Photo by Elsaa Rensaa (via Gerry Visco)
For 30 years, Clayton Patterson has doggedly documented the streets and culture of the Lower East Side, compiling a massive archive of the neighborhood and its denizens, from punks to pushers to police. And he’s had had a big impact too: His footage of the 1988 Tompkins Square Park protests and subsequent riot lead to major reforms in the NYPD.
We posted on Patterson’s most recent brush with the law at a crime scene last month and thought it would be interesting to talk to this photographer/artist/activist about his experiences with the police and being arrested a whopping 14 times. We were right.
Being arrested 14 times is outrageous! Do you attribute those largely to having a camera, or were there other circumstances involved?
Both. The camera intimidates many cops; firemen tend not to care. It is odd because the world we live in is documented from so many different directions, however most of the cameras are corporate or government.
What is your frame of mind when photographing crime scenes and/or police? Do you have to go in preparing yourself for a confrontation?
One never wishes for a confrontation. The goal is to avoid the conflict. You are there to document the scene, not create one. However, you must never let your rights be violated. You must protect your civil rights. That is a social obligation that all of us are responsible for protecting.
Do you feel like it’s not worth photographing the cops anymore because there will likely be a confrontation and you’ll be arrested for the 15th time?
I have been threatened with arrest 15, 16 times – yes, I am tired of it. I would like an easier path, however nobody else documents my area like I do. It is a forgotten piece of Manhattan real estate, so if not me, then who? There has to be a record and a moderator of the local events.
Why don’t you carry something like a wearable recording device (like a Vievu) to document your encounters?
I have no idea what a Vievu is. My best defense was my backup, Elsa Rensaa, the woman I have lived with since 1972. But there is only so much you can do. It is not always the arrests that are the worst. It can be the charges and the beatings. I have been knocked unconscious, had teeth knocked out, and so on. And I have continuously been in court since 1988 with one case or another. I have one remaining case, a federal case. We are talking many years in court, and it is just another day for the cops and the court, meanwhile for me it is a serious undertaking, which also has many potential dangers connected to it, as well as the expense and the time. Remember, the moment of glory is short. All the noise and glamour is gone in an instant. The court cases go on and on. Alone, on and on, for years. It gets isolating.
Does it sometimes feel like it’s a big game – i.e., “They’ll arrest me for taking pictures of them and throw on some BS charges, which will just get dropped, and then I’ll sue”?
Never. It is never just a game or just for fun. There are always consequences and always the potential of physical danger. I am getting too old to get beaten up. I am tired of the constant stupid struggle. And remember, suing is bad for their career. The cops, through court and other such systems, can work angles in their favor, but costing the city money is a big no-no. And suing can take years. It is never easy to find a lawyer who will sue the cops. That is a rare specialty area.
Just to get a lawyer, the case must be very clear-cut. The evidence in your favor must be clear-cut, and often they want indisputable video or recorded evidence in your favor. It’s what made me such a nuisance. I was good at getting the evidence with the video camera. By using the camera I got more cops in trouble than anyone else has in the history of America. It’s what made me stand out. I had the guts and drive to do it, as well as the skills to get the shot. To get the shot, you have to be right where the action is.