I’m always interested in how photographers balance the ethical implications of photographing people in public places. What were your rules about what kinds of photos you would or wouldn’t include? Where were those lines for you? Definitely with an age thing — if they were teenagers, no faces. I have a few younger couples, and you can’t see their faces in them. You shouldn’t publish photos of people under 18 without consent. Some [other] images I wouldn’t include because it felt like the eyes went to the genitals, and that’s really not what the series was about. It was about intimacy. While I do have some photos in there that are a little more lustful, or people are really kind of embracing, I wanted people to walk away with a sense of the tenderness and nostalgia of summer here. And yeah, public intimacy, which is kind of an oxymoron.
There are probably some people who don’t think I did an ethical thing. But I think I did it with as much respect as I could. And like I said, I always [kept in mind], if I were a stranger and I walked in a bookstore and I saw myself represented like that, would I be comfortable with the image? So I stand by all the photos that are now in the book, and I feel really good about them.
It’s a tough question, because then you really shake up what street photography is. Whether it is a parade, or a news story, there’s not much consent. But at the same time, it is a public place. And if you are doing a very public thing, we all have our phones out, I think we all have kind of given permission in a way to be at least observed by everyday people. I thought about whether something would feel exploitative or offensive and I never felt like the images would ever offend or upset or really hurt someone if they found themselves in there.
The three main beaches that you focused on were Rockaway Beach, Fort Tilden and Coney Island. Did you notice any differences between the type of interactions that you saw at the various beaches? And how would you sum up the vibe of each beach? Yeah, there’s totally a different vibe at all the beaches, I think that’s why people in New York tend to have their favorite ones. My personal favorite is actually Fort Tilden, because it’s the most relaxed to me. I like that there’s no buildings or amenities or restaurants. It’s just sand dunes and the beach. So I would say the vibe there is more relaxed, the interactions were slower, maybe a little bit more intimate there.
Coney would probably be the craziest in terms of the people-watching, it’s just nonstop there. There’s always something happening, there’s people dancing, there’s no calm there. It’s the most visually exciting and overwhelming. I would never go there to relax and go for a swim, but I go there to take photos of people and the colors and the vibrancy.
And then Rockaway has many pockets of vibes. It’s got the surfer vibes, you’ve got the locals, the teenagers, the old Russians or the police and firefighter crews. I think I got photos of people from every different sort of walk of life. And in between those two [beaches] is Jacob Riis. I got a few photos there too, and it has the LGBTQ beach which has its own special vibe as well. It’s a safe space and has much more of a party feeling there, it’s very crowded and exciting. I think the interactions would depend on which tiny pocket of the beach I was on, with Tilden being the calmest and Coney being the most chaotic of them all.
This book is the culmination of a seven year project. Does it feel good to be done with it, to be moving forward? Or does it feel like you’re losing something? And are you going to continue shooting at the beaches? It feels very exciting. A book is this real thing, and it’s my first book. So that, in and of itself, is very exciting. And I think seeing it all laid out like this, I think I never really stopped and appreciated what I had done, and it’s forced me to do that. It was a nice moment of self-reflection for myself, where I started with this series and where I am now.
I don’t know that I’ll ever be finished with it. I think it’s something I’ll always do. I think of Harvey Stein, and how he has like three books on Coney Island, at least. So I think shooting the beaches of New York is probably going to be a thing I do for as long as I’m here.
I hope whether people get the book or get a print, I hope if they come in contact with the series, they stop and look around a little differently now at the beaches, and just sort of watch the ways that we interact, and take a moments of appreciation. There was a point, early in 2020, where I was afraid I would not even get to the beach that whole summer and wouldn’t be able to shoot. When I did, that made the photos even more meaningful to me. And ever since then, I’ve had a lot of people remark on that: I was at a book fair at The International Center of Photography recently, and I had a couple of people say like, this feels really necessary right now, because there was a moment where we weren’t touching, we weren’t seeing each other, we were so separate. So it felt like a good reminder of how important those little moments are.