The Politics of Documenting the Urban Landscape

Jem Cohen |
Where: The Jewish Museum
Opening: Nov. 4, 2011
Closing: Mar. 25, 2012
Price: $12 for adults, $10 for seniors, $7.50 for students, free for children and members 
Photo courtesy of Jem Cohen.

I gather images and sounds. Sometimes, I go out with a camera and recorder simply to document, without any preordained agenda. There’s a tradition of street shooting that goes way back, based primarily on direct observation, pioneered by photographers and filmmakers like Helen Levitt, Leon Levinstein and Robert Frank, and going further back, Jean Vigo, August Sander, Eugene Atget.

In the case of “NYC Weights and Measures,” I’d been asked to contribute a digital short in celebration of the 10th year of Reel New York, a program on WNET (MetroFocus‘ parent company) that showed independent films about the city. I began to excavate from my archive as well as to wander with my 16mm Bolex camera, and then to connect footage: the ticker-tape parade for a returning astronaut, winter dusk from a lower Manhattan rooftop, views from the elevated train, a nodding sleeper seen from my own Brooklyn window, an expiring building on 42nd street.

The film started off as a series of impressions; it wasn’t really “about” anything, or more accurately, it was just about the way that things speak to each other in the city, and how disparate elements coalesce, like iron filings around a magnetic field. Because I knew it would be shown on television, which on the whole is increasingly restrictive, formulaic and hyperactive, I wanted it to be ambiguous and contemplative, but aside from that I had no particular scheme and certainly no political intentions. Circumstances, and a different way of thinking about the film, led me to change my mind about “NYC Weights and Measures.”

In 2005 I was on a train from New York to D.C., occasionally shooting from the window. I’d shot from train windows for 20 years, many times on the same route. But this time I was told to stop, and then the train was held in Philadelphia while uniformed police boarded and demanded my film. In D.C., I was met by other authorities. My film was eventually given to the Anti-Terrorism Task Force and from them, to the FBI.


In “NYC Weights and Measures” (2006), Jem Cohen attempts to capture the essence of the city in moments of chaos and tranquility. Shot on the streets of New York, the footage includes a ticker-tape parade, street musicians and the subways.

With the help of a New York Civil Liberties Union lawyer I did eventually get them to declare that it had been “cleared” and would be sent back. Months later, they returned the empty can without the film. I never did get the footage. Meanwhile in New York, there had been separate attempts to ban photography and filmmaking in the subways, and to restrict it on the streets as a whole. On one level, as was ostensibly the case with my train incident, this stemmed from concerns about terrorists documenting “infrastructure” for nefarious reasons.

But on another level, it was about controlling public behavior and instigating new restrictions over free expression in an increasingly conservative political climate. I would eventually devote a great deal of time to fighting these regulations, which were particularly threatening to the tradition of documentary street photography. (I am pleased to say that we won the fight.)

So, what was once going to be a purely lyrical film also became a film about these issues — about the fact that documenting the landscape itself may be an inherently political act, and that artists don’t always get to decide what, in every sense, becomes of their work.

That urge to document, to hit the streets with cameras, still pulls me. Lately I’ve been documenting the Occupy Wall Street movement, which I find fascinating and important. I’m interested in the political discussion, which can be deeply invigorating (and sometimes frustrating) but I’m also interested just because Occupy Wall Street has sparked new kinds of public gathering in my city, a re-invention and re-birth of what photographers have always been drawn to here; the “street life” which makes the city great.

Jem Cohen is a New York-based filmmaker who mixes documentary, narrative, and experimental genres, often building from his own ongoing archive of street footage, portraits and sound. He recently produced a series of short newsreels at the Occupy Wall Street protests. His short “Little Flags,” shot at the Gulf War “victory” parade, is showing now in MoMA PS1’s 9/11 show.

©2023 WNET. All Rights Reserved. 825 Eighth Avenue, New York, NY 10019

WNET is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. Tax ID: 26-2810489