Question

Rene Outside

I don’t know. The question: why do I take these pictures? What is it for….I have trouble articulating why I do these things. The closest I can come to answering would be to say that it blows my mind, so many little unwritten stories, unseen and therefore invisible to most. Sometimes I find that these brief stories are analogous to a little window, like something out of a Madeleine L’Engle story….a magical aperture that allows a glimpse into a detail. A detail, a small occurrence, a bump on the road….or a face imbedded in a sea of many. This little window can illuminate a brief sequence of events that may be relatively insignificant but profoundly meaningful at the same time….if only to the one experiencing it. How many stories are out there…captivating and tragic and beautiful and absorbing, as each of our lives is. My intense, daily experiences are my own….and remain with me until I die. When that happens, they’ll die with me.

So why not tell a little story? A little big story of somebody else’s life, just a few pictures and words.

I found out that Rene was something of a regular visitor to the McDonald’s on Canal Street, stopping in to read his paper and drink coffee. I went back, and spoke to a guy who knew Rene when I showed my pictures….and he said he hadn’t seen him since the holidays, come to think of it. Robin said that he normally sees Rene in the subway at night as well….So whatever happened that day was more significant than I realized at the time.

EMS

Rene struggled to stay upright and balanced. My last picture of Rene.

Christmas Day….Assumption.

Rene In McDonald’s, Canal Street

I had agreed to meet someone to take some pictures on Christmas Day. I don’t generally prefer to wander with other people for the purpose of shooting street photos because I find that the distraction causes me to miss pictures. It was a very cold Christmas Day, and I went to the meeting place, the McDonald’s on Canal Street. Many people were packed into the place, taking refuge from the strangely penetrating cold air. I saw someone, hunched and swaying over a meal, and of course, I instantly assumed him to be homeless. I wondered if he was drunk, and sleeping in the relative warmth or just fatigued from a night in an edgy shelter situation….my assumptions were incorrect I learned later.

Rene tries to stay alert

He seemed to be struggling to stay awake, or conscious, or so my assumptions went. I felt that inexplicable drive to take his picture, and I crouched near him, despite being moderately embarrassed to be seen by others as I did so. Why did I feel this way? Because I hadn’t yet spoken to him, and I was uncomfortable taking his image in this situation without having first communicated with him. I thought that the picture was important enough to steal, and so I did. For whatever unknown reason, some people just hit me and once I lock on I don’t stop.

Rene’s Eyes

I roused him and asked if he needed something. I told him he was falling asleep in his sandwich. Can I get you something? He was slurred a bit, and seemed out of sync with the surrounding hustle and noise of the McDonald’s foot traffic. He was very disturbed by the constant cold draft of the entrance, and couldn’t make peace with the icy blasts that punctuated nearly every moment. His eyes were beautiful and warm and kaleidoscopic. Instantly engaging, and at odds with my initial assumptions. They were alert, and warm, and happy to see me. And it was Christmas Day….and his happiness at seeing me was irresistible.

hot coffee

He wanted hot coffee and I hustled to get it for him. My friend had by this time arrived, a fellow street photographer, and he gave him some fresh orange juice. It was a strange paradox, my assumptions of drunkenness, mental illness, or monumental fatigue caused by too many nights without shelter. I feel stupid now….as I sat, I realized that he didn’t smell of alcohol. His eyes told a different story. He was able to follow the conversation and, although his physical self behaved otherwise, his eyes conveyed no slouch, or sleepiness, or anything at all aside from a pleasant warmth at being the center of attention on a cold Christmas Day in the McDonald’s on Canal Street.return

We left to wander Chinatown. I told Rene I’d come back to check on him later in the afternoon….I figured he’d be long gone by the time I returned. I didn’t last long outside…perhaps two hours. The cold destroyed me that day….I could not get myself together. I apologized to my friend, because I just wanted to go home. My obligation to Rene and my cold fingers directed my footsteps, and I found myself back in the McDonald’s, and saw that Rene had never finished his orange juice, or his coffee, and was slumped insensible. This was odd, and after this picture, I roused him once more.

This McDonald’s and many others serve as a refuge for homeless people. The two women in the background, Jennetta and Christine, explained to me. They suggested that I help Rene to the shelter located on Lafayette Street. I hadn’t intended on doing anything of the kind until they made the suggestion, I admit. They were right, and I realized that it was Christmas and in no way appropriate to leave him in this condition. I guess I would’ve sat with him for an hour or two….but it wouldn’t have occurred to me to take him to shelter. And I’m sorry to say that I should have figured that out on my own, and didn’t. Thanks to Jennetta and Christine, Rene did get help.

With my friend’s assistance, Rene made it out of the McDonald’s. It became clear immediately that he never was drunk, or fatigued, or just another shapeless homeless guy that we all skirt past every day in New York and Los Angeles and everywhere else. He told us, in strangely slurred speech, that he had an apartment. He was, however, entirely unable to control his movements, and lacked even enough basic balancing skill to remain upright without falling over. He dropped his orange juice on Canal Street, and, along with the juice, exploded in frustration and dismay when he did so. He nearly fell on his head and I knew that he may have had a stroke and been unable to communicate his condition, and that he had taken refuge in the McDonald’s because he was unable to help himself or speak sequentially long enough to interest someone in order to get help. And….all those assumptions that we all make, every day. Assumptions about each other that can blind us to the most obvious situations. Put Rene in a small town coffee shop on Christmas Day and I believe he would’ve been hospitalized far sooner. So many people saw Rene, including me, and concluded that he was a homeless person and therefore beyond reach or sympathy. So he had sat in the McDonald’s for many many hours, until management kicked us all out and I realized that it was time to call 911.

