God lives in Harlem

Harlem church

On a crisp fall day last year I ventured way uptown to meet a friend in her Harlem neighbourhood, where we planned to walk around taking pictures of old buildings. The day got off to an odd start as I waited for her in a park. I was carrying my camera but not using it, and when a woman sitting across from me on a park bench started muttering about “white bitches” coming up there to take pictures, and what she’d like to do to said white bitches, and I thought I’d better keep moving along.

It’s one of the few times in my life I’ve felt conscious of being a privileged white bitch, and much as I felt her outburst was undeserved, it is a pretty bourgeois thing to do, this idea of ghetto tourism and seeing photo opportunities in the rundown streets that are many people’s daily reality. That’s one reason I don’t take many photographs of people, much as I admire street portraiture as both an art form and a means of photojournalism: I often lack the balls to ask people’s permission to take their picture, and I think it’s wrong to take someone’s likeness without talking to them about it. Anyway. There were many cheerier people on the street than the first lady, and the sun shone in that timeless-clear way of crisp fall days, and we walked and talked and took pictures until I looked up and realised I had walked all the way from Harlem back down to midtown. I’ll spare you the six million shots of Central Park, because I think all my favourite images came from that morning in Harlem. Where every building facade seemed to be hawking either god or fried chicken.

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