An interview with Ourit Ben-Haïm from the Underground New York Public Library (UNYPL)
She’s reading “Notes From Underground”, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
With us today is NYC street photographer Ourit Ben Haïm, the force behind the wonderful “visual library” called the Underground New York Public Library. In this library, the “Reading-Riders” of the NYC subways are featured in her photographs. Ourit, thank you for your time. I’ll try and make this as painless as possible.
“Haha. It’s fun to be doing this. Thank you for the interest.”
You have been shooting street for quite a while, please tell us how street photography eventually led to your UNYPL project?
It actually wasn’t a linear process that led me to the library. I started photographing people reading on the subways in 2008, with my cell phone. This was before I was doing street. I’m not sure what exactly led me to take that first shot. It was purely instinctual and afterwards I felt compelled to do it again. Eventually I had a bunch of these photos so I stuck them on Facebook and called the album the Underground New York Public Library. Some of my friends thought I was being super weird. Others found that the album revealed something beautiful. I kept adding to the album sporadically and didn’t think much more of it.
I began doing street photography in 2009. I was already doing photography but I hadn’t considered street photography before. I randomly met street photographer Michael Martin one night in the winter of 09’ and that’s when my deep interests and photography really came together for me. I started shooting street the next day.
I didn’t immediately combine my street photography with the UNYPL. Since they tell you that a good street photographer must always be camera ready, it happened that I had my DSLR with me when commuting. I was scared to shoot for real when underground at first. What if someone would become angry with me? It’s an enclosed environment. But when you’re sitting there bored on your way home, interesting things can happen. I started slowly by slowly, testing out the readers with my camera. Once I collected a small amount of readers whom I had photographed boldly, I understood that there was something significant here worth revealing.
He’s reading “A Feast For Crows”, by George R. R. Martin
Many street photographers work with smaller rangefinder style cameras for the sake of stealth, yet you ride the subways and shoot with a Canon 5D Mark II. How do you successfully manage to be as discreet as you are?
I don’t manage that. I’m not discreet. I board subway cars with my bulky Mark II strapped to my wrist. I openly look at the people around me while holding the camera readily. People see me and some put it together that I’ve got something in mind. I think this helps rather than hurts.
He’s reading “Frankenstein”, by Mary Shelley
What is something about the Underground Library that has given you satisfaction?
I have the vision for this library in my head. I’m personally interested in all of its aspects and I see many aspects for it. It’s understandable if other people who I show it to won’t see what I see in it right away. For a while, no one did. I persist because the meaning of the UNYPL is crystal clear for me. It’s deeply satisfying to suddenly hear responses from many people who are seeing what I see in it. I hope this trend will continue because there’s a lot more to reveal! I even have a screenplay in mind. : ) Underground New York Public Library, the movie. ; ) One person’s journey alongside the stories of the world..
He’s reading “A Feast for Crows: A Song of Ice and Fire”, by George R.R. Martin
If you could spend a day with one great photographer to serve as a mentor, whom would you choose?
I’ve had many great mentors in photography. I’m so grateful for them and for calling some of them my friends. I probably would just ask one of them to hang out again! : ) If you’re asking me to think fantastically though, then I’d pick Vivian Maier. I have so many questions I’d love to ask her. What compelled her? Why didn’t she ask people to look at her work? My take on photography is very much about revelation, and sharing is a significant part of revelation for me. So I find her harder to understand and that intrigues me.
Have you come across anyone reading “The Catcher in the Rye” yet?
Yes! right here. As soon as I can find the time, the library will become browsable by author and genre so you’ll be able to find a book quickly.
Interview by John Frenzel