Shooting Fear in the Face in Chinatown NYC Part 2 of 5 / by Jason Joseph

The Challenge:

   I came up with a plan, something challenging..something that could cause a bit of fear to rear it's ugly head even for the most seasoned of shooters.

   The plan was to head out to an unchartered neighborhood in Manhattan and come back with a portrait of a complete stranger, someone who just plain ‘fit’  the neighborhood.

   Getting out to explore a neighborhood that I may otherwise simply pass through in the typical daily routine rush to get to wherever else it was I was going, and connecting a bit more to my own backyard without flying though it....(In typical New York fashion) could only serve to to strengthen my abilities as an artist. It's only through slowing down and taking in the world around us that we are in turn fueled with the natural stimulation that our surroundings afford us. I hope that I may inspire some of you to get out, and do the same!

   Making a portrait of a complete stranger, could be rather challenging. I know many people who secretly wish to photograph people but who’ve yet to get the nerve to point the camera at anyone not related to them by blood. Believe it or not, I know the feeling. When I started out I went to college to learn to do product photography. I was terrified of pointing a camera at someone. To me it held no less severity or responsibility, than pointing a loaded gun. And being deathly afraid of the camera being pointed at me in my awkward formative years, I knew all too well that to one’s could literally feel no less serious than if it were a loaded gun pointed at them. Heck..some people may get so scared with a camera pointed at them that they would choose the gun if given the chance!

   To photograph a total stranger, spur of the moment, in the middle of a new environment, is literally opening yourself up to a the wonderfully exhilarating real world scenario where anything can happen! (Especially in NYC!)

I’d have to approach someone I’d never met and convince them to make a photograph with me. I say with me not in the sense of ‘be in the photograph with me’, but rather that a true portrait is a collaboration between photographer and subject.

   This would be a test of the entire breadth of my people, communication, and location scouting skills. And as it turns out, also of my patience, mental fortitude, legs, and stamina! ( well as my assistant’s)

We set out to do this as simply as possible. I was to take with me just one light. Super simple. I decided to make it even more simple and I would be using only one lens to shoot the portrait. (I did bring two cameras but this was really just because I wanted to test one of the cameras a bit. I used it solely for the non portrait images.)

My Camera a Nikon D7000

My Flash: Nikon SB80Dx nothin’ fancy here. No Joe McNally CLS wizardry at my fingertips.  I  triggered it with Elinchrom Skyports (the older, non locking...better tape the transmitter to the camera with a strip of gaf, lest you lose it variety...Read: cheaper.)

My Lens: 28-85mm f3.5-4.5 Nikkor. A wha?? You say? Yes it exists, and no I didn’t make it up. It’s an absolute sleeper of a lens. Razor sharp across the entire scale and at nearly every aperture. You can find them at B&H Used for about  $120.00 and for about the same on eBay.

Light Modifier:  I decided to pump the flash through a 21” Beauty Dish with a Grid.

I chose this for a few reasons:

  • It’s large enough that if I needed to I could use it to light a full human figure or more (Which is exactly what I wound up doing). It is also, thanks to the grid, able to make the light source much smaller and controlled. (again.. exactly what we wound up doing)
  • No other light modifier would afford me the same number of options in one single device 1) Shoot with the grid on, for a tight controlled light. 2) With the grid off for a soft broader beam 3) With the grid and the center reflector removed and the flash head zoomed to its widest position for a bit more power up close and still remaining somewhat soft. 4) With the shower cap on for a very soft light 5) With the shower cap on and  the grid for a soft yet more controlled directional light
  • While an umbrella is much more suited for travel because it folds the event of inclement weather and a windy day....the beauty dish is much easier to wield in that it maintains it's shape and continues to produce. (Try managing an umbrella in winds over 10 mph and you’ll quickly see what I mean.)

The light and dish were attached to a SHUR-LINE telescopic painters pole which you can see in action on the blog of the venerable Joe McNally4  It would make positioning the light a breeze. Hopefully it’s thick cushioned handle would make lugging it around all over NY a little less of a chore for my assistant.

I honestly don’t remember how much I spent on the beauty dish nor who makes it for that matter. And yes...wireless triggers and a beauty dish are not exactly slumming it....but consider this. My lens cost 120$ ! Not $1,200.00 Sb80DX Flash..again under 200$ not 400-500$ If you save a little here and there you can afford a lil more. And you may not have an assistant.. but everyone has a friend... so Game on! Lets go!

Planning Ahead

If you're going to set out to a neighborhood near you to take on the “Photograph a complete stranger in a neighborhood you’ve never really ‘’really’ been to” challenge” (I think thats the official name haha)...then you may want to consider doing a little research beforehand.

Clicking on the icon the arrow points to will bring up a very special feature.

I took to Google Earth. If you don’t have Google Earth, you can simply use Google Maps. However...Google Earth is free, and it affords you the ability to do something that will come in handy. And that is, see where the sun will be!

If you look at the top left hand corner you will see a timeline slider that allows you to click and drag.
As you do you will see the sun move across the landscape.
This feature is amazing. You can set the day and time for anywhere in the past present or future and get a fairly accurate representation of where the sun will be!

Clicking on the icon the arrow points to will bring up a very special feature.

If you look at the top left hand corner you will see a timeline slider that allows you to click and drag. As you do you will see the sun move across the landscape. This feature is amazing. You can set the day and time for anywhere in the past present or future and get a fairly accurate representation of where the sun will be!

Ahhhhh technology. 

I used the map to ascertain where the sun would be and determine which streets might best catch the rising sun as it raked across Chinatown. While most of Manhattan is laid out in a grid like fashion, Chinatown isn't laid out in a perfect north south east west manner, and some of its streets are more angular than others. I wound up deciding that as with most shoots...earlier is better, and I’d have to stick to certain areas until the sun crawled over the building tops. Fortunately Chinatown isn't overgrown with very tall (Least by NYC standards) buildings and I wouldn't have to wait very long.

