My Camera Goes Where I’d Rather Not – By Gerard Exupery

My mother used to say that when she was young she wished she had learned to smoke cigarettes.  Because she always liked the smell of tobacco and it looked sophisticated. But she just couldn’t do it. She also said that she wished she could have had a part-time membership in the mafia. I have no idea what that was about. She not once ever said she wished she had gotten a tattoo or two.

I have started into projects knowing full well it’s been done to death.  I like the challenge. What’s better though is when you truly don’t care.

I wanted to like tattoos. But I just couldn’t. I had no idea why someone would turn their skin into the equivalent of a scribbled on cocktail napkin. Why the hell would a person with gorgeous legs tattoo ribbons on them from their thighs to their knees?  And what about those face and neck tats? I have always thought that my ability to glide in and out of the worlds of others, to be accepted as neutral in order to make images was a good thing. Looking like that which is saying so much about you loud and in the face of your subjects, you are skewing the interaction and ultimately what you can see or what is willing and shown to you. And those tattoos of quotes… don’t get me started.

I ended up making a series of pictures of the local tattoo parlor because I found myself standing outside looking in the window. It looked like fun. Slightly evil fun. It was all red with spotlighting and the walls were covered with samples of tattoos (they call them Flash) and pictures and paintings and sculptures all having to do with the tattoo world.

I went inside because I had been staring in the window for a while and I thought I was making the receptionist uncomfortable. Projecting. I know. But it got me inside because for some reason I didn’t want to be thought of as one of those people who stands outside and is too afraid to go in.

Because of course inside, they were all bikers and meth dealers and at the least, they would laugh about me being there and at the worst tell me to get the hell out. It’s just my skewed head and it’s a complication. Having a camera has always given me an excuse for trying on different worlds. My camera will go where I very often am afraid to.

The receptionist
The receptionist

The girl behind the desk was nice. I asked a few questions. I inquired about making some pictures. She told me I needed to talk to Ox.

Ox looked dour and intimidating. He turned out to be a nice guy. I asked him if I could do a series of pictures over time. Sure.

Prior to walking in, I hadn’t given doing a series about that place or tattoos any thought whatsoever other than I thought most looked like shit. But this place felt kind of dangerous and cool. And the people were not like me. And as it often does, I get curious and I start asking a lot of questions.

Ox gave me some books from his extensive library of tattoo literature. He was patient with the hundreds of questions I asked. I always asked permission before stepping into his area and making pictures and he never said no. None of the other tattooists thought it was a good idea to have me around. The guy in the picture made it clear in no uncertain terms that I was not to photograph his clients or him. So did the other tattooists. But over time as I kept coming back once or twice a week for a few hours they started to warm up a bit. I was always respectful but not obsequious. They thought it was funny that I had no tattoos and they called me a pussy. It meant they were starting to like me and getting used to the camera.

At the end of my project, it was suggested that the only way that I would know about tattoos really would be by getting one. I wanted them to like me because I liked them and being accepted even as an outsider.  I decided on a half sleeve of a Japanese Cod… you know you’ve seen at least a dozen people since yesterday with the same motif. I decided not to in the end and I expected blowback. Instead, Ox told me that he was glad I didn’t do it. It wasn’t me, he said.

Tattoo Receptionist

Through this project, I came to understand that world better. Most of my feelings about them haven’t changed. But, once again, it was proven to me that if I quieted my mind and approached respectfully, I would come to see and photograph more than what I was looking at.

All images here were made with the original Fuji X100


Help Me Print “Women Hold Up Half The Sky” my Second Book.


My book ‘Subway New York City ‘1975-1985’ is available on Etsy.


Gerard Exupery Website

Gerard Exupery has been a New York City Street Photographer for 40 years, He attended the School of Visual Arts and studied with Lisette Model at The New School. He has also worked as an oil rig roustabout, a photographer’s assistant, custom printer, motorcycle mechanic, audio engineer, video engineer, producer, and Mr. Mom.  Exupery also drove a New York City taxi which he considers his post-graduate work.

