The other morning, my friend Matt suggested I go down to Lenny's Pizza in Bay Ridge to recreate the iconic John Travolta pizza stuff in the opening to Saturday Night Fever. Little did I know that this would be the preamble to one of the most surreal and creepy days of my life.
I hopped on the D train and picked up a slice, decked out in a 70s tab collar shirt with Bianca Jagger heads all over it. The pizza was delicious. I do remember that. After that I decided I didn't feel like going home, and decided to go stroll down on Coney Island.
The weather was cold, windy, and damp, just the way I like it. There's something really invigorating about autumn chill. The ocean was churning, there were seagulls everywhere. It was really lovely.
I remember walking back to the train station feeling very refreshed and happy, having been along my beloved Atlantic ocean. As I got to the train platforms, however, I looked up at the signs and decided I didn't want to take the Q Train home...I opted for the D instead to go back up through Bay Ridge. I've been seeing the same old stuff over and over and wanted a new route. It would take another hour out of my day, but I didn't care.
I got on the D train and proceeded to watch out the window as we passed through the graffitied neighbourhoods on the elevated platform. As we rounded the turn, suddenly I saw a giant black cloud of smoke erupt over the rooftop of a hardware store advertising Dutch Boy Paint.
I don't know what possessed me to hop off at the next stop, but something told me that cloud of smoke was very important and that I needed to see what was going on. Without a clue where I was or what the smoke even was, I hopped off at 72nd and walked through the streets.
I grew up in a very Germanic/Scots Irish Central PA and admittedly have very little understanding of Jewish culture. As "outsiders" always displayed curiosity about the Amish in my neck of the woods, so I feel about Hasids, with their curious curls and weird hats and bizarre customs of eating in tents and chasing people clutching what appears to be corn sheaths. I don't know what any of it means, and it was even more confusing when I found myself in the middle of a Hasid neighbourhood with hundreds of people scurrying either toward the gigantic cloud of smoke or screaming as they fled away from it.
Because sound can be a massive emotional trigger for me, I decided to keep my headphones on and observe what happened solely through visuals. I didn't know what had happened - something told me gas explosion - and the whole ordeal was like watching a film. I instinctively grabbed my phone and started snapping photographs of everything happening in front of me.
I rounded the corner, ambushed by crying children, men in circular fur hats covered in plastic bags, young boys with their curls flailing about their faces, women in head scarves. A little girl suddenly sprawled on the sidewalk crying, her legs splayed in ways that make my adult knees wince. Suddenly the crowd swallowed me as I hit the block where the fire was blazing. I stood and watched, frozen at times, trying to process what was in front of me. Almost as if by magic, a child got shoved in front of me and he pointed at the car to our right. A hole in the back window, small and round, almost the size of a human fist. Shattered glass, bird shit, and spatters of building material. At that moment, my stomach lurched. Yes, it had been a gas explosion. Thankfully, the community was having Shabbat and only one person had been killed - had these people been in the streets when it happened, there surely would have been more injuries and fatalities.
Hundreds of people gathered in the corner, almost all attired in their Jewish holiday clothing. I felt like a strange intruder in my pleather jacket and Travolta shirt. I clearly stuck out and endured a lot of curious stares as well. I just kept photographing, until we got corralled on one block by police tape as the fire got worse.
I didn't know what to do at that point. Every fibre in my body cried out "Go the fuck home, Alice, why are you here?" But at that point there were dozens of police keeping people from crossing the street so fire trucks could safely park. I was frightened but also very bored, a curious combination. I texted my friend Joseph and showed a photo of where I was. I don't know why, I just needed to talk to someone.
"It's like a fucking war zone."
"Oh my, keep safe."
"Not sure where safe is at the moment."
It was true. The fire was raging even more, the stench of smoke and fumes choking us as the wind picked up. People, mostly placid and awestruck, were getting agitated at this point. A lady in a woodshop face mask started bawling. I had my scarf over my face. A woman stood in front of me, her jaw dropped in horror. I looked to my right as a kid of about ten fell off the street pole into his dad's arms. A woman started scurrying her children as a police officer started screaming at a young Hasid father pushing a baby stroller. I did hear this exchange through the headphones.
"Why the HELL would you bring a baby to a damn fire?" the policeman shouted, clearly not giving a rat's ass about social niceties. I admit, I had to agree.
The young man got angry and started arguing that he and his family had to go to their synagogue, as if an Angry God might explode them too, if they didn't get to services on time.
"You and several hundred of these others. Do you not see this fire? You just take that baby home. Jesus christ, what the hell's wrong with you?"
That last statement, ironic though it was in many ways, struck me hard. Baby, hell! Why the hell was *I* even there, gawking? I decided as soon as I saw a break in the tape, I'd leave. I looked through my photos and, almost automatically, I had been posting them left and right on Instagram. I don't know why I did it, other than a means to keep calm and also to tell people what was happening. I wasn't trying to be artistic, I was trying to sort out what the fuck mess I'd gotten myself into. My godfather sent a link from Philadelphia news saying it was indeed a gas explosion. It was so bizarre that a news link from 100 miles away knew more than I watching it unfurl live, just 100 yards away.
I asked Joseph the only thing I could think of at this point.
"Jesus. What the fuck should I do with these photos?"
He suggested only showing the most compelling ones and reminded me that I could get work through Instagram, and to remember photography is ultimately my business. Finally, after a frenzied afternoon and being in panic mode, some actual solid advice. As soon as I responded to him, a photographer friend sent me a link to the right people. I removed most of the photos except for a couple, because by then I'd already been tweeted.
I tend to take my work for granted and get so wrapped up in creating that I have no idea how to promote myself. People want to pigeonhole me, or advise me to specialise in one thing. I'm not interested in that. To me photos are photos, no matter what. It's like music. I don't see a difference between an opera aria and a smokin' guitar solo, both access our brains the same way. Sticking to one photographic genre would kill me with boredom. But I'm also so prolific it's absurd. It's almost a mania.
I realised during this day, however, that I am NOT emotionally cut out for photojournalism. I might be good at reading people, but it's a difficult line for me to tell a story without exploiting people's vulnerability in real tragedy. I don't like that darkness, and I'm uncomfortable profiting off of it. I don't want to knock those who do it for a living, I suspect they've worked that out for themselves. When we get down to brass tacks, I'm a storyteller. I just want to choose the stories I tell, I think.
As Joe said, photography is certainly my business, but it's also a direct connection to my brain. I have to figure out how to reconcile the two peacefully. Although this tragedy was a harrowing experience, I am ultimately grateful for the opportunity to be in the midst of something so uncontrollable and simply visually react to what I saw. I won't forget it anytime soon, and I am haunted by the woman who lost her life in that stairwell for simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Who was she? Why was she there? Did she know what happened to her?
I struggle with this a lot. I often am drawn to photograph the downtrodden and disabled, but I don't want to tell a sob story about them, just draw awareness through empathy. It's a delicate line. How can I tell a story respectfully, without exploiting anyone's memory or condition, or the raw emotions from the people who witnessed this event? Does anyone have a good answer?