being a kid and my pop outside playing dominoes after work, my mother and sisters sitting on the stoop of our building, and me just running around playing tag, which you don’t see anymore. When I was in junior high school, I wanted to see more, so I started leaving the neighborhood. I realized I could jump on a train and end up in the Lower East Side, Soho, or the Heights. I fell in love with moving around the city and seeing different communities.
How did writing graffiti lead you to photography?
When I was 14, I started writing graffiti and exploring the city. I used to write One-D — everyone called me ‘Dee,’ and ‘One-D’ is slang for you’ll fight anyone in a one-on-one. I never went ‘All City,’ meaning your tags are on all the train lines, but I sure as hell tried. I got caught a couple of times, had to pay a fine and do community service on trains, so I started to pull back from graffiti even though I really loved it. My friends were still doing it, so I started running around with a crappy 110 camera, snapping photos of my friends, their tags, and them just being silly. But I never seriously thought about photography, it was just a way of still being connected to the community without putting myself at risk of being arrested again.
How did you get into photojournalism?
I had stopped taking photos for a long time. I had become a parent and was working odd jobs. I decided to get my stuff together and went back to school to become a graphic artist at 24. I picked up the camera again as an outlet for myself because, as a graphic designer, you’re creating art for someone else. I started shooting film and focusing on street photography. At the same time, I didn’t like what I was doing for a paycheck. One day, I was so frustrated, miserable and burned out at my job that my wife realized how unhappy I was and suggested, ‘Follow what you really want to do.’ So with her blessing and encouragement, I quit my job.
It was rough in the beginning. I worked as a photo editor at a small local newspaper, but I did everything. It was the same corporate mentality, so I left the paper and started freelancing. I was drawn to photojournalism because I like to be as independent as possible and do my own work: speaking to people, connecting to stories, getting the background, and witnessing things unfolding. I want to be out there in the field and approach a story on my own.
I’m aware of situations and have a sensitivity others may not. That goes back to when I was younger, exploring the city and being exposed to all these different cultures. I learned how some communities are more open while others are more reserved, what is respectful and what is not. If I’m unsure, I treat the situation with delicacy. I don’t rush in and start taking photos as soon as I get there. I speak to people, introduce myself, and let them know my intentions from the very beginning. I tell them I’m a photojournalist and explain my intentions and angle. If you’re straight with people, they get it and doors will open up.
Can you speak about the ways you build trust and respect with the people you photograph?
Earlier this summer, I was covering the murder of an 11-year-old girl in the Bronx. When I arrived, the media was already there. I didn’t take a single photo the entire time. When everything settled down, I walked up to the parents, introduced myself, and said, ‘I have no idea what you are going through, but I want to express my condolences. I would like to take photos, but if you’re not comfortable with the situation, let me know and I will leave.’
Being honest and straightforward with the family, I was able to follow them from that day. The mother said, ‘You’re the only one allowed to come to the wake and funeral because you are the only one who has treated us with any type of respect and given us the option to take photos or not.’ We continue to speak about once a week. Stories aren’t just a one-off and I move on, especially when it’s something like this. I constantly go back and revisit. That kind of respect really makes a difference.
Can you speak about being one of the few Latino photojournalists and the challenges you have faced in the field?
As one of the few Afro-Latinos in the field, I’ve had my fair share of experiences where I’ve walked up on the scene and people look at me like, ‘Who the hell is this guy?’ I tell them I’m representing a client, and then it’s a completely different story. I’ve had colleagues make comments, and I’ve had to put my foot down and tell them, ‘That’s not cool. You can’t say that.’ It’s always a bit of a tightrope because you don’t want to be the ‘angry Black guy,’ but at the same time, you have to check certain situations.
Can you tell us about your series On My Block and the importance of preserving native New York communities?
We do what we got to do because we have to pay the bills — but standing outside a courthouse for 12 hours in 23-degree weather is not fueling my creative juices. Even though I complain, I love every moment of my career and wouldn’t want to do anything else in the world. But it’s also important to balance that with your own work. I tell photographers that if you don’t want to lose the love for what you are doing, you need to make our own stories. I started doing On My Block in December 2018 to document New York in the way I remember it, because it is disappearing. Working with a 4×5 field camera is a lot slower and lets you connect to people. For me, photographing portraits and cityscapes is my own little way of preserving the New York I know before it’s gone.
David ‘Dee’ Delgado is a Puerto Rican, Afro-Latino independent photojournalist and documentarian based in New York City. His interest in learning and his desire to help people made him realize the necessity of documenting his surroundings and broadening the conversation with the use of a camera.
Photo of Delgado by Elias Williams | Story text by Miss Rosen