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Please Move On

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Like many of you, I have a hobby. It's not an unusual avocation. I take photographs.

I was born on Manhattan island and have lived my entire life in this astonishing feast of visual diversity and eccentricity. And as a native of this town rather than a tourist, I enjoy the luxury of time allowing me to see far beyond the skyline, the great buildings and the rich tapestry of glamorous tourist attractions. Since childhood I've carried a camera. I've always been fascinated with the minutia of this city, those details that few notice: shapes, colors, light, broken windows, architectural and design quirks and the strange visual synergy of so many cultures on one tiny river island.

It has been my habit for many decades to occasionally spend a very private and spiritual Saturday roaming some corner of Manhattan, using my camera to capture a reflection in a puddle, the intense juxtaposition of colors and architectural styles on a street corner or sometimes a funny moment in someone's life. The experience has always been very private and a very special few hours allowing personal reflection and a very special kind of connection with my hometown.

I rushed out this morning, Saturday, January 20 simply because it was the coldest morning of the winter, a winter that has been bizarrely and constantly warm, warm enough to keep my seasonal hay fever active far beyond November. A crystal clear frigid Saturday morning would surely deliver funny coats and hats and wonderful games of light and color. Between taxis and my feet, I covered parts of the Financial District, Chinatown, Little Italy, Soho, Noho and Union Square.

But for the first time in my life  there were many parts of these neighborhoods that I could no longer cover and where my camera and I were no longer welcome. I was tempted to post my photograph so that you could determine for yourself just how much I resemble a threat to democracy and freedom — but that's probably not wise. Suffice it to say that I'm a 58-year-old very white, bald, Jewish, Gay New Yorker with a very neatly trimmed silver beard. I was wearing a $1,500 Italian dark green leather and fleece coat, a black cashmere scarf and a matching black pull on cashmere cap. I looked like your typical over-paid and perfectly stylish self-indulgent New Yorker on his way to or from a chic brunch. Today's weapon of choice was my Canon Digital Elph with optical zoom.

However, to members of the New York City Police Department, several doormen and a couple of security guards, I looked like none of the above. I looked like a terrorist threat. Clearly, a lone man photographing details of buildings from various angles and wanting to enter lobbies of city landmarks to photograph cherubs, statuary and mosaics is now assumed to be a threat to the safety and security of our fair city.

I'm a photographer. I'm an artist. But such explanations no longer fly. I was denied entry to the lobby of the landmark and fantabulous Woolworth Building. I was asked for photo ID in front of a Soho luxury condo. Two of New York's finest approached me in front of a Prince Street church and asked me to please "move on." I explained who I was and what I was doing. The response was a second "please move on." Two security guards asked me why I was photographing crowds shopping the stalls on Canal Street. Why is it any of their business, I asked? "Please move on."

Perhaps on my next outing I'll rent a wife and a child to walk with me so that everyone just leaves me the hell alone. But the terrorists are probably already employing that ruse, so I might get shot.

The sad truth is in the details. How have 9/11, Homeland Security and George W. Bush changed our lives? Ask a guy who just likes to take pretty pictures for his own pleasure. Ask a guy who has lost the freedom to spend a Saturday by himself in the peace and beauty of his own world, a world that is now ridiculously interrupted by officious men in uniforms and requests for photo ID.

Photographing the details of Manhattan used to be a very enriching hobby, now it's an awkward negotiation through a maze of uniforms. I know. It seems to be a small price to pay for our freedom. But this morning I found myself asking, "What freedom?"

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About Ricky

  • Richard, that first photo is fantastic.

    As for the grumpy and/or paranoid people you encountered, I think you may have missed the root cause oƒ their behavior. The fear of terrorism gives them a chance to exercise power over others and they likely live lives where they feel pretty powerless most of the time, so they compensate by overreacting.

    If you want to see a really paranoid reaction, try taking a camera into a gun show sometime.




    love the photos; really great stuff.

    re: NY police paranoia, etc. —

    the irony is that our law enforcement will always be one step behind the terrorists’ plans. The cops, etc. — are chasing the profile of the ‘last’ terrorist and his method. Meanwhile, the terrorists, being no fools, have moved on.

