Sometimes when we just go with the flow of our lives, we end up exactly where we are supposed to be. Jon Cherry’s career as a photographer, so far, is a lesson in being in the right place at the right time. What Cherry captures in his work is something that comes from an eye that is trained to watch and not just to point and shoot. Being a good observer has made Cherry a great photographer.
Cherry didn’t intend to be a photographer; at the same time, he didn’t not intend to be one either. He was taught about cameras by his father as a young child and, as he grew, that interest led him to birdwatching.
As Jon and I sat in the courtyard of Quills coffee shop under a tree, in the dregs of summer just before the leaves changed into their bright, burning fall color, we talked about the patience it takes to observe animals. Cherry watches birds and I’ve practiced watching and photographing insects. There is something zen about training your breath to that of the creature you’re observing. Cherry doesn’t have a studio in the traditional sense. The world, his camera, and his computer are the only studio he needs.
“I think that a lot of my previous experience in photography, even before I picked up a camera, just birdwatching and wildlife tracking, and things like that has informed the way that I can pose images now,” Cherry said. “Because I think there’s a level of patience that’s required. For a good composition. A lot of the time, whenever I’m taking a photo of a scene, I’m taking a photo of a scene and imagining that there’s not really people there, almost like a landscape. And then just waiting for the action to enter that scene. So the same thing goes whenever I’m birdwatching.”
Waiting for the action to enter the scene, is how Cherry ended up in the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021. The photos that resulted won Cherry a Pulitzer Prize.
“I pitched the idea of January 6 in November of 2020,” Cherry said, likening the pitch to birdwatching. If you can follow a flock to where they are going to eat, you can predict their movements and events to follow.
“Parler was an unmoderated social media platform that was just full of hateful chants and spewing, you know, all kinds of vitriol and stuff,” Cherry said. He created an account shortly after the end of the Presidential election.
“I just kind of followed that language and people started talking about you know, these different Q-Anon conspiracy theories that on January 6 was going to be the Q-storm and the Kraken and all of that where that was going to be the day that Donald Trump was declared president.”
Cherry’s original pitch was shot down. However, when editors noticed the chatter surrounding this event growing, they called Cherry and asked if he liked to shoot it. They realized this could be a big deal.
“On January 2, there was a rally at Mitch McConnell’s house here in The Highlands. And there were some people there because Mitch McConnell had said something about Donald Trump conceding, and that this election is over and that Joe Biden was gonna be the next president…and a lot of people didn’t like that,” said Cherry. “So, there was a Black Lives Matter rally and pro-Trump rally happening at the same time people protesting both sides of the issues. A couple of days later, on January 5, I got an email from the editors.”
The contentious nature of American politics gave Cherry a place for his art, even though “artist” isn’t what he first identifies himself as. The truth is, to shoot people is an art and one that requires the patience to watch, which Cherry has, and the desire to have a conversation with the subject, even if that conversation is in silence through a lens.
One of the most striking elements of Cherry’s work is that second conversational piece. His subjects seem seconds from speaking from the images. You feel as though, whether by accident or by invitation, you are part of that conversation.
In his Pulitzer Prize-winning work for Getty Images of the January 6 Capitol Riot, Cherry photographed a group of Proud Boys encroaching on the capitol. They are shoulder to shoulder, some with orange hunting hats, some with OK hand signals, many in camouflage and MAGA-wear, some lurching forward, screaming, but all seemingly ready to initiate what would become one of the most infamous days in American history.
Cherry knew the energy of the scene was explosive.
“I had been receiving threats, spit on, had people following me around, and people taking pictures of me. There are live streams, and I’ve realized after the fact, there are live streams that I’m on, that people are commenting about me specifically saying that I’m Antifa, saying that I’m this or that,” said Cherry. “So there’s a lot of danger that was kind of building up and culminating, that was pointed at certain individuals that were in this crowd. And then once all hell broke loose, there was no morality. There were certain moves, as I was looking around, like any one of these people could turn around and decide that they wanted to hurt me then that mob mentality would turn right back around as well.
“A lot of people were wearing camo or a lot of people were in tactical gear. There were a lot of people who had weapons on them. There were people that had concealed firearms. But there were also folks who had American flags and Trump flags and flags that were on ax handles and baseball bats and big, big sticks and stuff like that. People have already had gas masks, people have helmets, all the things that you would need in case things escalated. Usually when people show up with those kinds of things. They’re expecting something.”
Though January 6 was a challenging and potentially dangerous day for Cherry, his work afforded him one of the highest awards bestowed upon a creative artist. He, like Kendrick Lamar – the mega-rapper he admires – has a Pulitzer Prize.
Cherry’s beginnings with photography came as a teen. His father would take him to yard sales and on one of their outings, they found an old Chinon student film camera kit and a stack of National Geographics. They bought both and took a trip to Murphy’s Camera to get film.
“For that summer, him and I would just go around on random weekends, and he would show me how to use the camera and show me all these techniques that he would use to teach himself that he used for me to teach myself as well, “ said Cherry. “For example, I had a little notebook on me that I would carry. And whenever I would take a photo, I would write down the number of whatever the film’s you know, whatever films light, it was number 13. And then I would write down what my settings were. So that whenever I develop the film, I could look back and see what my settings were, like, cloudy outside, and it’s like seven o’clock, and it looks like this kind of brightness. I get this kind of exposure out of it, this kind of different feel. So he was really instrumental in the origins of me learning how to take photos. Then I started getting into other interests. I’m really into music and started working. So, as you know, teenagers, girls and all that…photography was always something for me that never seemed like it could be a job.”
