Picture this : New York, late 30s and 40s, it’s the era of black and white, the time the city was flooded with immigrants of all sorts. New York was becoming a boiling pot of conflicts and uprising crime.
And there was this man who saw that this was the perfect time for unforgettable shots. He maybe didn’t think of them as a long term project. He started as a freelance news photographer for newspapers. But his work has definitely survived some rough times and now forms a priceless historical testimony.
Arthur Fellig (1899-1968), who called himself Weegee, understood that, to do his business, timing was crucial. He had his contacts which allowed him to be on the scene in no time. Insider information got him to arrive on the crime spot even before the police showed up.
His images are often very crude, extremely direct, with victims of crime and accidents lying on the sidewalk, blood gushing from fresh wounds. Not rarely taken in the smallest hours of the night, the images are exposed to cruel and unforgiving flashlight.
But Weegee’s interest went beyond coldblooded reporting of crime. I think he becomes a genius when he decides to turn around and shoot the surrounding scenes. Surely the direct image of a dead body is confronting. But the reaction of the bystanding crowds that formed around it sometimes told a complete different story, more human, but therefore not less cruel.
There’s this shot where young people stretch their necks to see whatever there is to see on a crime scene. The excitement in their eyes, the urge for sensation. Some are shocked, others are smiling. And in the middle of this gathering crowd is a woman. She is crying. Her nephew has just been killed.
I don’t know if Weegee has ever been considered a heartless reporter. Should we call his working method unethical? Is it acceptable to capture full frame images of bleeding or dying people? The norms have definitely shifted compared to those days. But even today we still see heartrending images of war victimes, torture or whatever actions that are considered to be beneath all human acceptance. They are not supposed to pop up on the internet, but they do! They seem to slip through the nets of censorship.
What is the right thing to do? Aren’t we allowed to see and know what is happening in this world? Or in our city? Freedom of information. This opens a whole different debate. Where do we draw the line? What is acceptable? What isn’t? Should everything be allowed?
It so much depends on the point of view… It’s a human thing to always be looking for sensation. We love to see blood. But on the other hand I wouldn’t want to be on the front page of the New York Times with my belly ripped open.
“Weegee: Murder Is My Business”, International Center of Photography, NYC
“Weegee: Naked City”, Steven Kasher gallery, Chelsea, New York City