Or How I Lost & Regained My Photo-Mojo in Downtown Los Angeles...
So I’m in downtown Los Angeles working on my new photo project called Cell People (scroll two posts down for examples from NYC). It’s a beautiful, warm fall day, not too smoggy. I am shooting in the revered street photography tradition, catching people on the fly as they go about their daily lives using their cell phones, either talking or texting or gaming. I am pretty much keeping to public places, having learned from previous experience in large metropolitan areas that photographers, even tourists taking snapshots, are invariably stopped by security from making photographs near the corporate skyscrapers. In downtown Los Angeles this is particularly the case around Bunker Hill, where Blade Runner-inspired towers erected by the titans of banking and finance are interconnected by public sidewalks, bridges, “limited access” corridors, escalators, and winding steps, a veritable gauntlet of areas forbidden to photographers.
Anyway, after a couple of hours, feeling pretty good about the images I had made so far, I ended up on the west side of Fifth Street in front of the Los Angeles County Library, on the sidewalk opposite the steps descending from Bunker Hill. For several minuets I had become fascinated with the way people crossing the street using their cell phones were framed in the lines of the crosswalk. After making several exposures, I see a large man dressed like a bouncer or a funeral director in a black blazer and pants coming across the street toward me, talking animatedly into his cell phone. As has happened a gezillion times before in my life as a photographer, I felt the grip on my camera tighten as I instinctively brought the viewfinder to my eye, framed the man in the lines of the crosswalk, then waited a millisecond for light and geometry to coalesce into an instant of perfection as I squeezed off the shutter. But then, even as I heard the shutter fire, I realized I had inadvertently photographed a security guard, possibly from one of the Bunker Hill towers. And worse, I was pretty certain he had spotted me taking his photograph. Quickly, I angled the camera in a different direction, hoping that way I might appear like I was just just another hapless tourist loose in the city snapping away at any old random thing.
But before I describe what happened next, allow me to explain that the idea of documenting people with their cell phones came to me last summer when, after reviewing work from a couple of days of making rather generic architectural views of New York City, I began to notice how a majority of the people randomly caught in the frames were carrying or talking into their cell phones. I immediately had an Eureka moment that this could make for an interesting photo project, one that allowed for broad exploration, since everyone in the world was now carrying a cell phone. What most fascinated me was how the cell phone had become an anatomical extension of our personhood, like some evolutionary sixth-sense communication device. As I continued to study the images, particularly those frames where I had zoomed in close on an individual, I soon realized that the ones where I’d caught the people completely unaware had a more natural feel, as if drawn unaltered from real life. So that same day, camera in hand, I headed back out into the New York streets, reviewing in my mind what I had learned over the years about working candidly: how I must make myself seem invisible, maintain an unthreatening demeanor, flow with any situation as it unfolds, find the right spot from which to photograph, show patience at all times, be ready to back off if I sensed my subject was becoming uncomfortable, and most importantly––fundamental to all successful photographs––anticipate that perfect moment to squeeze the shutter.
Anyway, on this particular day in downtown Los Angeles, I glanced around and saw that the man I had just photographed had joined up with three other men dressed in black blazers and pants near the front door of the library. Each man wore dark sunglasses and was of similar size and build, looking like they might have once played for the Chicago Bears before becoming Men in Black. The man I had photographed had his back to me and was now talking into a walkie-talkie (in fact, I’m now thinking I had originally mistaken his walkie-talkie for a cell phone). The other men seemed to be looking my way, although I wasn’t positive because of their dark shades. Deciding maybe it was time to put some distance between myself and the men, I crossed to the other side of the street, where I began photographing people with cell phones descending the long winding steps from Bunker Hill. I had only made a couple of exposures when I saw out of the corner of my eye that all four of the Men in Black were now standing in a huddle a few feet away, watching me with unmistakable suspicion on their faces. Again, I had the urge to walk away, but this time something made me stay. Aside from the feeling that there were more photographs to be taken in front of the steps, I think it was the United States Constitution that made me stay. I knew I was on the sidewalk, in a public place, I had clearly not crossed into anyone’s private property, and for those reasons I strongly felt I had the right to make photographs without being harassed. So instead of leaving, I lowered my camera and began looking around at the surrounding skyscrapers, hoping my sudden interest in tall buildings might defuse their interest in me.
But within seconds I realized my ploy had not worked. A deep voice sounded above the din of the street: “Excuse me, Sir, you waiting for someone?”
I turned to see the four Men in Black striding toward me, seeming to double in size with each step.
I said, “No. Why?” Of course I already knew they really didn’t think I was waiting for anyone. It was just there way of getting my attention.
The man with the walkie-talkie said, “I’m with Security at the US Bank and you took my picture a few minutes ago.” He showed no badge, nor offered any form of identification. There might have been some kind of tag on his blazer, I didn’t recall seeing one. The walkie-talkie, of course, gave him a definite air of importance.
I nodded and said, “I was just photographing people in the crosswalks who are talking on their cellphones.” I tried to make my tone seem surprised that anyone would really be that concerned about having their photograph taken in a public place. “It’s a photo project I’m working on,” I added, though I seriously doubted he understood what a photo project was.
“You didn’t get my permission.”
