So, my birthday was yesterday. Usually, birthdays are a time for celebratory sloppiness, it is arguably your favourite time of year if you’re under, say, 45, and if it’s not your favourite, it’s probably in your top five. My birthdays have always been a little different. I’ve never had a birthday party, wouldn’t know how to arrange one for myself or ask someone else to do it for me. When I was younger, they were some of the roughest days, to the point that I’ve become completely ambivalent about it. But in the past few years I’ve made a necessary effort to not be so down about it (like, perhaps I’ll do nothing, but it won’t be a bad nothing–if that makes sense). This year I worked, same as I do every day, and I walked, same as most days. I decided to walk over to Chelsea Pier to see if there was anything to catch against the sunset.
(Quick tangent: I usually stay away from the Hudson River when I walk. It’s nice and all, but it’s on the very edge of Manhattan, and most of the people there are either in their workout clothes or tourist uniform… which isn’t bad except that if I don’t find anyone to photograph, it’s a long, hot walk back into the middle of town.)
I took a few cool and interesting photos, but it was this young woman who really caught my attention. I initially took a photo of her sitting like this from about 30 metres away. I liked the photo, the angle and the light but wanted to move in closer for a better photo. Only I didn’t know exactly what she was doing sitting there. Since she wasn’t moving at all I decided to walk past her–my thinking was that if she was on her phone, she definitely wouldn’t notice me and I could basically take my time with the shot. But as I passed by her, she wiped her brow. Granted, it was hot out and I was sweating my shirt completely through, but it occurred to me that she might have been sitting there because she was upset. Her shoes were off and set to the very edge of the dock, and a pack of Marlboro cigarettes sat beside her. I returned to my original standing point, but moved in closer about 10 metres. She still didn’t notice me standing there. I just stood there waiting for her to make a move, but for 5 or 10 minutes she sat completely still. The sun was starting to set, and I wanted to get a shot of that with my photo for Instagram. Time ticked on.
Finally, she reached for a cigarette. That’s my move! I thought. I lined up and took four more frames. The sun was setting fast, so I retreated quickly to the edge of the pier and took what was left of the sunset. I could’ve turned to leave, and I probably should have, but I felt obligated to let her know that I took this photo. With candids, I don’t usually do that. I walked over, knelt down and interrupted her, and that’s when I knew that she was definitely crying, and probably had been so since before I reached the pier. I asked for a second of her time and she politely obliged. I told her that I took the photo, why I took it and that she should know these things. When I finished, she composed herself and nodded. Politely. I stood up and turned to leave, and got a good 100 steps away before realising that with everything I said, I didn’t acknowledge her sadness. I suppose it would have been awkward to do so. But I didn’t even say, “I hope you feel better.” I got into street photography because of the energy that could be found there, and in some subconscious way, I connected with her because whatever she was expressing was that very same thing I’ve experienced on almost all of my previous birthdays. And that feeling, it sucks.
So I’m sitting here with this photo some hours later and contemplating it’s fate: to post or not to post. I have rules when I photograph candids in particular, and one of them is to never exploit. I would never make it a habit to go out and photograph people in arguments or hitting rock bottom or feeling vulnerable in a negative way. I guess you could say that I simply took this photo because it needed to be taken. She’s gorgeous and her ink is incredible, and the backdrop is beautiful. But in this moment she represents something that is critically important to me, the reality that being in the most beautiful place is no escape for suffering, and while the look of solitude may be beautiful, it is still pain. I eventually learned to dig myself out–being my birthday and all, it would’ve been nice of me to pay it forward.