Well ….. It has been a while. Living got in the way, again! Took a job photographing high (and low) end apartments in NYC and I have to say I love it and it turns out I am rather good at it. Who knew? Anyway, as journeys go, this is ongoing and the irony of it makes me laugh, strangely. Not strangely laugh, but I guess you know what I mean. The irony of that is not lost on me. The streets here still intrigue me and my camera is still always at my side. New York is real (estate) in my hands. Please read on …………………
You can only imagine when you look out over the rooftops of New York City what lies beneath. Like flying over the canopy of a concrete and steel rainforest. You know that there is a whole world going on down there even if you can’t always see it. Millions of different stories acted out with passion, joy and pain every minute of every day of every year, all intertwined but all somehow oblivious to each other. A great heaving metropolis, all life is here.
I find it hard to believe that I have now lived and worked as a photographer in NYC for eight years. It has gone by in the blink of an eye and yet it feels like I have been here forever. Amazingly, the city continues to grow. When it seems impossible for it to expand any further yet another massive temple to the mega wealthy stretches its floor to ceiling windows up and out of reach of the lower income hoards who can only walk in its shade. And if I am really lucky, I am sometimes employed to photograph them. But the streets and the lives that give them character still hold my heart.
There are, of course, apartments that you would want to wipe your feet on the way out of. Bug infested rat holes that would benefit more from a wrecking ball than a photograph. But, at the other end of the scale, there are plenty of magnificent apartments where you feel that you have been privileged to have been invited in to photograph. Some are absolutely breathtaking. Architectural art forms and lasting tributes to the designers and lifestyle experts whose vision and skill is to be admired. You can only imagine the wealth it takes to live like this. but it must be an existence that leaves no room for spilling soup on the carpet, dropping crumbs on the Egyptian Cotton sheets or leaving your socks under the coffee table. Not for me, I think I may be far too messy!
Meanwhile, down below, some have to settle for a great deal less. No magnificent views, no heated marble floors, no comfort of choice and privilege, no comfort of any kind. And the numbers grow, the division between the haves and the have nots is a gaping chasm that widens by the day. New York City is a social dichotomy and that is not going to change any time soon. No one can deny the people who are wealthy their slice of a very expensive cake. Why not live in splendor and enjoy the success they have earned. But for the many who have never had the chance or blew it when they did, it is hard to view without questioning the injustice.
Unfair? A travesty? A shame on a society that allows this to happen? Who knows. I guess there is no balanced way in which ‘we’ all get a share of the wealth and everyone gets to be equal(ish). There will always be winners and losers. That is the nature of our existence. All we can hope for is that we don’t fall down any cracks and get left behind because very few will stop to help. Style and social elegance is the order of the day, not begging passers by for food or spare change. Very uncool (evidently) and quite an inconvenience by the look on some peoples faces when they are approached by the less fortunate on the streets.
‘Home’ can mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people. From the transient existence of living under a bridge to the cosseted warmth and security of a mansion in the sky. ‘Overlooking Central Park’ is a main selling point for the properties that surround that famous piece of grass. It always makes me smile. Having walked through many times in the middle of a summer night and seen the hundreds of homeless trying to find some comfort under the bushes or on a secluded bench. I guess the ‘overlookers’ would need some very powerful binoculars and perhaps a reality check to understand this vantage point in New York City is not all it seems.
The contrast between people, their lifestyles and what their journey entails is a constant source of fascination to me. From the movers and shakers who sit at the center looking out on a rich and fruitful future to the hopeless lost souls that teeter on the very edge of existence, hanging on by their fingertips. It is a strange world and I know I am lucky to see the many variations of what fate and social circumstance can hand out. It intrigues and captivates me. Long may it continue to do so.
All images: © Anton Brookes 2015
I decided to limit the number of posts I put out, thinking that perhaps the people who read them had reached overload with the dark and hopeless situations I photograph. It was never meant to be ‘pretty’ but reading the blogs of other photographers who fill their ‘space’ with joy, hope and beauty I was beginning to feel like the boisterous, drunken neighbor who has gatecrashed a Brady Bunch family BBQ. That does not mean I have stopped photographing the streets of New York City just that I have been keeping the images to myself. Then I came across this man. At 51st and Lexington he trotted up and down the entrances to the Subway. Down the stairs, up the other side, across the road, down the stairs, up the other side, across the road …. An endless, circular, pointless march. A path that made me think of the behavior some captive caged animals display when ‘stir crazy’ kicks in through being deprived of their natural environment. So I followed him, now there were two of us rising above and falling below the streets of NYC. He always avoided eye contact with anyone who stood in his way and waited patiently, almost apologetically, giving them the right of way until he could continue the quest that only he could understand. Blank faced and dead eyed. His skin looked burnt, like a charred pepper, it was years of accumulated filth and grime ingrained from sleeping in the doorways and back alleys of the city. I can only imagine his story, the road he has traveled that brings him to this point in his life, I have a feeling that just scanning the highlights of it would give most of us a few sleepless nights .
