What does this one say to me? I know that when I made it I embarrassed my son, who periodically stated to me as he stood waiting for me to finish that I was looking weird, that people were staring, and that I needed to hustle. I know that I was just off the Rue Rivoli in Paris, and that it was a cool and cloudy August day. I also remember that I thought to myself that fortunately I work out regularly because the leg positions that I had to assume as I photographed this little pigeon from various angles wore me out. But the picture is really about what goes unnoticed in our lives, what we don’t see when we are out living our daily lives….the minutiae that we are oblivious to….Life Underfoot, the title of this portrait. I feel that I’m like this bird sometimes….I walk between the raindrops and wonder if anybody sees me. And then I realize that I’m not really seeing the person standing next to me most times either. I don’t really see anybody with much depth much of the time, with these few exceptions: I see the gypsies, the homeless, the beggars and the thieves….fruit sellers, operating illegally, and strung out Asian prostitutes at metro Belleville. I see the groups of men, mostly Arabic, enjoying tea and coffee and each other’s company in cafes, basking in the late afternoon sunlight. I see little kids, forced to live lives of misery, begging for money….I see them being used on the street and I see well educated Parisians blowing past these little tragedies without a second look. And….I see myself sometimes doing the same. This is of course only a partial list…but what it leaves out to a great degree are the people and creatures that to me represent complacency. The people that I feel the most energy from, and who motivate me the most are far from complacent and predictable. The others? They will forever be excluded. This little bird was ill, and, with the cigarette butts and street grime and bird shit, creates a little postcard from way down below the radar.
As you walk toward Pigalle, on the opposite side of the street as The Moulin Rouge, there’s a massive Carrefour supermarché. It’s awesome, and clean, and very well stocked. The whole neighborhood knows this, and the place is packed. When you walk out after buying your groceries, you can sometimes see Annabella sitting with Danisa, her daughter, and sometimes her son, Mario, who’s nine. They are three, and they are just a few of the hundreds of beggars seen throughout Paris. Not all asking for money are hungry. Some of them are clearly housed and fed and clean, and it’s common knowledge that they take advantage of the naïveté and ignorance of the tourists who mass in certain areas of Paris. Sometimes I get a little bit tired of the cloying, false phrasing and ersatz, dulcet tones of these panhandlers, many of whom use their children as monnaie bait, hoping for sympathy and handouts. But there are even more who are legitimately on the street, and sleeping outside in small to medium sized groups. At twilight, you can see them setting up little camps in out of the way spots in the city to sleep, and there are nearly always children present. These people are not faking it, and they can be identified by their worn, dirty clothing, skin lesions, weathered faces and a definite lack of pretense as they sit silently with a paper cup or plastic container for people to give them some monnaie (euros, in the form of coins). I watched an older woman today, sitting on the Boulevard Sebastopol. She looked like a stereotype or, more precisely, an archetype. She was so ancient in a way, her demeanor, her facial structure, skin tone and style of dress, that you could almost believe that she had stepped out of a turn of the century photograph of a Romanian or Bulgarian gypsy from some village forgotten by time. She sat, nearly toothless, in late middle age, with a hopeless, blank stare and yet, as other women passed her by on the sidewalk I observed her looking at their clothing and shoes, which were of an unattainable quality and price that could only preempt even the most modest daydream of ever actually owning what the rest of us take for granted every day. I watched an equally destitute older man, speaking Bulgarian, walk to her and tear his sandwich apart to offer her half.
These two pictured are hungry. I know it for sure, and it’s an unbelievable stress that’s apparent in all but a few of the photos I took of them. This one is much less stressed and guarded, but Annabella is constantly watching passerby, to ensure the safety of her children and to be able to anticipate any negative action that could have a destructive impact on her or her children.
(Paris near Pigalle)….of panhandlers that make me uncomfortable, and achingly self conscious as I walk past them. I’m unwilling most times, in passing, to part with spare change. My son chastises me when I do, telling me that we need our money. He’s right, we do. But I find myself giving my money out to people who grab my attention….in this case, for these two beauties, 4€ and one whole roast chicken and some Vittel. I can’t afford this generosity quite honestly but really, I can when I consider how little they have. I mean, yes, they are “Les roms” as they are known in France. And yes, there are those that are scary and difficult. I see groups of them in Paris and have had a few memorable occasions with men who were bent on taking my camera. But not everyone reacts to generational poverty by pursuing a life of larceny. I watch men, French men, often older, outright bullying young gypsy women on the street. Knocking into them, throwing garbage at them, spitting. They are very vulnerable and some react by becoming so tough and hardened that it’s nearly impossible to detect whatever softness and light might be left, and connection with most of the hardcore street gypsies is nearly impossible. We are not real to them, just a means to an end. They’re completely isolated socially from mainstream society. But when you observe them together, in small groups, you can see that they have each other’s backs. It’s really a tragedy, that it’s often such a separation between different groups of people. Such a trite sentence, that last. But it really is, a true tragedy.
Her emptiness struck me, as I attempted to make eye contact….it’s a strange expression not typically encountered in children. It’s a total disconnection. A disturbing sense that there’s no more left, and nothing left in there to reach. I don’t believe this to be absolutely true, and with hard work they could be found, and repaired….but there’s no such thing in this world, not in this strangely hellish place for persons without family, in an ethnic minority, and in a place with an ancient racism that has its roots buried deep within people. There’s nobody to repair them, and no effective social service network to render the amount of aid necessary to begin the task of removing the barricades in place that form immovable obstruction. Police are supposed to pull them off the street, and I’ve witnessed this once, with two Syrian girls. At the time, I thought they would be immediately returned to their mother, but I know now that that may not have been the case. Romani kids are not on the radar here. They are the lowest of the low in Europe, and here in Turkey these children are treated with an unnerving form of derision, one reserved for the helpless and uneducated children of parents who are part of an underclass that lives and breathes in conditions that would be considered completely unacceptable in the year 2017 in the United States. These children are at times running wild, barefoot and dirty, and possessing a rare abandonment in their play….unrestricted by social folkways, and completely unsupervised at times, playing at ATM machines, harassing street vendors, gleefully fleecing the unwary when an opportunity comes their way, and if they’ve been taught how to pickpocket successfully. People commonly regard them with withering looks, or completely ignore them, no matter whether they’re as young as five, skinny and dirty and alone at night….speaking to them in tones far worse than anything I’ve yet seen leveled at one of the many street dogs visible here. I can’t speak to parental responsibility, because that’s something I cannot articulate as I haven’t followed anyone home….it seems that, no matter who the ultimate responsibility lies with, the children live in barracks built with racism, neglect and dirt. The dirt is a grime that only the most ancient of cities is capable of producing, one that is not easily washed away….and in any case never will be, as bath and shower time seems to be an impossible luxury for most.
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.
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.