Bond Street & 64th Street, Southwest Corner

Monday, April 19, 2010

The ethical delegate

Originally posted April 11, 2010

Even after taking tens of thousands of pictures of people out on the streets of Manhattan, I'm still always a little nervous about it. Not so much afraid for my personal safety, though occasionally that too, but mostly, I suppose, a little nagging doubt about the ethics of street photography (more about which in another post, maybe this week). Still, living in the world, especially this one, you get used to making ethical compromises, and street photography at least has the legitimacy of a great tradition behind it.

In late May, 2006, I was working my way through what I think of as the "far" Lower East Side, near the East River. On the afternoon of the 31st, I was doing Cherry, Monroe, Madison, and Henry Streets. Earlier the day had been bright and sunny, but by the time I got to the corner of Rutgers & Madison, it had clouded over and the light was definitely on the dull side. I was tired and I was ready to pack it in for the day.

Perhaps with an older person's prejudices about the young, I had an intuition that there was going to be trouble with the group of kids — I resisted saying "gang" to myself, or tried to — on the southwest corner, but as was my usual strategy, I made a big enough show of what I was about to do — take the picture — to let them know that I knew that they might not want to be photographed and to give them time to turn their backs or get out of the way altogether if that's what they wanted to do.

Instead, they sent a delegate over to speak with me about this.

"What the fuck you doing, motherfucker," he said to me.

Expecting to encounter much more of this sort of thing than I actually ever did, I never went out with the camera without a pocket full of mini-brochures describing the project, what it was about, and so on. So I responded simply "Every street corner on the island of Manhattan — here, you can read all about it," and handed him one of the brochures.

He read it intently, seriously, then looked up at me. "No shit," he said, "wait here a minute," and returned to his friends across the street.

They huddled at some length, occasionally looking up to point at me. I stood there, somehow starting to enjoy myself and this situation, wondering how it was going to turn out.

After a few minutes, the delegate came back over to me, and asked "We want to know, mister, would you take our picture?"

"Sure," I said, "of course."

Back he went to join his friends. They posed and I took the picture. I hope they see it someday, if they haven't already.

Rutgers & Madison Street, Southwest Corner

(I rather prefer the unposed one that I sneaked in before they noticed me, but I feel I owe it to them to use the one they asked for.)

Thanks, guys.

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