Once EMS arrived, we were able to coax him into allowing himself the luxury of being cared for. The EMT’s were two strong and comforting men, and we let him go. I took a few pictures….but I’m not sure if I’ll use them in this entry. There is one I’ll consider. I don’t generally take pictures of people who are injured on the street or involved in any way with EMS. It’s unfair to do so in my opinion….

I haven’t seen Rene since Christmas Day. I’ve checked the McDonald’s twice….I’m nearby as I write this, and I’m thinking that today, January 9, 2018 at 11:01 a.m. Eastern Standard Time that I’ll go back and check that McDonald’s, just to see. I told him I would. I hope I see him again.

I’ll keep checking until enough time passes and I give up….but every time I pass the place, as long as I’m in New York City, I’ll peek inside, just in case.

2018: Wishes.

serendipity

Wish Number One: Serendipity. Are occurrences like these two standing together in this moment a gift from the heavens? Or just naturally occurring, serendipitous acts of randomness and nature? I don’t know. But this kind of serendipity and the ability to recognize it instantly is definitely at the heart of street photography. Did I tell the child to stand there? No. Luck? Another word for Serendipity with the addition of hard work. I often worry that pictures like this one are gifts from some higher power…but truthfully? They are a product of an environmental alchemy that produces true gold when the right basic elements come together….and I hope to be a witness.

simplicity

Wish Number Two: simplicity in Street Photography. This image made me crazy when it happened in front of me. I couldn’t believe my eyes! I only wish I had been using RAW in my camera–this is JPEG, as are all of my early images.

Much of what I see on social media that attains popularity are images that are heavily influenced by the photographers who craft them. I use the word “craft” for a reason. Smoky condensation, rivulets of moisture, streetlights and random body parts inserted into images of the street can be termed pleasantries, but solid street photography, at its core and in the best of circumstances, should be the use of elements that naturally occur in public places, juxtaposed in order to create a narrative or make a simple but elegant statement of time and place, artistically, organically, and without pretext. Or with pretext if that’s part of what an individual artist needs to implement in order to make a point. Using subjects, clothing, facial expressions, signage and whatever else is at hand to create a sense of social irony or to make an individual artist statement makes a memorable image….So style is great! Style and artifice are two different colors, though…..Artifice makes me sad, and the acceptance that this artifice in Street Photography has gained in social media and in some photographic outlets makes me sadder.

vision

Wish Number Three: visions.

They don’t always come. I got one here: I saw it in my mind, and scrambled to position myself to compose this image. I only wish the car at the top of the ramp had been a bit further advanced into the exit which would have bumped the narrative elements here: the blind men, guiding one another, in the crosshairs of the advancing automobile.

Unfortunately, these visions sometimes occur to me after I leave a scene. Sometimes I don’t see the picture I should’ve taken until after I’ve left it behind….sometimes I see it minutes later, sometimes hours! What frustrates me is the image that I know I could have, would have, should have nailed…..if only I’d seen it at the time!

trust

Wish Number Four: that I’m able to gain the trust it takes to photograph someone on the street, in a completely impromptu and unpredictable circumstance. This is an intimate photo done on a very public, Downtown Los Angeles street (5th Street between Main and Spring). Trust is everything and I don’t often find it here in New York…or maybe it’s me. Maybe I don’t care enough to aggressively foster it. Maybe my heart has not been captivated……

truth

Wish Number Five: truth. I wish that more popular street photography included on the fly, randomly occurring juxtaposed elements….I’m seeing lots of popular images on social media that are clearly concocted by the photographers who shoot the picture. Condensation, rivulets of moisture, random body parts thrust into a carefully composed scene that reeks of artifice don’t capture the essence of the genre–they are created to capture “likes” from average users. Hooks, like those found in hit songs, are used in images too. They create a big hit on social media, and get lots of attention. My pictures as well….I keep it simple and real and it’s always a natural occurrence but some of the images that I’ve created that have received many, many “likes” are images with a strong hook, and definitely not my best work or even what I would point to with any great pride. But….although they pleased the taste of many, unfortunately some of these do not represent the best that I have to offer. My random street shots with a strong hook are sometimes some of my best, but sometimes not. There are too many forcefully concocted, gimmicky images that fail to capture the essence of the times that we live in, and this is ultimately going to defeat the art of street photography if we’re not much more careful in what we choose to “like” or promote.

observation

Wish Number Six: the ability to notice the “insignificant”, and the sensitivity not to overlook what matters most, even if only to please myself.

fearlessness

Wish Number Seven: bravery. In bold face….the willingness to feel afraid and jump in anyway. That goes for taking the pictures of course, but what I’m really referring to is the unwillingness to allow the tastes or prejudices or disapproval of other people to dictate or control what I photograph and what I choose to show. The courage not to hide my strongest images out of fear that a photography organization or publication will not feature or choose my work because I’ve got images like this one of Christine in my stash. I hope I never succumb to this subtle form of censorship commonly practiced, the kind of censorship that operates by attempting to shame or exclude work that is rough and hard to look at.

love

My last wish. I hope that I continue to love the people I run across, and that I continue to adore the act of photographing what I see. I hope, with all my heart, that I don’t give up because I became too discouraged by the everyday disappointments that we all encounter. I hope to be able to overlook and ignore what I find distasteful, and instead focus on the aspects of life and photography that capture my soul.