Forbidden Photos, Anyone?

Subway shooters to set their sights on underground camera ban

Will you stop shooting once the law goes into effect?

No, I plan to continue shooting in the subway. I'll be more careful about taking pictures in areas that are heavily policed, but I'm willing to risk a ticket to pursue my work.

What will be lost if this ban goes into effect? How will it impact the community—both of photobloggers and the larger population of the city?

The largest impact will probably be on amateur photographers like us. It's sad, because it would be hard to find a group of people who love New York or the New York City subway system more than us. The ban will also affect tourists, who will no doubt be hassled, and the police, who will have to waste lots of time bothering people and writing tickets. A huge waste of time and resources all around. I'd encourage all of the amateur photographers around the city—and anyone who cares about our civil liberties—to write the mayor and the transit authority. If enough people make their voices heard, maybe the transit authority will reconsider the ban.


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photo: Holly Northrop
Holly Northrop (hnorthrop.com) is a photographer and the producer of villagevoice.com

Do you shoot in and around the subway a lot?

Sometimes. Depends on how crowded it is. I try to respect the personal space of those around me in a car. I mean, we are all stuck there and it sucks on so many other levels that the last thing most people want is a camera pointed at them.

Have you ever encountered any problems with police or transit officials?

No, not personally, but I have witnessed the MTA on more than one occasion get shitty with other photographers who were obviously not tourists. This seems to happen around the Times Square Station the most. It's strange to think that a public space can be regulated in regards to the imagery depicting it. I am not sure just how that particular form of censorship would work. What constitutes a tourist and how is the MTA going to profile that? If I wear a fanny pack and appear lost, will that work?

Would you pay the fine?

I would only pay it if threatened with jail time. Otherwise, the tickets would gather dust or end up taped in my paper journal. If I see a shot in the subway, I am going to take it. Documentation of the subways will continue regardless of the law. In street photography, and I consider the subways to be part of the street photography framework, it is always a given that at some point someone is going to bitch at you. They will tell you to stop, "put the camera down . . . walk away you are trespassing." It is a dirty business that documents our history and is essential.


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photo: Joe Holmes

Joe Holmes (joesnyc.streetnine.com) is a freelance writer and photographer

How often do you shoot in the subway?

I shoot in the subway once or twice a week—basically whenever I ride the trains.

Have you ever had problems with police or transit workers?

I haven't yet been hassled by any police or subway workers, but then I've been very discreet. I heard years ago, when I first moved to NYC in 1984, that photography was illegal in the subways. It wasn't until the Times article ("Citing Security, Subway Officials Seek Picture Ban," by Robert D. McFadden, from May 21, 2004) about the proposed ban a couple weeks ago that I learned the original ban was lifted in 1994.

What will be lost if this ban happens?

A tremendous amount will be lost if photographers stop shooting in the subways. The subway stations are some of the last vestiges of the old pre-Disney, pre-cleansed New York. Times Square has been turned into a mall—and I have very mixed feelings about the change. But when you step off the street and into the Fourth Avenue R and F station here in Brooklyn, all that goes away. You're instantly transported into the unreconstructed, unrenovated, ungentrified, un-prettified New York of decades ago. You can walk through that entire station—and it's just one example—and see almost nothing that wasn't there in the '50s or '60s. Walk down a passageway in any of the older stations, and all around you'll see what makes New York run—the pipes and conduits and strangely-labeled doors, the barred cages where the workers hang equipment and helmets and lamps, the huge steel beams that support the streets above, dozens of layers of paint, unironic barely grammatical signs not composed by an ad agency . . . I could go on and on.

But even that New York is gradually being gutted and replaced, one station at a time. Without the street photographers and photobloggers down there taking pictures, it's all slowly being lost forever.

And of course, no matter what condition any subway station is in, the subway riders represent the real New York. You can sit on the train and look around and see a dozen languages being read and spoken. The rich and the poor, the old and the young—the subway is the last place where they all stand literally shoulder to shoulder. You can't recreate that anywhere else in the city.

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