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Interview With Jonathan Greenwald, New York City Street Photographer

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Street photography has never come easy for me, especially capturing people without them noticing me. It's a style of photography that I love, but I feel way too self-conscious to be stealthy, and often times I miss great shots by poorly framing or exposing incorrectly before scampering off before anyone looks at me. I so greatly admire those photographers who bravely achieve what I cannot, which is why I jumped at the opportunity to chat with New York City street photographer, Jonathan Greenwald.

On his photoblog, Shrued, Jonathan shares his view of the city where he now lives, New York City, and the city in which he will soon reside, Toronto. Full of beauty, surprise, natural wonder, and architectural triumph, Jonathan's photoblog is a virtual tour of the non-touristy sides of these two amazing cities.

But each city has a different side, a side we as outsiders don't often see, and it is through his camera that Jonathan is able to bring light and truth to what goes often unnoticed in two of North America's largest cities. With two projects called "Signs of The Times" and "Forgotten" Jonathan reveals to us the homeless of New York and Toronto.

Recently Jonathan and I talked about his project photographing the homeless. Here is what he had to say:

Why did you start photographing homeless people?

Spare a Smile, by Jonathan GreenwaldI think the idea came from my fascination for photographing people. In my earlier work, I rarely ever photographed someone I didn't know. I was always fearful of the repercussions and would rather avoid contact with my subjects.

It wasn't until I was photographing for a little while that I decided to photograph people on the streets of NYC and Toronto. I love human interaction and sometimes the quickest movement, facial expression, or reaction could be captured by the camera and tell a wonderful story. I also enjoy how you never see the same thing twice when you photograph people and the same photograph can tell me one story, but tell the next observer an entirely different story. With everyday people, the story can be anything. With the homeless, the story is always the same; desperation, despair, and poverty. When photographing the homeless, sadness and compassion is a constant theme.

Do you interact with the people you photograph… ask for permission, or say something afterwards?

In just about every situation, there is no interaction. I never give the subject the impression I'm taking their photograph and almost always look past them when I [shoot]. They probably think I'm taking their photograph, but when I fail to make eye contact with them, they probably think I was photographing something or someone behind them. If someone does catch me in the act, I do my best to ignore them. I learned this method very early on from a good friend of mine, Nick Rhodes. When he and I first walked around NYC, I was pointing my camera up at the wonderful architecture and he was pointing his lens in peoples' faces. It worried me at first, but I quickly got over it and tried it myself.

That's an interesting technique. For a lot of people, shooting people on the street can be very intimidating.

I am always asked abut my method and I always give the same advice: never make eye contact. It changes everything, especially the way you photograph people. Make eye contact behind the camera.

You're often right in front of the people you're photographing. It's amazing they're not looking right into the camera.

I also tend to hold the camera at obscure angles so they don't realize I'm even taking a photo. I use a battery grip for the [Canon] 20D which makes portrait shooting a bit easier; I hold the camera from the bottom and snap away. I was toying with the idea of holding the camera around my neck, walking into a crowd, and snapping away with a remote control. It would be interesting to see the results.

Do you ever feel guilty about photographing homeless people and not giving them anything back (or do you give anything)?

Please Be Kind, by Jonathan Greenwald I struggle with that very question every time I take a photograph. The way I look at it, I am documenting what I see and I don't make light of the situation. I am not in the area long enough to interact with my subjects and if I did, it would likely change the way I photograph people.

What I most like about my photographs is the spontaneity and that would be lost if I began interacting with my subjects. I may just continue capturing people, whether homeless or not, without interacting with them. I don't exploit anyone and prefer to show people in their natural [environment].

Do you find differences between the cities (NYC and Toronto)? Are there more homeless in one city compared to the other?

I am finding a significant difference between the homeless in NYC and Toronto. I have yet to draw relevant conclusions, but my preliminary assessment is this: the homeless in Toronto are friendlier and more personable. And there is [one] big difference: age. My wife lives in downtown Toronto. Walk in either direction on Queen St. W., and you can encounter as many as four or five homeless kids on a single block. Most are dressed like punks and have signs that tout everything from solicitations for marijuana research to beer. Perhaps it's the amount of foot traffic on that one street in comparison to the multiple access points in NYC.

