Canadian Documentary Photographer

New York City | Dancing Underground

I apologize for this late post as it is a series of photographs from my recent trip to New York City this past summer where a chance encounter led to an amazing experience. To my defense I have been extremely busy working on a variety of projects here in Calgary and committing to a total renovation of a home I recently purchased. Again my apologies and I hope you enjoy this post. It was July 13th and I was leaving New York City in three days after already spending an incredible three weeks in the big apple. I was taking the express train from Harlem into Manhattan to return a set of stands that I had rented for a previous shoot for a Tap Dancing Company a couple days prior. As I made my way onto the train squeezing myself into any available space I could find, I jammed myself up against a door mid way down the cart, with my stands tucked between my legs trying not to injure anyone in the process. As soon as the train started to proceed to the next station, there was this sudden "WHAT TIME IS IT?" at the top of someone's lungs immediately followed by "IT'S SHOWTIME" from what sounded like a few other young boys. Then again the same words repeated"WHAT TIME IS IT?" ....then "IT'S SHOWTIME". That's when it all happened. A group of five young boys started dancing in the middle of the train cart accompanied by a very loud portable speaker system that was strapped to a make shift grocery dolly playing some old school funk. In the span of 3 minutes these boys took turns dancing in a space that was no larger than six feet by six feet successfully landing and performing head-spins, front flips, freezes, floor work, table tops, and even gymnastic flares. Their feet, hands, and bodies came within centimeters of the commuters where even the slightest change of their positions would have left someone severely bruised or badly injured. Some people watched in absolute amazement, others did not even look to see or acknowledge what was going on. At one moment one of the boys jumped above someone sitting down where he grabbed the hand rail above the woman then threw his body into a complete flip pushing himself off the bar and landing back on his feet in front of the same woman sitting down. She did not even flinch as she was on her phone.

Once the music stopped, some people started clapping, cheering, and began taking photographs with their phones. The group of boys thanked the crowd and made their way around the train cart with an empty baseball cap in their hands accepting any cash people were willing to give. I waited till one of the boys came past me where I handed him five dollar note. Immediately I thought to myself I have to follow these guys around for a day. The train was about 30 seconds from the next stop so I quickly pulled one of the boys aside and told them who I was, what I was doing in New York, and if I could photograph the five of them for an entire day. They gave me their number and told me to call them that night to set up a time.

The next day I met up with the five boys; Angel, Ouba, Aidan, Josh, and Stefy. Angel and Josh are brothers and the other boys came from other b-boy crews where they  created their own called "2 Real 2 True 4 Breakin". The boys do not just choose any train to dance on, they choose to ride the same route all day getting on only the express line and returning to the loop over and over again which allows the group to dance longer with fewer stops. Once the group arrives on the platform they quickly choose their commuter cart carefully looking for the group size of commuters to generate more tips but not to many so they are unable to have room to dance. Once we got onto the train and the doors closed, the boys immediately sprang into action. Josh immediately shouting the same words I heard the day before "WHAT TIME IS IT?".... and the rest of the boys responding "IT'S SHOWTIME". The music starts, they clear the space, and they waste no time and start performing as people are still trying to figure out what is happening on their daily commute. Each of boys takes a turn dancing, showcasing their moves while anticipating the trains movement so they don't fall or accidentally collide with any bystanders. The song finishes and they proceed through the crowd collecting any cash they can before the train reaches the next station. We get off and wait for the train to take us back the other way. We complete this cycle over and over again over a span of 5 hours running from car to car to find the best train cars to dance on.

Sometimes when trains are running late the boys will practice moves and techniques on the platform, listen to music, count the tips they have made, or chat with other crews that are also dancing on the subway to earn some extra cash. On average the group earns about $250 in three to four hours and all money is divided evenly amongst the group. The five of them are all born and raised in New York and they live in Bronx. Some of the boys parents support what they do, others do not as they are are encouraged to pursue other avenues of earning extra cash.

