Cordell Murray is Stay Alive Studio. With his photography project, he wants to show you what’s inside a messenger’s bag – but it’s about a bit more than that. Courier turned dispatcher, he’s following a desire to make people feel important and connected. The project shows different couriers from different cities, with a single format designed to celebrate an entire ‘type’ of people.
Were you a photographer or courier first?
I’ve been a photographer before I’d ever even ridden a bike. I started photography because of my Grandfather. He introduced polaroid into my life when I was a child. He would ask me to go to the basketball court and take photos – portraits – of all of my friends, and bring them back to him. He’d say: tell me about all of your friends. So I would do that – I’d break the camera, he’d get mad at me. He invited that idea of getting to know people, sharing the people I know through photography.
When I first saw a camera that could take a photo and print it, it didn’t really wow me until I realised that these were people I cared about and when I can’t see them anymore I can still kind of see them because that photo I took can bring back that memory. That’s what wowed me. A camera by itself is like whatever, but a camera with that mindset is crazy, you know.
Did you start photographing your friends and then your focus grew?
Yeah, for me photography has always been this ability to freeze time. It was never ‘I’m going to take a photo and post it online’ or ‘I wanna have a cool camera.’ It was: I want to manipulate this moment and I want to be able to create moments for people to remember.
Because of that I always make projects – like I would do a special photo project for all my friends to be a part of so that I can remember them in this way, and they can remember themselves in that way, too.
One of my first projects was called ‘Portrait Studies’. I took 12 photos of one friend doing different emotions. I did it for about a year and did 100 people. It’s one of my favourite projects because every emotion would hit home.
How did you get them to do each one authentically?
I talked to them. I had the camera there on a tripod and I would just talk to them. I would make them have props, too – funny stuff. Just get them to open up. That was a fun project ‘cause it helped me as an independent realise why I loved photography – because I used photography to access my friendships.
Becoming a messenger, I did the same thing. I activated my friendships to turn it into a form of art. I was able to get to know a messenger by photographing him or her and her bag and all the things that he or she carries every day.
“I’m doing this to get to know messengers and so they can maybe get to know themselves.”
How did you decide to do it that way?
I did that because I was a dispatcher. I became a dispatcher because I got injured. I was riding a cargo bike and I think a car cut me off, and I crashed into a another car and twisted my ankle. I’d do [photography] at the weekends and I’d do my messenger work Monday to Friday – so when that happened I became a dispatcher because then I would just sit in a chair.
I didn’t really look at being a dispatcher until I got injured and I was like ‘I still need money, how much does this pay?’ They showed me all the spreadsheets, the computers, the phones and the walkies. I was like hell yeah. With a headset, too. I was wiling! I really got into it.
Once I became a dispatcher I got a better idea of what a messenger actually is. [In the messenger job] I was doing, it was like I was [busy] doing so I didn’t see the infrastructure. I would leave and come back to it. Now [as a dispatcher] I stay still and stay static, and I see the real way of working is like 20 guys, going in 20 locations and coming back, and then they stop. When you’re in the middle of it you really see this is very interesting – it’s like a busy ant farm.
Because of my independent projects, I decided to fuse the two – sometimes I don’t because I don’t like fusing what I love to do with how I make money because I feel like it’s going to ruin it. It was always special to me. When I started doing that it was like I’m going to do it, but I’m not going to take pictures of clothes or get lots of sponsors. That’s not why I’m doing this. I’m doing this to get to know messengers and so they can maybe get to know themselves because I bet you they don’t look at themselves.
“You don’t know that you’re as great as the next greatest. I want people to realise they’re important.”
How do you mean so they can get to know themselves?
Because they don’t realise how great the infrastructure is, because they’re doing it. They don’t realise how equipped they are, because they’re just equipped, you know. When you compare yourself to another guy and you see that you carry the same lock he does, you both carry chargers just like he does, your bag is just as big as his is, you start to realise that you’re a type of person. You’re not just a guy who they hired to just work – you’re a type of person. You’re pretty amazing, you know.
To make it less isolating, in a way?
Exactly. You don’t know that you’re as great as the next greatest. I want people to realise they’re important.
Do you think doing the project has changed how you see messengers?
Definitely. I feel like yes because what has happened to me is that I’ve seen who people are, and I’ve seen what they’re capable of.
I created a position for myself to enter their lives – not being like ‘we have things in common so let’s drink and be friends.’ More like ‘I’m interested in you because I am you.’
