Mike Epstein is not a terrorist, but if a proposed ban on photography on New York trains and buses goes into effect, he might very well find himself treated like one.
“How can they ban photographing unusual sights aboard trains and in stations?” wonders Epstein, who operates Satan’s Laundromat, a website dedicated to “urban decay, strange signage, and general weirdness.” “What about when someone boards the 1 train with bags full of fully inflated orange and red balloons that almost exactly match the colors of the seats: Do they really expect me to keep my camera in my pocket?”
You bet. The MTA’s move to stop the shooting of unauthorized pictures or video has pissed-off everyone from photobloggers to subway advocates and free-speech activists. To show their opposition to the ban, a group of photographers gathered at the main information kiosk in Grand Central station Sunday, June 6th, at 1 p.m. They fanned out across several train lines, shooting photos throughout the system in a peaceful demonstration.
The demonstration started mere yards from an MTA-sponsored photography show called “The New York Subway: A Centennial Celebration.” Most of the 16 subway-themed prints were taken during an earlier photo ban, which was taken off the books in 1994. The work includes work from such giants of the form as Bruce Davidson and Henri Cartier-Bresson.
The MTA isn’t slated to vote on the measure until at least mid June, when a 45-day public comment period ends. Also included in regulation 21 NYCRR 1050.9c are stiffer penalties for hopping turnstiles, walking between cars, and using seats as footrests. Ostensibly designed to counter terrorist attacks, the new rules clearly extend to ordinary—and artistic—activity.
For New York City photobloggers like Epstein—amateur photographers who post digital images on their own sites—the proposed ban makes little sense. “It’s utterly the wrong way to protect the subway,” he says. “If there’s anyone who won’t be deterred by a $25 fine, it’s an actual terrorist.”
Others, like Jake Dobkin (bluejake.com), raise concerns about the ban’s impact on civil rights. “First they cracked down on immigrants,” he says, “then on people who were protesting the war in Iraq, and now they seem to be coming after artists.”
What follows is a sampling of some of the imagery that would be lost if the ban went into effect, and e-mail interviews with the people who will be affected most: the artists.
photo: © 2004 Eliot Shepard
How long have you been shooting the city?
I’ve been taking pictures in New York for about two and a half years. I take photos on the trains or in the stations about one in every three trips—so three times a week, maybe.
Have you ever been hassled by the authorities? When someone asks you to stop shooting, do you stop?
I’ve had people look at me angrily and give me some verbal abuse here and there, but I think they were just individuals who didn’t want their picture taken. I’ve never been asked to stop taking photos.
What do you think is the main motivation for this ban?
To promote a vague public perception of security. I don’t have a problem with making people feel safer, per se. Obviously the city doesn’t work unless people do. It will be a great tragedy if law enforcement spends actual resources enforcing a silly ban at the expense of actually doing what they can to secure the system.
What effect will the ban have on the photoblogger or subway aficionado communities?
I think there will probably be some short-term galvanization, which will fade away because the ban is essentially unenforceable and will be widely ignored. If and when someone gets popped for violating it, there will probably be some fuss.
photo: Mike Epstein
Have you ever encountered any problems with police or transit officials?
I’ve found that most subway police officers think that photography is already illegal, and there’s no way to convince them otherwise. So I’ve taken to carrying a copy of the law with me. The only people this [regulation] will affect is law-abiding citizens.
An enormous amount of great photography has come out of the subway. Look at Bruce Davidson, who powerfully documented the run-down transit system of the ’70s and ’80s and its weary riders. He probably
wouldn’t have been able to get a permit at the time (no one knows if the MTA will even issue permits this time around!). Would we be better off without his art?
What are the larger implications of this ban for the city?
We have been conditioned to accept ever-greater incursions on our liberties in the name of security. But no one has advanced a coherent argument for how banning photography in public areas of the subway—not tracks and switchrooms mind you, but trains and platforms—has any effect whatsoever on security.
The subway is the great meeting place of New York City. Almost everyone rides it. Taking pictures of my fellow New Yorkers should be just as legal on a train as it is on the street. And people who like to look at pictures of trains all day, well, maybe they’re a little odd, but they’re utterly harmless.
Would you pay the proposed $25 fine?
