Story 139: Sean Sirota

What is your backstory?

I was born and raised in Brooklyn and spent my teenage years skateboarding around New York. At some point I began photographing my friends and people we’d meet as we explored the city together- this was the beginning of my photographic journey. I was always pretty shy and making pictures was a way for me to connect with people and express myself. It still is.

Upon graduating from SUNY Purchase with a degree in photography in 2017, I became passionate about making photographic education accessible to different communities throughout my home city, as I believe it is important for young people to document where they are from. My mom is also a teacher and I always admired how she communicated with young people in a way that validated their thoughts and emotions. With this in mind, I helped start two photography programs with friends-one in conjunction with the Arab American Association of New York's racial justice after school program in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn and the other was teaching public school students in Sunset Park, Brooklyn through a program called Back to the Lab. 

For the past 5 years I've been teaching at The Bronx Documentary Center, a non profit located in the Melrose section of the Bronx. Here, we help teach students documentary photography skills so they feel empowered to share stories from their lives and communities. It is through this program that I, myself, found community and a home away from home- both in the students and fellow staff members. 

In this program, our students have tackled many difficult issues that are important to them, ranging from humanizing the opioid epidemic, the impacts of gun violence, family stories about immigration, and surviving the COVID pandemic. Watching as our students grow from learning technical skills to creating such personal, intimate stories from their lives sustains my passion for education and photography as a whole.

What camera gear/editing setup do you use?

I use film and digital depending on what I’m photographing. For my personal projects, I usually use medium format but I recently started using a 4x5 camera too. I always develop my own film and try to get in the darkroom as much as possible, although usually I’m in there helping my students print rather than printing myself. It’s such a meditative and, at times, frustrating process. I can go from peacefully watching a print develop to freaking out over how off the tones are in minutes, hahaha.

How do you achieve the look of your photographs and could you take us through the process?

I generally try to gently approach people and find collaborative ways to make portraits. Usually, I witness a moment that moves me, approach the person, and work together to reach that moment again. Other times we work together to create something new. I always try to bring people back prints or at least send them their photographs- sometimes we keep in touch or I find they use the photographs in other ways. For example, the boyfriend of a couple I photographed in the Bronx used that photo as a gift to their partner for their one-year anniversary. Moments like this are both touching and rewarding- they make the whole process feel worthwhile.

Could you tell us the backstory of some of your photographs?

I’m drawn to intimate moments of everyday life and tend to photograph in places I have a deep connection with. I make most of my work in Brooklyn, where I was raised, and in the Bronx, where I spend most of my time.

My Southern Brooklyn photographs reflect on my upbringing- these areas have historically been more conservative, Italian enclaves, though that’s changed a lot in recent years. My mom grew up in Italy and my dad in Brooklyn, so I have a close, complicated relationship with the community. Recently, I found myself curious about what it’s like for young people growing up here today. When I started skateboarding, I spent more time away from my neighborhood- sometimes I wonder who I'd be today if I never left.

Through my Bronx photographs, I’m drawn to quiet, tender moments between people in the community. Lately, I’ve been photographing my students a lot too, which has been such a rewarding collaborative process.

What advice do you have for aspiring photographers?

Building community is crucial. We have to support each other as we grow as artists and individuals. I couldn’t be where I am today without the continued support of the loved ones in my life. You know who you are <3


Sean Sirota


Story 140: Drew Leventhal


Story 138: Roger Richardson