 

New York City | Dancing Underground

 

 

Love: Stranger Series New York City

There is something to be said about going for a walk. I find walking alone especially with a camera can be one of the most calming and exhilarating experiences as a photographer because you never know who or what your going to run into and it forces you to slow down and really look at your surrounding environment. On one particular day as I was just spending the day... you guessed it... walking, I came to the intersection of Tillary street and the entry route onto the Brooklyn bridge. At this intersection I noticed a man walking from car to car as they were stopped at the intersections red light. As I walked a little closer, I noticed the man was quite well dressed and in one arm he had a hand full of the newspapers and in the other hand a stack of ready made six inch pies. Now I have seen people in other countries selling flowers, fruit, and even tombstones to people in parked cars but never pie and the daily news from a single person. As I made my way over to the side of the road where he was conducting his business with the temporarily stopped cars, it was surprising to see he was making quite a few sales in the short amount time I had since noticed him. The street light turned green, the cars drove away, and the man waited patiently along the side of the road for the next set of traffic to stop at the lights. I walked over to see this man and asked him what he was selling. It turned out to be sweet potato pies and the local newspaper. When I asked for his name he stumbled his words and said "Ahhh... My name is Love". I was surprised by the name but didn't question how or where he got his name from. I tried asking him more about his life but he insisted right away he did not want to talk about himself, so Instead I asked if I could take his picture. Again his demeanor changed instantly from the smiley happy pie and paper salesman to becoming a little anxious and questioned me why I wanted to photograph him. I told him what I was doing, where the photographs would end up, and for more peace of mind I gave him my business card. By this time more cars had stopped at the intersection and I told him to think about it and go look after his customers. After the light had turned green, Love walked back to where I was standing and happily agreed.

 

 

 

Ahmed: Stranger Series New York City

As I was walking the Brooklyn Bridge in New York City this past summer (2013), I noticed a elderly man on the pedestrian path was selling water out of a portable cooler on a dolly. Now if you have never been to New York City in the summer time it gets ridiculously hot especially during the heat waves, and just my luck the entire three weeks I was there it was 35 degrees every day. As soon as I heard this man shout out "COLD WATER.... ONLY ONE DOLLA" in his Arabic accent I could not resist. Gulping down the water as quickly as I gave the man my money I decided to see if he would allow me to take his photo. The man graciously said yes and we exchanged names. His name was Ahmed and he had been in New York for the past 6 weeks and was headed back to Egypt to see his family at the end of the summer. After our small and brief conversation Ahmed immediately asked a passing tourist to take a photo of the two of us on his mobile phone. We thanked each other for the encounter and we went our separate ways.  

Lilly

I recently went to New York City for three weeks for a project that I am working on involving the New York City dance community. Usually when I travel for an extended period of time for a specific project, I try to allocate a few days where I just walk with my camera photographing only what I see in that moment with no prior intent, concept, or idea. These are some of my favorite experiences I have when traveling because there is no set destination and there is no pressure from any outside influence; it is just me, my camera, and the outside elements. On one particular day I decided to walk North from Brooklyn at 4:30pm and after 15km in 40 degree heat, I came across a woman who I noticed was collecting bottles from trash bags that were placed on the curb/sidewalks in front of what looked like an upscale restaurant in mid town Manhattan. As I walked by, I briefly made eye contact with the woman where we both exchanged a quick smile and as quick as she looked up her attention was back to the task at hand, collecting bottles out of the 12 or more large bags that engulfed her tiny body. As I kept walking, I stopped just over thirty feet past her casually leaning against the adjacent building watching her activity intently. After about five minutes this tiny woman starts carrying one of the large plastic bags that she has filled with aluminum cans and drags it to a shopping cart next to her. She struggles to tie the bag of cans to the already hanging six or so bags of cans and bottles that have swallowed her shopping cart. Noticing her dilemma,  I quickly walk over and offer some help by tying the full bag to anything that would hold it's weight without it's contents spilling onto the street. Once the bag was secure the woman looked at me and gave me the biggest smile and in broken English said "Thank-you". I realized this would be a great opportunity asking her to take her photo. Given my experience of being denied photographing woman in similar circumstances, I was surprisingly shocked when she immediately agreed where I then snapped off ten or so frames. After I finished the last frame, she gently tapped her chest and said "Me... Lilly". We both smile, I tell her my name mimicking her hand to chest motion and end our encounter with a friendly handshake and we go our separate ways. It was only after I had walked 50 feet that I quickly turned around and went back to ask Lilly another question seeing the potential in our chance encounter. As I came around the corner and coming face to face with my new friend, I asked her if I could follow her for an entire day photographing her daily life and activities. Realizing that she spoke very little English and only Mandarin, I was quickly faced with difficult language barriers I had in Bangladesh re-living that sense of helplessness and in a city where English is one of the first spoken languages. After many attempts at trying to find out where she would be in the afternoon the next day, we both realized and knew the language barrier was too great. Not giving up, I asked for her mobile number in very poor hand signals in hopes of calling her the next day to try again. She agreed and gave me her number.

