If I was to say what I hope to achieve with my street photography, it would be to keep documenting the ever-changing streets of New York City in all its rat-infested, garbage-piled glory. Perhaps I’m fascinated by all the grime and grit this city has to offer because I grew up in the countryside in the United Kingdom with only the sound of cattle moving in the night. On my path to New York, I’ve done just about everything, working as a street-cleaner, garbage-hauler, milkman, paper delivery boy, Champagne waiter, nightclub barman, DJ, and real-estate broker. I was willing to learn everything and anything, so when I was offered a job as a photographer with a celebrity news agency in New York, I jumped at the opportunity.
After landing in the US, I accepted my first assignment from my new boss: “You’re going to be photographing Pete Sampras’s wedding this weekend.” By photographing it, he really meant, “You’re going to be roaming the hallways of the Beverly Hills Hotel with a small camera stuck down your pants hoping for a sighting of the bride.” The life of a “celebrity photographer”—otherwise known as paparazzi—entails little glamour. More often than not, I was standing not on the red carpet behind a velvet rope but on the streets of New York, hiding behind a trash can in 20-degree weather, hoping for that decisive moment.
The paparazzi always get a bad rap, from hiding behind trash to being called “trash.” Maybe this is why the profession attracts misfits, a motley crew of ex-military personnel, former press photographers, even a few “idle rich.” Whether we were speeding down the road in a taxi cab or furiously pedaling our bikes to the center of the action, we were there to capture it all, always out on the streets. And being on the street all day, you get a real feel for the city.
In time, I found myself drawn to street photography, consumed by the makeup of New York. It may be a big city, but I felt as though wherever I went, I could stop and chat to someone I knew, discussing the politics of Greece with a coffee-vendor or how Uber is killing business for hotel doormen.
At one point, I was clocking up about 400 miles a week riding around the city on my bicycle. As the great Bill Cunningham knew, the bike is a great tool for a street photographer. But I was getting beaten down by the daily grind, so I decided to leave a business that was slowly destroying me. Instead, I took yet another job, as a salesman for a cycling clothing company, and started shooting portraits and characters on the street in my spare time. Someone taking their pet turkey for a walk or a spaceman striding down Prince Street in SoHo had become far more interesting to me than a celebrity going to Starbucks.
In New York, there is always something to see, and every day is different. In mid-stream, it’s hard to convey in a single image what you’ve experienced in any one fleeting moment. Still, I find myself clicking the shutter simply because what I’m seeing through the viewfinder is magical, and for that moment, I feel I can capture it.
Street: Photographs, by Phil Penman, is published by Glitterati Editions.