I’ve realised we’re just as important as like, the police or bus drivers. When a bus driver sees another bus driver he always honks and says hello, or if he passes another he knows who that is, where he works, where that bus is from, where he’s going. He can just tell by the number. So when I see a messenger I know he’s on without even talking to him, and when I pull up to him, we have this thing surrounding us that we are the same. I’ve been doing it worldwide. It’s crazy.
When did you start the project?
I started it in 2013/14. So far I’ve done almost 200 photos. A lot of New York, Minneapolis, Chicago, Detroit, London, Paris, Barcelona. There’s a few.
How did you decide to start travelling to do it?
When you get into something you realise it’s existed way before you have. So just because you’re into it doesn’t mean that’s the beginning of it. It’s worldwide. It’s like a worldwide apocalypse – we’re not the only zombies, they’re in Singapore or Brooklyn.
Like CWMC. 23rd year. Monster Track. 18th Year. The NACCCs. In its 21st year. That blew my mind when I found that out. Like, you’re telling me that hundreds of messengers travel the world to participate in one event and its in a different country every year? The police don’t do that. Taxi drivers don’t do that. A worldwide playing field? That’s crazy.
We have this worldwide connection. I think from thereon it’s how you present yourself. It’s how you enter that, how you approach that already existing world.
There’s so many different personalities. I don’t try to like be the person who’s everybody’s friend. I just try to be the person who’s not afraid to talk to you.
How have you found talking to people in general? Have you got a knack for it?
It’s hard because it’s not like you just walk up and start telling people ‘I’m a photographer’ and people just start spilling the beans. You’ve really gotta show face. I’m not the type of person who likes to impress people, you know. I have this Brooklyn mentality, this Brooklyn attitude – you’re not competition to me. I’m not going to treat you like ‘oh man, oh there goes that guy over there, I think he’s cool, I wanna go talk to him over there but he’s so elite, how should I go say Hi.’ I don’t think like that.
If I see three elite or whatever guys standing over there, I will walk up to them and be like ‘damn man, what kind of shoes are they?’ Sometimes it’s fun like that.
In [different cities] it’s hard because you can’t always just rock up and say ‘I’m so and so.’ You really gotta become friends with them, by hanging out with them. Then you do what you do. My favourite thing in Paris was to walk up to the meanest guy hanging out and battle him in a game of arm wrestling. We’d be like ‘Hrrrrrr’.
I don’t try to make them feel like they should talk to me. I just try to get to know them for exactly who they are, and then execute: take the picture and then boom, maybe we’re friends forever. I only focus on the people that want to.
Do you think the way you shoot the project has changed during the project all?
No, I want each photo to match. Anyone can take a photo of their friend lying on the ground, but not anybody can take 200 photos that are taken the same exact way.
I always put the bike on the left, the wheels facing the subject. The subject in the middle. The bag on the top, and the items below. That’s always been the format, I haven’t changed it.
Distance is always a factor because if I’m really close then I have to use a wider sense so the photo looks kind of distorted. If I’m really far, I have to use a narrow lens and everything looks really flat. I realised this problem when I was at CMWC. I climbed to the top of the velodrome. The velodrome had an awning and I climbed to the top but it wasn’t high enough. So the photos are kind of really tight and I didn’t like that. Since then I’ve realised execution is very important.
I want to create a portfolio that can go down in history as not just a bunch of photos.
To have a project that lives on.
Yeah, these people are important. Some people think ‘I’m not important at all, why is this guy so interested in me?’ They don’t always look at themselves as ‘I’m amazing’ – they just think ‘I’m just a guy who just works’, you know. So who you include them into a project where they can be put next to a guy that they do not know who lives in Paris and owns his own company, it helps them understand that ‘I’m better than I thought I was’. I like that ability to inspire people, and get to know them.
I didn’t start Stay Alive to be known as Cordell. It’s always been a thing of mine – I never wanted my work to be me. I feel like sometimes that’s so self-centred. It’s an amazing project but the people in the book are more important than the photographer, and so sometimes feel like you need to create an entity that can carry the people in the book further than just you and your 60 years of life. So for me, I never wanted to be ‘Cordell Murray the photographer’. I always wanted it to be something and to just be a photographer within that thing. That’s how I view it. I think that’s why Stay Alive is what it is today. Not on purpose, it just became that.