Avenue A And 12th Street, East Village, New York City
I left my camera at home and went to the gym after midnight for a workout. My gym is 24 hours and I love going late at night because there are few people in the place and I don’t have to be polite. I generally don’t carry my camera when I go for three reasons: I just don’t feel like it after having carried the thing all day, I’m in desperate need of a break from everyone and everything and, of course, I don’t want it to get stolen. Walking back sometimes by myself at 2 a.m. is pushing the safety limit as it’s on this route that I was physically assaulted last year. Since there’s usually zero photographic interest in anything I see I don’t usually miss the weight of bag and camera on this trip.
But this night was different. I left the gym and made my way home along the relatively quiet streets, a few late night bars along the way so that I didn’t feel isolated. I stopped at a red light at 12th street and Avenue A. As I waited I turned my head and saw a young woman seated on one of two benches placed outside the NY Deli on the corner. She was under a bit of light, and at her feet was a small collection of garbage. The deli is open 24 hours, selling sandwiches and smoothies, snacks, cigarettes….the usual fare. People are in and out under the bright lights near the entrance but this woman was just around the corner on the furthest bench from the doorway. I saw that she was in a stupor–the familiar opioid-induced state of completely suspended animation that I unfortunately observe every day on the street.
It was a strikingly sad image and I immediately knew that it was important for me and that I wasn’t going to have an easy time walking away. I castigated myself endlessly in those moments for having left my camera at home. Because, no matter what the risk or how tired and in need of a break I am I know this: never, ever leave the camera at home. It’s just not worth the agony of endless, obsessive recrimination that comes with having no camera and an image in front of me. I guess it’s not healthy to be this obsessed with taking pictures but the truth is that I am.
And so I stood, observing the scene, trying to tell myself that it was not that important and that absolution was granted, and that I could just return home and forget about this visual tragedy…but as I did, I was creating the image I wanted to make in my mind. I decided on shallow depth of field, focus on her feet and the trash, wide angle lens, fade up to her face, indistinct features that would be somewhat privacy-protective in the final image. I could make my point about the scene and not have a sharp focus on her face.
Two blocks home and I was back with my camera….and I saw that the scene had changed. She was not alone and now had a man next to her, equally vaporized by whatever they had bought in good faith. I was disappointed by the loss of the previous narrative…and then I realized that the image before me was more important than I had at first understood. I felt that this couple, who were clearly not homeless or otherwise a stereotypical depiction of addiction were more powerful because of their ordinary appearance. People who are going to work, on the subway, in the supermarket, in a restaurant….people that are neighbors and friends and sisters and sons. Regular everyday people who went out to buy drugs at night, got sandwiches, and then were overcome by the unexpected power of whatever it was that they ingested as they sat with their late meal. Her hands were beautifully manicured and his accessories were carefully chosen. For me, this is street photography…pictures of life. Pictures of exactly what I see and how what I see is translated by my feelings into an image.
It wasn’t easy to do this one, as the shutter speed had to be very slow and I needed to focus very specifically as the aperture would be bigger. I had a few ideas but needed to be careful as I didn’t want to get harassed as I worked by someone who wouldn’t or couldn’t understand what I was doing. As I worked I observed. As the few people who passed observed the couple, I was interested to see that most had a bemused or sneering expression. The woman was slumped and completely out. The man never moved. A trash truck pulled up at the intersection, stopping at the red light. They hit their powerful horn, yelling and shouting coarse, teasing commands to wake up. This angered me and I walked after the truck, saw that they stopped at a 7/11 for snacks and decided that I had something to say to these guys. I know that I should let these things go and that I need to use better judgment at times, say less, shut my mouth. I ignored common sense and allowed my anger to guide me as I walked the block ahead, and waited by the truck. When they emerged I asked the man I knew had shouted why…why be so cruel? Do you understand that this is a disease? Why bother being mean at 3 a.m.? After an initial denial he expressed his distaste, incredulity and dismay at the sight, especially at the male who was passed out and vulnerable. He said that they should wake up! He told me that he could see vomit and that it was ridiculous. I hadn’t noticed the fact that she had been sick as I was hyper-focused on my task. His vantage point allowed for a more subjective view. And he apologized for his behavior. And then…I understood. They didn’t have the ability as working men to tolerate the sight of another man in a vulnerable state, a state of complete inertia, and they reacted viscerally.
As I walked back towards the couple I realized that there was another woman very close by. She was extremely thin, a little on the tall side, mid thirties. I had seen her earlier as I worked, another woman on the street who was obviously an addict looking for bits and pieces to collect to sell. She was touching door handles, trying to gain access to locked apartment buildings, silently looking to exploit any openings found on her ramble through the neighborhood. I realized she was headed back to the couple and it hit me that she was going to rob them, and that my presence earlier with my camera had prevented her from actively fleecing the two. She walked back and so did I. We reached the deli and she turned to look my way. I watched her as she approached the bench, and I knew that she was going to find the handbag the stuporous woman had wedged between her body and that of her boyfriend. It was this ongoing and bizarre little silent tragedy, unraveling in front of me close to 3 a.m. on a warm summer night two days ago. I saw for the first time that the woman on the bench had been sick and that the truck drivers had not been mistaken. I realized suddenly that they may not be in an average stupor, commonly observed every single day all over the city. I told her to stay away and leave them because it was time to call for help. She was a clever mimic, seemingly concerned but trying to get close enough to take their belongings. I made my call, and told her repeatedly that she had to leave them alone until help arrived. Someone in a passing car offered water, and the would-be thief entered the intersection to take the bottle, using the gift of water as an excuse to get close to the couple. It was unnerving, her persistence and stealth. I told her no water! They’re sick and can’t have any fluids until they’re in the care of EMS. We could hear approaching sirens and, as the first police car pulled up to the corner, she disappeared into the night.
I know now that there were three predators that night. The taunting men, who focused on the man as he appeared on his half of the bench in a state of complete helplessness. The gaunt woman, intent and purposefully targeting the possessions on the female side of that sorrowful bench. And me with my camera, focused on the image and the vision, the story in the picture that will be forever unknown. The families of those in the picture who will never know about their loved ones on this night, their calamity, the stories that happened around them during these minutes. The families that may be unaware of this disease of addiction until entirely too late, a surprise overdose that nobody saw coming.
All of this intersected in one little picture on one night buried in a city full of sleeping people. As I walked home, the couple safely surrounded by EMS workers and police, I wondered for the first time how many people suffered this same loss of control and consciousness. How many does this same thing really happen to, everyday? People in their homes, in front of a television set, in a bathroom, a darkened bedroom, a studio apartment…..unseen. For every public overdose that may or may not result in the administration of Narcan–people either eventually getting up and making their way back to their lives after a near overdose– there are hundreds of people who are struggling to keep this disease a secret.
This picture is a secret revealing a secret. I’m not sure about this picture because of the nature of the personal tragedy of the situation. I felt compelled to make this image and I think that the narrative is important despite the loss of privacy and the nature of the exploitation involved in creating the picture. Documentary photography is documentary photography, whether it’s done in a plague-or-famine-ravaged landscape depicting starving people without clothes in an impoverished country far far away, a war zone, or a city street in an affluent community in the United States.