Lisa Leone’s best photograph: the Fugees on a Harlem rooftop

‘When Wyclef and Lauryn were finished, some kids unscrewed a fire hydrant and a big block party kicked off’

I took this on a Harlem rooftop in the early 1990s during what felt like a golden era for hip-hop. At the time, I wrote a monthly column for Vibe magazine: my job was to go behind the scenes of music video shoots with camera and pen. I knew the Fugees were filming for their single Vocab that day, so I just went along to see what was going on. Back then, shoots weren’t as guarded as they are now – there was a real community feeling. As the director was off talking to somebody between takes, I managed to capture Wyclef Jean and Lauryn Hill having a moment of quiet to themselves.

You could cut the picture in half and each of them would be alone in their own little world: Lauryn was joyful but cool, while Wyclef had his eyes closed as he relaxed and played his guitar. Their sheepskin jackets were a nod to 1980s hip-hop and b-boy style, but what you don’t get from this shot is the madness that was going on behind me as 50 people – from cameramen to record company reps, makeup artists and hair stylists – bustled about.

I started out young, photographing all the creative people around me: my boyfriend was a graffiti artist and my friends were in the Rock Steady Crew. Then, in the early 1990s, music videos really took off and I would bounce from set to set looking for something interesting to photograph and write about. I was determined to focus on the technical aspects of making hip-hop. At the time, people were starving for that stuff.

Another shot I’m proud of is an intimate portrait I took of Snoop Dogg years ago. He was very shy, so would normally pose or make some kind of gesture, but I got him in a moment of stillness. That’s the sort of thing I like to capture: what a person is really like, not the front they put on. Of course, I was shooting on film, not digital, so there weren’t 400 people looking over my shoulder at the camera screen, making comments and slowing the whole process down. When that happens, you lose all the energy in the room. Also, since I only had three rolls of films with me, I had to focus and be discerning. I couldn’t just take thousands of shots.

I spent quite a while on the rooftop with the Fugees, then we went down to the street and they shot more footage. There were kids running around and people from the neighbourhood walking up. It became like a big block party, very easygoing with little security, nothing like what you’d get now. It wasn’t actually all that cold either, despite those sheepskin jackets, and some kids opened up a fire hydrant and started running through the water. It was a great vibe.

Here I Am by Lisa Leone is out now (Bronx Museum)


Born: Bronx, New York, 1966.

Studied: High School of Art and Design, Rhode Island School of Design.

Influences: “My uncle George, Stanley Kubrick, Henri Cartier-Bresson.”

High point: “Working with Stanley Kubrick for four years.”

Low point: “When he died.”

Top tip: “Keep open, keep aware, and don’t be a machine-gun shooter.”


Interview by Karin Andreasson

The GuardianTramp

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