Ennis Chung says that shooting photos behind the scenes in a strip club was a lifelong dream of hers. The opportunity finally materialized during the making Realest, her ongoing project in which she documents 24 hours with one person in the hip-hop world. Since last October, the 25-year-old has spent a day and night with over 20 figures, including Chuck Inglish, Outkast’s Mr. DJ, Jace from Two-9, Ellie Sweetz, and Cbass from the directing crew Motion Family. She once waited out a snowstorm with Top Dawg Entertainment’s director of digital Ashley Outrageous and spent the whole session eating, another time she went Ikea furniture shopping with Meko Yohannes from DJ Mustard’s label 10 Summers.
Chung is quick to specify that she isn’t just interested in photographing rappers. Her previous subjects have included managers, A&Rs, at least one drug dealer, and, full disclosure, FRANK151 founder Stephen Malbon. “I’m really trying to avoid clubs and concerts,” she says. “I’m more interested in the houses, where they go grocery shopping, things like that.”
Chung’s photos range from goofy, candid moments to moody, artistic shots. Profiling her subjects has put her in some pretty interesting situations. “The strip club was kind of difficult. I didn’t realize so many girls didn’t want to be shot,” she says. “Some would say, ‘Just do my face. Just do my body. Just do my back.’ I couldn’t keep track.”
Then there was the time she spent the night in a trap house. “It was really gross. I couldn’t really sleep because it smelled really bad,” she says. “There was a lot of sexual activity happening right beside me. But it was cool to shoot.”
Though based in New York, Realest has taken Chung to cities including Los Angeles and, most often, Atlanta. She plans to eventually collect the photos into a self-published coffee table book and also show them in a gallery. From the images she’s released so far, it’s clear that she’s been able to get some deep access to an often incredibly self-protective industry. When asked how she’s able to get so close, she offers, “Smoking weed with them is a total icebreaker.”
But Chung’s level of exposure also has to do with the subjects she chooses. A lot of the people she shoots are referrals from friends, and in general she says she’s on the lookout for people who radiate a certain kind of positive energy. With Realest, Chung benefits from the fact that her goal is a relatively simple one. As she says, “Everyone is relatively normal, and that’s what I’m trying to show.”