June 7, 2004

"Don't take that door!"

Yesterday, photographers protested a proposed ban on photography in the New York Subway system. I've been in NYC the last five days, taking photographs, though not on trains. Why don't I take photographs on trains? I was robbed on a train once, so I'm one of those people who try to be inconspicuous on trains. I certainly don't want to display any valuables, and a camera is a stealable item. But even aside from my vigilance about robbery, I don't want to annoy or intrude on people. People riding the train are trying to endure their little daily ordeal in peace, and it is irritating to be viewed as someone else's subject, even in the tiny subjection that consists of being the subject of a photograph.

I was on a photography walk this morning, wending my way from my 5th Avenue hotel to the block of 91st Street between First and York where I used to live in the early 1970s. Unlike my old 1977-1980 neighborhood--shown here--that neighborhood, which wasn't even nice at the time, has declined. The building I used to live in, then an unrenovated tenement, has become a warehouse. But the nice thing about neighborhoods in decline is that there are a lot of interesting things to photograph. Walking around my hotel, there's nothing photographable. Approach my old neighborhood, and there are interesting things everywhere. So what does this say about the role of the photographer? Maybe we ought to be ashamed of ourselves, intruding on the people who can't afford to remove themselves to a nicer place. Those people on the subway would probably prefer a less picturesque mode of transportation, and there is something unseemly about capturing their suffering, though it is a very mild form of suffering. It is only interesting to photograph because it has an element of suffering. I usually don't photograph people, but I photograph places that express something about the people that live and work there. I'm drawn to things that are wrong or messed up in some way, even though I'm very sensitive to anything being awry in my immediate surroundings.

As I was walking this morning, I saw a strange door at the top of a stoop. Someone had attached assorted pieces of wood to it in a way that made it look like a shrine. There was an old woman sitting on the stoop. I thought about how much I would love to photograph her, but how I wouldn't even dare to ask her if I could. With my camera in my hand, I looked at the door. She yelled in a very cranky "Little Edie" way: "Don't photograph around here!" I said, "Can I take that door?" She spat out, "Don't take that door!" with the level of disgust and outrage that would have been appropriate if I had actually asked if I could detach the door from its hinges and cart it off with me. I said I was sorry and walked on, feeling quite chastened and guilty about taking photographs.

So what do I make of these one hundred protesting photographers who marched through the subway system staking out their entitlement to take all the images they want even though New York City police officials deem a photography ban a good anti-terrorism precaution? Clearly, the subways are a terrorist target and a horrible catastrophe could easily occur there any day. There is some connection between photographing the site and making a terrorist plan. Those who ride the subway have new reason to feel uneasy when they see photographers, whose photographing of odd corners of the station has become disturbing in a way that it was not before 9/11. One photographer quoted in the linked article was questioned by police when he took a picture of a bridge and knew of someone who was questioned for photographing a train station. He says, "The paranoia has gone a little too far." Yet if an attack were to occur, the police would be criticized for not noticing things like this and taking action to prevent an attack. There are many places where photography is prohibited by law, many other places where it is prohibited by social convention and human decency. (Suppose I had taken a picture of the old woman who yelled at me?)

What does it mean to see yourself as an artist? Does it mean you have a special privilege to annoy or intrude on people, to have the rules bent to suit you, to challenge and make people confront their fears? Does it give you a special feeling of entitlement? Why doesn't it give you a special feeling of empathy for the fear and suffering of others? And if it doesn't give you a feeling of empathy and some sense of guilt about intruding on the suffering of others, why are you not ashamed of your self-flattering belief that you are an artist?

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