Nathan Yungerberg is a playwright and photographer who splits his time between Oakland and Brooklyn. He’s highly motivated and hard working, but there’s an easiness and warmth to his disposition. He’s confident, but doesn’t wear his confidence like armor: he’s not the type to make a fuss. I recently met up with Yungerberg in Harlem, where we’d planned to chat in a small café off of 145th St. But as the café was understaffed—its upstairs space closed as a result— our plans shifted on the spot. We sat for a moment to test things out. It would be unfair if we didn't at least try to make an effort— and the café was pretty charming. But almost immediately, the flexibility acquired from years of travel kicked in: he suggested we find another, more conducive place. I could not have agreed more. We ended up at a nearby park, where we talked at length about exploring the world before the invention of the app, the intersection of travel and the arts, the beauty of losing oneself in a new place, as well as being Black abroad.
Vaughn: You’ve been a lot of places over the years. What initially sparked your interest in travel?
Nathan Yungerberg: I think the first real trip I took was… it must have been in the late 90s. I went to Tulum. And this was before all the fashionistas started going there— now it’s super chic. Some friends had gone prior and they’d raved about it. I went with an ex of mine and it was absolutely amazing. You could rent a bungalow on the beach for $10 a night. You flew to Cancun and took a bus and they dropped you off on a dusty road. You didn’t really know where you were going. The internet wasn’t that big then so there was no way to really look into things. We had a glorious week of hardcore travel, of just… going with the flow. I went back three times, I think, within a year or so. That’s what started it.
V: It’s interesting what you said about the internet not being as overarching [at that time]. Everything is so accessible now. On the internet you’ve got Lonely Planet and numerous blogs, all of which provide you with an itinerary of what you need to do. Bullet points of what to experience in (x) country.
V: When you started traveling there wasn’t much of that. There were really just a few guidebooks that people followed. Whereas when I started traveling in 2006, I had all of these resources on the web from which to pull. Before I’d even get to a place, I would have had the whole trip pre-planned. Versus just going to the place, letting things unfold organically.
NY: It was exciting because I would read travel essays and memoirs and they always really… they just turned me on. So we took as much information as we could from the friends that had gone prior. Of course there’d be people who would say, “You’re going to go without a hotel reservation? Do you know where you’re staying?” We’d say, “No.” It was just part of who we were, I think. As artists, we just wanted to have that experience. There were times of fear but it’s the fear that was exciting. The fear of wanting whatever you’re going to find and [not knowing] what’s going to happen. It possessed me.
V: That’s what travel is all about— the possession. That’s what makes it so exciting to people. The ability to be possessed by some other place. It’s a chance to get away from a lot of BS— the bullshit of everyday life— and inject yourself into an entirely different situation.
NY: Amen! I took a female friend of mine to Tulum after I’d already gone a couple of times. I was living in Minneapolis at the time. So we’re at the terminal and there are two women and their daughters who are going to Cancun on one of those resort holidays—where you go to “Señor Frog” or whatever and hang out with a bunch of Americans and you don’t veer off the path because God forbid you get killed.
V: [Laughs] Exactly.
NY: We were telling them our plans, and one of the moms was horrified that we didn’t have a reservation, that we didn’t know where we were going. The other mom, though, was completely entranced by what we were doing. I remember her staring at us, asking questions; it almost seemed like she didn’t want to do what they were doing.
V: Of course.
NY: We joked that she was going to follow us and end up walking down that gravel road and find nirvana.
V: [Laughs] I can hear her saying to her daughter and friend, “Screw you guys, I’m never coming back.”
NY: Right [Laughs].
V: I wish I could have traveled back then— to not have so many preconceived ideas about what I’m going to do when I get to my destination. It’s almost a hindrance.
NY: Yeah, I agree. No itinerary. Just go.
V: Do you still [travel that way] now or do you find yourself looking at cheat sheets and things?
NY: I’ve gotten a little more contrived with travel now, I think just because I’m older and I have different— I mean I’m still down to do the bungalow on the beach with no electricity and stuff, but I think my level of comfort has shifted in this cycle of my life. And it was just a different time, different perception and a different mentality.
