The photographer creating hazy portraits of Chinatown
Htet Gyaw's latest project is a love letter to NYC's famous Canal Street.
“Special and mundane don’t have to be separate,” the photographer Htet Gyaw says. “Sometimes it's just the way the light is hitting a store front, or it’s simply a gesture someone is making on the street.”
Born in Myanmar and raised in Ithaca, New York, Htet now resides in the city, working between filmmaking and photography. Like many of his forebears on the streets of New York, his work finds beauty in places that often go unappreciated. “I'm drawn to how people are when they are by themselves in public space, in a city like New York,” he says. He might find his subjects against the backdrop of an empty subway platform, amongst the blurred flurry of commuters on a sidewalk, or framed by the neon lights of a restaurant window late at night. “I'm looking to capture a scene as it unfolds naturally,” he adds, “but to paint it with feeling, like a song.”
His latest series, Down by Canal, focuses on Chinatown, on and around Canal Street, a place he always finds himself whenever he’s out shooting in the city. “I end up there because it's so photogenic,” he says. “So I made a point to go there intentionally and build a series of images.” The project focuses on the individuals who frequent the area daily, with Htet finding authenticity in the anonymity of the street. “When everyone's unknown, loners don't have to prove anything, they might as well be walking in a forest.” To put it simply, Htet’s work is about people watching at its core. “I try to be a fly on the wall and if someone wants to confront me, I'm happy to step up and explain to them what I'm doing. The camera I use is an old Twins Lens Reflex where I have to look down into it to take a photo, so it seems like I'm just looking downward and not pointing the camera directly at my subjects.”
Picking out the small details of Chinatown -- “the red grocery bags, the senior citizens that are out doing their thing, the people just simply surviving” -- Htet felt it was more important than ever to publish a story that centred on the beauty of this area. “I thought it was important to put the work out during this time when a lot of Asian people are facing hate crimes and racism during our current situation. I want to show that Chinatown is a part of New York and that Asian-Americans are a part of America.”
All images courtesy Htet Gyaw