That was until he found work modeling in a cocktail shoot for a marketing agency. As he watched the photographers with their equipment and setting up the lights, he realized he could also do this job.
“I can totally do this shit. I bet I could do this. And so, I was working full time at UPS, and I was working little odd jobs and had little side hustles and all that. I started investigating, like what kind of camera and wanting to research and all that and all the things that I would need to get to get started just taking photos. You know, the cards and the batteries and lenses and just all the little things, everything that I could get to get started. I had a really sketchy Craigslist deal with a guy and bought a pretty sure stolen Nikon D 300 with a Sigma 24-70 on it, for like 150 bucks, which was a killer deal.”
Cherry started shooting the cocktail menu where he was working, then a friend here or there, a concert, and theater – the basic photographer’s training guide.
As his portfolio grew, so did his reputation as a photographer but his work life was kind of stagnant. He heard about a new market opening, which turned out to be Logan Street Market located in the Smoketown area of Louisville. Cherry went to Logan Street Market, where he took photos and presented them as his application. He ended up working as a media coordinator there when he learned that he was being laid off. The pandemic had started and, like many companies, they couldn’t sustain his employment through the loss of revenue. Cherry describes himself as ‘heartbroken.’
“I was burned out, I had been working like 100 hours a week, three months straight,” said Cherry. “I didn’t take a single day off in those three months I was at Logan Street Market. I really wanted to be successful in that job. I just really, like burnt myself out. And so I spent the next couple of months just kind of floundering, not even floundering but just like healing. I worked out a lot, rode my bike a lot, spent a lot of time with my dogs. I was just kind of like, unsure of what the next steps in my life would be.”
When the Breonna Taylor protests kicked off in May 2020, a friend called Cherry and told him that during the protests there were shootings and asked if he wanted to go down and see what was happening. It wasn’t just the phone call; his friend, singer/songwriter Scott T. Smith had actually also come to get him. Before they left, they decided to talk through what they might be getting into.
“We have this really amazing conversation outside on the porch about what we’re going to do and how we’re going to be safe going into this,” Cherry explains. “He wrote a song about that moment. Every time I hear the song, it makes me cry. Because it’s kind of about, you know, we go out there and get killed, who’s gonna tell our mom?”
From the protests, Cherry’s decision to document was made solid. He wasn’t going to look back; he understood that the stories he could tell with his camera were important and that he needed to be where the action was in order to tell those stories. He entrenched himself with the protests and wanted to be sure that the narrative being shared had his input and made clear what might have been colored with a more negative brush.
“I really wanted to use photography to expand the message that was already out there,” Cherry said. “And that is ‘this isn’t what we do to people, what we do to our people, black or white. This isn’t what you do to the citizens.’ And then people that are out here, I know that there’s going to be a narrative about them that it’s like animalistic.”
He wanted his work to humanize the protesters and show that those participating in the protests were doing so out of hurt, compassion, and a sense of duty to combat the legacy that has given too many Black bodies to police violence.
“I can’t remember who said this,” Cherry started. “The expression is like, photography/photojournalism is the only profession where you get to use everything that you’ve ever learned at once, and I really agree with that. I’m probably butchering the expression here, but it’s taken me everywhere. It’s given me some of the highest highs of my life, and some of the lowest lows.”
On May 9, 2022, Cherry had both one of his highest highs and lowest lows. His partner had moved out and he’d been suffering the repercussions of that shift, as he says, “trying to get my shit together” and was terribly depressed. As he was packing away memories of the relationship and trying to find a way out of his sadness, he laid down for a nap. About twenty minutes later, he looked at his phone and noticed a host of missed calls.
He’d won the Pulitzer for his work on January 6 in the U.S. Capitol.
More recently, Cherry has worked in the tornado-stricken areas of Kentucky.
“There’s a therapeutic nature to what it is that we do, as well,” he shares. “I think that if you can fill that role of a person of service, like a ‘search and rescue’ person, just like the old lady who comes in and cooks up all the food for everybody, just like the people who come in and donate sleeping bags, and tents and all that stuff. There’s also like a spot, there’s a slot and a needed place for storytellers. So if you can come in and fill in that spot of this much-needed role, and you can do it respectfully. I mean, I think that it has therapeutic qualities. People, you know, people deserve to have their stories told.”
As important as his images, the artist must care for his own spirit and Cherry understands this. When it is time to put his camera away and time to take care of Jon Cherry, the human, he makes that time.
“I have a pretty good home life, I think that’s really helpful. I make sure that I get groceries in the fridge, take care of myself, and get a decent amount of exercise. Make sure my dogs are healthy, just like the foundations. To make sure that the home is good. I have a good community. I do have great friends, great community. But honestly, I find what I do to be so fulfilling that it doesn’t really feel like it takes away from me. It doesn’t leach away from me because I get so much back, and then it’s just serving. But I’m also being taken care of at the same time.”
Besides photojournalism, Cherry’s photography has appeared in several art shows including the Promise, Witness, Remembrance show at the Speed Art Museum, which honored the life of Breonna Taylor. Explore more of Jon Cherry’s work at his website https://jonpcherry.com.
Top image: A black-and-white photo of Jon Cherry. He is wearing a button-up shirt and glasses. He is looking directly at the viewer through the camera he is holding. Image courtesy of the artist.