I’m a European. Through and through. Even now I am sitting at a coffee house, tired from a sleepless night, my mind a little hazy. And yet, despite that, I am quietly remembering my favourite streets of my favourite city that I got to know with my favourite people, and that city, at least the loveliest part of it, is European down to last brick. It’s just outside that big window and it’s called Vilnius, capital of Lithuania. I love the narrow streets and tiny churches. I love how old, confusing and irrational the planning is, at least at first glance. I love its outright beauty and history, too, and how the only two means of transport that don’t seem out of place in those narrows streets are scooters and bicycles.
Imagine how strange it feels to also love what little of Manhattan I saw during my five day visit. For, in just about every single way, it’s the complete opposite of what I just described.
I have a strong suspicion my love of a European city is a little naive. After all, the Old Town of Vilnius is not London or L’Aquila (that’s in Italy and I’ve never been there), and to someone from a more exotic place it may seem… quite mild. The Old Town is not what I’d call vast, nor exactly vacant, absent of cars or noise. Still, that is how I feel and how much I love this place. And yet tell me, why is it I can not stop thinking about a city that, in almost every meaningful aspect, is the complete opposite of Vilnius and its Old Town?
New York is enormous. Instead of the small, cozy bread and cheese stores, you have Times Square and a million of glittering screens. Instead of ever so slightly claustrophobic apartments, you have towering constructions of glass and iron. No narrow streets, too. In fact, some of the streets in Manhattan are nearly as wide as our autostradas (and all of this is just Manhattan – go to some other area and it’s a whole different city). And this sense of “big everything” is the first thing that really struck me. If I was bewildered by my first ever flight, dear readers, I was positively overwhelmed by what I saw during my short stay in Manhattan, New York City. So much so, I was almost useless as a photographer. I forgot everything I knew about light, subject and composition. It actually terrified me. Hopefully, after such a long pause, I am not useless as a writer, so let me finish telling you this story before the next one inevitably happens.
When I finished the first part of this story, Nasim and I had just met for the first time. Pretty much like everyone else, the first thing we did after leaving the airport was catch a taxi. Certainly, you’ve seen a lot of movies set in New York, and whenever there is New York, inevitable, there is a yellow car and the talkative, friendly, slightly shaggy driver that comes with it. It’s one of the clichés surrounding New York City (and the reason why I refused to point my camera at the yellow car), and you know what? It’s exactly like that. You get in and you talk. You soon discover no taxi driver is a native, or at least not from New York and immediate area. You soon discover every single one of them has a story and is of a rather interesting culture. You meet a lot of Hindu. Just as many are from some region of Africa here to build new lives for themselves and their families. You soon discover every cab has a multimedia screen that will play some sort of an advert for you, or show some TV channel. Thankfully, you soon discover a way to shut it up, too, and continue your rather interesting conversation to make that journey a little swifter. Speaking of swiftness, I got the feeling taxi cabs don’t actually have accelerator and brake pedals – they seem to have switches. Full forward, full stop!
Another cliché is the fast food trailers on every corner, and this one is actually quite misleading. The trailers are on every second corner. And if you are one of those people who are against fast food and prefer proper meals – I know I am, usually – drop it. Seriously, if you don’t plan to try a hot dog, might as well stay away from New York altogether, because they are great.
It’s not a sophisticated sort of dish, if you can call it a dish, but there lies its brilliance. So give in, pick up your eating pace and get mustard all over your shirt. It’s worth it. I especially loved the “hot” hot dog. While at it, though, don’t forget you are a photographer. You may not be able to snap a photograph while trying to clean that mustard of yourself, but you can still observe people that pass you by.
And that thought brings us rather neatly to the biggest shock of the trip. Granted, if you’ve had your share of travel or live in a larger city than I do, there’s a good chance you’d not be surprised by the sheer number of people in Manhattan at any given moment, day or night, or by the cultural diversity. For me, though… Well, let’s just say some eye-widening occurred, along with some jaw-dropping and knee-trembling.
Here’s an example – the next day after our arrival, Nasim and I decided to take a walk (who wouldn’t?). We then saw a very tall man in his sixties walking down the street half naked. No one looked at him. He did not look at anyone. He just kept on walking, his gaze brushing the top of everyone else’s heads. We then saw him again, some half an hour later, doing the exact same thing, and then I figured it out: the man got up in the morning and decided to take a walk half naked around Manhattan. Simple as that.
