Not sure if even I get this. A weeping, begging creature that defies belief. Outside Bloomingdale’s on the corner of 59th and Lex. Is this for real? Sunday, shopping (or walking around looking at ‘stuff’ is what it really is) with my wife who for some apparent reason likes to do this sort of thing. And there is this person. This ‘homeless’ woman wrapped in bed sheets and crying. Maybe I am getting a little too cynical, maybe the streets of New York have hardened me to what to expect, but I am not quite so sure about this one. After going into a couple of shops (shopping duty) I had to run back (much to my wife’s ‘here we go again’ look) and take more photos. The photographer in me took over and I had to go back and look again at this poor woman who had captivated my heart. She was gone? This is what the ‘street’ is made of and why I chose to do what I do. I have my doubts as to how genuine her position was, I have no idea why I feel this way, but forgive me if I have got this wrong. If this is real, it shakes me to the core.
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.
I know I paint a picture of doom and hopelessness on the streets of New York. There is obviously another side to the American dream here, failed or otherwise. NY Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week is a sprawling, glittering circus of opulence and swagger and where I mostly earn my living. It is a corporate sponsored glam-fest where the movers and shakers in the world of fashion vie for pole position to grace the major retail outlets across the globe. PR companies, Designers, Hair and Make-up artists and some of the worlds most sought after models spend a few weeks of each year maximizing their potential and reaping the rewards. What they squander on refreshments would keep more than a few homeless families warm and fed for a year, and there is my dilemma. The two ends of this amazingly complicated human spectrum fascinates me, we are all the same at the beginning of our existence, but by the time our journey is coming to its end the differences made by the choices we have made, the society we have found ourselves in and the people who have influenced our lives are incalculable.
MBFW is over the top, crass, egocentric and some would consider it a massive waste of time, money and media coverage. It is also a necessary extravagance. Far removed from what is happening to others who spend their lives struggling to live from one day to the next. The lost and invisible are left behind while the lucky and gifted will soar into financial realms that are way beyond the average persons dreams. For ‘us’, in the middle of that swinging pendulum it helps to give some clarity our own perception of where we are in the great scheme of things as we focus on the important issues that, no matter how irrelevant to others, make our lives manageable and hopefully content. I am fortunate to play a small part in both worlds, photography is massively important to me, it drives me with a passion and the process continues to thrill me with every click of my (rather battered) Canon 5D.
As part of the ‘Homeless in America’ series, the Al Jazeera America network has filmed a short documentary on the wide ranging contrasts of my street/homeless photography and my work in the fashion industry, due to air very soon. If anyone has an interest in why, how and where I shoot the images I capture I would be happy to let you know when the broadcast dates are confirmed.
In keeping with the ‘Lust and Rum’ theme, here are some of my most recent images from ‘another world’. Planet fashion!
The first day of spring in Manhattan, the cold, endless winter seems to have eased its grip on the city and spirits are lifted. The exciting prospect of another long hot summer ahead fills us all with the strength of seasonal change for the better. Once more the homeless are slowly leaving the cramped and miserable conditions of the NYC shelters and moving back onto the warmer, familiar sidewalks they call home. During 2013 over 111,000 (yes, that’s one hundred and eleven thousand!) individual people at some point sought sanctuary in the New York shelter system. 40,000 of them were children, stunning! In fact, 1 in 3 children in this City live below the poverty line? How is that possible.
Gradually, familiar faces re-appear on the streets, more and more every day. An army of cup shakers re-emerge into a New York spring dragging their belongings with them to take up their vantage points to watch the world pass by.
Statistics: Coalition for the Homeless
This is not an overnight thing. These deep layers of grime in the skin take years not months to develop. I know this man, I have seen him for the last 6 years, spoken to him, bought him a coffee or two. He has always been polite but I got the feeling he would rather have not been engaged in conversation. He has never been clean, always alone and usually asleep. I have heard people remark that the ‘homeless’ are lazy, usually drunk or drugged up to the eyeballs and always trying to get something for nothing, I guess some are. The reality for most of them is that to sleep at night invites hideous intrusions into their lives that we can only imagine the horror of, so they sleep during the day. The night is a safer place, a complete reversal of how most of us live our lives. Night is for being on your guard, for having to be alert, for looking over your shoulder and hoping you survive for another day. Another day to be stepped over, ignored or ridiculed.
This photograph was taken in August 2013 and I have only just realized that I have not seen him since then. I really hope he made it through the bone chilling cold that New York has suffered and has not become yet another member of Hart Island’s growing population. To point a camera at someone who could survive for a year on what it cost to buy is a humbling experience for me. I understand the paradox.
It is a hard call, but grime is only skin deep.
A new year, another chance to dream of things to come. A new purpose and determination to right the wrongs of our day to day existence, to stick to our resolutions and be better human beings for the people we love and love us. We change the things we can, we find a way to cope with the things that evade our control and we dig deep inside ourselves to climb above the obstacles that life puts in our path. I just cannot imagine opening my eyes every morning to the stark reality of ‘nothing’. No shoulder to lean on when the journey gets tough, no arms to get lost inside and to feel the comforting safety of their embrace. No laughter shared, no hand to reach for when the storm comes, no reassuring voice telling you that it really will all be okay and not to worry. To live without these simple things, things that we take for granted would bring the best of us to our knees. The strength of the human spirit is remarkable in its ability to carry on regardless of how hard the struggle to survive has become. The images below demonstrate just how remarkable.
‘To live without hope is to cease to live’ Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoyevsky
Four very different images of the same piece of brick and steel. The Empire State Building has dominated the skyline of New York City since 1931. Named as one of the wonders of the modern world, it stands on 34th street and is a visible icon for the American dream. The most photographed building in the world (according to some) but it has a mood and essence that changes with the seasons. Over the years, a plane has hit it, over thirty people have thrown themselves to their death from it, celluloid gorillas have hung from it, countless films have set their beginning or end here. Some people have even run up the internal staircase with 1576 steps, a record of 9 minutes and 33 seconds to complete the task to reach the 86th floor. Over 100 million people have traveled on its winches and pulleys (that’s an elevator to you, lift to me) at high speed to marvel at the view from the observation deck. If you ever get yourself here, come have a look. From a distance you think ‘Is that it?’ When you get close, it becomes what it is. A magical part of what we want America to be!
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)