    But this is a great example of the “we’ll never be the same” sentiments post-9-11; no conscientious law enforcement can overlook any explicit behavior toward the world’s biggest target, Ie. NY City.

    But I have to add: I was hassled by officials and cops when trying to photograph an ‘historic’ building in a small town in Texas. BEFORE 9/11!

    Other than celebrities — most people (especially those with something to hide — which is about 99% of humans!) — DON’T LIKE to see a camera pointed in their direction.


    PS: Personally, I think a picture steals my spirit, but that’s just me.

  • Zedd

    Great article!


  • Shark, you were trying to take pictures of the school book depository, weren’t you…admit it.


  • Bliffle

    “Security” is the favorite excuse of oppressors worldwide throughout history. Watching “China From the Inside” on PBS this morning, the theme of oppression for the sake of “security” is repeated by officials in Chinese political entities. Soon, the differences between the ‘capitalist’ US government and the Chinese ‘communist’ government will be indistinguishable.

  • Richard, I’m not sure that renting a family would save you from being hassled. I was walking with my family down W. 58th Street one evening (we carry cameras as well) and my son stopped to take a picture of the waterfall cascading down the side of the Time-Warner building. Needless to say, a security guard hurried out the door and asked us to cease and desist. A few months ago, my husband was asked to stop taking pictures in the Boston subway. It’s pretty sad.

    These are lovely photos, by the way. I hope you’ll share more.

  • duane

    Richard, the photos are wonderful. The descriptions of the behavior of the, perhaps, overzealous security personnel started to piss me off and I was going to add my two cents. But there is so much poignancy here. It’s just sad. On so many levels.

  • Mohjho

    I like your style Richard

  • Sad times in the land of the free…

  • Nancy

    Great photos, Rich – I hope you post many more. Don’t let the nay-sayers & officialdom stop you; keep trying. The results (your photos) are well worth the effort & putting up with the harrassment.

    Amusingly, “they” don’t like artists, either. I was shooed away from sketching the V.P.s mansion. Actually, a large old tree there I particularly liked. My responses to the guards “whaddaya think – I’m going to target the tree? Al Qaida wants to blow up the bushes? Get a life!” almost got me arrested, lol! I was almost looking forward to going to jail for drawing the trees, but the guy in charge declined to take me in, especailly after seeing the rest of the portfolio (studies of other big old trees & bushes). Pity.

  • How very sad that you weren’t arrested!!! Washington Post headline: Woman Arrested for Painting Cheney’s Tree

  • Nancy

    I WAS very disappointed, and did my level best. Perhaps they object because he likes to hide behind them. Oh well, there will be a next time, as I still want to draw that tree….

  • Wow, a Richard Rothstein article that draws nothing but warm, responsive, affectionate comments. Congratulations, all! And please don’t let the hassles stop you from your photo-walks, Richard. The resulting images are too good to forego. Maybe you should forward a copy of your article to Mayor Bloomberg.

  • Most excellent images, Richard, thanks for sharing and bringing us a good read.

    “rally ’round the family”

  • Handy, that’s actually not a bad idea. Richard could get some mileage out of the article and some attention for his photographic work if he did something like sending a copy to the mayor or perhaps submitting it for publication in one of NYC’s artsy magazines.

  • Already done. Also, I’m sure that if that crazy fundamentalist from Israel,Roofie (or is that the date rape drug?)finds this post, he’ll have something negative to say. 🙂

  • Nancy

    ah – that’s “Ruvy” in Jerusalem. Good man,for the most part except when he gets off on Kabbalistic Judaica.

  • Ruvy in Jerusalem


    Yes, I did find the article. Very well written, very well done. You do a very good job with the photos, and hopefully you will get some money for them.

    I indeed understand what this suspiciousness is like, better than you realize. The trick is to take a photo of someone in front of the building – thus you are not taking a photo of the site, but of the person – something far less suspicious. And then to move on quickly.

    The only question I have is this: couldn’t you have done this on a Sunday instead of the Sabbath?

    Somehow, expecting criticism, that is all I think you will see in this comment.

  • “The only question I have is this: couldn’t you have done this on a Sunday instead of the Sabbath?”

    Bless you Ruvy. You made me laugh…something I never imagined you would do.

  • Another security versus civil liberties angle. Interesting story through the eyes of photography. Sharp shots.