Iron Cages // Photo: Farrah Skeiky

With “Present Tense,” Photographer Farrah Skeiky Brings DC’s Vibrant Music Scene To The Front

If you’ve been to a punk, DIY, or house show recently, you might have been in the midst of local creative and photographer Farrah Skeiky. Her list of accomplishments runs long, and the common thread between them all is a devotion and dedication to DC’s famed music scene as it currently exists. Born of a desire to share that this city is as vibrant as ever when it comes to music and creativity, Skeiky’s first solo exhibition, Present Tense, opens at Transformer on January 18. To get to the heart of her work, which is at once a celebration and a call to action, On Tap spoke to Skeiky about her process and the progress she hopes drawing attention to live music in the District will bring.

On Tap: Present Tense is your first solo exhibition, and on your site it said the exhibition aims to “fight… the notion that this section of DC counterculture exists solely in the past.” As a music photographer, when did you first catch wind that there was an idea that counterculture was a thing of the past?
Farrah Skeiky: I love shooting all kinds of music. One of my favorite shows I shot this year was Lizzo. In 2018 I shot Blood Orange – obviously there’s a lot of national acts that I really, really love. But people kind of know and herald DC as a very important place to when it comes to music, but people really talk about it in the past tense, right? They talked about Minor Threat, Fugazi, and Bad Brains – all important bands. I’m never going to disagree about that.

And their contribution to music is obviously great, especially in punk music and the culture around it. Conversations about straight edge, veganism, benefit shows – all that stuff is really important, but it’s still going and it never really stopped. So for me, highlighting the bands and the people that are part of the present tense, where it gets its name from – this concept of people talking about DC as a place that used to have really cool bands and used to have really cool shows. And I was standing there talking to people who are saying these things, and I’m thinking, “But I was just at a great show last night, where three out of the four bands were local bands that are currently active or are in all these big bands currently playing reunions.”

I hate when people talk about this place in the past tense, when I’m in the middle of it and it’s active and it’s vibrant and people from all over the city bring all sorts of different stuff to the table. 

OT: What proved, to you personally, that it was alive and well? Was it a specific moment or a culmination of your experiences?
FS: [It] as kind of just a culmination [of everything]. I moved from Seattle to the Maryland suburbs [when] I was 15 and that’s not a fun move, to go from a very cool city to the suburbs. You’re kind of just getting into who you are and how you can use the world around you at that age. [So I] moved across the country, from one Washington to another. I really was not excited, but knowing that DC had this rich history that was still very much active, with really great independent music shows, all ages [and] culture, which is not common in a lot of cities – that was really important to me.

I feel like I watched it from afar, just like a lot of other people do in this country who are excited about punk music, but you don’t always realize it when you get there and [can] be part of it. So it wasn’t one specific [moment]. I think it was just, I realized I was going to more and more local shows and I was really excited about all of these local bands and what they were doing and I’m like, “well these are the bands I want to be taking more photos of.”

OT: Did you get exposed to photography and the local scene as a teenager in the suburbs of Maryland or was that something that happened as your career progressed?
FS: I never really thought that photography would play such a large part in my life. I got a camera when I was 16. I got my Canon Rebel XS. I was already engaged with art in school and playing music. I’ve played in jazz band and orchestra, and I thought that that was going to be how I engaged with music, by playing it in that class. It wasn’t really until my friends’ bands were playing something like the rec center or in a battle the bands [where] I was like, “I’ll bring my camera,” and or my friends said, “It would be cool if you brought your camera.” Live photos were always more interesting to me than any still one. I can capture people in that emotion and kind of show you how it felt to be there, rather than just tell you – I’m not good at words. I would rather show you how it felt to be there than tell you. That’s what I got really excited about. So it was probably 17 or 18 when I really started becoming excited about music photography.

OT: I’m guessing you had a rather large amount of photos to sift through for inclusion in this exhibition what criteria did you apply to capture this goal?
FS: It’s really hard because there’s a Present Tense book that’s coming out in February and that’s a couple photos of…almost every DC the band I’ve captured over the last five or six years. And that’s that book. The show was really hard, because it’s 16 pieces, I didn’t want to repeat bands and I wanted to get kind of a wide range. There are some from 2015 and 2017, and the most recent photo is from about three months ago. 