The next day I called Lilly at noon asking her where she was and within minutes it was the same scenario from our first encounter the day before. Neither of us could understand one another and we were both reluctant to hang up the phone but we knew it was inevitable and after a a couple minutes our phone call had ended. Sitting on the sidewalk with my back to a building, I knew I could make this meeting happen. I looked up and saw a food truck. Never denying myself food and always being able to think better with something in my stomach, I decided to eat as it might be a good idea so I can come up with a different approach to meeting up with Lilly. As I glanced at the menu from the hole in the wall food truck, I ordered my chicken paratha (South Asian oily flat bread). Waiting for my order, I noticed an Asian man walk up behind me also wanting to place an order. I immediately turned to the man and said "I know this may sound crazy but do you happen to speak Cantonese or Mandarin"? The gentleman looked at me a bit puzzled, then smiled and said "I actually speak both languages fluently but I am Malaysian". I then told him who I was and that I wanted to photograph this woman but was unable to communicate with her. I suggested to the man I call Lilly from my phone and from there he can immediately take over the conversation and essentially be my translator and get her location. The friendly man agreed. I quickly dialed the number, Lilly answered, I tell her it's Jeremy, and then I pass the phone to the gentleman. After 20 seconds he starts talking with her and within 2 minutes Lilly tells the man her location and the conversation ends. I thank the man offering to pay for his meal, he declines, we shake hands, he wishes me good luck, and I am off running towards the nearest subway, chicken paratha in hand making my way down to West 4st.

Once I make it down town I had no problems finding Lilly. She was just as smiley and friendly the evening I met her. I tried explaining why I wanted to photograph her that day but again the language barrier was to difficult and I was yet again on a mission in search for another stranger who could speak Mandarin for me. After many "no's" from various foot traffic, I finally came across a woman who was more than willing to help translate some questions I had for Lilly. Within 10 minutes or so everyone was on the same page and Lilly was more than happy to let me follow her around photographing her daily routine.

Lilly is 58 years old and comes from a small village in China. She lives in New York City with her husband and has for the past 13 years. Lilly used to work in a restaurant in China Town, however the restaurant has shut down and she tells me it is hard to find work because she does not speak English. She spends her days collecting glass bottles and aluminum cans from various store fronts and apartment buildings where the owners and general public greet Lilly as if she were their closest friends. Back in China Lilly has two children where her daughter is in her 20's and is a house keeper and her son is in his 30's and is a driver for a local company. I could not help notice the amount of recyclables Lilly collects on a daily basis and I was curious to find out how much she makes on a average day. It turns out she collects $20-$30 worth of cans and bottles in a 10 hour day.

Intimate Interviews in Pabna: Portraits and Words From Two Sex Workers

Posted: 05 Jan 2012 03:32 PM PST On the bus to Pabna I met two fantastic Bengali’s who offered to take me around the town of Pabna by getting me access to anything I so curiously decide to photograph. In my previous blog post you had the opportunity to see inside the mental institution where Reza and Licholn were able to volunteer their time and them-selves helping me gain the access I needed. Reza and Licholn also work for a local initiative where basic health education, STD testing/treatment, condoms, and support is offered to the thousands of sex workers (8,000-10,000) that call Pabna and the surrounding area home.

This blog post is dedicated to the woman and children that are continually being exploitive around the world through trafficking, prostitution, and abuse. This is a topic that has always interested me. I do not know exactly what specifically it is about this topic that interests me but I can not help but think how sex workers have no alternative choice in a life when there are no other options available.

One evening Reza, Licholn, and I were walking through one of the markets after dinner talking about the organization they work for. Suddenly, a woman came up to the two of them and started enthusiastically joking with them. She was short, wearing a beautiful dark maroon Sari that was covered in sequence and gem stones. Her hair was beautifully curled and her make-up done as if she was about to take part in the next up and coming Bollywood film. Suddenly Reza opens his bag and hands this woman what looked like to be about 20-30 condoms. After the three of them saw my reaction they immediately started laughing and told me that she was a very close friend, she was also a sex worker in Pabna.