I love (‘love’ is probably the wrong word, I hope you know what I mean) the body shape in this image. So tired and weary, his head tilted down depicts total desolation and despair for me. A hopelessness that mirrors his awkward limbs and the tight grip on the handrail that stops him falling, although I fear that falling is something close to familiar in his world. I left him to continue his compulsive journey wondering at what point he gives up and moves somewhere else, if indeed he does. This could be it, the perpetual circle he travels every waking moment of every day. I will look for him the next time I pass this way.
I guess I will never lose the amazement I find in the sheer volume of people living on the streets here. They are not hard to find and I never set out with the purpose of photographing them. They are everywhere, like moth-eaten clothes pegged out on a frayed rope, alone and exposed to whatever the elements throw at them. It strikes me as I am writing this that I rarely see groups of homeless people together. Apart from lines at hostels and soup kitchens they are almost always alone! I suppose that begging in two’s or three’s is obviously a non starter, the trauma of being surrounded by a group of homeless people shaking cups at them would make most people run for their lives. But not all homeless people spend their day begging. The man above did not once ask any passerby for anything, nor did any of the good people of New York he came across offer a few dollars without being asked, despite the obvious horror of his situation and why should they. I did (I’m not looking for a round of applause here) and he took it and nodded without looking up. Below are some other images taken on the same day.
It is odd how we gravitate to the places that are familiar to us and we feel comfortable in regardless of the harsh conditions that ‘place’ may bring. For all of you who remember the ‘Small Change’ blog of July 2013 http://wp.me/p2mncz-lt, here’s an update. The rain was lashing along Lexington Avenue, sending shoppers scurrying for home and a dry change of clothes. All but one, Small Change was already ‘home’. Wrapped up in recycling bags against the rain and determined not to be washed away.
‘And so, my fellow Americans – ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.’ : John Fitzgerald Kennedy, January 20th 1961
Between Subway lines at 51st-53rd Street, New York City, May 2014.
I’m beginning to think that I am the only one who sees this. If everyone sees it why don’t they speak out? Why can’t the powers that be avert their eyes for a second from monitoring the New York Stock Exchange, stop the corporate back slapping and take a good look around. The levels of homelessness here in Manhattan is astonishing, the gap widens daily between having it all and having nothing. Increasingly, the people that have struggled to stay above the poverty line now swish around helplessly in a whirlpool of empty pockets as they spiral down and out through a gold encrusted plughole with an ‘I ♥ NY logo’ engraved on it. The whole structure of the shelter system is crumbling, unable to cope with the growing demand for accommodation. These decaying and sparsely funded ‘hovels’ are a disgrace to any city, let alone one that claims to have the ‘crossroads of the world’ at its heart. It is no wonder that sleeping on the streets of Manhattan is an option that most would choose rather that the terror and greater humiliation of the 21st equivalent of the ‘workhouse’. No big surprise then that a cardboard mattress and an old coat offers more security and comfort. The charities and organizations that try to offer help and support are being squeezed into submission due to lack of the financial assistance that would made a real difference. Even animals go back and help the stragglers of the herd. We have a lot to learn from them.
These images were taken during one journey of a few square miles.
Not sure if even I get this. A weeping, begging creature that defies belief. Outside Bloomingdale’s on the corner of 59th and Lexington. Is this for real? This ‘homeless’ woman wrapped in bed sheets, her face stained with tears. Maybe I am getting a little too cynical, maybe the streets of New York have hardened me as to what to expect, but I am not quite so sure about this one. After walking a few blocks, I had to turn around and go back to look again at this poor, unfortunate woman. She was gone? This is what life on the ‘street’ is all about and why I choose to do what I do, but this image of despair was almost Dickensian and shocking in so many ways. I have no idea why I feel so reluctant to accept this as ‘real’ perhaps it is too real. Shame on me if I have got this wrong. And shame on New York City if this is her reality. It shakes me to the core either way.
My Homeless/Fashion piece aired today on the Al Jazeera America network. The feature is part of an ongoing series about the more than 600,000 Americans who are living in shelters or on the streets of towns and cities across the United States. A staggering number that heaps shame on a society that not only let it happen but seem completely at a loss as to how to rectify the damage. There will always be a percentage of people who either pointblank refuse to be part of the system or are simply incapable of inclusion due to psychological problems, drug and alcohol dependency or other reasons beyond most of our comprehensions, but that is a lame excuse for doing nothing about it. Some have no brake to the downward spiral and end up stuck in an existence where fairness and justice play no part. Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week is a huge contrast to life below the line and one I find just as compelling in its own ridiculous way.
Click on the image below to see a short video of what I see through my lens on the streets of New York and at MBFW.
Vulgar of manner, overfed, Overdressed and underbred, Heartless, Godless, hell's delight, Rude by day and lewd by night; Bedwarfed the man, o'ergrown the brute, Ruled by boss and prostitute: Purple-robed and pauper-clad, Raving, rotting, money-mad; A squirming herd in Mammon's mesh, A wilderness of human flesh; Crazed by avarice, lust and rum, New York, thy name's "Delirium."
Byron Rufus Newton (1861-1938)