I survived Hurricane Sandy. I went out a few times to photograph. I realize my photos subtly show the havoc rendered to my Holland Tunnel neighborhood. Basically, there was no power for about 5 days and the Holland Tunnel was closed except to buses for a whole week. The two gas stations that were open had lines that lasted hours…Home Depot sold a lot of red gasoline cans. The seedy bar at the corner of 13th street was closed because of its proximity to 6ft high water a few blocks away in Hoboken.
I asked my friend and fellow large-format photographer, Greta Brubaker, to share her experience of photographing on public and private lands in PA. We have been comparing notes on how both the public (passers-by) and the police respond to our photographing in public.
Like Karina, a lot of my photographic process takes place in the public eye using a large format camera and tripod. I work a lot in abandoned and sometimes not-so-abandoned coal mining regions in central Pennsylvania often photographing along the road or just off the road. I have always found it to be nerve wracking to photograph in public- not from fear of getting in trouble but more from having people stare at me as they drive by. I’ve always had the mind-set that if you look like you know what you’re doing and that you belong there, people won’t question the validity of what you’re doing. I don’t think it ever crosses my mind while shooting that I might actually be questioned by police or anyone else. In fact, the only people who have ever stopped and talked to me while I’m photographing are people asking for directions (usually to one of the near-by state prisons). I get the impression that people often think I am a surveyor because of the tripod that I’m using.
Hearing about Karina’s experiences with police while photographing has really made me think about why my experiences are so different. I’ve had cops drive by me many times- even pulling people over for traffic violations 25 yards from where I’m taking pictures and never once, have they questioned me or even given me a second glance. On one project, I even photographed in a small town in a busy intersection with lots of people driving by and had a very positive experience with people actually yelling out encouragement as they drove by. Why am I deemed okay by the police and public to be working in public spaces while others are not? Karina and I are similar in stature and are using essentially identical equipment- the only visual difference being our ethnic backgrounds. The Holland Tunnel is clearly deemed important from a security point of view but so are the active natural gas pad sites, power plants and other private industrial spaces that I’ve found myself photographing over the years. It is so foreign to my own experience to be able to even fathom the hassle that Karina endures so consistently.
On my third time out photographing I continue to meet people. This time I stayed close to the Holland Tunnel focusing my camera on the tunnel, the Holland Tunnel Hotel and the empire state building whose tip is barely visible right before you go through the toll booth. As in the previous 2 cases the police questioned me, I photographed them and then they drove away. It was very helpful that I actually spoke to Lieutenant Smith. She was in the vicinity and when I mentioned her name and my “permission” to photograph the police who had been concerned about my photographing, let me continue and ultimately drove away.
This was not the case on Day 4 (Oct. 8) when I photographed. When I called the Tunnel Police I spoke to a woman who yelled at me so hard I almost hung up on her. I confess I was rattled even though when a policeman ultimately pulled up to question me he was very affable regaling me with stories about his grandparents who had lived on the very street that is the mouth to the Holland Tunnel. He stayed with me for about half an hour and said he had no problem with me photographing…said he knew I had a right to photograph whatever I wanted as long as I wasn’t photographing inside the tunnel. (Good to know!)
I checked in with the MTA. before beginning to photograph. The the woman in uniform said “You’re the photographer”. I said “yup” and told her I would be photographing. Then I called the Holland Tunnel police to inform them but they put me on hold and eventually I had to hang up. I photographed anyway.
My current home is in Jersey City, NJ and I live two blocks from the Holland Tunnel. I went out to photograph with my 4″ x 5″ view camera. As I began to photograph my first image of the day I noticed a police officer walking towards me. Having photographed in public places before this did not surprise me and I immediately realized I should have brought some form of ID. The officer was pretty nice even in her paranoid cop mode. She explained that because of 911 they (of course she wasn’t alone!) wanted to know what I was photographing and why. I told her. And then they ran my SS# and called my school to verify my identity. I told her I would be photographing in the neighborhood about once a week for an indefinite amount of time. She gave me the phone number of the Holland Tunnel police and asked me to let them know each time I come out to photograph.