This woman was smiling, laughing, and I could not help but notice how confident she carried herself through her posture, body language, and how open she was open about her sexuality in a Muslim society as she joked around with the three of us, Reza obviously doing the translating. My curiosity got the best of me and I couldn’t help but wanting to seize an opportunity asking her if she would be open to an interview, followed by having her portrait taken, and if she knew any other woman that would be open to this suggestion. Without hesitation, tilting her head to the side with a cheeky smile letting me know she would be more than happy, not before expressing how excited she was to get all dulled up for a photo-shoot and having her photograph taken. We agreed on a time, date, locations, we then said our goodbyes, and parted ways until the interviews the following day.

The day of the interview, Lobani (Woman I met at the night market), Reza, Licholn, Bornna (Lobani’s friend and sex worker), and I went to a guesthouse where the owner of the guesthouse gave us a meeting room free of charge. When we entered the room there were couches and chairs surrounding one main table in the center with two windows offering ample enough light to take photographs. I briefed Reza and Licholn before the interview on what I was going to ask Bornna and Lobani and what I needed from them in regards to translating. As always they were SUPER awesome, supportive, and cooperative.

I sat Lobani and Bornna down and told them what my intentions were behind the interviews, asking them to answer the questions honestly, and to not feel obligated to answer or talk about anything they felt uncomfortable with. I wanted them to be as comfortable and open with me as much as they would allow me to.

When I first met Bornna she had a stone cold sarcastic attitude about her. She was very direct and to the point. She walked with confidence and would speak her mind without hesitation to anyone her challenged her, including men. I found loyal characteristics in her personality surviving on her “treat me as how you want to be treated” attitude or you will feel this woman’s wrath…. Literally.

At first glance Lobani is very short in stature with curves similar to Aretha Franklin. Her eyes are bright allowing her to smile with her eyes like a shy eight year old with a subtle carefree softness to her personality. I found her a bit mysterious yet her smile and child like attitude could melt anyone’s soul with pure love.

The interviews lasted about 1.5 hours, which included a list of questions that I asked both Lobani and Bornna.

The following text will go through the interview so you have an idea of what was asked and how they responded.

LOBANI INTERVIEW:

How old are you?

L-I am 32 years old.

Are you married?

L-I was once married but my husband left me. He left me for another woman when I was 19.

Do you have any children?

L-I do not have any children.

How long have you been a sex worker?

L-Ten years.

 

Lobani immediately breaks down and we take ten minutes so she can regain her composure.

 

Where are your parents?

L-My parents have passed on.

Who are the men that come to you for sex?

L-Police, politicians, husbands, NGO executives, charity workers, and single men.

Where do you live?

L-I live alone in town and usually every two months or so I have to find a new place to live, as my landlord does not want a prostitute living in his building.

How much are you able to earn from each man that comes to you for sex?

L-I make on average about 300-500 taka per session ($3.50-$6.50) it works out to be around 10,000 Taka per-month ($125.00)

Do you see yourself getting married again?

L-No

Why not?

L-I have lost faith in ALL men, and I will never trust another men as long as I am alive.

 

BORNNA INTERVIEW:

How old are you?

B-I am 27 years old.

Were you ever married?

B-My husband left me just like Lobani’s husband left her for another woman.

Do you have any children?

B-I do, her name is Shonile and she is nine years old.

How long have you been a sex worker?

B-Eight years.

How often do men come to you for sex?

B-It depends; some months and weeks are busier than others. It is never consistent it’s always up and down.

Where do you live?

B-I live with my mother.

Does she know you’re a sex worker?

B-NO.

What would your mother do or how would she react if she found out about your situation?

B-…(Making a choking action with her hands).

Have you re-married?

B-No and I will never get married again.

Have you ever suffered from any physical abuse from the men that come to you for sex?

B-Every week.

What exactly do these men do to you?

B-Spit on me, kick me, punch me, call me names, and rape me when I don’t want to give them sex.

How many times have Lobani and you been raped?

B-It happens about twice a week. Sometimes more, sometimes less. On some occasions groups of men will come where only one person commits to payment and the rest of them will rape me.

What do you Lobani and Bornna hope for in life?

B-We pray for when life will get better, to stop doing things we are ashamed of, to live a life with happiness.

 

Lobani.

 

Lobani.

 

Lobani.

 

Bornna.

 

Bornna.

 

Bornna.

 

Bornna & Lobani.

 

Reza.

 

Licholn.