Jeremy Cohen: A Reason to Smile

An interview with New York City photographer Jeremy Cohen, who has captivated the world by documenting the effects of social distancing on his neighbors' behavior.


Video from Jeremy Cohen's TikTok account that garnered over 3.6 million views and helped launch his rooftop series. Click here to see more from this series on his Instagram.

Unprecedented times of social distancing with limits placed on all facets of life causes introspection within yourself and your place in the world around you. The work of Jeremy Cohen’s is one of just that — the capturing of unique, everyday experiences from the comfort of his own home. In his rooftop series, which he began while in quarantine in his Brooklyn apartment, Cohen highlighted an uptick in the number of people in his neighborhood occupying their rooftops for personal pleasure and recreation.

Using social platforms such as Instagram and TikTok, he has captured the attention and imagination of millions from around the world. The virality of his posts has allowed him to ‘meet’ many neighbors he never would have known otherwise. Filming one neighbor on her rooftop resulted in them going on a date, complete with sending his phone number to her via drone to greeting her outside in an inflatable plastic bubble. This post, which led him to wonder whether he would be in a long-distance relationship with someone who lives “right across the street”, resulted in 33 million views on TikTok.

These posts are a microcosm of humanity’s response to the uncertainty of our new reality. It has created a rather romanticized approach to human experiences felt by many during this era of social distancing. Joyful images captured by Cohen illustrate an innate ability of humans to adapt and carry on, making use of their conditions and surroundings. In the words of Cohen, “despite how scary the world is, there’s always a reason to smile.”

Stills from Cohen's rooftop series. | Center: Portrait of Jeremy Cohen. Click here to view more of his work.

How did you get your start in photography? 

JEREMY COHEN: I went on a family vacation to Yellowstone national park. I started shooting a bit with my dad's point and shoot camera and got hooked.

Your rooftop series has gained national attention and even landed you on the cover of New York Magazine. How has this experience been for you as a professional artist?

It's been surreal to have my work on the cover of an iconic mag and simply seen by more people- that’s always an exciting thing and will hopefully bring some more exciting opportunities in the future.

Where do you draw your inspiration from in your work? 

People I meet. I'm always curious about what story a person has to tell and use my camera as a tool to tell it.

Would you say that being in quarantine has given you unique perspectives as an artist? 

It's allowed me to slow down and appreciate the little things.

As a visual artist, how do you use social media platforms like TikTok and Instagram to portray your work? 

They're super helpful for me and are my two main outlets to share. The more eyeballs on my work, the better chance of exciting opportunities.

In your work, you seem to document numerous activities from a third-person perspective. Do you see yourself as an observer? 

This is actually something new I've been doing. I started using TikTok only a couple months ago and found that doing a voiceover and talking in the third person is a really compelling way to tell stories on that platform.

Have you always been interested in portraiture? Why are you drawn to this genre of photography?

I've always been a people person I'm genuinely interested in meeting people, getting to know them, and hearing their stories. It feels more rewarding as an artist to capture an intimate and honest portrait of someone and find a way to tell their story with a single image.

Image from Jeremy Cohen's rooftop series. Click here to see more from this series on his Instagram.

What do you consider a successful portrait? 

Honesty. To get this, you have to have good chemistry with your subject, and always be prepared to capture the in-between moments- which I find tend to be the best.

How do you connect with your subjects to capture their raw emotions? 

Listening and being interested in what they have to say. This makes anyone feel special. Also, if I open up about myself, the subject will feel more comfortable opening up as well.

In what ways do you think photography has changed in the age of social media? Has it changed for the better? 

 It absolutely has changed forever and there’s no going back. With social media, photography is now democratized. We now can publish our own work at any time for anyone to see. 

Your videos have a comedic quality. What role do you see comedy playing during this time?

 I think it’s important no matter what our situation is, we can always find a reason to smile. 

Prior to quarantine, had you always noticed rooftops being used as prominently as they are now? 

Never. People definitely frequent their rooftops way more now- its a safe space to get exercise and relax while still social distancing!

How has living in New York City impacted you creatively? 

I can't stress enough how much it has. There's an energy here — work hard play hard mentality and I love it. It’s helpful as an artist to surround myself with other amazing artists that work hard at their craft. It's easier to be productive when everyone else around you is.

How do you see yourself evolving artistically during this time of isolation and distancing?  

Slowing down and working on my own projects that I haven't gotten the chance to get to yet. Maybe learning some new video editing skills/After Effects.

Do you have any new projects on the horizon? 

Not as of now! My project ideas usually come spontaneously I just stay open-minded and ready to hop on any project as soon as the idea happens.

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