Three years ago, Susan Schiffman started photographing apartments in the East Village for her project, I Am A Rent Stabilized Tenant. At first on Instagram, then as a column on the blog EV Grieve, the photographer shared candid images of the interiors of rent-stabilized apartments in her neighborhood.

Schiffman captures the quirks, like photographer Johnny Roza's doll collection.  She spoke to the experience of shooting his apartment—"[Johnny] was like ‘you get me! You get me. People come here and they don't get it.’ He had this whole backyard. He had a little greenhouse. This apartment is so tiny. The doll collection he had. It's so huge. Lots of dolls. He had these cool fixtures." (Susan Schiffman)

Schiffman's project has since grown to include interviews providing stories and context. Each interview is guided by the same three questions: Why did you come to the East Village, how did you find your apartment, and what do you love about your apartment?

Though the tenants themselves are never present in Schiffman’s photos, their homes give us an intimate look into their lives. Her photos capture the details: the contents of a kitchen cabinet, the arrangement of someone's jewelry on a dresser, a pair of shoes sprawled out under a table, an assortment of family photos on a wall.

As a rent-stabilized tenant herself, Schiffman understands and appreciates those details. The details and quirks that come with being in space for so long. There is an air of solidarity within her work that is also reflected in the EV Grieve comments, where readers reflect on East Village restaurants and shops that are no longer, or supply tips and resources to residents Schiffman has featured who are fighting landlords or at risk of being pushed out of their homes.

View this post on Instagram

june, east village, since 1979

A post shared by i am a rent stabilized tenant (@iamarentstabilizedtenant) on

In the living room of her own East Village apartment, Gothamist spoke to Schiffman about the evolution of her photo project from an Instagram to a column, being a rent-stabilized tenant, and her creative process.

When did you move to the East Village?

I came to the East Village in 1980 something. My friend Jan, who I waitressed with at Folk City, was at an apartment on 11th Street behind Veniero's that she was leaving and said that I could have it. That was the beginning of the East Village for me.

How did this photo project come into existence?

Well, I love my neighborhood. I've been here a very long time. My husband had two businesses. We raised our son here. He went to the public school. We had a car. There are a lot of people we know from the neighborhood. I always wanted to do a [photo] project but I can't remember where the idea [for photographing rent-stabilized] apartments came from. I love looking into people's windows. Not to peep or anything, just to see.

It was word of mouth. I just started asking people I know. I wanted to see if I could step into the homes of people from the neighborhood and into their spaces. People don't always let people in.

Drew was the first apartment I photographed. I had known him and his brother for 20-plus years, but I had never been into their apartment. I thought he was going to say no. I didn't know if people would be up for it. And people are.

Are you surprised by that?

Sometimes I am. But sometimes people reach out to me through EV Grieve because my email is on there. A lot of people have contacted me. There was this woman who reached out to me. She said that her mother had passed away. She had the keys in her hand and she was on her way to the landlord's, but asked if I would be able to come over and photograph it. She really wanted a record of it.

What was that experience like?

When I walked in it was just chills from head to toe. It was so sad. There was a hospital bed. There weren't really any personal items. Linda went through [so much] to fight for the apartment to keep for her mother. She said it took a thousand pages to prove that her mother was still in the apartment. Not only was she still in the apartment, but she was sick and in a hospital bed. She said something to the effect of “I spent years fighting for this apartment. I don't have a relationship or have a family. Do you think I should stay and fight for this place?” I was like, I can't answer this.

View this post on Instagram

alison, east village, since 1981

A post shared by i am a rent stabilized tenant (@iamarentstabilizedtenant) on

This sparked a response in the comments?

[Readers] were really upset about the whole thing. The comments said, "Stay and fight, please don't turn over the keys! Have you contacted Good Old Lower East Side?" She wasn't evicted. She decided to leave on her own to start a new life somewhere else.

The comments are great. People are really into it. In the comments, a lot of stuff comes out for people to look into and check for help and support. Sometimes they share memories like “Oh, I lived on that block.” Or, “I know so and so.”

What do you look for when you photograph an apartment?

I go in totally blind. With these apartments, I don't know most of the people. They don't send me pictures. We don’t talk about it. There is a text that has always been important to me. It's called the Poetics of Space, and it’s basically about how the house is a metaphor for the mind. There are few things that informed this work and that is one of them.

To get into these people’s homes and see how they arrange their jewelry, their clothing, and their books—it’s people's arrangements that make them feel safe and secure in their home. When I walk into home, I can tell a really important arrangement. It's one thing to live in a house: A house has a basement and an attic and all those rooms and closets. It's another thing to live in an apartment for 40 years, where do you house all those memories and belongings?

Why did you choose to focus on rent-stabilized apartments?

I am a rent-stabilized tenant and I have been since I've moved to this city in 1979. So I guess because it's my experience and it's been a good one.

How has having a rent-stabilized apartment shaped your experience in the city, and why is it important?

It's affordable housing. It has let me live here. Even with affordable housing, I feel as though it's expensive to live in New York. If I didn't have that I could never pay what the young people are asked to pay.

Do you feel as though your project is intended to celebrate this?

Oh definitely. I don't know if what I am doing is helping people in any way, but I think sharing people's stories is important.

View this post on Instagram

johnny, east village, since 1999

A post shared by i am a rent stabilized tenant (@iamarentstabilizedtenant) on

It seems as though there is a subtle political element to your work, would you agree?

I do think the personal is political with all the rent-stabilized history and laws. I don't want to go just the political [route], but yes, people should know who the bad landlords are and they should be outed. Once in a while I ask people if they want me to say the landlord's name—it's up to the tenant.

People get scared. I have had people say no to [an interview] because they're in the middle of an eviction court case. A lot of people are in court with their landlords and they are totally in the right but they have to fight for it.

Can you elaborate on the personal being political?

If the government has rules and regulations about where you live and how you can receive affordable housing, it's political. The personal is political, whether we want to be political or not. I mean I couldn't have lived here if it wasn't affordable housing. I don't know where I would have gone.

Although this project in ways is documenting and discussing the past, it is extremely important for the present.

Yes, this is about people who came here a long time ago but they are still living here. These are people are still here. It's still going on. They are still living their lives and figuring out how to live here.

View this post on Instagram

j & t, east village since 1980

A post shared by i am a rent stabilized tenant (@iamarentstabilizedtenant) on

You have been here for a long time. How has the neighborhood changed?

It’s changed so much, and in the project everyone talks about that. It's become more of a transient community. Things are temporary. The people in my building, they come and they go.

Do you feel like the neighborhood becoming more transient has changed its character?

Oh, yeah! It totally changes how it feels. It's money. The high rents bring in different people.

Despite the influx of newcomers, what makes the tenants that you interview, and you yourself, love and stay in the East Village?

I feel like almost everyone has said this, that it still feels like a community or a neighborhood despite the changes. Everyone has those few couple of [stores and restaurants] that they still go to since they first came here. I think people are still able to find enough of the things that made them feel good here years ago. As much as we don't love some of the changes, we still love the neighborhood.