A few weeks ago, walking through one of New York City’s more antiseptic gentrifying neighborhoods, I was spotted on the street by a pal. He saw me -- I didn’t see him -- most likely because I was stupefied by some or other example of outré street art. Maybe it was a chain-link fence covered in large-scale knitting. You know, something you’d never expect to see knitted, except for all the previous things you’ve seen knitted.
We exchanged hellos and then he asked: “Where’s your camera?”
I’ve slipped into the habit of not carrying a camera everywhere. The reason for that is bad -- the onset of a drowsy, I’ve-seen-a-few-things attitude, combined with the mindset that New York is overplayed, maybe just a little.
That’s pretty apathetic! I think you’ll agree.
By the way, here’s an idea for a little project for someone: Walk the city with your camera, photographing graffiti. But don’t just photograph graffiti because everybody’s already doing that, obviously. Instead, photograph the people photographing the graffiti. A diligent shooter can have a formidable body of work by brunchtime.
That’s what I mean by overplayed, and by my own bad attitude.
So I’d like to thank a friend, the writer Laura Holson, for suggesting something over the weekend that I wouldn’t normally do. Once in a while she gathers a few people to spend an hour walking around with their cameras. Then, they get a beer to look at what they got.
Her idea is simple, to attack the day from a different angle. Off we went.
We chose the most stereotypical place in NYC for such an activity, namely Chinatown. In fact, I suggested Chinatown because I had an idea: I’d keep an eye out for tourists taking Chinatown photos, and maybe catch them in the act. It would make a silly commentary on something, right?
The three of us split up, agreeing to meet in an hour in front of Excellent Dumpling House.
You know where this is going. Fifteen minutes later and a half-dozen blocks away, I turned and spotted one of my let’s-shoot-Chinatown friends in the distance. Guess what she was doing? Yes, she was photographing Chinatown.
And with that, what I should’ve known from the outset became brutally clear -- this idea of mine was rather disagreeable. I was trying to have a little fun at the expense of supposed out-of-towners. Aren't they cute, taking their snaps? But I wouldn’t want to have fun at the expense of my friend. So why at the expense of these other people?
I mean, what if someone happened to be photographing me like that? Which, of course, would make that person a photographer photographing people, photographing people, photographing people in Chinatown. The mind boggles.
But the point is, snickering is easy, and that would be snickering, and who wants to be a snickerer or a snickeree? Here’s a noble idea: Let’s try not laughing at people. One of my favorite bits of advice for reporters trying to write WSJ A-heds (the funny stories) is, write it to feel like we’re laughing along with the people in your story, not laughing at them. Life’s better when you’re in on the joke.
So this is some of what I shot on Saturday during an hour of wandering around Chinatown, looking forward to a beer. An hour isn’t quite enough time, so some of these images fall back on familiar ideas. Eyes in a taxi mirror will have been seen before, to name one.
Not everything needs to be new, is my excuse. It’s okay to knit a chain link fence today if you enjoyed knitting a stripped car yesterday.