You mention age. What about differences in the level of desperation?

I think the age difference plays a role in the desperation of homeless people in NYC and Toronto. Without knowing someone's situation, it is often easy to see the countless years of struggle and pain etched on the face of an older man or woman. The same struggles do not exist on a younger person. So desperation is much more prevalent in NYC.

I love the contrast here [in this photo]:

Hungry and Homeless, by Jonathan Greenwald

Park Avenue has some of the nicest buildings in NYC. Most are businesses, but a few apartments line this very busy part of the city. It's not uncommon to see a homeless person on the same corner as an affluent business person. And the lack of attention is remarkable. As if this woman does not exist.

Would you call it indifference, or something more negative?

Indifference is probably the right word. Most affluent people would prefer the homeless get a job and or find a different corner to squat. The former is not as easy as the latter. As a culture, especially in NYC, we tend to think of the homeless as a non-entity.

This photo, sitting here by the trash, that definitely says non-entity:

Please Hlep, by Jonathan Greenwald

This gentleman was sitting in this chair, apparently sleeping, for hours on end. I noticed him in the morning and then again when I snapped this photo later on in the afternoon. This is the only time I really wanted to ask what happened, but refrained. He was sitting on the corner of 42nd Street and 5th Avenue. Quite an ideal spot for foot traffic. And he is just as indifferent about the garbage as the pedestrians were about him. However, I will say he was getting his fair share of change.

Are you still photographing the homeless? Is the project a work in progress?

I don't think I'll ever stop and for several reasons. One, like the affluent, the homeless are very much a part of our society, and unlike the affluent, should not go unnoticed. I don't want to be known as the homeless photographer, rather someone who captures distinct moments in the life of a New Yorker, or Torontonian for that matter.

Cup and Cane,  by Jonathan GreenwaldIf I were to publish a book of my work, I don't think the homeless photos could stand on their own, at least not at the moment. Yet, even as I continue to take more photos of the homeless, it's the contrast in our daily lives that tells the entire story.

A photograph of a homeless person is a powerful image on its own, but when that same person is photographed with his or her fellow man or woman in the background, paying no attention to the despair only a few feet away, that to me is a much more powerful image.

We always hear about campaigns to help the homeless, but ignorance is never mentioned in any of them. I don't want to change the way everyone thinks about the homeless situation, rather open their eyes and [help them] recognize there really is a problem.

In short, like all of my images, this project will always be a work in progress as long as there are subjects to photograph.

What's next for you photographically?

I'm hooked on photographing people, although I don't think I can lock myself up in a studio for countless hours staging shots. I don't think I have the patience for it, but that could change in the future. So in the meantime, I will continue to walk the streets of NYC and Toronto, expecting the people of these great cities continue to go about their day to day lives, giving me an opportunity to capture every moment. People are fascinating subjects because you never know what to expect and every moment can either make us laugh hysterically or feel immense sorrow. That's the beauty of photography. It's a moment in time and it's up to the viewer to recreate that moment in their minds without ever knowing or meeting the person in the photograph.

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About Chantal Stone

  • Phillip Winn

    Nice interview, and a great find!

  • Marcia L. Neil

    As a tenant, figuring in other people’s dreams and nightmares can become oppressive, more so when venturing outside to have fresh air — perhaps the people want to be paid for their roles in daily fantasies.

  • danny g

    very cool.. great pics..J.G.

  • Mama Lu

    As always – great photos and a great interview.

  • Chantal

    I’m not really understanding comment #2….but thanks everyone…Jonathan is a huge talent!

  • jezblog

    great interview Chantal……yeah comment number2…..? I have occasionally given some money to people living in the street if I am photographing them….. but it completely changes any kind of rapport you can build with them…… people may think you should pay them……. but it is almost impossible to give money and then carry on photographing in the same area… if you are gonna interact with them…..and I understand why JG does not….. it somehow needs to be not as a punter who is about to give them cash….. Jez XX

  • Lea

    I think it is a great interview- thanks for doing it, I am a photography student and it helped me a lot just reading your view and JG’s.