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.