No Photographs, Please

As a photographer, have you ever been told that you were prohibited from photographing something?

This past Saturday my neighbor/friend/fellow Bronx aficionado, Matt and I decided to take a photography walk. We began at our lovely art deco building in Bedford Park, stopping for a quick bite at Jerome’s Pizza (my neighborhood favorite.) If you know the area, there are quite a few photogenic subjects to be had. Matt is a licensed tour guide, has a Master’s in history, and is always good for some Bronx trivia.

After the slice we arrived upon the Bedford Park Blvd. overpass, peering into the MTA’s Concourse Yard, a subway storage facility. There are always trains coming in and out, making their way onto the 4 and B/D subway lines, which makes an interesting photo. I’m a personal fan of the retired redbird car series, which can often be seen painted yellow and reinvented as a worktrain or if you’re lucky, as we were, in its original glory. Matt quickly pointed out that getting the right depth of field would totally negate the chain linked fence surrounding it, the only thing obscuring our view. Sweet!

Making our way past Lehman College, we discussed the benefits of an auxiliary flash, something I seriously could have used during my Bronx Fashion Week shoot. We stumbled upon one of those water sampling stations that just happened to be opened and running. Matt was quick to take a photo. I’d never seen one open and had always wondered what was inside. Ah, but within a second of snapping the photo, an overzealous DEP employee appeared out of nowhere and barked at us that we were not allowed to photograph the water station, quickly shutting its door and hiding its contents. Really? We questioned him, as it was a public fixture, thus there was no way he could prevent us from taking a photo. He backed down and disappeared.

This would not be the last time we would be told no that day.

Back in Colombia I’d gotten into my share of problems with photography. Most people don’t realize, for example, that the cerro or hill that you see in all the postcards of Bogotá actually encompasses a strategic military lookout, thus is technically illegal to photograph. I learned this the hard way while standing on a footbridge using a point and shoot to capture the picturesque landscape. I caught the eye of a soldier and naturally my battery decided to die at that very moment. I was instructed to delete the photos or have my camera confiscated. I took out the AA batteries, alternating them, and was miraculously able to turn the camera on, erasing said photos. I was definitely popular the day I attempted to photograph the changing of the guards at Palacio Nacional. Oops, my flash went off accidentally, betraying me. I was just a naive kid.

Meanwhile, Matt and I decided we should head to the Hall of Fame for Great Americans. We continued south onto the Old Croton Aqueduct Trail, which is paved and snakes in between buildings. Recently renovated, it is still popular among a transient population. One such man jovially asked us to take his photograph. Posturing demonstratively for the camera, he jokingly made us promise to share some of the riches “when we made it big.” “Even $20 is okay!” he laughed as we continued down our path.

The University Heights neighborhood west of University Avenue holds some architectural gems and little known hiding spots, as I like to call them. There are entire enclaves of middle-class families occupying private homes with gardens and decorative ornamentation. You can tell by St. Nicholas of Tolentine Church and the character of the buildings that this was no ordinary neighborhood. In fact, prior to the devastation of the 1970s, NYU occupied what is now Bronx Community College.

Upon our arrival to the entrance, I saw the security kiosk by the stairs and realized that we’d likely be asked to present photo IDs, as the Hall of Fame is on the BCC campus. What I did not expect was that upon seeing our Canon DSLRs, we were told that we weren’t allowed in without prior permission. Incredulous, but never the shrinking violet, the look upon my face revealed me. Just to make sure we were understanding the guard correctly, in unison we asked him to repeat what he’d just said. Apparently, we learned, not only was prior permission a prerequisite, we’d also only be able to access the site during weekday hours. Apologetically, he offered to let us speak to his supervisor if we needed any clarification.

As a Bronx activist, I’m wondering what the rationale is.  You have a tourist site in the middle of a neighborhood that few if any non-New Yorkers will ever visit and there are restrictions on who has access and when. It’s one of those practices that somebody clearly spent some time thinking up yet just doesn’t make any sense whatsoever. If you have some insight as to why this is, please comment below.





Things Fall Apart: My Trip to Rockaway Beach After Sandy

Last week made a year since super storm Hurricane Sandy hit the Eastern Seaboard. New York City subways and buses were halted. Schools were closed. People boarded up windows with plywood. I was one of the lucky ones. I live in the Bronx, arguably the least affected borough of New York City. To be more specific, I live in the Northwest Bronx on a hilltop, essentially a hill on top of numerous hills. Nothing much happened: it rained, it was very windy, some trees fell down and crushed a few cars. But nothing too much out of the ordinary that a bad thunderstorm wouldn’t do.

For the past several years, my summer had never been complete without a day trip out to Beach 116th Street in the Rockaways. The Irish Riviera, some call it, is chock full of dive bars, gift shops, some little seasonal restaurants and of course, the beach. Never in my mind did I imagine that I’d come back three months later to find sections of blocks leveled, boarded up, or burnt. I wanted to do something to help. Because it is a peninsula and only accessible by a few bridges,  you can imagine that only emergency workers and residents were allowed access.

In November while looking at my Twitter timeline and falling asleep looking a pictures of the damage in various parts of New York and New Jersey, I came across an opportunity. MoMA PS1′s Klaus Biesenbach was offering a chartered bus leaving and returning from MoMA in Midtown to bring volunteers and supplies into the Rockaways. I was on it.

We arrived at the Rockaway Surf Club in early afternoon and began unpacking supplies. Gallons of water. Matches. Flashlight. Pumps. Bleach. We broke up into teams. Some worked in a make-shift supply room dividing donations. Others arranged and divided donations on the ground to be categorized. Some of the men brought pumps and shovels to help families dig out their basements or pump water. I and a group of about three other young women walked around door knocking making lists of supplies needed.

Some people told us that they did not want to be a burden and refused, later accepting, admitting it had been a very tough few days. Others broke down and cried as mud lined their floors and watermarks three feet or more stained their walls. We went back to the Surf Club where other volunteers acted as store clerks. We would hand them a “grocery” list, which they then filled and we’d bring the supplies back to the families. This went on until the sun began to disappear on the horizon. We could go home. They could not. Or at least not what was recognizable as home.