Photos of New York

This article comes from the Global Desk, a collaboration between The Gazelle, WSN and On Century Avenue. Read more by searching ‘global.’ I realised a ...

Oct 25, 2014

This article comes from the Global Desk, a collaboration between The Gazelle, WSN and On Century Avenue. Read more by searching ‘global.’
I realised a while ago that I've barely taken any photos in New York. For some reason, my usually obsessive drive to document has been sidelined. I think there are several causes for this odd phenomenon.
Chief among them is the fact that in New York there is no time to stop and take photos. Halting in the middle of the sidewalk to squeeze the Empire State or the Washington Square Arch into the frame of my camera would necessitate ten, fifteen, twenty people to deviate from their paths, their mornings and possibly also their life plans. I can't take on that kind of responsibility. People walk with such purpose here, such precision, that the mark of the outsider sits heavily on the shoulders of those who pause to take anything in. Even more so on those who pause to take it in through a lens.
I’d like to say that my piteous lack of visual documentation this semester is due to a general disillusionment with the glittering falsity that is social media representation, though I don’t know if I can truly throw off the shackles of happiness that comes from the little blue thumbs-up button. Nonetheless, the extent to which I can curate an utterly false visual representation of my life through a Facebook album scares me. I’m never sure how to communicate via Facebook that bad and unattractive things happen to me; things that are boring, and ugly, and real. I make mistakes. I miss deadlines and people and Skype dates and buses. Photos, particularly published ones, tend to be of good, attractive things. In line with this reasoning, visual anthologies, or at least the ones on social media, are a fundamental misrepresentation of what it means to live a normal life.
Also very important is the fact that in New York there is nothing really specific to take photos of. I feel here, more than in any other city, that the things that comprise a beautiful moment — for beauty, I suppose, is usually what induces me to take a photo — are less visual and more holistic. It is less that an old brick apartment building divided by fire escape on fire escape and rusted in tin aluminum shades is beautiful. It is more that the clean lines of the building cut so effortlessly through the halal-cart-smoke on the street corner and I am reminded that sometimes, just sometimes, things here can be organized and can make sense. It is less that a park is visually interesting, and more that it is filled with people whose lives I want to interrogate, old men that I want to play chess with but do not dare and pigeon-covered hobos who I am still a little wary of without any real reason. It is not so much that a street looks particularly interesting, it is more that it has endless possibility, an infinity of vine-covered steps and windows and basement stairs and cobbles and cats and smells, tastes and people, dogs and trash and probably also coffee shops.
There are also things I can’t photograph. I am frustrated with this inability, and it makes me realize the ultimate futility of photography. I have packed up my life again and again, rolling memories tightly into clothing, thinking that goodbyes are firsts and lasts and neither all at once and that I usually miss circumstance as much as people. There’s no real way of photographing endings, or the feeling of missing someone or the resignation of letting go and crossing countries and seas and starting again, again.
Finally, photos are deeply tied to memory. The act of photographing a thing is an attempt to retain it, to etch its details in something more tangible and long-lasting than a mental image, and here I feel that nothing is retainable because nothing belongs to me. Here, life is realer in the simplest sense: I have to pay for things. I cannot spend the day eating free food like I did in Abu Dhabi, and $2.50 metro rides have replaced free shuttles. Maybe the photos have stopped because I am simply too busy living in a world that demands a little more of my attention, a world in which I don’t possess things by default.
Susan Sontag once said that photography is an essentially aggressive act, “To photograph is to appropriate the thing photographed,” she wrote. “It means putting oneself in a certain relationship to the world that feels like knowledge — and therefore, like power.” Maybe I stopped taking photos here because I’ve never felt less knowledgeable in my life, consumed by a city that has no time for individual preferences, power plays and problems. I’ve never felt smaller than I do in the tidal wave of human beings that swells down Broadway and Fifth Ave every morning. I’ve never felt less deserving of the right to interpret my surroundings by snatching their likeness into the mysterious depths of my Nikon.
If photography is a way to snatch a memory from thin air, maybe the real reason I’ve stopped taking photos is that I'm losing the desire to re-see things when there is constantly something new to see. Recycling is unnecessary, and re-hashing is not useful; there is no obsessive need to remember, because every day is new and at least as good, and something about New York makes the present moment worth more than even the best past ones.
Tessa Ayson is an editor-at-large. Email her at 
gazelle logo