I nodded again and tried to explain, “The kind of photography I do, I don’t want the images to look like they’ve been posed. I want them to seem like they come from daily life.” I was tempted to cite a few of the great photographers from the past––Strand, Cartier-Bresson, Weegee, Model, Klein, Frank, Winogrand––who all regularly made images in public places without getting permission, but I sensed this was not the time or place for a lecture on the history of photography.
“But you got to get a person’s permission first,” one of the other men piped in, to which the other three men nodded in unison.
“Actually, in a public place like this permission is not required,” I responded.
All four men were standing real close to me now. So close I could smell the dry-cleaning in their blazers from the warm Southern California sun.
“I want you to scroll back through your photos,” the walkie-talkie man said, jabbing a giant hairy finger at my camera, which he had correctly determined was digital. “Show me if you got me in there or not,” he added, spoken as if I had actually stolen his body and it was now somehow stored in my camera.
I shrugged and said, “I’m sorry but the fact is you don’t have the authority to make me to do that, particularly here on a public sidewalk.” Of course I knew, in spite of having the law on my side, he and his partners could do practically anything they wanted to me, including grabbing me and taking me into a nearby alley and smashing my camera and memory card.
“Then we’re gonna have to call the authorities,” he said, shaking his head regretfully, though I could tell he was a man of few regrets.
I sighed and said, “Why would you do that? I’ve already told you, I’m just doing a photo project, photographing people using their cell phones. That’s all.”
“You got to get people’s permission,” one of the other men chimed in.
Once again I shook my head and repeated what I’d said about the law protecting my right to photograph in public places.
“You got to show me what you took of me,” the walkie-talkie man demanded, coming even closer. His hot breath smelled in need of a mint or two.
“I don’t have to do that,” I repeated, wondering who was going to blink first.
Walkie-talkie man’s jaw muscle was now working overtime. It was obvious he was not accustomed to people disobeying his demands. “Show me your ID,” he then barked.
Although I knew I didn’t have to show him anything, at least not without him proving he was properly authorized to stop me on the street and ask for my ID (and even then I knew there had to be “probable cause”), I decided, why not, I wouldn’t be giving up too much of my citizenship if I let him see my license. Who knows, maybe if I accommodated his request he then might simply decide to dismiss me with a kindly, Sorry about the misunderstanding, Sir. You have a nice day now.
But he barely glanced at my license as he mumbled, “We’ve been getting complaints about you photographing employees from our building.”
I let out a long sigh and said, “Like I keep saying, I am photographing people on public streets who are using cell phones. I work candidly, it’s what photojournalists all over the world do. Our images won’t look natural if we have to go around stopping the flow of life to get permission every time we want to photograph something or someone.” I knew it was a bit wordy, but damn it, it was what I do.
Not surprisingly, all four men stared at me as if I were an alien from another planet. I could tell they weren’t hearing a word I said. For the next several minutes we kept repeating ourselves, neither side giving an inch, until finally the walkie-talkie man said, “Look, here’s the deal, you got two choices. Either you show me that picture you took of me or I’m gonna call Homeland Security.”
It was all I could do to keep from breaking out in laughter at the ludicrous sound of the threat. Homeland Security? The same Homeland Security whose primary purpose was to protect our fair land from terrorists was going to be interested in what I did with my camera on the streets of Los Angeles? I was speechless.
But rather than laugh in his face, which I suspected would inflame him even further, I looked at him incredulously and said, “Well, what can I say? If that’s what you have to do, then go ahead and call them.”
Even as the words came from my lips, I was aware that something deep down inside my very being was making me turn and start walking, even when I fully expected such an action would cause them to grab me from behind and hammer-lock me face down onto the sidewalk. Hell, in that instant I didn’t know but what this was my last moment of freedom before being renditioned to some foreign country, where I would become subjected to unspeakable tortures.
But nothing happened. I continued to walk. No one grabbed me or shouted for me to stop. When I reached the corner of Fifth and Flower, feeling my heart thumbing against my chest, I glanced back and determined that no one was following me. Nevertheless, I kept moving, the vision of Homeland Security––my tax dollars at work!––swooping down on me at any moment was still quite real for me. After walking briskly for a couple of blocks, I sought cover in a Starbucks at 6th and Grand, and while I sat at a table waiting for my heart rate to subside, collecting my thoughts, I decided that the Men in Black had most likely known all along that they had no legal basis for what they were demanding from me; yet they had persisted in their threats and intimidation, culminating with what they knew to be the most effective threat of all––calling Homeland Security. In today’s climate of fear and paranoia, they knew it was a surefire way of getting people to do exactly what they want them to do.
Finally, after a double espresso and no Tactical Squad descending on me, I found myself itching to get back out onto the streets and make photographs. I walked two blocks to Pershing Square, glancing about periodically to make sure no one was following me, and after checking out the Beethoven statue hidden away in one corner of the square––remembering how the great composer had had numerous battles with arbitrary, iron-fisted authority during his lifetime––I walked two blocks to Grand Central Market where I squeezed up to the counter at the Chinese Cafe and had a large bowl of Won Ton soup. Now feeling my photo-mojo quite sufficiently revived, I took Angels Flight, the world’s shortest railroad, up to the top of Bunker Hill where, near the base of the Bank of America tower and the Calder sculpture, and making sure to keep out of sight of any Men in Black, I made some of my best images of the day. Still, I was mindful not to hang around there too long, since I knew it would only be a matter of time before a security webcam spotted me.
––copyright Roger Minick 2011
––copyright Roger Minick 2011