Documentary: Street Photos

Since moving full time to NYC in 2015, I have spent countless hours roaming the city streets and subways at all hours, trekking to and from nanny gigs, photography gigs, theatre gigs, you name it. I have lived all over New York in various sublets, in many neighbourhoods. Six years here, and I’m still fascinated by New York’s churning energy. Even in the aftermath of Covid, as we sleep so restlessly now, it still festers beneath the surface.

Street and documentary photography has been my ongoing project for some time. Growing up in a rural, homogenous area of Pennsylvania, I hungered for diversity and interesting people, gorging upon a feast of Gordon Parks, Dorothea Lange, Diane Arbus, and Lewis Hine. I’m from a working class background, and want to tell the stories of the Everyman. I came to NYC with the intent to do what my predecessors did: create compassionate portraits of a society on the brink of collapse…and hope to rouse enough empathy for people to act.

Perhaps this was too lofty a goal. Society did indeed collapse: I watched it happen in the streets in real time; looking through my archive feels like cranking one of those old-fashioned nickelodeon machines.

To say I’m emotionally haunted by my own work is an understatement. Examining these photos tells two stories: the one I observe and document, and the unseen one I experienced during that moment. Sometimes I completely dissociated, sometimes I was threatened, but to be quite truthful most of the experiences were mundane and it only dawned on me later how messed up they were. These are everyday sights in NYC that most people ice out of their minds.

I have witnessed amazing compassion and absolute tragedy in this city; the numbingly mundane (smoke breaks, kids playing) is constantly mixed with jarring horror (sudden death, cruel class disparity) in city life. I’ve sat with ODs and the unconscious until the ambulances (eventually) arrived, witnessed cops throw a drunk homeless man against a wall like a rag doll, encountered people literally rotting, seen people assaulted and cuffed, watched helplessly as a homeless man died suddenly of a heart attack on the street. It has felt at times like combat photography, a maddening message no one cared to listen to – and yet, for so long, I felt a compulsion to relentlessly record it. This body of work has not come without thoughts of guilt, philosophical questioning, and despair.

No one ultimately wanted these intense images; no one knew how to save the subjects. I certainly didn’t, and sometimes I wonder why I even recorded these stories. Maybe it was to really face the fact over and over that this is the truth of the American “dream” under late capitalism.

I have complex PTSD to work through; revisiting everyday horrors frozen forever is not something I’m always able to mentally tackle. I am, quite frankly, more comfortable with the dead than with the abandoned. I have no idea what to do with this work, other than sit on them until they, too, fade into the realm of historical artifact. So many ghosts.