V: Having that experience— especially after not having really travelled internationally before that— do you think it changed your outlook on life? Who were you as a person after having that experience versus who you were before seeing the world in different shades of…
NY: It’s hard to describe it, and it’s funny too because people would ask, “What are you going to do on your vacation?” And I’d get really offended. I’d be like, “This is not a vacation.” This is a soul searching quest. And I would attempt to go on trips when I was going through a lot of transition in my life— in my younger years, where I was trying to find myself. To bring the scattered pieces of myself together. People say, “You are where you go,” so of course you bring some of that stuff with you and it meets you once you get there. But I think, like you were saying earlier, being in a different environment where the food is different, the smells are different, the language is different, the culture is different, it forces you to face parts of yourself that I think normally lay dormant when you’re [surrounded by] the culture in which you grew up— it’s your comfort zone. So I feel like major things shifted but I don’t know exactly what they are.
V: I know what you mean.
NY: One thing I can say though – because I grew up in the Midwest and I’m living in New York – I’ll never be a New Yorker.
V: [Laughs] In what regard?
NY: A native New Yorker will always let me know that no matter how long I’ve lived here. And they’ll laugh at me sometimes because I don’t have New York street smarts. I can’t get to the front of the line like New Yorkers do. I’m not as brash and bold.
V: Right. I see.
NY: But walking through the border of Thailand and Malaysia at three o’clock in the morning alone, two weeks after 9/11, and doing it and not freaking out, and finding my way to a guesthouse: the street smarts that exist within that reality— not to say that they’re better than a New Yorker's big city street smarts— they give you something that enables you to maneuver all over the world rather than just one city.
V: I wholeheartedly agree with that. I think there’s something special about having international experience— experiencing different cultures for what they are. Seeing how people line up perfectly in a queue in Tokyo versus the bum rush and mad dash of getting to the front of the line in New York. There’s something so polar opposite about it, yet having both of those experiences make us wiser. They make us more savvy so we know how to navigate different situations. Rather than existing in one reality, where we’d be a fish out of water anywhere else we went.
V: It is. It really is.
NY: One of the other things that I felt was beautiful too— there’s an amazing travel writer Pico Iyer, I think is his name.
V: Yeah. I know who you’re talking about.
NY: He’s a very poetic writer. He wrote something. I believe it was him, and I’m probably slaughtering what he said, but it had to do with being in an environment where you can’t communicate and you can’t really ask for what you need and order the food that you need and talk to people and express your emotions. Again, those things that you don’t normally use come out and you learn how to exist on a level that’s instinctual. I’ve found that to be very true. And when communicating with people, you cut all the bullshit because you only may know one or two words or five words. [You can’t pad the conversation with fluff] so you get to the point: Baño. Comida. You say whatever it is you need. Even just body language as communication, and learning how to be more in tune with facial expressions and people’s energy— these are primal things that we just don’t use anymore.
V: We take it for granted and don’t use it because we have everything else to supplement what nature gave us and what we've adapted as a species to know how to do. We’ve lost all of our primitive survival skills. We've gotten away from all of that and I think that’s what travel does too, in a way: helps you get back to nature and get back to relying on instinct.
NY: And just to add to that, on the flipside is the beauty of getting lost. As long as it’s not… sometimes you find yourself in places you really don’t need to be. But some of the most memorable experiences I’ve had were just going out— you get there the first time and you have no perception or concept of where you are. Like when I went to Paris three years ago: I just started [roaming around]. The streets were so confusing, everything looked the same but then every day I would go little further... and that was so exciting.
V: It’s magical. And you find the most beautiful architecture and scenery.
NY: Yeah. And you just stop, and you sit, and you write. I did that once. I sat for four hours and did rewrites on a play; in this cute little neighborhood that looked like it was from movie. I’m like, “This is it!” These are those moments that you remember. Those magical moments.
V: Definitely. And speaking of sitting and writing about the neighborhood. You have a play, “Pousada Azul,” that takes place in Salvador, which I’m assuming was inspired by time spent in Brazil. How has travel permeated your writing?
NY: I think it’s really made a huge impact. That play in particular is kind of like my ode to Bahia— because I love that place so much. [Pousada Azul] is not even really about my story [in Bahia], other than me extracting all of the memories I had. In Salvador they make music everywhere. There’s one part in the play where there are kids sitting on the back of a bus, banging on the ceiling. They clap and they sing, and there’s a part in the play where the main character falls in love with the city. The city is another character and he’s describing how he felt her heartbeat that afternoon in the rhythm of the kids pounding on the box. So things like that I remember. Magical moments that I store inside of me and then I use in the writing because I can recall it so easily, which I’m sure you can understand. It sears itself onto you.
V: It does. Like a branding. All of these experiences, you carry them with you. You smile when something in the city reminds you of a time when. Seeing a girl drive down the street on a vespa always reminds me of Paris and Italy.
