We came out of a meeting in New York last week and there was a scuffle unfolding in the street. A man was being pinned to the ground by security guards, right there in the middle of the road. I don’t know what he had done; if anything. I don’t know if this was in injustice or justice at play. And nor did the other people coming out of their offices or just heading along the sidewalk. While one bystander was shouting for the man to be let go, everybody else stood around in near silence. They were too busy to intervene or offer an opinion. They were all filming the scrappy wriggling, bundling and cursing. Phones were held aloft. Instagram accounts would soon be abuzz.
In a country where authority vs the people is in deep malaise, it felt like everyone was waiting to see if this would be another situation where everything could, would, go awry. The man being hauled away was black, as were the security guards, but the people filming the incident were a New York cross section of colours, ages and professions – from a cycle courier to a gentleman snapping while smoking a giant cigar. But they all had their phones at the ready. They all wanted to get the picture.
But in the end nothing happened to justify a call to the New York Post. The man was removed. The crowds dispersed.
Later that evening I got a chance to whizz around the new Whitney Museum that sits at the southern end of the High Line. Have you been? You should.
The Renzo Piano-designed building is as entertaining as the art and with all its terraces and viewing platforms is as engaged with the world outside as the world within. Anyway, there’s a stupendous greatest hits show on at the moment called America is Hard to See. Andy Warhol, Georgia O’Keeffe, Mark Rothko – it’s got the lot.
In among the 600 pieces on display are a small number of prints from the museum’s photography collection. And while it’s fair to say all are above the Instagram level of art, many have a link to the scene I’d just witnessed in Midtown.
One of these images is from 1940 and was taken in Hell’s Kitchen by Weegee, who spent much of his time documenting the city’s consequences of crime. This Weegee picture is of a bloodied corpse and a group of policemen standing to one side, somehow not even looking at the body.
While Weegee’s intent may have been different from the fight crowd, in both instances the camera had demanded that it be used. The camera is a powerful nagging master. Powerful because by letting us place a screen between us and something disturbing it lets us temporarily desensitise and watch close by but emotionally from a distance. So while the instagrammers may be no Weegees, they are pulled by the same demands. The demands of a camera. The demands to try and see a bigger truth with a little lens. And that is in the end a good thing.
Andrew Tuck is Monocle’s editor