As she walked toward me I felt compelled to grab a few impressions immediately….I no longer bother to ask myself why I do this. I do it because there are certain groups of people that I’m fascinated by, and it’s usually an interest based in my own feelings about my life, especially as a child, and my residual anger over the way things were for me. I’m no crusader, but when I see these broken faces–and I can spot them a long way off– I react by trying to take a telling photo. Before photography, I would carefully observe, and I always felt that something was off, that there was something missing that I should be doing. The camera that I now carry with me at all times was, in those days, a phantom limb that ached and burned, its absence felt but not understood…..now, as a photographer, I like to observe and record simultaneously, having finally discovered this missing piece of myself.
These girls, in this case Romani (gypsy) are professional beggars. Some have been taken from their places of origin, and are used on the street and managed by what can only be described as handlers, mostly in my observation men, who watch over them, and sometimes collect money in tourist locations ostensibly in their behalf, but that is the ruse. The children are used as props to attract attention, and are sometimes the victims of kidnapping. These kids don’t see much of anything around them, and they wander…. a peculiar sort of wandering that combines random meandering toward various people to ask for money, and a strange urgency. I now realize that they must collect money, and that in many cases, the child does not directly benefit from collected funds. It’s handed over to an adult. The children can be seen at all hours, sometimes in groups and sometimes alone. And when I say alone, I mean alone…..at night, mostly single boys as young as five years old, wandering the busy and unstable streets of downtown Istanbul.
Sultanahmet, Istanbul June 10, 2017
So when does it stop being street photography and start being described as…..what? It’s always street photography to me in truth, because it’s what I see. Street photography for me, when I’m hitting my mark, is at base the attempt to put forth true life pictures, composed and photographed on the fly with the intention of accurately reflecting the juxtaposed elements, contradictions and minuscule happenstances that we all witness each day. I want to see pictures of what a place looks like, and clear representations of those people in the frame. I’m not interested in graphic displays of shadowy photographic manipulation, and I don’t feel compelled to question or contemplate photos that are abstracts of reality if they exclude all personal elements in favor of easier pictures intended to showcase technical photographic prowess at the expense of intimacy and the sublime nature of interaction. I don’t know what that other kind of street picture is called, but classic street photography it isn’t. It’s mathematical and attractive and and at times brainy…..but easy to pull off when technically correct photography replaces courage and the ability to get close to people without fear.
Her shoes are tightly tied around her ankles by extra large shoelaces, otherwise they would fall off…..after a blessed few pictures the Turkish police swept the two girls into a waiting van to take them somewhere….I know not where. I was only just beginning to see what I wanted out of these moments, to see the images I wanted to create, and was just grasping at and beginning to process my own intent when it was suddenly over. Yet another lesson in acting quickly and urgently because once it’s gone, it’s gone, and it is never, ever going to come back.
June 10, 2017(Sultanahmet) Istanbul, Turkey
It took me a half hour of contemplation before I worked up the nerve to approach these two children. I’ve improvised portraiture on the streets of downtown Los Angeles and worked within situations that were extremely challenging but these two girls just completely humbled me. It’s an interesting concept, the refugee crisis. Because that’s what it is for most of us: a concept, a theoretical abstract that we read about but have never experienced in person. In Europe refugees are everywhere it seems, at least in major cities. When one considers the theoretical abstraction that these very real people have become to those of us who have not witnessed the phenomenon first hand it is nothing when compared with the deeply scarred reality. These two were put on the street in this spot by their mother to beg all day long, under some scaffolding to shield them from the view of the Turkish police. They do not go to school, and their family home in Syria has been destroyed. Their mother is caretaker, their father still in Syria. The girls speak only Arabic, no Turkish, and even through the thick haze of our language barrier it was clear to me that the eldest was savvy and wise well beyond her chronological age. I stumbled on them, the younger sister of about six sleeping, and the older girl, near 11 years of age, nodding off in clear exhaustion.
I have trouble with my own images sometimes. Certainly not because they are objectionable to some people….people who, in my estimation, are likely not those that prefer raw truth in any form and are therefore out of my reach or sympathies. I sit with people and see, hear, smell and feel things that are completely removed from the realm of an everyday suburban American experience. I sometimes can’t believe it when someone relates an event that is, for example, an unjustifiable, random act of cruelty that would only be perpetrated by someone who feels a sense of complacency and impunity. The safety and anonymity brought about by the almost total lack of supervision on these streets, streets that are an almost guaranteed safe haven for sexual predators of all kinds, both the previously incarcerated and therefore in the system kind and the neighborhood dad who lives across the street in any American suburb kind. He walks to school with his elementary school aged children and could be anybody anywhere. Both troll the neighborhood in daylight hours. I’ve also witnessed women I’ve photographed, while in the process with me and my camera, in the street, being approached/solicited by everyday casual-looking women driving along key streets in Skid Row. Sometimes my own naively assuming nature blinds me in the moment, disbelief and naïveté blending with my absolutely selfish desire to bull through any event no matter how disruptive or disturbing in order to create the images that I see before me.
