New York 101: My Daily Commute on the Subway

Early in my New York journey, long before I bought my first Nikon, I knew photographing New Yorkers was my calling. I could wander for hours at length getting lost in the crowd, clicking strangers nonstop.

No matter which way I turned a story was waiting to be captured. I pointed the camera at unsuspecting pedestrians scared to offend them. But, they simply looked at me as if to say, “go on girl, click me–—I know I look irresistible!” 

Even though the city fascinated me, I was never interested in capturing bridges, buildings, or the quintessential New York skyline. I liked staring into the faces of people standing right in front of me.

May be, cause they were perpetually lost in another world. May be, cause the exhaustion of surviving in a ruthless city like New York wore them down. May be, cause just like them—I had bargained my soul to live in a beautiful prison. In looking at their faces, perhaps, I was trying to find the key to my own freedom:

“You can check out any time you like but you can never leave.”

People sitting across from me on the New York subway looked like characters straight out of a novel. I wanted to photograph them just the way they were—looking out a window, wearing anything only they could pull off, smoking a cigarette, or leaning on a walking stick.

That’s when I started digging into rules of engagement in street photography. What was kosher, what was not? Could someone break my camera if they got offended? How should I approach strangers on the sidewalk—their faces more seductive than the most elaborate cleavage.

I felt like each person I came across was my prey and I was a tigress on a prowl, ready to pull the trigger of her Nikon D7200. In the time of selfies, candid shots bore a beauty that was lost the moment the subject became aware of the lens. My early experiments with street photography were therefore on my iPhone. They made candid child’s play:

The subway is a great equalizer. Packed in one car is a snapshot of humanity—brown, black, yellow, white—mixed and mashed together, elbow to elbow, face-to-face than forced to conform behind the bubble realty of suburbia in most American cities.

It’s not that I don’t have a car in New York (though finding/paying for parking can be a nightmare in a squashed metropolis). I just prefer commuting by the subway. There are days, however, when laziness wins over and I bust both dollars and time in a taxi.

When I do drive in Manhattan traffic, I try not to get run over by crazy yellow cabs. I never let pedestrians have their way either. Even though when I am on my two feet, letting drivers make the right turn easily is against my protocol. If you are a New Yorker, survival of the fittest is the norm. And so pretty quickly you learn to eat your cake and have it too.

Behind my steering wheel, as I zig-zag through impatient honkers—I experience the texture of NYC another way—the speed of the city, it’s unwillingness to bend over for anyone but itself, it’s compulsive need to be a drama queen, it’s tussle between the old and new. And so you either belong to New York in an instant or you don’t. You know that—5 minutes into your arrival or 5 years too late—waiting desperately to leave.

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