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16 thoughts on “My Camera Goes Where I’d Rather Not – By Gerard Exupery”

  1. Gerard as always your images and text are magic. I have been thinking about getting a tattoo for the last 45 years, when I have a couple hundred extra bucks I will, so probably never, there’s always something else to spend a windfall on. But maybe Im just a pussy too. Yeah, that’s probably it. What is most impressive to me is that you used the original x100. I hated that camera and have upgraded to the next upgrade the X100s and still use it and love it for it is. A small fast quality camera that produces decent files. Can’t wait to see and hear where you take your camera to next. Be well.

    1. Thank you. As soon as I saw the original X100 I wanted it. Yes it can be cantankerous but it also makes some lovely images. It’s the only digital camera I have at the moment. I would like the next to be one of those FUJI medium format cameras. I wish I could get on their list of photographers they throw gear at for testing etc.

      1. As fate had it I did have a GFX medium format throw at me. It was as simple as “request demo” on the Fuji GFX page. I was in toronto at the time and rep came over with a choice of MF cameras and an array of lenses. I chose the GFX50R and 4 lenses. We did the transaction out of the back his truck and never once did he ask for ID, it was entirely on trust. It was too easy. After a week of the GFX I came to the conclusion that I am a small camera guy, I like to run and gun and although the GFX50R is not huge it is to me, to big. Try it out space cowboy 🙂 allbest,

          1. The quality of images from the GFX was as expected. Excellent. No surprise there. I have always favoured the fuji files over others ie Nikon. Initially I found the images had to much contrast, compared to my Xpro2 but a reset of the menu functions seemed to remedy that and I mimicked the settings on my Xpro. Seems my GFX was not reset and I had the last shooters settings. Once set it was good to go. I hope to use the GFX100 in a project on rural ghost towns out here in the Canadian West and the fuji rep says no problem, we will ship it to Alberta for you. In short what’s not to like with fujifilm. Great images, great glass, great support, great reps. Having said that $7000 CDN will buy you a lot of tri x and I still shoot lots of that. 🙂

  2. Hi,
    A good posting. You bring up a good point – you don’t always need to participate to be accepted. You’ve got to be cool, make no judgements, and be honest. Not everyone is a gonzo journalist.
    Think about this…you like to do nature photography, but you don’t need to be a Puffin to understand its behavior. But, you need to hang out on a rocky outcrop and endure nasty weather conditions to make your photos.
    About that mafia comment; my father had a second cousin in Boston. They visited each other before WW2, and he came to my parent’s wedding in 1945. Flash forward to the late 1970’s. My older brother was watching the news and my Dad’s cousin was being brought into a Boston court on racketeering charges. We said to Dad: “isn’t that your cousin Tony?” My Dad retorted “I don’t know who you’re talking about!” We all cracked up laughing. Cousin Tony’s pictures soon disappeared from our house.

    1. In high school journalism, I learned that one has to be objective. If people see that you want to learn more they are more likely to open up their world to you. Funny about your Dad’s cousin.

  3. Interesting article. I’ve always thought that the world is divided into those who get body art and those who don’t with very little grey in between. And the longer someone takes to decide to have a tattoo and then chose what to have the more they get it.

  4. I think this is amazing and illustrates what sets apart someone who takes photographs and a photographer. Being able to take great images is one thing but putting yourself outside of your normal environment and taking a step forward by getting to know a social group that is not your own to take pictures of them and be included in their interactions and perhaps opening up understanding that may break down barriers is what it’s all about.
    Thanks for sharing, it’s very inspiring to me.

    1. I want to thank you for this comment. I think it helps if you like people and show genuine interest in their life. Whenever I meet someone who does something I find interesting like being a fireman or a street musician I always say that I would like to do some pictures. It keeps life interesting. I’m glad you liked the piece.

  5. Hey Gerard,
    I just read this post for the second time and enjoyed as much as the first.
    Just got a way with words. Your images rock too!

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