I first met Steven Hirsch while he was working on “Courthouse Confessions,” his series of photographs of and stories told by people coming and going from their cases, talking about their experiences with the law. Steven recently got in touch to share his new work, CrustyPunks, documenting the scene as it still lives and breathes in the the legendary Tompkins Square Park. Steven graciously agreed to share his experiences here.
The Crusty Punk scene in and around Tompkins Square Park has been going on for decades. What was your inspiration to start this project and how long have you been documenting this scene?
Steven Hirsch: Tompkins Square Park is across the street from where I live in the East Village, so I’ve seen the Crusties in the neighborhood for years. They get arrested often and I’ve photographed some at the courts where I do a blog called “Courthouse Confessions.” I photograph defendants at the court and publish their portraits and interviews. So when I was approached by a Crusty panhandler outside my building and he started laying a story on me, I instinctively asked him if I could photograph him and record his story. I loved the format of Courthouse Confessions, a still ongoing project, and always thought it could be used with other equally interesting subjects. I started about a month ago and have done thirty-five so far.
I’ve always been amazed that no matter how much time passes, this culture remains the same (at least to an outsider). How do you think this subculture relates or comments on what is happening in the larger culture as a whole ?
Apparently there has been an evolutionary change in Crusty subculture. From what a few kids have told me, it’s a much darker scene now then it was even two or three years ago. Most of the kids today are heroin addicted. In the past apparently it wasn’t as bad. There are kids that ride the rails and travel and they drop in for a few days and then disappear. They’ve told me the scene is too heavy and they don’t feel comfortable hanging in Crusty Row, a section of Tompkins Square Park where they congregate. According to recent reports there’s an uptick in heroin use in the states. From my interviews, I realize most come from the suburbs or rural areas, leaving behind broken homes or parental abuse. That’s not necessarily a recent trend, obviously, but the level of despair seems to be higher then ever.
I am very impressed with people’s willingness to both be photographed and tell some very difficult stories. How do you select and connect to your subjects?
It took a while to gain their trust. Unlike “Courthouse Confessions,” which is hit and run, I needed to form a relationship with these people before I could start photographing them. Though the blog only shows portraits, I am starting to shoot some candid work. The portraits are easier to do. I ask and they say yes or no. The candid shots are much more difficult. You can’t ask if you want to record real moments. So you just shoot and hope you don’t anger anyone. So far I haven’t had any serious problems.
They freely tell me the most intimate parts of their lives. People in trouble either criminally or emotionally are reaching out for help. Few choose to be in the precarious situations they find themselves in. They’re looking for someone to talk to, or simply want to release the pain and suffering verbally. I’m a good listener and have empathy for these people. I survived a life-threatening disease recently and understand how painful life can be. I think they look in my eyes and understand that. They can see I’ve been around the block and I seriously care about their lives and I’m interested in their stories.
There’s something equally compelling and terrifying about the lives your subjects lead. What do you think of the price people pay for freedom from “civilization” ?
The level of violence, desperation, pain and suffering is unimaginable. Almost all are homeless and have a hard time finding places to sleep in the gentrified East Village. Fights erupt at any moment, an overdose can happen anytime, hunger is ever present and mental illness permeates the air. I think many of the stories convey the level of terror, fear and desperation they lead in their daily lives. I’m not really sure one could call that freedom, though some of them might beg to differ. I’ll have to pose the question. After all, it’s their stories not mine.