Was I surprised? Yes and no. I certainly noticed him, but I’d like to think I am not that provincial so as to point and stare. Even so, it was rather amusing, in the most positive sense of that word. I mean, why the hell not take a walk around the streets of Manhattan half naked?
So – people. As a people photographer and an observer in general, I found so many stories happening all at once, it was overwhelming. Truly overwhelming. But that was not the only thing that I found unbelievably charming. See, I expected to be mesmerized by all the different cultures and what not, I expected to see a million stories happen every minute. My expectations did not save my jaw from dropping and my eyes from popping out every once in a while, but still. What I did not expect was to enjoy the environment quite so much, and I do not mean the sky scrapping buildings. For me, it was the buildings and what little nature there was, that relationship between something metaphorically cold and heavy, and something so elegant and organic.
This must sound utterly stupid. I loved the trees? In New York? Was I walking with my eyes closed, or are there no trees in Lithuania? Surely there must have been something more interesting! But… yes. Not just the trees in isolation, mind you, but the incredible contrast between those elegant (I fail to find a better word) branches and the huge, heavy, towering buildings. Just look at it:
All the time while I was there, I kept asking Nasim – how is this possible? Such a vast, populated, polluted city, should the flora not be lifeless, too? Tired, suppressed, strangled? And yet it was not. September was nearing its last days, you could feel the occasional cold breeze in the air, but, much like the half naked man, the flora did not seem to care.
I think one of the reasons why I found the trees and occasional flowers so interesting was the fear I mentioned at the start of this story, and perhaps I should elaborate a little. Again, for those of you who’ve traveled before or lived in such enormous cities, the oh-my-word-where-do-I-look-first state (must remember to copyright that) I immediately entered upon landing in JFK Airport might be unfamiliar and unlikely to ever befall you. For those of you who have not experienced anything even remotely similar to the streets of Manhattan, it’s just shocking. Overwhelming in the purest, truest sense of the word.
I literally did not know where to look, who to focus on, because so many things are happening all at once, all around you. A very strange and somewhat scary state, and I did not enjoy it. Imagine walking into a room full of people you do not know, and trying to talk to them one at a time. Only, it’s not a room, it’s a city. And it’s not a dozen people you don’t know that want to talk to you all at once, but a few thousand. Naturally, you calm down and get used to the environment eventually – might take an hour or two, but it does happen.
The five days I spent in New York were not enough for me to get used to it. Far from it. In the end, I realized something very clearly – there is no point in me trying to photograph something spectacular, worthy of a print. I won’t manage. Every time I picked up my camera, I felt like a tourist who has absolutely no photographic knowledge, let alone a degree in multimedia arts.
After a while, I had to calm down and get it inside my head – “those are just trees, stop being weird.” I never managed to not admire that surprisingly harmonious contrast, but I did manage to shift my attention towards the people again. No hardship, too, when the people I met and got to hang out with were just so incredible. I shook Gregory Heisler’s hand. I visited B&H and met a bunch of nicest people there. I met Naomi and Elia Locardi, who did not just instantly end up in the Top 10 Friendliest and Down-To-Earth People In The World list, but were also the very definition of “inspiring”. Honestly, look it up and if you don’t see their names written next to the word “inspiration”, your vocabulary is most likely obsolete.
But what I enjoyed most was not the city or the people I saw and met there. It was not the food or the bewildering amount of new experiences. What I enjoyed the most, hands down, was the company of the person who was to blame for the trip happening in the first place, the person I met at the LaGuardia airport. My friend, boss and colleague. Nasim and I talked almost all the time. We would get up in the morning and talk. We’d get breakfast and talk. We’d go out, catch a taxi, meet someone and talk. At the end of the day, we’d get back to the hotel and talk more. We’d argue, laugh, plan and then laugh again. We even went to shop (my family was very specific in saying I am not to return without presents). Imagine two male photographers at a makeup store, you’ll want to laugh, too. No one else in the world has ever been as out of place!
So many great things are yet to come and never did I realize it quite as clearly as I did during those five days in New York City.
All images are, naturally, copyrighted. Even if for some reason you think them worth stealing, be nice and don’t do it! Stealing is not nice. Asking if you can borrow, on the other hand, is.