Brooklyn artist Krys Fox knows about the power of art! He also knows about the healing properties of human touch and social bonding. Fox’ ongoing photography series “Helping Hands” has gained a lot of attention in his native New York City’s colorful downtown culture, as well as developing a worldwide audience via the wonders of social media. Provocative and mesmerizing to look at, “Helping Hands” reminds all of us about the importance of human-to-human support in these increasingly alienating times, as well as the need to create safe, intimate spaces for all of us. Fox celebrates diversity by using models of a wide variety of genders (or lack thereof), sexualities, ages, body types, races, and levels of comfort with human touch. The experience of participating in “Helping Hands” has become a cathartic experience for the models and for Fox himself.
Krys Fox has big plans for his “Helping Hands” series, including planned public exhibits and a tour. In a time when the term “social distancing” has entered the lexicon due to recent tragic events, Fox’ photography and the message behind it has become more important than ever.
Krys Fox took the time from his busy schedule to speak to me about his beloved New York City, how “Helping Hands” started, and much more…
JR: Hi Krys! Thank you for speaking with me. So, first off, are you a native New Yorker, or did you come here from another place?
KF: I came from another place! I’m originally from California. I grew up in Southern California and lived in Orange County. All throughout my 20’s I was back and forth between L.A. and San Francisco. I moved here 11 years ago, in 2009. So, I’ve lived in New York for almost 12 years.
JR: Gotcha! When you first came to New York, what was it like? Was it culture shock? Did you fall in love?
KF: Oh, I totally fell in love with it. I was dating a boy that I’d met in Los Angeles. We’d spent a year kind of going back and forth. He’d stay with me in L.A. I would come over here and visit him in Brooklyn. New York sort of became like my “other boyfriend”! I just fell in love with it so much. Throughout my whole childhood and in my teens and twenties, people would be like, “Oh, you seem like you’re more ‘East Coast’ than ‘West Coast’. You would really fit in there!” But they would also say how I unfortunately missed “the good years”: They would always discuss the different decades, like how the ’70’s or the ’80’s or the ’90’s would have been the best time to come here and that I missed them. But when I got here, it lived up to all of those things that I wanted it to be. It’s funny: It’s the New York that I wanted. I don’t really miss something that I never experienced. Now that I’ve been here over a decade, I find myself sounding like those people: “Well, 10 years ago this used to exist, or this was like that, and New York has changed…!” So now I also tell young people that they missed the “good” New York!
JR: (Laughs) Well I agree that things have changed since the early ’90’s, when I first started exploring New York nightlife. I’ve seen the changes because I’ve lived here all my life. But it’s almost unfair to compare different decades– it may not be necessarily “better” or “worse”, but it’s just different, you know?
KF: Yeah. And I think that I didn’t have a frame of reference other than movies or things like that. When I first got here, all the things I wanted to see were stuff that I saw in movies. So, I saw the Ghostbusters building and I saw where Carrie Bradshaw lived, and whatever: the New York stuff that I wanted to see! It lived up to all my expectations. I grew up in a little beach town, which now in hindsight I see was paradise– but I hated it at the time. Orange County is very conservative for California, and it’s either very wealthy or very poor families. We had a single mom who was a waitress, and there were eight of us kids, so we didn’t have the fancy Orange County life. I couldn’t stand it. I wanted to live like I saw in Beaches and Ghostbusters, and wanted to live in one of those ramshackley apartments. I really wanted an apartment with a bathtub in the living room, where you had to bang on a pipe to make the water turn on and stuff. I wanted all of that right from the start! (Laughs). So, New York lived up to everything for me when I got here!
JR: Oh, that’s great to hear! When we first met, I had just assumed that you were a native New Yorker!
