Pay no attention to the man behind the camera — really. Brian Green does not want you to notice him.
Slight of build and dressed in dark, nondescript clothing, Green walks the streets of Asheville looking for images. He takes photographs every day, pretty much everywhere he goes, some days heading out 9 to 5 as if it were his job, amassing a collection of captured — some might say stolen — images of strangers.
“It can go one of two ways,” Green says of taking street photos. “Sometimes you take someone’s photo and they get mad. Sometimes they swing at you.”
Faces in the crowd
If you’ve walked down Biltmore Avenue anytime in the last two months, you may have noticed Green’s work displayed on a DIY-style gallery near Doc Chey’s — specifically, on the wall that runs in front of the patio of the former Hannah Flanagan’s. Neatly spaced and attached via staple gun are rows and rows of neatly spaced black-and-white snapshots of Asheville and other cities’ residents — men cleaning windows, people sipping coffee in cafés, window-shoppers, police officers, subway riders, firefighters.
“I’ve always been fascinated with people,” Green says. “I’ve always been more of a people-watcher. Once I got comfortable with photographing people, I just started doing it more and more and more.”
“I guess it’s an obsession now,” he adds.
Green has received no formal photography training, but he’s been taking photos since he was “8 or 9” after his mother gave him a Polaroid camera. It took him a while to work up the courage to take photos of familiar people, let alone the nerve to take photos of strangers — a practice he calls both “not normal” and “uncomfortable” — but about five years ago, Green says, he stopped shooting anything other than strangers on the street. He estimates that he shoots for at least three to five hours every day, though there have been days when he’s gone out at 8 a.m. and didn’t stop shooting until the next day. Sometimes he has a destination in mind, but he says often he just walks laps, meandering up and down the streets, the odometer on his phone calculating that his typical walk adds up to 10 to 15 miles.
“If I go out without [a camera], I hate myself for the rest of the night because I’ll miss so many photos,” he says. “So now, I don’t go anywhere without one. I just came down four floors to talk to you, and I still brought one.”
Green didn’t get permission to post his photos on Biltmore. After all, he jokes, “You don’t need permission when you have a staple gun.” He’s never met the owner, though he says he would like to. He picked the spot because it was already plastered with playbills and graffiti, seemingly a tolerated space for street art — at least for awhile, as Green says the owner does occasionally repaint the wall once it becomes too densely covered.
“After the last time the wall was repainted, I figured, ‘Well, it’s my turn,’” Green says. “I figured I shoot the photos on the streets, so why not show them on the streets?”
Green installed his street gallery in early April, but the initial reception was much less rewarding than he had envisioned.
“It went terrible,” he says. “They got ripped down really quickly, usually at night. So, I went back and did about double what I did the first time.”
These days, the photos remain mostly untouched and frequently become a source of conversation among passersby. Green says he will sometimes linger by the wall, eavesdropping as people discuss his photographs.
“All these people are strangers to me, but if you stand there long enough, someone who knows someone on that wall walks by,” he says. “Asheville is a city but it’s really a small town. And that’s interesting to me, being new and basically being a stranger myself.”
Shoot first, ask later
Since the photos went up in April, Green says he’s been frequently asked, “How do you get permission to take someone’s photo?” He doesn’t. A follow-up question: “Does it make people feel uncomfortable?” It does, he says. Another question: “Isn’t it exploitation?”
“I had someone argue with me that it’s exploitation of people,” Green says. “But so much for me is automatic. You see something and something in your head just clicks, and right after that clicking is the clicking of the shutter. I don’t even think about it. I see an image, I take it.”
“To me there’s no difference — whether I’m hanging out with friends or on the streets. If I see something, I shoot it,” he adds.
It’s important to note, Green’s approach is different from that of many other street photographers and photojournalists (though you could perhaps draw a parallel to secretive Chicago street photographer Vivian Maier). This isn’t Humans of New York. Green isn’t approaching interesting-looking people on the street to learn their story. Rather, Green is effectively stealing their story, capturing it in a candid moment he frames in his lens before, hopefully, disappearing back into the crowd.
“A lot of people don’t even know I’m taking a photo, and I prefer it that way,” Green says. “I try not to do posed work at all, because my work is about human behavior, existence, life. When someone’s posing they’re giving you the way they want to be perceived, not the way they are.”
It’s an approach that hasn’t always gone over well.
“Every now and then, there will be incident where I know if I take this guy’s photo, he’s going to hit me,” Green says. “And thankfully, I guess, I have that disconnect where I say, ‘I’ll take it, and if he gets mad, he gets mad.’ I have no concern for my own well-being when I have a camera in front of my face.”