It was thanks to careful planning and a few minutes with Google Earth that I was able to know not only where on Mott Street to be, but when to be there in able to catch little pools of golden morning light like this:

Chinatown NYC Early Morning Light

People bustled about under pagoda shaped streetlamps, unimpressed by our efforts or intentions. My assistant and I were like ghosts in the machine. We were there plenty early enough for dramatic light. The kind that left pools of shadows everywhere for the still illuminated shop lights to exist in the same breath as the morning sun, as it glistened off any, and everything.

If only Google Maps could have only solved the rest of the day’s challenges!

Some Interesting Facts About Chinatown  纽约华埠

One of the oldest buildings in Chinatowm. This Building Is Only 5 Years Younger Than Chinatown Itself

   Chinatowns exist all through the world. So you too can set out on this challenge! In The United States I learned that there are roughly 97 ‘Chinatowns’ so chances are there is one within driving distance of you!

San Francisco’s is the oldest, and largest on the west coast, with people having settled there to help with the California Gold Rush in the mid 1800’s. New York City’s is the largest outside of ….well....China.

   The Chinese arrived in N.Y.C. as early as 1868.  Chinatown as it stands in N.Y. today is bordered by Broome St. on the north, Worth St. on the south, Allen St. on the east, and Lafayette St. on the west.[b]

   All in all there are 32 streets that comprise Chinatown...and the last...and most important fact about those that if you need to find an English speaking person of Chinese or Asian descent who will pose for your camera, you had better have a great sense of humor and a tremendous amount of patience, and some really comfortable walking shoes! For finding one among those 32 streets is like finding a needle in a haystack!

   Now... don’t let that get you  down, and if it does consider this...not only did I have to be able to communicate that I’d like to make a photograph of the person, I also had to be able to explain that I would need them to sign a release, so I could use the image in this article! You may have it substantially easier than the task I had at hand. Least I hope so.

Another scene appears, the light so eloquently placed that one almost began to think that it was mocking us in our inability to find a suitable subject. I reveled in it, certain that something delicious would unfold if only I remained to possibilities, and mindful of my surroundings.

    I wasn’t out to simply photograph the first person that I could talk to either.. no, that would have been a cop-out. Frankly it wouldn’t have been worth the effort either. I set out to find someone with character.. with verve. Someone who simply lit up the camera. I wanted to inspire you to get out to a place you’ve never been and to find the most visually intriguing person you could find, someone whom you felt had a real sense of purpose in being in the place where you found them. Someone who’d look like they were placed on that corner by the most experienced Hollywood casting director with awards under their belt..and against all odds of time constraints, or  language barriers, and without interest in your wants, desires or needs...convince that person to not only spend a few moments to make a photograph with you..but to make one worthy of your portfolio. Because if you could achieve this … with whatever gear you have. You will have done more for the honing of your craft then you could ever achieve no matter which lens/flash/gadget/whatchamacallit that you could ever save two weeks salary to purchase!

Annie Leibovitz said “I wish that all of nature's magnificence, the emotion of the land, the living energy of place could be photographed.”  Personally I, Jason Joseph, believe that it can be, for the living energy of a place lies in it’s inhabitants.

   As we walked down what at this point may have been our 20th block we realized that the beauty dish, was acting rather ugly. It began to sway back and forth on a point on which it is not meant to sway back and forth on! Hmmm...I fiddled.. Brian fiddled. It was immediately apparent, we weren’t very good fiddlers. The dish, was broken. Basically the piece that connects to the back of the thingamajig...broke and it would need a trip to a hardware store to fix it.

We found a plumbing supply shop in Chinatown, and they were super kind...but they didn't have the pieces we would need to fix the device. So now we were on the hunt for two things...a hardware store and a subject.

The closest hardware store was a lumber yard, across town a bit in Soho, and thats where we headed. Well.. at least it wasn't noon yet. The plan was to get this thing fixed...and get back to the hunt! Figured the fix should take about 20 min. or so. Wow... good thing we weren't timing an exposure! We were way off!!

   I think it took us close to 2 and a half hours to fix the dish. I won't bore you with the details but it entailed us working hand in hand with one of the lumberyard’s employees... a guy by the name of TC who looked like and sounded even more like the rapper/actor Mos Def. It was uncanny when he spoke. He was absolutely as determined to fix this now unusable beauty dish, as we were. It took countless configurations of nuts bolts washers.. nothing would hold it in place. Finally I suggested we drill new holes and rig it...’creatively’ I said 2.5 hrs later and it was not only fixed, but rock solid and better than new.

   I’m taking the time to give you the details of the day, because it was rather discouraging. We’d logged several miles over the course of several hours with not a soul in front of the lens. It was daunting. The weight of the situation could easily take a toll. This is exactly where the power to decide what is going to rule you, can make or break the outcome. I could turn to fear...and panic that this is clearly NOT going to work out. Or I could focus on the positive. Like the fact that my dish was now attached better than when it had left the factory, and perhaps my subject that I was to find today...was still home sleeping! It was Saturday after all! Besides, what a fabulous opportunity the bond of working together with a stranger to reach a goal, would afford me for making a portrait! I knew I had to make a photo of TC.
This Hollywood star-like character, occupying the lumberyard as inconspicuously as the finest crown molding tucked away in it’s bin awaiting the right customer to come along and give it a home.
Perhaps he was just there waiting for me to come along and make an image of him....

I thought so, so now only if he thought so too...perhaps I'd actually make a photograph today.

Come back next week and find out not only if I did... but the true purpose of this blog series as it continues to unfold...