KF: Yeah. It was weird. Even my art got treated differently when I moved here. I did an exhibition right off the bat when I moved here, and I was showing a lot of pieces that were the same ones in the last show in Los Angeles. The reaction of people was so polar opposite that it was amazing. In L.A., everyone would look at my art and be kind of concerned. They’d be like, “Are you okay? How are you? This is really dark!” (Laughs) In New York, the same pieces would get, “I love your sense of humor.” or “This is so whimsical.” They just kinda got it, you know? I got a lot more opportunities right off the bat when I got here, and I’ve been shooting forever. It was just interesting to see how a completely different culture just embraces art in a totally different way.
JR: Yeah! It reminds me of when the Cockettes made their famous debut in New York City in 1971 after being the toast of the San Francisco underground: Those snooty New York critics were expecting a more “high end” show and just didn’t know how to react. Sometimes it can all be a matter of interpretation and differences in culture!
KF: Yeah. It’s interesting! I lived in San Francisco, and a lot of my friends were original Cockette performers back in the day. My pot dealer was a Cockette! (Both laugh.) San Francisco is its own microcosm. I got to do a lot of things in that city that I wouldn’t have gotten to do in Los Angeles, because I fit that vibe a little bit better, you know? After I left San Francisco, that’s when I decided to try New York, because I felt like San Francisco was sort of a “training wheels” city: I figured out how to make some mistakes in a public way, and now I was ready to go to New York and have my shit together and be serious! But yeah, perception of things changes so much, just by being in a different city.
JR: Oh yes. So, what is your background in the arts? Did you always focus on photography?
KF: When I was a kid, I was mostly an actor. I was an actor since I was like five. That’s what I did in California for most of my childhood. I didn’t remember this until years and years later: My mother passed away when I was 19, but she saw a bunch of my photography that I was doing, because I started doing photography professionally around age 17. She saw a bunch of my work and was like, “Oh, this is just like when you were a kid!” And I was like, “What are you talking about?” She ran up to the attic and grabbed this report card. I had taken a summer school class for photography when I was in third grade– I guess I was seven. On this report card, it had a bunch of Polaroids and all these pictures that I had taken, and the teacher was saying that I was this photo prodigy and that I understood the mathematics of photography– which drove my mom crazy because she was a math major and I was terrible at math! But she’s was like, “Look, you COULD do math in art!”. I knew these forced perspectives and all these things that no one had taught me. She said, “He picks up a camera and he knows what to do immediately!” I got to see all these weird photos! That’s why I had a Polaroid camera as a kid. I didn’t remember any of it until she showed it to me and I was like, “Oh my God, I had been doing this forever!” I used the Polaroid to document all the people in my life, because we never stayed around anywhere for too long. I started doing that as a young adult more and more. I would photograph mostly bands and other teenagers, and the Goth scene and the rock and roll scene. I would do this edgy art. When I was starting to come out, I photographed some guy. He was older than me, and he asked to see more of my pictures. I showed him a bunch, and he turned out to be an art dealer and a gallerist– and he gave me a show. That was when I was 17. It switched from being this private thing where I just photographed people on my own and doing weird photo shoots, to being something I did as a job where they would sell. And it just stuck. That’s kind of what I’ve been doing ever since. My first art show was all Polaroids and photos taken with disposable cameras.
JR: (Laughs) I get it! I relate so well because when I was first covering nightlife in the early ’90’s, I would use a disposable camera too. I never had a good one, because I was worried that a good camera would wind up either smashed on the dance floor or falling into the urinal in the men’s room. For the longest time I did that– and then eventually I switched to digital cameras, and sometimes I just use my phone. I totally get it!
KF: I was weird about digital stuff too. I was one of the last photographers to switch over to that way. I really only did it because financially, it was the only smart way to do it. I was late on getting a cell phone and late on getting email and all these things. I’m convinced that I’m really a 90 year old in my body, where I’m like, “Oh, this is just a phase, like laserdiscs. It’s not going to last!” And then, it’s “Aw man, this isn’t going away!” It took me years to figure out how to make that digital picture look like one of my phone pictures. I still really miss the whole dirty part of going into a dark room and making your art with your hands. It took me a long time to learn how to get my cameras to give me a grain and give me the kind of image that looks like my old images used to.
