First of all, this isn’t about ways to be more present in our day-to-day lives; that’s a conversation for another day. Over the last year, I’ve tried to jump into the world of street photography headfirst, approaching strangers and asking for their picture, keeping a quick-draw wrist strap attached to my camera at all times, and doing my best to find those everyday moments that seem ordinary or unremarkable, and turn them into a scene worth documenting. It’s not easy but as with any art form, it’s simply about persistence, timing, and intent.
Last weekend I went into Manhattan determined to rekindle my creative spark that’s been severely dampened throughout Quarantine; I had a gut feeling that I’d see something, anything worth taking a picture of. I roamed the Upper West Side and Midtown for nearly 6 hours but aside from a few sunset pictures that anyone could have taken, I went home empty-handed. Maybe my ‘eye’ is still just rusty after sitting inside for so long. But as so many photographers who’ve passed through the City That Never Sleeps have said, there is an entire ‘New York’ underground just waiting to be explored. *Simon & Garfunkel’s “Kodachrome” plays softly in the background*
One of my personal rules with street photography is that I will go out of my way not to photograph people who exhibit behaviors that indicate they need physical, medical, or mental assistance. Despite my humble Instagram following, I just don’t feel comfortable exploiting someone else’s rough day for a handful of likes. Many street photographers say that documenting life exactly as it presents itself to you is the whole point; that avoiding the hard-to-look-at moments is actually disrespecting the medium, itself. Maybe they’re right but I just can’t bring myself to take a picture of a homeless person slumped on a bench dreaming about having a roof over their heads before going home to my $1000/month bedroom.
After a long afternoon and evening of very little shooting, I made my way to the 2/3 platform at the Atlantic Avenue station to wait for my train home. I was tired — depleted, actually — and didn’t even have the energy to look up from my feet, let alone hunt the environment for a photo opp. At the top of the stairs was a man leaning both against & over the railing for support. He had a nice trenchcoat draped over him and stood next to some luggage that appeared to be in decent shape. It looked like he was on his way to or from the airport. But his eyes were flickering, his mouth moving without making any sounds; he was rocking back and forth, and looked like he could collapse at any moment. When I got to the top and took my spot standing against the wall to wait for the train, I couldn’t stop looking his way; he was now extending his rear-end while still maintaining a life-or-death grip on the railing, forming a triangle-like shape with his entire body. He looked as if he couldn’t decide whether to stand up or collapse to the ground.
There was a clear route to an image here; I could have put my camera directly in his face for a very raw, intimate portrait because he wasn’t coherent enough to know what was happening. I saw the image in my head as clear as any other I’d taken before. The shadows, heavy contrast, and level of grain; it would be in black & white, too, no other way. But every time I reached for my camera — even as the 3 train began to pull into the station — I couldn’t bring myself to actually take a shot. I couldn’t even take a step towards this person. Along with everyone around me, I was immobilized by staring at the man who was dancing with a partner he couldn’t control.
This could have been someone’s friend, family member, father, and he was clearly having a worse time than I was. I knew that in 20 minutes I’d be back in my apartment making dinner and maybe watching an episode of Broad City, safe and sound. But where would he be? As the train came to a screeching, slow halt, he began to gently lift himself into an upright position because he was startled by the sound of the subway, not because he suddenly came-to. Once the doors closed I immediately began wrestling with my decision. I was disappointed I didn’t even try to get a shot without his face in it, but I also was proud that I stuck to my values, to my intentions. Sometimes moments like this should be documented but in this context…what message would I (or anyone with a camera) be sending, what story would I be telling? Would a shot like that actually push the street photography conversation forward or would it just be satisfying my own interest for an eye-catching picture to add to the ~aesthetic~ of my portfolio? The job of every creative is to find a story worth sharing but not if it comes at another person’s expense, not for a handful of likes and hashtags, especially if the subject of the artwork doesn’t have the agency to explain themselves. I’m not one to preach about what an artist should or shouldn’t do when given an opportunity to create. All I’m saying is that there’s a fine line between photojournalism and photographic exploitation.
I hope he got the help he needed and I hope he didn’t miss the last train home.