American customs is an absolute bitch. I can’t say I’ve ever had an easy time arriving at JFK Airport in New York, but I foolishly hoped that the third time would be the charm. It wasn’t. But instead of pulling me to one side and asking why “a dude would have hair straighteners in his bag” it was my Danish partner who was taken into a room for interrogation.
“We told him to shave off his beard before we came”
I had no idea why, of course. “She’ll be out shortly, sir,” said the very tired-looking customs official who probably had quotas to fill. But when I got chatting to two British girls who were waiting for their brother, I wasn’t so sure that the word shortly was accurate. “We’ve been here over an hour,” said one of them with a thick Birmingham accent. “We told him to shave off his beard before we came, but he wasn’t having any of it. “ I asked whether they were Muslims. They nodded in the affirmative.
I looked back towards the room where they were all waiting to have their passports scanned and added to some sort of system, and sure enough it was at least half full of men of Middle Eastern descent. It was going to be a long night for many of them, I thought.
But luckily Lia was let loose much sooner than expected, and with no luggage to collect we made our way straight to the taxis. This was where we encountered the first significant difference from the New York City of old. Gone are the petrol-guzzling bulky yellow cabs of the past, replaced instead by smaller, more carbon-friendly vehicles that have lost some of their charm.
Rape, Murder and Corruption
The behaviour of the drivers hadn’t changed a bit, though, as we spent the next 30 minutes racing through late-night traffic with the horn constantly blaring. There was also a TV in the back with 24-hour news streaming across the screen. Our faces – no doubt looking drained from the lack of sleep on the flight – were now bathed in a haunting blue light, as we read about rape, murder and corruption in the city we were so eager to revisit. “Sounds safe,” said Lia.
But the melancholy was lifted as soon as I saw a familiar brightly-lit antenna poking up above the horizon. It was only a fleeting glimpse of the Empire State Building, but already I could feel my pulse quicken and my excitement levels take a serious hit. This was immediately followed by another quick glimpse of a well-known structure, the NYC World Fair Globe, alongside two space-age towers. “We’re in Queens now,” I said proudly. “How do you know that?” asked my inquisitive travelling partner. “Men in Black,” was my response.
Early Mid-Life Crisis
We were getting closer to our Air BnB apartment in the East Village, and this is where the emotions started rolling over me. Things had felt a lot different the last time I was in this part of the world. I was 22, fresh out of a full-time job in the banking industry, and completely alone. I’d experienced some sort of early mid-life crisis and struggling to figure out my place in the grand scheme of things. Up until that point I’d enjoyed a steady wage with regular hours, a decent social life, a sporty little car, and a couple of back-to-back relationships.
Then it all seemed to collapse pretty much overnight. I realised that none of those things were making my life any better, and that I hardly had any cool stories to tell. Sadly none of my friends shared my enthusiasm to travel, and after trying hard for several months to convince them to join me, I simply concluded that the only solution was to go on an expedition all by myself.
I’m not the first to go travelling alone, but I’d never met anyone who had chosen America as their soul-searching destination. Thailand, India or Australia tended to be favourites amongst young backpackers looking for a low-cost adventure for solo travellers. So my decision to travel across the US was met with raised eyebrows on more than once occasion, especially as I’d only booked a one-way ticket. It felt somehow a bit suicidal. What was I hoping to achieve out there?
This is where my photography journey began
I’ve written about this before, and you can read the full story here. But the main thing you NEED to know is that this is where my photography journey really began. I chose America – and New York City in particular – because of its architecture and huge structures. These were the things that I wanted to photograph more than anything else, but trust me when I say that having no one with me was the hardest part. I was having a mental conflict with my confidence on an hourly basis.
Now, 14 years later, things felt much different. I’d travelled to at least three corners of the globe – sometimes alone – and even learnt a new language. I was the owner of a successful photography business in a foreign land, with a family of my own and a level of confidence that comes with all of those things. Driving in to the Big Apple this time around wasn’t at all nerve-wracking, as it had been in 2004, and for that I felt very grateful. Americans like to use the word closure; I have to use it here, I’m afraid.
A massive hole in the ground
So I’ve mentioned architecture, and there was one (or two, to be more precise) buildings that had long captured my attention, but I never got to see in real life: The Twin Towers. I can’t even begin to explain what it was about those structures that made me so fascinated with them, but when I watched them fall I felt an immense feeling of personal loss (amongst other emotions, obviously). All that was left of them in 2004 was a massive hole in the ground, so this time around the new building was high on my list of things to photograph.
Our apartment had a rooftop with great views of the city, so we were treated to a brilliant panorama of the Manhattan skyline at night. It was from here that I first saw the new building, and although I couldn’t stop looking across at it, something about it just didn’t feel right. It was an imposter, I kept thinking. None of my favourite films have World Trade Center One in the background, so how was I supposed to accept it as a legitimate replacement for the Twin Towers?
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
This was when it dawned on me, that NYC is just one big film set, and that the buildings represent nostalgia. I don’t feel anything special towards the skyscrapers in Brisbane, or Hanoi, or even Leeds. Why? Because none of them were in Ghostbusters, Die Hard with a Vengeance, or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles! “Hey, that’s where they filmed Spider-Man!” I shouted more than once during our first afternoon. “And this is the hotel from Home Alone 2!”
So instead of our trip to New York becoming a gritty street photography exposé (which it never was meant to be anyway) it just turned out to be a tour of filmsets and great places to eat. We even bumped in to a couple of celebs along the way, including Ethan Hawke, Gordon Ramsey, and Bobby Cannavale (who?).
To be honest I’ve shot better”
I’ve been staring at my photos from that trip for several weeks now, and to be honest I’ve shot better. But as always the editing process saves the day, and now things have quietened down for the business I have a bit of time to play around and enjoy it.
Wrong bridge, love
But my favourite has to be this one. If you’ve ever crossed Brooklyn Bridge you’ll know that it’s a fucking nightmare to get across. It is swarming with pedestrians – mainly tourists – who stop every few seconds to pose on the metal framework (even though there are signs everywhere warning people not to do it, because there is a very high risk of falling on to the road below).
The reason it is full of pedestrians, is because it is perhaps one of the most famous bridges in the world. Seen by millions around the globe, in adverts, movies, music videos and news bulletins. Apparently not this woman, though. Whilst having a Skype conversation with someone back home in Texas she told them she was currently walking across the Manhattan Bridge. She turned to me and asked if she was correct.
“Is Donald Trump a twat?” I replied.