JR: I hear you! So, speaking of “making art with your hands”, where did the idea for the “Helping Hands” project come from?
KF: The “Helping Hands” thing started a couple of years ago. I went to a friend’s Christmas party and I had recently stopped drinking.
JR: Congratulations for that!
KF: Thank you! But anyway, I was having a bunch of social anxiety about being in places where people were going to be drinking and partying– and me not knowing what to do with myself. So I had to give myself these projects! I showed up at my friend’s house with some equipment, and I just set up in the kitchen and said, I’m going to do pictures of people throughout the night. We started doing those pictures with friends of mine one at a time of being in the center, and having everybody else at the party jump in and be the hands. We were calling it, “Consent is Sexy”. We set guidelines of what was OK and what wasn’t OK. We took some sexy images with all gender expressions and all sexual preferences holding each other. I did it that one night and then the other night. It was just a cool set of 12 models where I really liked the pictures. This last Thanksgiving, we had a Friendsgiving in our house and had a bunch of people over. We have three other roommates, so all of us invited a few people. There was a really diverse, weird group of people over. I just got kind of bored, and I ended up going down into the basement with my studio and just setting up those lights again! This time, this wasn’t going to be about consent. Consent isn’t sexy anymore. It’s just mandatory nowadays! (Laughs). When we started shooting it, it had a different reaction. I was trying to feed in some witchiness, and to have the models focus on the touch aspect of it and to focus on healing. I think that we all have healing powers. We all feed energy into each other and give each other love. The way the pictures turned out was more intense, and the expressions and the emotions that people were having were really beautiful. After the shoot, sometimes someone would cry, and sometimes their energy would change, and then everyone would clap and hug each other– and it just empowered everyone. That set a fire under me and I was like, Oh this is a labyrinth. We can make shapes with these hands and we can say something. Everybody who did that shoot that night either posted on their social media or messaged me these beautiful, beautiful messages about walking through the city and crying, or feeling like they just like resolved some trauma that they’ve had for years. And I was like, “Oh, this is important. This is actually changing things.” This is why I shot people in the beginning. It wasn’t for attention. It was for the subjects. I loved that interaction between me and another human, and sharing something intimate. I used to always joke that it was better than sex! It’s not even so much a joke anymore. It really feels like had the best orgasm after I do a really good shoot– because it’s like you shared something with a human being that’s intimate and passionate. Everybody was having such a cool reaction out of it, so I knew we were going to keep doing this. Let me just shoot everybody I know!
JR: Wow! What did you learn about yourself in the process?
KF: The biggest thing I’ve noticed with each of these shoots as far as the way it affects me, is that it makes me feel exhausted. I do five people at once, so it’s at least five to ten people every time I do these shoots. You’re taking in so much energy from so many people. So much of this is about relieving trauma or anxiety or stress or fear or sadness. I feel like that gets sucked out of the model and it kind of goes into me for a little while. So, it takes time to decompress after the shoots, because I feel like I’ve absorbed so many energies from people. But it’s all kind of like a magic that I embrace, and I think that it’s good. It’s worth it. The aftereffects of seeing people’s reactions makes me feel really incredible: like I’m helping someone. The reason I make art in the first places is to make people feel things, and having that instant gratification of having it happen during the shoot– so it doesn’t even really matter at the end what the pictures look like. The editing process for this is hard for me, because I’m filled once I shoot it, and I’m like, “Aw fuck, I have to edit now, and give the world something pretty to look at.” (Both laugh) But that’s not really the goal for it. The goal for me is the experience of it, and I’m purposely casting it so that most of the subjects in these sittings don’t know each other. That happened during the Friendsgiving shoot. I was picking and choosing people I didn’t know or people that didn’t know each other. And it’s somehow easier to be vulnerable and to share that emotional “Oomph!” with people if they’re strangers. It’s a really bizarre experience for people to have strangers touching them with no purpose other than to help them. There’s no sexual connotations to it. It’s not a physical touch that wants something. It’s just to help that person. I think that experience shocks the fuck out of everybody that does it. We’re just not used to it. If you’re lucky, you have a good group of friends, like I do: I am used to hugging and touching my friends. I am very touchy feely with everybody. That’s common. But to have a bunch of people that you just met holding your face and holding your chest and holding your arms: That’s a bizarre experience for us as humans.
