Johnny Cirillo is a New York-based street photographer. His work has been featured in Vogue, the New York Times, and NBC News. His series, and Instagram account, Watching New York features everyday New Yorkers, their unique streetwear, and the stories behind it. The account boasts over 700k followers to date. His other series include Quarantine Window Portraits and a vlog series exploring New York City.
Autumn Wong: How did you make your way in the photography industry, especially in New York?
Johnny Cirillo: To be honest with you, I don’t really know. I was just consistent and honest. I like to think that my streetwear pictures are a form of photojournalism where I just report what I see. Also, I think people, in general, are interested in what is happening in New York. I really use the Watching New York Instagram page as an archive for myself to keep things organized. I can look back on my posts, as if they are baseball cards. Each new fashion season is a new ‘set of cards,’ each special to me in its own way.
There is such a deep level behind the scenes because I have made some really meaningful relationships. Sometimes, I see someone that looks so angry, but I stop them anyway to take their photo. Then, their guard comes down, and they become some of my favorite people that I become friends with.
How does your mood influence you when shooting streetwear for Watching New York?
As far as moods go, two different things happen. Most of the time, I feel open – more tethered to the city and the people. I won’t even put my headphones in. I talk to more people on those days and usually go into [neighborhoods] such as Soho.
But, there are days when I just want to be left alone and sit in my own mind. That is when I really just need the therapy of photography. I will put the music on loud in my headphones, zone out, and just shoot.
Do you have an example of an honest or meaningful interaction that you’ve experienced with Watching New York?
There are many different, intimate moments like that. I shot a girl yesterday that had a little bit of a heaviness and sadness to her. I photographed her and then we started chatting, just about life. We had a fifteen-minute conversation in the middle of the street. Total stranger. She shared that she had been with her grandmother for the last two years because her grandmother had not been doing well. Her grandma’s name was Jetta, and she had just passed the day before. She told me all about her. It was like therapy for the both of us. There is something really beautiful in that every person you walk by is going through something. So, it’s nice when somebody opens up to you a little bit.
On the flip side, there are people I have photographed many times, but never got deep. If you are a fan of the page, you might know Darnell. Recently, I said, “I don’t really know where you’re from.” He opened up about his struggles growing up in the New York foster care system and being on his own since he was a little kid.
Everybody has a story. It is more than just “what are you wearing?” I don’t film everybody that I talk to, but I usually have these conversations. They are a special part of the job that I enjoy.
You spend hours on the streets of New York City shooting streetwear. Have you found it draining?
I would say fulfilled more than drained. I feed off of it. You might be tired, but, mentally, you feel an overflowing sense of euphoria. Yesterday, I started shooting at 11:30 and didn’t stop until the sun went down. I talked to so many people, and I was dog-tired. At the end of the day, it is my passion. Think about something you love to do: video games, gardening, raising chickens, whatever. Think about how you feel when you’re doing that. That is the way I feel when I know I’m done with the day.
You did a series called Quarantined Window Portraits from your apartment during the nationwide quarantine. Did you still feel human connection through that project?
I wouldn’t say I felt the same human connection, but at least it got me interacting. We all struggled through the lockdown. I would be calling my friend and flying my drone out to their window down the block. On speakerphone, I would tell him, “Yo, lean back in the window more, try this.” So, there was an interaction there.
I did a lot more than the ones that everybody saw though. I probably did one or two a day for a month. It was fun, but a distraction. It was such a lonely time not being able to see my family, friends, or anybody. But, like always, photography was my escape.
There is something to a city that can bounce back from a devastating event like that. This is why I love what I do: it is not the city. It’s the people. Like, Washington Square Park is beautiful, but it is the people juggling; skateboarding; and doing art there that make it so great. It’s the resilience of New York City. It is inspiring.
You often talk about the journey to finding a place where you feel comfortable and happy. What did it take for you to get to that place in life?
People grow at different times and want different things. There was a time when my career was not as important to me, so I just would photograph something and move on. I was never building a big body of work that I was proud of because I had other interests, like socializing and partying. When you start getting older and realize, “I want somebody more consistently to be around,” and, “I want to enjoy my life with somebody else,” those things become more important to you. It happened to me when it did. At some point, I fell head over heels in love with my wife, Kristen. From there, everything became very natural.
To Watching New York, she’s the biggest secret weapon. We talk about all things that have to do with the page, trends, and fashion. It’s fun to have. She’s my wife. She’s my best friend. She’s somebody who I love telling stories to, and then we get to share a child’s life. We got this little boy, and he’s our whole universe.
Watching New York is fun. I’m proud of it. But, it does not compare to what I have with Kristen or my son. You know, that is life, the real meat and potatoes. It all happens when it happens. There was a time where Watching New York was my whole life. I’m still really concentrated on Watching New York, but when something real, like my relationship with Kristen, blossoms, life is good.
What are your future projects?
I hope to continue Watching New York. It’s funny because it started off as a passion project. I would do it when I wanted — casually. I was a freelance photographer for many years. I’ve stopped that to shoot Watching New York full time. I don’t take any other jobs. Even if something big comes along, I don’t do it because I need all my attention and creativity going towards the series.
I’m hoping that I can have a line of clothing or merch in the near future. I’ve been working hard on designs and logos. I’m trying to work with all local New Yorkers. For example, I got this one guy that thrifts deadstock clothing from the ’80s. He finds them in storage lockers all over the city.
I’m also working on a coffee table book and a children’s book. I have a publisher and we’re working together. There is this one artist who draws my streetwear photos and is really talented. I reached out to her and I said, “Hey, do you want to make a book?“ A is for Argyle; B is for Balenciaga; C is for Cardigan — that’s the idea.
We’ll see what the future brings. I’m just taking everything one day at a time. I’m trying to set myself up to where I can still enjoy everything that I’m doing and keep my life just the way that it is. The most important thing is spending time with my family. When it comes down to it, that’s all that really matters. As long as we’re all happy and healthy, I will be good just doing whatever. I don’t want to ask for any more than that.
*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.