Carl Merkin: Public Sleepers

Today we are going to look at a personal project that I’ve been working on for several years involving people sleeping in public. In this era of sleep deprivation and homelessness they seem to be everywhere in New York. There are so many public sleepers, that we tend not to see them and just walk past. Some are catching a few winks on their way to or from work, others are taking a lunchtime siesta and there some who simply live in the park.

Subjects in street photography sometimes object to being photographed. Some complain about invasion of privacy, although they are out in public, and others feel they are being exploited and want to be paid!  Many subjects I’ve encountered in the street don’t mind being photographed, and it often leads to conversations about Leica, or about photography in general. After speaking at a recent Leica Akademie M9 workshop at the Parsons School of Design in New York, I took some members of the class out to nearby Union Square Park for some practical experience in street shooting and typically, a couple of them got yelled at, a few met some new friends and we all got some interesting images.

Due to its small size and quiet operation, using a Leica rangefinder camera helps you to work without being noticed. There are techniques that also help: pre-focusing with the depth of field scale, keeping the camera in your hand not around your neck where it can always be seen, and only raising the camera to your eye to quickly frame and shoot will all help you shoot without detection. Of course, when your subjects are sleeping as they are in these photos, it’s a lot easier to go unnoticed, and I must admit that this is one reason I began shooting “sleepers”.

At the same time, I’m working on other projects that include store windows, mannequins, street musicians, reflections, night scenes with neon and shadows. We’ll look at some of these in future posts. A similar project studying signs has yielded my first book, “Signs, Volume 1“.

Like many of the projects I am working on at any one time, I don’t go out for a day of shooting sleepers, but I just seem to capture one or two each time I shoot on the streets. I always have a Leica M9 or  M8.2 camera with me, usually with 35mm or 28mm lens, and the occasional sleeper images I capture have accumulated into a body of work, some of which you see here.

Developing themed projects like this takes time and persistence and helps keep you on the alert, looking for picture situations that fit your theme. Aside from finding a subject that interests you, you have to approach each picture as a separate and distinct work to avoid similar framing and angle that can be boring.

We each see the world from our unique viewpoint and we often focus on things that other people don’t even notice. I hope these thoughts and images will inspire you to develop your own personal projects as a way of expressing your interests and your special way of seeing.

-Carl Merkin

To connect with Carl Merkin on Facebook, visit www.facebook.com/carl.merkin.photographs.