|I'm in Trouble
by Jim McGee
New Year's day dawned nasty in Philadelphia this year. So nasty in fact that a Philadelphia tradition, the Mummers Parade, had to be put on hold until the 5th of January. That Saturday morning the weather was chilly but the wind and rain gods smiled on the marchers and the parade went off without a hitch.
I parked down by Independence Mall just before the String Bands, which are the highlight of the parade, began to march. I figured to work my way up Market street, photographing the bands and avoiding the crowds near the City Hall judging area, and at the end of the night take the subway back to where I was parked. I was packing along Fuji's 1600 Superia and I figured that both the nighttime parade with it's vibrant colors and the monochromatic subway would make interesting subjects for this film.
So with one body loaded with Provia and one body loaded with high speed film off I went.
This year 15,000 marchers participated in the parade with almost $400,000 in prize money at stake and a quarter million people were lining the parade route to watch. This is down considerably from an average of two million who came out to see the parade in the 1940's. But that was before TV and the annual "Show of Shows" that allows spectators to view the parade and the string bands from the comfort of their living room or at least a heated indoor stadium. Folks, let me tell you, in Philadelphia this is serious business!
The Mummers are renowned for colorful costumes festooned with sequins and feathers. This Philadelphia tradition officially goes back to 1901 when the first parade took place. But reports of rowdy groups parading through the city can be found dating back to the years before the revolution and local merchants first began awarding prizes to marchers as early as the late 1800's - somewhat at odds with Philadelphia's conservative Quaker reputation. So it's not surprising that at one point there was an effort to ban all this nonsense. In 1808 a law was passed to ban house to house mummery. But in true Philadelphia tradition the law was ignored and no one was ever arrested or convicted. It's even claimed that Uncle Sam started out as a Mummer. Popular targets for Mummers sarcasm in the late 1700s included George Washington and clown character called Cooney Cracker. It's widely accepted that Cooney became the inspiration for Uncle Sam.
Some even claim that the Mummers tradition goes all the way back to 400 BC and the Roman Saturnalias festivals where masked laborers marched through the streets in a day of satire and gift exchange. Our Halloween and its "trick or treat" has its roots in the Celtic versions of these same festivals.
The Mummers parade is still something of a laborers celebration. Mummers in Philadelphia are still mostly blue-collar white guys - women have only been allowed to march for a short time and many still feel that women shouldn't be allowed since part of the tradition involves big brawny guys dressed up in women's clothes. The alcohol flows freely among the revelers themselves and among the hardy souls who brave the cold on New Years day to watch the parade.
With my press credentials hanging from my camera bag and two Nikon's hanging from my neck the police never gave me a second look as I walked past the barriers and worked the parade, sometimes right in among the marchers when they were stopped to let traffic through. A specific pass would have been required at the judging area but two blocks away no one seemed to care. It was obvious that I was working. Marchers grabbed my hand and patted my shoulder wishing me a Happy New Year! Some scooped up their kids and posed for pictures without even being asked. I happily returned their greetings and fired away with my cameras.
At the end of the parade I hung out in front of the Hard Rock Café for a while to get some crowd shots. When I exhausted that corner I strolled down into the subway. With cameras still around my neck I figured to use up the remaining shots on both rolls down below. Like so many other photographers I've always been fascinated by the unique photo opportunities of subways. The ticket taker took my money and never gave my cameras a second look. She also said nothing about not being allowed to shoot in the subway. So I was surprised when fifteen minutes later I overheard two policemen asking a different ticket taker to identify the person who was taking pictures in the subway.
They were very polite when they informed me that the subway was private property and that I needed permission to shoot there. My first thought was "oh great I'm gonna get a charged a $15 fine or fee or something." Then he said that there was a need to be careful because we were at war - and could he see my ID. My God these guys thought I might be a terrorist!
I've never been afraid of the police. I've never had to be. Hell I watch the Eagles games on Sundays at a neighbor's house who's a local cop. I'm even Irish. Police and fireman are a requirement in an Irish family tree. But suddenly I was very nervous. He was asking who I worked for, how long I had been at my current address, and why I was taking pictures in the subway. He was very polite and extremely professional and he kept apologizing for the inconvenience but it was still disconcerting. He called in my information and a minute later I was in the clear. Turns out he's even quite the amateur photographer.
Over the next fifteen minutes or so we talked about terrorism. For most of us 9-11 remains an isolated incident. But for these Transit Police it's something they live with everyday. I was impressed by their professionalism and their concern was real. As I've suspected there have been close calls that have been stopped by law enforcement. Terrorists often take photos or even video of intended targets that they can later study for vulnerabilities. He said that had I been in the station near Independence Mall near where Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell are located I wouldn't have been able to just walk in with two cameras hanging off my shoulder. It was a sobering conversation where a few minutes earlier I'd been high on the energy from the parade.
Riding the subway back to my car I thought about where we photograph. It wasn't that long ago that family could see loved ones off at the gate in airports and picture taking was part of the scene. Since 9-11 I haven't even thought about pulling out a camera in an airport; and sitting there in the subway I couldn't remember seeing anyone do it. It just seems like something you wouldn't do now. I also thought about Penn Station in Philadelphia and Penn Station in New York. I've taken quite a few photos there over the years both in the marble covered stations themselves, and of the unique curving I beams below. What would the reaction be if I set up my tripod below the station today?
This isn't criticism of our law enforcement. It would be naïve to call their caution heavy handed. I actually feel better knowing that they're paying this much attention. Until this threat is gone we, as photographers, will need to think a little more about when and where we pull out our cameras. And while that is sad, the worst that happens to us is that we miss a shot. Not bad considering the alternative.