JR: That brings up an important point: Even before these, shall we say, “recent tragic events”, I believe that as a culture we too often keep our distance emotionally and physically, and we’re less likely to, for example, hug someone or even put our hand on the shoulder of a stranger even if they need it– even if, for example, they’re clearly suffering. We’ve built up too many “barriers” through the decades. Touch is important for mental health. It’s not even just with humans. It’s important even for our nearest relatives in the animal kingdom.
KF: Yeah. We’re social creatures and we’re social creatures that are distancing ourselves from actual social interaction more and more and more, especially with technology and stuff like that. We’re so good at being in our own little bubbles that we even like have it on social media, in that we are only adding or following or friending people that are in the same bubble as us already! We’re screaming into the void about something that makes us mad to a bunch of people that agree with us. We’re not used to real interactions with people anymore, and it’s just seems to be getting worse. So it’s been really great to change that a little bit. Everyone puts their phones down for three hours and just practices being in the moment with somebody else. Originally I was going to have it only be LGBT and queer bodied people in this series, and in the last two shoots I opened it up. There’s been straight couples. There’s been poly people. There’s been people who don’t believe in gender at all. And I think that’s really interesting too. We had a straight man in the last shoot. One of my girlfriends bought him with her, and he wasn’t planning on jumping in originally. And then he jumped in, and had a bunch of gay boys and a bunch of lesbians holding him and touching him. He got super emotional and it was beautiful– like it was the most touch that he’s ever gotten from our communities. I think that’s really important!
JR: Yeah! Again, given recent tragic events, I understand why the government has set guidelines for so-called “social distancing” and “self quarantine”. I get it! But it’s also sad because I believe that individuals were already dealing with feelings of physical and emotional isolation BEFORE all this started happening!
KF: Absolutely. I mean, it’s super important to keep the virus that we don’t understand at bay. I absolutely think that it’s necessary. But it’s gonna just make a lot of the problems that we’re having as a culture worse. Isolation is never really good! Self-isolating is always negative for many different types of people. It’s scary doing this project in the time period that it is right now. It’s weird watching how this is. The first couple of shoots were in November and December. It was a totally different vibe than the last three. You know, everyone is being really cautious about touching their own faces– and I was asking groups of people to touch their face! (Laughs) It’s scary, but it makes the project feel more important. It also seems be changing the vibe of the pictures– or the way people are reacting to them. I just shot about 32 people a few weeks ago, and most of those people have gotten some photos by now and they’re posting them– and the comments underneath them are like, “These are so beautiful. I hope everyone washed their hands!”