I’m not worried about the fine. I’m worried about being harassed and made to identify myself, and being racially profiled by the police again. (Last time that happened, they decided I wasn’t a threat because I have a Jewish last name. A photographer whose first name is Mohammed should have the same rights as one named Michael.)
photo: ©1998-2004 Rion Nakaya
How will the photo ban affect you?
Honestly, I don’t think the photo ban will affect me much. I’ve been taking pictures almost daily for more than 3 years here in the city, so I’ve learned to be relatively inconspicuous.
If there’s a ban in effect, I doubt I’ll be taking the camera out in front of a cop or transit workers, but on the average day where there is a great moment to be captured—crowds waiting for a train on a hot day, someone dressed outrageously, or details in an old station that I’ve never been to before—I can’t imagine not trying to record it. A lot of things are banned on the subway, but rarely enforced.
Do subway riders look at you suspiciously when you’re shooting?
Often, I’m not taking photos of people, as much as I am taking photos of station mosaics, signs or architectural details, so people tend to pass by me. If I am in a train car and taking photos in close quarters, they may glance toward me to check out what I’m doing, but mostly if people see me taking photos, they ignore it. More than likely, they just think I’m a tourist.
Have you ever been hassled by the NYPD in or around the subway?
Never. But again, it’s habit for me to try and avoid drawing attention to myself when I’m taking photos. The few times I’ve had my camera out when cops were around—mostly around Times Square where I work and live—they just looked at me and then looked past me. I’m guessing they had more important things to pay attention to than a girl with a camera in Times Square.
What will be lost if this ban goes into effect?
People from all walks of life crowd in next to each [other] on the subway. It moves fast and the city depends on it every day to stay up and running, and that aspect makes it a symbol of what New York City culture is. Therefore, it’s great photoblog fodder.
Subway musicians, morning commuters, moms with strollers who get helped up the stairs from strangers, tourists, stinky bums who lay sideways in the train seats, school kids on field trips, Yankee fans on the way to a game, regular people going home from a long day at work—all just a part of the subway culture. I don’t know that those things will be “missed” photographically when you are technically banned from taking photos of them. I think, if anything, it may make those images a bit more rare or valuable
for photobloggers—and other photographers—to capture and publish in the long run.
I think of Walker Evans’ subway portraits in the late ’30s–early ’40s: the hair, makeup, or outfit of his subjects tells about our values and interests at that time—how the ads, newspapers, and materials in the train cars tell how we communicated and created. It’s a phenomenal record of New York in that era.
I imagine that in a few decades, the images that NYC photobloggers are taking now will have some resonance as wonderful documentation when we’re looking back. It would be a shame to not have our subways be a part of that record.
photo: Jake Dobkin
How often do you shoot in and around the subway?
I shoot in the subway about twice a month. However, if I’m working on a subway-themed series like the one I did at the Smith and 9th streets station, I might shoot in the subway three nights in a row.
Have you ever encountered a problem?
Never. I try to shoot at low traffic stations and avoid getting in anyone’s way. I use a small tripod to avoid attracting attention. The police have asked me what I’m doing a few times. I always tell them that I’m an amateur photographer working on a subway-themed project, and they’ve been satisfied with that.
Do you think the proposed ban is part of a larger agenda in the city?
I think that since 9-11 there has been a slow erosion of civil liberties in the city. The threat of terrorism has been used to justify cracking down on some of our fundamental rights: the right to free speech, the right to assemble, and the right to equal protection and due process under the law. It’s a scary time, but people seem to be waking up to the threat and mobilizing to protect constitutional rights. Things like the subway photography ban certainly throw these issues out into the open.
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.
photo: Holly Northrop
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.
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.
Do you see any larger issues here about the city or civil liberties?
The MTA and police once again propose totally ineffectual and pointless restrictions to give the appearance, and only the appearance, of vigilance. It’s dismaying to hear our mayor speak out against the ban only in terms of how it might scare away picture-snapping tourists. Everything boils down to money.
Will you continue to shoot regardless? How many fines will it take for you to stop?
I will keep shooting, and I do not plan to get caught. I’m pretty sneaky, especially with my Nikon 4500 which has a twist body that lets me shoot literally from the hip. I’d be willing to pay a couple fines a
year to keep shooting. There’s simply no better subject than the world under the streets of New York City.
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