I didn’t want it to just be hardcore bands, and didn’t want it to just be photos of singers, because it’s very easy to catch [them] because they’re moving around the most. I tried to shoot photos of every member of the band when I’m shooting a show, so everybody has a photo of themselves. There’s also like, not just straight forward hardcore punk bands in there, but also bands that are more DIY or indie rock as well.

I wanted a little bit of genre diversity and having a kind of range. This isn’t just photos from 2019, there are photos from like 2015, when I really started shooting punk in DC more seriously. Before I was doing that, I was on and off the house photographer rotation for IMP for a long time and I kind of consciously made the decision to say, “Okay, I’m going to step back from that a little bit and focus more on local bands.” 

OT: Any particular favorites that are part of the exhibition you’d like to share?
FS: There’s kind of a lead photo that I have as part of this show. I think it was at Damaged City Fest, of this band called Sem Hastro. So in the photo, the one guy is choking the other guy. I love that photo because I feel like it’s a great little encapsulation of what DC punk and DIY has been in the past few years. Both of those people in the photo came to DC from other countries and participated in the punk culture here. 

Sem Hastro // Photo: Farrah Skeiky

So [in the photo,] the one doing the choking came from Japan was studying art at the Corcoran for four years. His band is still active, on and off, where he still lives in Japan, but he comes back to DC when they tour the States. The person singing came to DC because DC punk bands were playing in Brazil, and kind of made this super group of some of the Brazilian punks and some of the DC punks. The transient nature of DC is sometimes not the worst thing in the world. All these bands still have an impact here, these people still have an impact here. They’re still part of it, even though they’ve gone back to Brazil to Japan. They still made their mark and their contribution to it, so that’s one of my favorites. 

There’s also one crowd photo in there that I really love. My roommate is in it, and everybody’s expressions were just very sincere. Some of them are a little bit goofy. We’ve all had photos where we’re like,  “Damn, that’s what I looked like at that show? That’s the face I was making?” and there’s humor in it. Like you can’t take yourself super seriously in that moment when you look ridiculous.

OT: What do you hope those who view your exhibition gain from it?
FS: I want people to know that this is something happening right now. When people have this idea that punk and DIY is something that used to happen here, [and] when people were making important decisions about development and changing neighborhoods and changing venues and people access spaces and content, what your barrier of entry is, they’re not considering [music] because they’ve got it in their heads that it used to happen here. If it doesn’t happen anymore, they’re not making room for it. The reason that scenes and communities – two different things – can struggle in a city like DC is because they’re not getting enough support because they’re not being taken seriously.

That’s a big part of it. Smaller venues close, bigger developers come in, and the nature of it changes who’s controlling the booking of bands in the city. A lot of stuff is happening. Even smaller venues will book through Live Nation, which is so trippy to me. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but in the context of this, that means that a lot of local folks who have been here and are actively doing this thing [and] are left out of the conversation, because people are not doing their homework and realizing these people exist.

It’s hard, and we kind of need to shout our existence a little bit more so that we can maybe be part of this conversation, so we’re not constantly looking for a space and not having space to make things happen. We’re also like resilient folks. So if the show needs to happen in a house, our show needs to happen in a house. We’ll figure it out. We’re not gonna stop doing what we’re doing just because the new development and new DC isn’t making way for us. We’ll find a way. But wouldn’t it be cool if people knew we were here and supported our existence?

Present Tense runs through February 29 at Transformer, Wednesday through Saturday from 12-6 p.m. and by appointment. Skeiky’s work featured in the show is also up for sale. Her book Present Tense: DC Punk and DIY, Right Now will be released on February 22. For more on the exhibition and its programming, visit here.

Transformer: 1404 P St. NW, DC; www.transformerdc.org

M.K. Koszycki

M.K.'s entire life revolves around music, whether it be scouring Twitter for the band of the moment or catching a live show at one of DC's many venues. When she's not at a gig, find her hanging out with her golden retriever, drinking beer with friends or re-watching Twin Peaks for the hundredth time.