KF: You know, everyone’s comments are like that right now. And I’m like, “My God, we have hand sanitizer on the set, and we’re all washing our hands, and we’re clean, you know?” But it’s a fear. People are afraid of this. But my Goth ass is like, “Oh, good. I’m making art that’s edgy and people are afraid of it! (Laughs)”
JR: I’ve always believed that the idea of art is to provoke and to push boundaries and push limits. Again, I get it, but it just seems strange that something like this, which is just about one of the most basic human needs, could be considered “controversial”! Even for our nearest relatives, the monkeys and apes, touch is an important part of communication and emotional health. Of course, I can’t speak for monkeys and apes, but…! (Laughs)
KF: It’s weird. I’d actually gone kind of quiet as far as sharing my art on social media, because I’m tired of censorship. I’m also tired of seeing the value and worth of my work, or seeing what pieces of work I’ve done being looked at as more important or more appealing, based off of how many little heart emojis are next to it Or going by how many followers I get off of something because sex sells, and a sexy picture is always going to do better than something that I think is beautiful– like some landscape that I shot. That stuff was frustrating me. It gets under your skin. You wonder, Maybe this isn’t good because there’s only such and such an amount of people “Like” this picture, and the picture I did yesterday had so much more attention–and it was just a mindfuck. So I stopped sharing as much. Fort this, I decided that we’re putting something beautiful out into the world. We’re putting something out there that I believe in so much: that we need more human interaction and we need to hold each other more. We need to hold space for each other and lift each other up, instead of tearing each other down; supporting each other instead of comparing ourselves to other people; thinking of how we’re similar instead of how we’re different or more special than somebody else. And so then I was like, “I will share the fuck out of this! I will post one of these every single day, because this means something to me!” It’s also making the internet a nicer place, because the internet can be a nasty place sometimes. There’s nothing nasty that people can say about these. This is a human being touched by a bunch of other humans. The expressions on their faces are real, and the emotions are real– which is why I created this in the first place. It felt good. And then suddenly over the last couple of weeks, it was turning into a thing that’s scaring people, and that’s not what this was supposed to be. I do love that all the subjects in it are being the messengers now: They are all posting about what this, what this experience meant to them, and how it helped them. And that’s keeping the dialogue kind of out of my hands. I don’t need to explain my own art to people! (Laughs) There’s nothing worse than having to explain what my art means to somebody else. And, they’re getting to say what it means to them. That means the world to me!
JR: Wow, that’s really great to hear! So, there is talk of an exhibit some time in the future, yes?
KF: Yeah! If things go as planned, there is going to be a solo show in June in Brooklyn. It will be an interactive exhibit. I hope that will lead to a tour. I haven’t done a tour of my work in a long time. It’s been at least four years since I’ve done a solo show, because I was hiding out (Laughs)– and I think it’s time to tour this. I would like to set up some kind of like a “pop up set” at each gallery space and shoot people that come to the show, so that the show at the next city will have subjects from the gallery before. It will be a changing show and a changing exhibition, but different images for every city. That’s kind of what I’m looking forward to for the next year!
JR: That sounds amazing! So, is there a date and a location yet?
KF: There is a location, but it’s secret right now. (Both laugh) Yeah. But it should be the first week in June and I’m going to have it up all month for Pride and stuff. I’ll try to have different times that I’m there in the gallery, so that people can come in and meet with me and do shoots and stuff if they want– and create more! It’s a cool space. It’s just their first big gallery show, so I promised them that I’d keep it quiet until it’s closer to the time. Gotta keep it underground! (Laughs). I would like to have projections throughout the gallery, so that every single human that is posed for this is presented in the show in some way. Everybody that’s posed for me will be in there, even if they’re not printed on the walls.
JR: Yay! That’s really wonderful. So, anything else you’d like to tell the masses?
KF: You can follow me on Patrion. That would be really cool. If people don’t know Patreon, it’s a newer social platform where artists basically get patrons to sign up for them. You can sign up for as little as a dollar a month. You’re basically like funding our art and funding our lives– especially in times like this where a lot of us are getting things canceled. It’s a scary time to be creating right now because a lot of things are being canceled and we can’t get gigs. So, Patreon is a really cool website that will actually get us paid. You get little treats depending on how much money you give them And you’re getting exclusive images. A lot of my images are not “safe”. This series in general is all topless, so I have a fine time with the male models– but with female models, I get censored really badly on social media. Everyone has to be cropped to no end. Our world is so scared of nipples! if you follow me on Patreon you can see the whole images– and I send a lot of “behind the scenes” stuff and videos. We also do podcasts and things where you can interact with art. So that’s cool if people want to sign up and help artists while we can’t work. And if you’re interested in doing the shoot, hit me up on social media. Let’s get you in!
JR: That sounds FANTASTIC! Thank you for again speaking with me, Krys!
You can see Krys Fox’ work on Patreon at http://www.patreon.com/krysfox and on Instagram: @krysfox and @krysfoxphotography.