Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked

Internet | Law

October 16, 2008

Curating Courthouse Confessions

Photographer Steven Hirsch offers New York's accused what the law often won't—a listening ear.

Max Lakin

Steven Hirsch's blog is not a showcase for grandiose declarations about the state of the nation. He doesn't post mock captions tacked to pictures of cats in compromising positions, and he doesn't offer histrionic accounts of his day-to-day life as a freelance photographer for the New York Post. His blog isn't a forum; there are no commenters, nor does he offer any commentary. It's just not about Steven Hirsch.

What Hirsch's Courthouse Confessions blog does do is extend an outlet to those New Yorkers who would otherwise never be heard—like Law & Order, if Law & Order was just the accused unabashedly saying it like it is, instead of getting the habeas corpus beaten out of them by Christopher Meloni on the daily.

Steven Hirsch
"The way the city is going with gentrification and Disneyfication, this may be the last real taste of old New York."

Steven Hirsch

Hirsch passes no judgments. He presents zero background in Courthouse Confessions, just a single picture of the accused, juxtaposed with the defendant's own words, verbatim. He doesn't even address whether what he's publishing is true—it's just sparse, fluid narrative from whomever happens to be walking out of the Manhattan Criminal Court Building at 100 Centre Street in Downtown New York. [According to the ticker on Confessions, the site has netted 113,454 views since its inception this June].

Gelf spoke with Hirsch to talk about the nature of his interviews, the state of crime in New York, and how the judicial process necessitates catharsis. You can hear Hirsch and other urbanites speak about Crime in the American City at Gelf's Non-Motivational Speakers Series on October 23 in the Lower East Side.

GM: When did you start chronicling these cases, and how many do you do (or aim to do) in a given week?

SH: I started at the beginning of June. I've averaged about one a day.

GM: How often do you go down to the courthouse? Do you go anywhere else for Confessions?

SH: I go every weekday. I work there as a freelance photographer for the New York Post. All of these photos and interviews are done at 100 Centre Street during my downtime. The way the city is going with gentrification and Disneyfication, this may be the last real taste of old New York. I work here, so I really can't go anywhere else. I would do this in other states to see the differences, if I could.

GM: I've got to believe not everyone is so candid. What's the rough percentage of people who flip you off/threaten your life if you get in their face?

SH: Some just say no; some ignore me. I haven't been threatened. I enjoy talking to the people I meet and I approach them straightforwardly.

GM: How much of what you do is truth-seeking and how much of it is storytelling? That is, do you search out these stories and post them for art's sake, or is there a deeper drive?

SH: I don't necessarily seek the truth. Many times, it's difficult to discern who is telling the truth, anyway. I merely listen. Is it art, journalism, a documentary? I don't know. You be the judge.

GM: You purposefully omit your own questions, threading your interviewee's responses together as a kind of stark narrative. After awhile, the result almost comes off as crime fiction. Is that the intent, and are the posts a faithful conveyance?

SH: Well, it's about as far away from fiction as one can get. You can't make these stories up without a wildly imaginative mind. I like the flow without the questions. I don't want to inject my input at all. I try to ask as few questions as possible. It keeps the flow and rhythm that way. I try to ask provocative questions to encourage my subjects to elaborate in their own words, and to avoid simple "yes" or "no" answers.

GM: Is there a high-minded undertone to the blog, like the beauty of Justice in America, perhaps, or the complete and utter failings of the System?

SH: Like all things, it falls somewhere in the middle. The judges see an enormous number of people in a day. I watch them and I think most try to deal with the crimes fairly. Even with reduced crime, the judicial system and the prisons are bursting at the seams. Therefore, I don't think everyone gets their fair shake in court.

GM: How much editing do you do, if any, and why do you think your format is effective? Was that a decision you had made from the start, or something that presented itself?

SH: The first post on the blog was just the audio recording with no editing. It looked stark and overemphasized the photographs. Listening to the audio had more of a voyeuristic feeling. I felt detached not seeing them talking. I then tried transcribing it. I immediately felt that was the most effective presentation. When you read the words, you feel like you're inside the person; you become the person. You understand their plight because you are now telling their story, which then becomes your story. The circumstances become more vivid. You can feel the horror, sadness, and desperation.

GM: Are you ever surprised at the answers you get…admissions of guilt, remorse, or lack thereof?

SH: I've been a newspaper photographer in NYC for 14 years. Nothing surprises me. I've really seen it all. I once interviewed a man, as he was smoking crack, admitting he had murdered someone. He even took me to the murder scene. It turned out to not be true. So when I hear these stories, many times I don't take them at face value. I'd like to believe they're all true, but I have no idea.
Some admit guilt because they simply want to get it off their chests. They've already gone through the system and admitted their guilt, and they realize they can't get in any more trouble. Some just don't care. Talking about their crimes is as commonplace as you and me talking about the economic meltdown.

GM: What would you say you most memorable interview is, or one which might characterize these experiences?

Janet Braha

Hirsch's photo of Janet Braha.

SH: I'm mesmerized by all of them. Janet Braha is my favorite. She stole a bra. And she was laughing through the interview.

GM: It's funny, to me at least, that people charged with misdemeanors and felonies will walk out of the courthouse and vogue it up for your lens. Obviously it makes for good editorial content, but do you ever consider what goes on in these people's minds, that they can even bring themselves to catwalk down your "runway"?

SH: It's hard for many of us to understand why they would do this. I don't think we can truly understand that unless we are put in their position. Many of these people are desperate and they feel they have nothing to lose. Many are very intelligent and understand this is a chance for them to plead their case. Many are frustrated and feel a need to vent. Some are just looking for their 15 minutes of fame.

GM: From your unique vantage point, what's the state of crime in the city today? How does it compare to, say, 10 years ago? Or can you even draw a comparison?

SH: Crime is way down. Much of what I see at the courts is petty crime, quality-of-life crimes. The police are arresting people for trespassing all the time, simply because someone doesn't have an ID on them. When's the last time some yuppie was asked for an ID when entering his or her apartment building in Tribeca? Apparently, this happens all the time in the 'hood. Arrests for public urination are popular. Before Giuliani, the city was really out of control. I live in the East Village. Shootings and stabbings on the street happened often. Today, cops are more concerned with giving tickets to bicyclists riding on the sidewalk, since real crime is harder to find.

GM: That said, earlier you mentioned that your project "may be the last real taste of old New York." Are you really nostalgic for the NYC of 2,200+ murders a year?

SH: I miss old New York before it became a tourist trap filled with franchises, trendy bars and overpriced apartments. It has nothing to do with murders. It has to do with feeling the beat of the city. Recently the only beat in the city you hear is the sound of cash registers.

GM: Why do you suppose your subjects speak with you so openly?

SH: I'd say one out of three will talk to me. Many are angry with the system and they feel this is a chance to express that anger. Many feel the police have arrested them without justification—they are victims of circumstance, racism, or their environment. They talk so openly because I will listen without making any judgments. Many think that when they come to court, they will get a chance to tell their story to the judge, and so they rehearse it many times over before they come. In fact, most never talk to the judge. The lawyer will do all the talking, and the proceeding is over in minutes. I guess this is a chance for many to tell that story. Even though I'm not a judge, at least someone is listening.

Max Lakin

Max Lakin is a writer and journalist based in New York.

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Article by Max Lakin

Max Lakin is a writer and journalist based in New York.

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