Green has been swung at. He’s been yelled at. In Orlando, he got in a heated and prolonged exchange with a police office after he took photos of emergency medical technicians assisting a man who had been assaulted. (You can watch the entire incident on Green’s YouTube channel). In that exchange, Green defended his right to photograph people in public places, which he says he’ll continue to do.
“Anyone can take photos of anyone on the street: There’s no expectation of privacy in public. Period,” Green says. “You should have that expectation of privacy in your home. For people living on the streets, it is their home and I try to respect that. But otherwise, if you’re on the street, you’re fair game.
“I always say, ‘I would rather shoot a photo and question whether I should use it later than question first and not shoot the photo,’” he continues. “If you don’t take the photo, or if you wait too long and question it, it will be gone. It happens that fast. This isn’t the studio, and it isn’t posed, so if you miss it, it’s just gone.”
Green says his work has taken him to rough neighborhoods and uneasy situations. In Orlando, he witnessed a woman committing suicide by jumping off a parking deck, landing right in front of him. The photo he snapped of the paramedics that arrived to the scene would later run in the Orlando Sentinel. He has walked around alone, for hours, day and night in New York, Atlanta, Orlando, Boston — the cities where he has lived for brief periods of time as part of his “largely nomadic” lifestyle. He’s been in Asheville for six months now working in a print shop and snapping photos in his off hours. It’s the longest he says he has stayed in one place in the last two years.
“I know that, a lot of times, I don’t talk to people, and that’s why it makes moving and traveling so easy,” Green reflects. “I don’t really have any connections, so I can free-range and just do my thing. It’s interesting to me, looking in at other people’s lives — I focus so much on work, on taking photos 9 to 5, I kind of neglect my own.”
“At the end of the day,” he adds, “normal people don’t do this.”
Green’s work is currently on display at 51 Grill on Merrimon Avenue and will hang at Early Girl Eatery on Wall Street beginning in August. Photos still go missing from the Biltmore wall, though Green says lately it seems to be more from people taking home the prints than simply ripping them down.
“You could tell someone had really painstakingly removed the staples to take one down,” he says. “Someone on the street was really mad and said [to me], ‘I can’t believe someone would do that!’ But I know how much time it took me to put it up there — it probably took double that to take it down neatly. If they wanted it that bad, I’m glad they took the time to take it.”
Green shrugs off the lost prints in much the same way he shrugs off the angry stares, the thrown punches, the shouted threats — it’s all part of being on the street. He knows his behavior isn’t normal; he knows his photos often make people uncomfortable. Anyone can take street photos, he says, but not everyone does. So then, the seemingly obvious question: Why do it?
“I’ve never actually sat down and said, “OK, this is why I do this,” Green says. “I just always took photos and I always focused on people.
“My dad passed away when I was younger, and I only have one photo of him,” he explains. “Obviously, these people out here aren’t important to me in the same way, but yeah, I do think something in me is trying to capture and save the moments that are around me. I do think that’s part of it.”
Green answers this last question by phone while in New York City. In the last two days he’s been through Washington, D.C., parts of New Jersey and Baltimore. The next day he’ll be in Boston before returning to Asheville. He’s taken pictures all along the way, not even stopping during this phone call, even when almost hit by a cab.
“You shoot these images trying to capture these moments and remember them, and a lot of times, you’re capturing everything you’ve lost,” he adds after the cab passes. “It’s sort of a dark way of looking at it, but a lot of what I have [photographed] is places I grew up or relationships that have taken a turn. There’s always the flip side of the coin where you’re preserving some things, gritty things — like the suicide — that you would probably want to forget.”
Green says he plans to completely cover the Biltmore wall when he returns to Asheville and continue to “refresh” the photos as long as he’s in town — though even Green doesn’t know how long that will be. Green also hopes to expand the project — maybe finally meet the owner; maybe add Plexiglas to make the display more permanent, the gallery nicer-looking; maybe even expand to another wall on another street. He’s started receiving emails from other photographers and students at UNC Asheville asking for advice on how to approach street photography. His answer?
“There’s no normal reason to walk up and put a camera in a stranger’s face,” Green says. “You’re creating art; you’re creating a beautiful image, yes. But you’re making someone uncomfortable. And if you’re OK with that, you’ll be a good street photographer.”
Scroll through the slideshow to view more photos by Brian Green.
You can see more of Green’s work at www.meyouanddoom.com, or on his YouTube channel. You can also connect with Green directly at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you are interested in a print, he does prefer you email him before ripping it down.
Update: Green informs Xpress he will be leaving Asheville imminently, having been accepted to the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Green tells us the show at Early Girl is still scheduled. You can also still view the wall on Biltmore for the foreseeable future — though we cannot guarantee for how long.