Jonathan Higbee: This is What NYC Street Photographers Sometimes Experience

All words and images by Jonathan Higbee. Used with permission.

Let me tell you about my day. It was odd and saturated with adrenaline thanks to an ambitious group of security personnel who are now schooled in civil rights!

A gang of security guards outside the Time Warner Center decided it was a good use of their time and mine to harass, intimidate and threaten me. I was photo-waiting (like I do) at a beautiful scene with filtered afternoon light combined with gorgeous bounced light that Midtown and its skyscrapers so generously afford sometimes. I was on the sidewalk, photographing urban geometry-type work. The first guard to approach me came up and told me I had to leave, that I was a threat to national security. You know how Manhattan has pretty much become an open air psychiatric hospital in recent years? Well, yeah, I thought he was insane and ignored him.

He persevered (bless his heart), so I realized he was serious and removed my ear buds one by one (modern day equivalent of taking off earrings) to play ball.

 

“I’m sorry, sir. I know the law well, and I’m not leaving. I’m also going to continue taking photographs. Thank you, though.”

I was genuinely polite during the entire episode, which I honestly deserve an award for or something. He disagreed. He knew the law, too, he said, and I was absolutely not allowed to take pictures of the outside of the Time Warner Center. “Please get out of here.” he said.

The light was evaporating quickly. I was annoyed but maintained my civility. I’m also confident in my understanding of the law, so, to speed things up, I suggested he call the police so they could come down here and kindly inform him of my rights. He thought I was bluffing, told me I was going to go to jail for a long time, suggested I was a terrorist. It was quite funny and I think I may have giggled a few times. By this point, a rag tag group of his colleagues had made their way over. They surrounded me in a circle, mere feet away. I continued to take pictures despite the distraction and the gymnastics I had to perform to get my lens around them. I wasn’t purposefully hoping to frustrate them, but I also wasn’t going to let them infringe on my rights and fuck up my day of work.

As I clicked away, a jolly older fellow made his way over to us. In business garb, not in security costume. He told me I had to leave and that he’d have me arrested if I didn’t immediately obey.

“Sorry, who are you?” I asked.

“I’m not telling you that.”

“Okay, then.”

I kept working my scene and clicking away.

The older man — who it seemed was a supervisor of some sort — told the guards to encircle me again and block me from getting photos of anything by throwing their arms or legs in front of my camera. I seriously begged them to do just that. Can you imagine how crazy of a photo I would’ve walked away with? “OMG please, you guys, do what he just told you to do. I’ll get a great shot if you do!” They opted to refrain from the choreography they were instructed to perform, but gathered closer to me anyway.

“He thought I was bluffing, told me I was going to go to jail for a long time, suggested I was a terrorist.”

Supervisor asked for my I.D. I informed him that unless he was a NYPD officer, I wasn’t giving him anything. He didn’t find that very humoring, and he started aggressively patting me on the back and shoulder, in that fake jovial kind of way you might imagine a mafioso would do. He escalated threats, telling me that they did in fact call the police and not only would I be going to prison for a very long time, but I was going to be put on some kind of secret “black list” that would forever haunt me for as long as I live. LOL!

I’m still not convinced this wasn’t a roaming performing arts troupe.

I kindly told him that I’m happy to wait for the police to arrive to sort this out but I’m going to continue working and not interact with him until then. I reminded him that the relevant U.S. law is well-defined and allows anyone the right to photograph and document anything that’s visible in public. He told me and his cabal of guards that I was lying, don’t worry they’ll get me in the back of a cop car soon.

A few minutes go by before the older man yells at me once again. “C’mon, these guys [the guards] get paid by the hour here!”

I still don’t know what he meant by that. At the time I said, plainly, “okay” and kept shooting.

Several different groups of tourists have passed by at this point taking photos and videos of the surrounding sidewalk areas, the building’s facade, etc., all escaping the harassment and threats of eternal damnation from this ace security team. I mention that a zillion other folks have been openly photographing all the same stuff in the time since the guards started intimidating me. “So what? Those people are just tourists,” was the excuse.

Kept working as best as I could. Shadows cast by tall neighboring buildings were quickly encroaching upon my delicious scene.

As a reminder, this entire time I’m not harassing anyone or even taking photos of people. I’ve been casually and quietly on the street side of the sidewalk waiting for good light and geometry to mix. I’m purposefully going out of my way to not provoke the dudes with the name tags, or act spiteful or condescending.

Anyway, older dude leaves. He’s replaced by someone the same younger age as the rest of the security team. If older dude was somehow “good cop” then this woman was supposed to be “bad cop.”

“You need to go, now.” She screamed at me from across the sidewalk as she approached. A small crowd had formed and dissipated before, but her shout really gained some interest and turned it into good ol’ NYC sidewalk theater.

“I’m so sorry, ma’am. I’m not going to leave right this second because I have every right to stay here and photograph anything I want. I’ll be out of your hair as soon as the light’s gone on this corner.”

“Nope. We’ve told you to leave numerous times now. No more warnings. There are four police cars and a detective right around the corner ready to go. If you don’t leave I’ll call them over right now and have you arrested.”

“Thank god. I’m honestly glad to hear it! I’ve been asking your team to call the police the past half hour. Please, please invite them here then so we can clear this up.”

“Are you sure? You’re so suspicious. This is a national security issue. Gonna be bad for you.” (BTW, I’m wearing ripped denim shorts — Happy Pride! — and a striped J-Crew t-shirt. Running sneakers, my favorite red hat complete my delinquent look for the day.)

“Ma’am, again, I’m sorry but I know the law governing this situation like the back of my hand. Please get the cops here and stop harassing me until they arrive.”

I was starting to lose my cool at this point because I was losing the light. And I was flabbergastedd that this security team was so misinformed about U.S. law and the rights of photographers — a group of people whom, I imagine, they encounter by the busload. I wondered how many other harmless people they’ve threatened, and how secure the whole area must really be if this is their idea of a code red situation.

I had been recording the interaction with my phone in my pocket (so I could hold my camera and work, not to be sneaky) and I was sure that at least one of the guards noticed me doing it, as I had been checking it every now and then to ensure it was still recording. I was wrong because one of them just noticed.

“You need to stop recording. Now.”

“No.”

“I’m serious.”

“I am too.”

“Why are you being so rude to us?” he pleaded.

My jaw dropped, and I let out a burst of laughter. I think a few people who had gathered around did as well.

“Bad cop” then heard some “Peanuts” adult-esque voice erupt from her walkie-talkie. She rolled her eyes.

“Have a good day, sir,” she said to me in a tone that was obvious she meant the exact opposite.

“C’mon, let’s go. He can stay.” She and the group of underpaid guards sulked away into the shadows and caverns of the 59th Street station. So did the light that I was trying to capture.

A few lessons:

1.) Photographers: you need to be literate in the applicable laws of whatever jurisdictions you are shooting in. Hold your ground when you have the right to do so (obviously use common sense however). Don’t be intimidated. At the very least, these folks are now educated about basic American laws that apply to the very people they’ve been hired to observe.

2.) I hate to assume shit, but I think these guards were all probably in their 20s. I was shooting with my Q today, which is small but obviously a camera, not a smartphone. I think as time moves on, people are going to be ever more suspicious about actual cameras as they become less and less common. Interesting to think about the implications of that.

3.) Five minutes afterward I met John Oliver on the street! I had absolutely earned this reward. Chatted with him for a few minutes of adrenaline-fueled ecstasy. Very interesting guy. Very interesting day!

Be sure to also follow Jonathan on Instagram and Facebook.