NY: It all comes flooding back. So it’s always good in that sense to just get away because again— you unplug from all that stuff [that we’ve talked about] and you’re able to tap into a different side of you.
V: Right. And so getting into a different aspect of your work, a portion of your photography is comprised of stills from your travels.
V: I was having a conversation actually with a friend the other day and he was saying how he wants to do a kind of homage to the inner city. Visit various inner cities and document the visits via photography. I was freaked out by that— it intimidated me. I don’t think I’d ever be able to take photos in my own backyard, so to speak. But put me in Tokyo or Peru or someplace: I’d go to town [with portraiture]. There’s something about taking photos in a foreign country. You don’t care what people think…
NY: I do. [Laughs]
V: Really? Okay. See, I was hoping you would have that reaction, actually, because I thought you were going to agree with me.
NY: No. It’s very hard. I think I could probably do more so what your friend does easier than…. I have a really hard time… most of the shots that you saw of people were taken at a distance, because I get really uncomfortable. There’s one shot in particular on my website—I don’t know if you remember any of them— but it was in Salvador and it’s a horizontal black and white shot with these people sitting on the steps of a church.
V: I do remember that one, actually.
NY: [That shot was] showcased in a tribute for Gordon Parks. It was for their anniversary two years ago, and they chose that one and another one— but that one I called, “A drive by shooting,” because I literally took the camera, and as I was walking through I was literally just pushing the button as I was walking and I didn’t know what I had gotten until I got home. And then I was able to crop it the way I wanted. And people looked at it and they’re like, “Oh my God! It looks like you set that up and you had every person posed.” I would say, “No, that was completely a fluke.” And that’s when, in the sense of photography, it’s more of the random selection and the cropping of the picture versus me asking the people if I could take it. But yeah, I have a really hard time. I admire those photographers that can go and just go right up to people and take pictures of them. It’s such an intimate thing, it’s like what if some people believe you’re stealing their spirits?
V: I have had a moment where I thought to look within and ask, Am I invading spaces? But I have such a respect and fondness for capturing the moment. Moments can be so powerful. It’s right there, so why not? They’ll forget about it tomorrow [Laughs].
NY: [Laughs]. I’ve got to get better with that because I feel like I miss so many opportunities to get those shots.
V: My friend has this quote. Something like, “The traveler knows no fear” or “The traveler has no shame.”
NY: Not me. [Laughs] Maybe one day.
V: When I first introduced myself to you, you said something like, “It’s really cool to meet another black guy who travels.” It’s amazing how many times I’ve heard that in the past couple years. I’m sure you can attest. It’s interesting because in the scope of how large the worlds is, I suppose there really aren’t many black American guys who travel. When you started traveling, there were probably a lot less. I think now, there’s somewhat of a movement going on where a lot more black men are exploring the globe. How were you received when you first started traveling, at a time when there weren’t as many black men doing it? Oh, and let me add another layer to the question: do the people you encounter on your travels realize you’re Black at first glance or do they think you’re, say, Brazilian or…
NY: I was going to say— a lot of places I’ve gone, they’ve just assumed that I’m from there. And even when I told them that I’m not, they don’t believe me. [It’s happened in] Brazil, Egypt and parts of Southeast Asia, where they thought I was Indian. And I never knew that was possible! Growing up in the Midwest, I was black or biracial, and then in New York, Dominican or Puerto Rican, and I’m like, “Okay, whatever.” Traveling post 9/11, however, it was comforting to know that I wasn’t going to be immediately targeted as an American, because that’s not always fun.
V: No, it’s not.
NY: But I’ve never really had strange responses from people. It was mostly things that would happen in Brazil where they would be confused about my identity and not believe me. And any kind of reaction I have to that is just my own feelings of isolation. More specifically, being on the airplane and there being like maybe one other person of color, if even— and I always noticed those things, and I’d think, “This is weird. This is just me on a plane of 300 people going to this place.” And then being in a place [like Bahia] where you’re surrounded by all these brown faces, and then on the way back, all the people at the airport would be white Brazilians. And I would question that a lot too.
V: Whenever I travel internationally, almost by default I look for brown faces on the plane. Most times, I was the only one. I always wondered why, as well.
NY: I don’t want to generalize, but a fair amount of African-Americans— at least back in the day— seemed to only go to places like Jamaica or the Bahamas.
