During Esteban’s and my recent trip to New York, I noticed a curious development: Although I was surrounded by world-famous landmarks and monuments, I was interested mostly in the people.
I don’t know whether this fascination was a side-effect of my flirtation with street photography, or my love affair with Humans of New York. (If you’ve never heard about the latter, forget my silly blog and go check it out.)
But in spite of my new-found obsession, for the first couple of days I was overcome with shyness and I resorted to my old shoot-from-behind tricks.
Then, a brassy woman in a laundromat changed everything. She blew in like a hurricane as Esteban and I were drying our clothes. “Do you know who’s using this dryer?” she asked the attendant. No response. “DO YOU KNOW WHO’S USING THIS DRYER?” Again, no response.
“If people are going to come live in America they should learn to speak English,” she said to no one in particular. Then she sidled up to me and told me her life story. There was quite a character underneath all that bluster. “May I take your photograph?” I asked. “Sure,” she replied in a rich Bronx-ish accent.
It took me a while to get her to settle down.
But finally, after a minute or two, there was a moment of connection. The result is one of my favorite images from the entire trip.
It was just the shot of confidence that I needed to talk to the cops the next day. I was standing on an overlook in Battery Park when I saw them coming down the path. They looked like two friends out for a stroll, utterly relaxed.
“Hey, officers!” I hollered from my perch. “May I please take your photograph?” They looked puzzled for an instant. “Sure,” said the cop on the right. “Where do you want us?”
“Just as you are,” I replied.
I told them I thought New York cops were the nicest in the world. “They wouldn’t say that in Brooklyn,” quipped the guy on the left. A jogger who overheard the exchange started laughing so hard that she broke her stride.
Then came the kindly tailor who repaired Esteban’s belt for free …
… and the security guy at Katz’s Deli. He had quite a presence.
So did the homeless man I saw in the Financial District. I spotted him from a distance, squatting on the sidewalk among the passing suits (see red arrow).
I was annoyed at the suits’ self-importance as they streamed past the man on the sidewalk without so much as a glance. I don’t remember what I expected to find when I finally reached the homeless man, but it wasn’t this:
His beatific gesture and beautiful smile really moved me. In the minute or two that we chatted, I was struck by his dignity, the strength of his presence, and his gentle humor. If he feels any bitterness toward whatever landed him on the street — or the people who walk past him — it didn’t register on his face.
Not all of my encounters were so poignant, or course. There was this charming lady outside the Guggenheim …
… and this dog in Hillside Park.
When the guy holding the dog heard my shutter, he offered to pose — but I think I like the first frame better.
I also dabbled in some “traditional” street photography, of course. The subway tunnels were especially full of inspiration, even if the metering was a bit challenging.
And because I was out of my natural element, everyone seemed interesting. Even people in the library …
… or waiting for the bus.
New Yorkers may have a global reputation for being feisty and cantankerous, but that wasn’t my experience at all. Almost to a person, I found the humans of New York to be open, engaging, and quick to laugh.
I think Bill Murray sums it up best:
My favorite thing about New York is the people, because I think they’re misunderstood. I don’t think people realize how kind New York people are.
The b/w shot of the Bronx lady is truly one for the books. Well done.
Thanks, Jim! She’s a prime example that some subjects make the photographer’s job very easy indeed. What a character! I only wish I’d gotten my courage up a bit sooner in the trip. But next time. There’s always next time …
Really, really awesome post!
Couldn’t agree more about the friendliness of New Yorkers. For me, the highlight of our trip across the Brooklyn Bridge was (a) the lady cop on Flatbush Avenue who approached us – as we were looking for somewhere to eat – with “How’re you all doin’ there. You look lost.” She then proceeded to direct us to where we would find a range of restaurants and finally shepherded us safely across the street. And (b), in the Jay St station, where we intended to catch the R train back to the city, not realising that work in the tunnel had stopped the service pro tem, another lady offered us unsolicited advice, directing us to the Atlantic Ave station where we could change to a city-bound train. Okay, so these people were in Brooklyn. But then there was the guy on the N train in the city who drew our attention to the fact that the station indicator was out of sync, thereby ensuring that we didn’t get off at the wrong stop. We didn’t ask any of these people for help and yet they offered it out of the kindness of their hearts. I heart New York City.
What wonderful stories, Xpat! You’ve demonstrated even better than I could have that the myth of the grumpy New Yorker is a fallacy. That said, my friend Tom — a true New Yorker — has asked me to please stop broadcasting the niceness of his people. They have a reputation to maintain, after all! 🙂
You are AWESOME. I love your photos and I love your attitude. You know the reason you find New Yorkers open and engaging is, of course, because you are open and engaging first? Although I have to add my own good opinion of New Yorkers. Opinionated, impatient, mouthy, yes; but also warm-hearted, funny and kind to tourists. Sorry Tom. 😉
… and as usual, you are far too kind. But thank you! Your kind words made my day. I do try to be open an engaging — but I think it also helps to be rather diminutive, because most people don’t see me as a threat. Except for those cops. *They* could tell I was trouble from a mile away! 😉
Ah loved this post! Really inspiring…I am visiting London in a few weeks and it makes me want to photograph strangers. I have to agree with DB, I think your attitude and kind nature is what made these photographs so stunning. You really connected with these New Yorkers.
Ooo! London!! Lucky lady, Rochelle. I do hope you’ll consider posting a photo or two? I’d love to see London through your eyes. As for “connecting” with people … well, you’re too kind [she says, blushing]. I often worry that my curiosity will come across as intrusive, but maybe those New Yorkers were as curious about the funny-looking lady with the camera as I was about them. 😉