September 2, 2022
SAVED BY THE PERSONAL PROJECT
Photography by AJ Bernstein
Words by Karen Ghostlaw Pomarico
Who doesn't love a parade? How about a parade created by artists, based on mythology, and brought to life by the collective and creatively diverse community of Coney Island in Brooklyn, New York? Known for its wildly inventive costumes and freedom of expression, the Mermaid Parade was created by Dick Zigun, co-founder and artistic director of CIUSA from 1980-2021. Dick saw that the economy and true spirit of Coney Island was at a low point, receiving only negative press, highlighting only murder, arson, gangs, and graffiti. Dick proposed a change that would give Coney Island and its amazing community new direction. Dick studied parades, and it inspired him to do something public and visible to lift the image of Coney Island, what better than a Mermaid Parade. It worked and helped define Coney Island in new ways, bringing it and thousands of other people, into the future in bright extraordinary ways.
The first Mermaids paraded down Surf Avenue in June of 1983, when there were more people watching, than actually marching in it. This year’s parade drew 800,000 people, ready to celebrate after the hiatus of the parade, because of the pandemic. The crowds cheered The Mermaid Parade’s return this year with more enthusiasm and need for self expression, coming out of a period of solitude and self isolation. It was time to let fantasy become reality, and celebrate life with open hearts and open minds. Mermaids and onlookers alike were thrilled to have their parade again.
AJ Bernstein is an experienced professional photographer who has worked in many industries, traveling the world, while exploring through her lens, its cultural diversity, with a preference for remote areas and favorite destination for inspiration, Papua New Guinea. AJ shares her wisdom from her years of experience in photography.
“In the early years, it was tough for a woman photographer to gain a foothold in a very male dominated profession. I fought preconceptions about women in photography while wrestling my insecurity demons; my belief in my work is hard won. Perseverance, a good eye, Brooklyn honed chutzpah and talent for capturing people eventually prevailed. I am now on a mission, to dedicate myself to personal projects, most currently Coney Island, make meaningful connections to my community and fully commit to my practice of photography.” AJ admits to experiencing challenges along the way, and brings to light her new found and constant inspiration.
“For many years, after burning out on assignment work, I fell into a long dry spell and didn’t shoot. On my recent return to Brooklyn, the neverending subjects in Coney Island brought back my desire to make photos, to create my art.”
We have the extreme pleasure of sharing AJ’s bold dynamic work that celebrates the extraordinary in all things. AJ engages us with her direct approach to photography, embracing the excitement and enthusiasm of her community with her very unique style.
Through her lens, Coney Island becomes the stage that is saturated by an enthusiastic and unique cast of characters, with the spirit, and pride that allows for individuality and self expression, creating visual stories like AJ’s photographic series, MERMAID MAGIC. AJ shares what it was like that first day she discovered the Mermaid Parade, and how finding communal joy is what keeps her coming back.
“In 2017 I shot my first Mermaid Parade. That year it rained, which made it more intimate and sparkling, which did nothing to prepare me for the crowds, heat and the crazy the following year. I went berserk. You can’t capture it all, but oh did I try! Six hours, running around in hot sun, dehydrated, hungry, exhilarated by the endless photo ops, the mad costumes, the joy, everyone eager to pose for photos, not the usual street shooting experience. And the bare breasts! I learned that as long as it’s artistic, and not lewd, it’s allowed. When the mermaids returned this year in full force, I was there to meet them.”
The Coney Island community has been a source of inspiration on a daily basis. Engaging with people she shoots, connecting with her community, creating friendships and clear relationships, gives AJ a genuine view to candidly and honestly portray the characters of Coney Island.
AJ shoots more than just the Mermaid Parade at Coney Island, and has found much inspiration in the eclectic diversity of the people who live, work, and play in Coney. She tells us what has given her this inspiration to create new work exploring ‘Day Into Night’.
“The Coney Island community of Carneys, artists, Polar Bears who swim in winter, people roaming the back streets at dusk, and a cast of eccentrics has become a source of unending fascination for me. Engaging my photography, connecting with such diverse people in my community, creating friendships and clear relationships gives me an open view to candidly portray the characters of Coney Island.”
As AJ is testament to, it is not always the equipment that is important. AJ reminds us of the importance of just getting out and taking photos, to engage in photography as art. She admits to essentially learning her craft over again, transitioning from film to digital.
“My first experience was capturing the winter hijinks of the Polar Bear Club using an iPhone. I would later use a point and shoot, then a low-level Canon DSLR. But this year, I raised my game. I bought a mirrorless, full-frame Canon R5 and two RF lenses, and that’s when my work began to take shape. Coney Island is the ideal place for me to mine the power of the personal project in all four seasons: it is unapologetic hedonistic joy, a last stand of uncivilization where the subway meets the sea. It suits my nature to go out alone with a camera and no agenda, to connect with people away from the constraints of urban life. This summer, in stultifying heat, I’m spending more time roaming the back streets at twilight, my favorite time to shoot when the sun goes down, lights come up and the magic begins. I worry as Coney Island inexorably yields to more development, but I’ll continue to chase its vibrant life until it morphs into another generic amusement park, and becomes a ghost of childhood wonder.”
AJ leaves us with her candid thoughts and truths that motivate her to create new work. “In weak moments, I indulge in regret that it took me so long to fully commit to my shooting. I am now, essentially, relearning the craft, and no longer coasting on a good eye and what comes easily. Ira Glass talks about the gap between the killer taste that got you into your creative pursuit, and how initially it’s this taste that disappoints; at first you are making work that is just not that good, and you know it. That’s where many lose heart, and quit. I remember her words; Glass says, “It’s only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. You gotta fight your way through”. Finally, I am in the fight. The gap is closing.” AJ thinks there’s an enormous amount of opportunity for women today.
AJ has made the conscious effort to engage her subjects, embrace their uniqueness and spirit in that moment, and to let her work evolve as her community does. She chooses to not make just photographic images but to create art. She explains, “There is something about me and my genuine enthusiasm for life and for people that shows in the work.”
We would like to thank AJ for sharing her enthusiasm with The Pictorial List, and for making women more aware of the challenges, while at the same time giving them hope that times are changing, thanks to women like AJ, who have helped forge the way.
AJ is currently exhibiting in the ‘More Art of Coney Island’ show at the BWAC Gallery in Red Hook Brooklyn. She has seven 24”x 36” prints not to be missed!
To learn more about AJ Bernstein and to see more of her work, go to AJ's profile link below.
You will be inspired!