V: I think these are places that feel comfortable. We don’t stand out too much, and we feel safe because we’re around other black faces. And you know, it’s great to go to all of these places. But I’ve always found it equally as important to travel to places that aren’t necessarily the most familiar, and even places that may have a preconceived notion of what Black is, or who Black Americans are. We have to go and show people [in other cultures], “This is who we are” so they can learn to disassociate us from how we are portrayed in the media. I think it’s really important to break those stigmas.
NY: And as black Americans, at times we fall victim to thinking that our blackness is the only way of being Black. Once you start traveling to other places though, you start seeing blackness in completely different ways, and eventually you begin representing with your own version. I’m adopted, and was raised by white parents in Wisconsin, so my blackness is a wholly different type of a thing.
V: Right. I imagine you journeyed for it and had to find it for yourself.
NY: Yeah. For sure. And bringing [my identity] to other places— not talking the way that people think I’m going to, or dressing the way, or doing the things that people expect— it is good for [people in other cultures] to see that. They realize [Black is] much more expansive than what the media portrays. And I’m also able to come back and tell my black friends, “Brazil has the second largest black population outside of Nigeria. And again, because the media goes the other way, you don’t see that.
V: You don’t see it at all.
NY: You don’t see it ever. You see models from Brazil—Gisele Bundchen and all these other people— and you’ll never see models [with dark skin]. Remember when Bush made that comment to the Brazilian President about not knowing there were black people in the country and everyone jumped on him? I actually didn’t know that before I went there. I didn’t say it in the context that he did but I was like, “Well, I didn’t know either.” I never learned that in school, I never saw pictures of that… I’m sorry, I kind of veered off from your initial question.
V: But you’re right. It’s indicative of how the world works. The undermining of a color that makes up so much of the world. It’s amazing to be able to go somewhere and see someone who looks like you. Living in places like New York and Philly, you see a plethora of cultures— but there’s nothing like going to the source and actually seeing what’s there.
NY: And experiencing a different way of being Black, which is so amazing. I used to tell people— and this is only my perception. Because I know that Brazil has major issues with racism and identity. They’ll say that they don’t but they do, and they have all these varying categories of race within blackness that we don’t have or that we don’t use anymore. But one thing that I noticed is when it comes to specific things like music and the way you dress and the way you speak, from my perspective, [those things] didn’t define my blackness.
V: Right. I know exactly what you mean.
NY: And I always felt so comfortable in that because I always felt like [in America] if you don’t listen to only black music and don’t eat specific kinds of food, if you don’t walk this way or talk that way, then people want to revoke your black card. It took me many years and a lot of traveling to understand that African-American blackness is not the deciding factor of what’s Black. It’s just a small portion of it. It’s just that the media is so far reaching. I always found a certain sense of comfort, like I could just let myself go and just…actually tell people, “Yeah, I like to do this.” And they’re like, “Cool! We do too.”
V: What’s your travel philosophy?
NY: Oh God!
V: I know. It’s a broad question, but yeah… what do you think, after all these years of traveling?
NY: Honestly, I can just sum it up in one sentence. Go with the flow. I say that because when I was younger— I have a Bahamian ancestry; my birth father in lives Nassau. And so I’d known that for many years, and I remember always seeing pictures of the Bahamas— the postcards and travel brochures and books. I married myself to those images, so I went there. That was the very first trip I ever took where I caught a plane. I went there with my family when I was 17.
V: So that was actually your first travel experience.
NY: Yeah. I don’t really bring that one up because that was just with the family. We stayed in a hotel, it was very touristy, and I didn’t know my [birth] family at that time so we had no experience outside of that room.
V: You didn’t get to have the authentic Bahamian experience you thought you’d have.
NY: I had married myself to those images so much that I was absolutely devastated by the fact that what I saw didn’t match up with them: I didn’t see the Pizza Huts, and the McDonalds and the Dunkin Donuts, or the areas where things weren’t as clean as what was in the pictures. I didn’t see the rain. And so I was absolutely devastated. But from that point on, I began to shift my perspective. I realized that I can’t expect to know what [a particular place] will smell like, feel like or look like, so I’m just going to go with the flow. Allow for diversions, and the expansion of my thoughts and ideas of how a place will be. You never know what’s going to happen. If you [marry yourself to preconceived notions], you’re bound to be devastated. That’s really the only thing that I take with me when I travel. Go with the flow, whatever happens. And inevitably, even the craziest of situations will create material for a story, or a play or just something interesting to tell people.
To learn more about Nathan, visit www.nathanyphoto.com