Shooting (top) After (bottom)
One month in the hospital explained why I haven’t seen her. A lung infection that was almost fatal and would’ve been for most….but anybody that can survive a great deal of hard drug use, homelessness and exposure to all kinds of pathogens is much more resilient internally and externally than the rest of us. I thought she looked at her prettiest. She was rested and healthy and spoke with clarity, very little of the intensely rushed and pressured speech that I’d often heard in the past. Her skin was clear and untarnished by blemishes or sores. Although truly underweight–dangerously so–she was logical in her approach to conversation and was a pleasure to spend time with, until a bit later, when I was able to see the accumulated effects of drugs used, stress, and memory.
4th And Towne
Around the corner from the needle exchange we settled down for an extended period one afternoon in March. It was a half grey, half sunny day that was oddly chilly for Los Angeles. I had seen Christine on my way to meet someone else, and as often happens to me, I changed course and forgot completely about my previous intentions and focused all of my attention on this most ephemeral being named Christine. I am learning more and more that I must exercise great care and learn to read carefully the most minor outward indications that may serve as warning that I must tread very, very carefully.
Christine at 6th And Los Angeles Street, Los Angeles
So pale, I had trouble exposing for her skin tone on this bright, harshly lit day. A strangely hazy afternoon, one that was not atmospherically suited to taking great pictures.
Baudelaire Is Everywhere
Christine At 4th And Crocker
Baudelaire is everywhere. And why should anybody be surprised to find an earnest purveyor of his works in this place? I was not.
One Saturday afternoon on Los Angeles street I saw a long, thin woman hunkered down at the corner of 6th and Los Angeles Street. She had a small suitcase and a lot of makeup and was intensely focused on her public grooming ritual on this busy Saturday corner, surrounded by families from the nearby barrios doing their weekend shopping. I don’t generally like to sneak these kinds of candid pictures….I can get what I want by making a conversation happen, and will always seek to do so when I feel that special pull, enticed by a hard to define sense of personal eccentricity in combination with innocence and tragedy that never fails to attract my attention.
Read To Me I was walking along the boardwalk, or, more accurately, what passes for one on the West Coast. Nothing at all like Wildwood or Atlantic City or Coney Island….West Coast is all concrete and lacks for me the timelessness and nostalgia of the East Coast legacy. I was in Pacific Beach when I spotted a hand painted van, cerulean blue, enameled and festooned with acrylic glitter paint and bright, high key purples, blues and pinks. Written were bible passages, psalms and hymns. Little hearts and wings and variously collaged images hand painted in the style of an outsider folk artist. An older woman sat inside the van’s driver seat, happily singing improvised, hand made religious hymns. I asked her if I could photograph her van and she nodded and kept singing. I was reminded of the first few chapters of the Stephen King novel The Stand, one of my all time favorites. A character from the days following Captain Trips….The Dark Man and The Old Woman, the innocence of Tom Cullen along with the depth of regret that characterized Larry Underwood. Some serpentine twists and turns along the neural pathways that govern logic, perception and real time separate her from these characters, but everything else is strongly reminiscent. She invited me to sit inside her floral, potpourri scented van, decorated with odds and ends, scarves and silk flowers and acrylic painted fixtures, all in the same high key colors as on the outside of the van. The scent of potpourri brought me back to my high school days of potpourri burners, dried flowers and essential oils. I felt instantly comfortable, and she began in earnest to read me as clearly as if she were reading a newspaper. Factually, and correctly. In the most unusual of places I find myself being undressed in ways I hadn’t anticipated.
Dance-Ellah I meet a lot of people who are true believers. I don’t know where I fit in with my own beliefs most days….I wish I had a guiding light but try as I might I seem to be unable to locate anything despite my best efforts. So when I meet people like Dance-Ellah I often feel very comfortable because I find that along with the tearful fervor and intense emotion is a personality unconfined by conventional emotional boundaries. Less self consciousness–none, really many times–no fear of revealing all, or almost all…an instantaneous bond that forms between me and someone else that I’ve never met before and may never see again. I don’t feel anything at all when I wander through life with people who don’t have the ability to behave aberrantly and revel in it. Aberration doesn’t always represent a negative state of being or affairs…..sometimes it’s the aberrant ones that are the most memorable and irreplaceable and original. The few minutes I have with people who, because of their own outsider status, can see through me and cut right to the heart of the matter, whether I want them to or not.