It’s not easy to ask for a picture from a fireman’s widow or a mother who has just lost a child. That’s the worst aspect of my high-pressure job as a member of the New York City working press. I step into people’s lives, often for less than an hour, usually in moments of great joy or sorrow. My job is to take my shots and get out — with enough time to email my photos and make the deadlines.
Contrary to stereotype, we’re not all insensitive clods, pushing and shoving without manners. I’m polite, yet persistent. That usually works. I have feelings too. But mostly, I am stoic. I’d go emotionally bankrupt if I let myself feel every subject’s pain. When bad things happen to good people, I’m there with my camera.
It’s not that I don’t care, I do. I ached in the home of a Williamsburg boy who was accidentally shot by a friend. His mother was in shock; I saw the remains of shattered hope. My eyes filled with tears when I met Miep Gies, the woman who hid Anne Frank from the Nazis. I told a mourning fireman, whose buddy had perished, that my brother is a fireman too.
Every day is different. I ride in blimps and boats, practice my bad Spanish in Washington Heights, cajole dogs and cats into posing, or choke from the pollution at the largest gathering of cigar smoking women. On a good day, I’m tasting homemade waffles with chocolate butter that were just whipped up for a food shot.
I go from chasing scoundrels to staking out courthouses and hospitals with hoards of other media, all of us trying not to get in each other’s way. The excitement wanes fast when we’re outside in rain or subzero weather standing around for hours waiting for the right moment — the photo op. It’s a do or die situation.
My job requires fast coordination. Luckily, I can anticipate action because I’m a streetwise kid from a working class Brooklyn neighborhood. Hanging out on the sidewalks and boardwalk of Coney Island in the 50s and 60s prepared me for shooting news. My block, Surf Avenue, was alive with screaming spouses and city games; we learned when to turn and look and when to duck a flying stickball. I use all those Brooklyn bred reflexes today.
Dangerous situations pop up all the time. I stood in the shadow of the World Trade center as it collapsed. Members of the mafia have threatened me while taking pictures of their store fronts in Bensonhurst. I’ve gotten attacked by the mother of a Chinese gang member and the mom of Amy Fisher. I’ve photographed assaults with knives (that made a big front page). I’ve almost been trampled by police on horses, trying to control a crowd of demonstrators. I take chances because I want the best shot.
When growing up in the Coney Island Houses, I was addicted to black and white television police dramas like “Naked City” and “Dragnet”. Now I drive round the city, chase down subjects, and capture them with my camera. The sounds of my trade- the whizzing of the motor drive, the clicking of the shutter — are the rhythms and beats of my work.
Friends think my career is exciting because I meet famous people. Celebrity one-on-one assignments are usually difficult. Too much ego and too many publicists. Rising stars know the importance of a good shot for their careers. They don’t mind taking directions from me. Eminem was real cooperative a few years ago before he became huge. Queen Latifah really thought she was royalty. Ben Kingsley was angry and hostile. Edie Falco was a delight. Helen Gurley Brown not only posed, but told me I had nice breasts.
It’s always energizing when pictures I took in the past become hot because of current news stories. A sudden turn of events can send me rushing to my photo files. One of my biggest scores came when Sammy “the Bull” Gravano turned on John Gotti. I had the two of them smiling in front of the Ravenite Social Club in Little Italy, celebrating Gotti’s last acquittal. Those photos appeared on television and in magazines and newspapers world wide.
I love my job because I witness events that change people’s lives. I come face to face with ordinary folks who are heroes. Or I look into the eyes of New Yorkers whose world has been altered by bullets, abuse, terrorism. I travel through all levels of society. I’ve been in lavish Park Avenue duplexes, sturdy row houses in Bay Ridge, and scary crack dens in bad neighborhoods.
I feel privileged to record life in my native city. When I was growing up, Robert Kennedy campaigned in Coney Island. Right up front, caught up in the action, I shook his hand. I was so excited. I was only nine or ten, but the images in the next day’s papers made a lasting impression.
Today, I hope my pictures inspire other New Yorkers.