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.
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!
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)