So apparently it's not best practice to take pictures of other people's children. I can see the faces of their guardians darken, and suspect that if I were a man I would have had my SLR smashed to the ground about now. As it is, they glower and herd their little ones away from the strange lady whose extremities are turning red and blue. I shrug in an open, unperverted way and track back through the shots. Perfect. Pictures of Staten Island with people in.
By this stage in the afternoon I don't care if they're fat people, thin people, little people, or offensively ugly people. My favourite person so far has been the Staten Island Ferry man, leaping across to Manhattan and tying us firmly to the dock. The light's not perfect, and I'm probably violating security procedures by pointing my camera at him, but as soon as I've taken it I know it's going to be the final picture in the piece.
Staten Island on a winter weekday afternoon is an unnerving place. Snug Harbour, the main tourist attraction, is anything but. I've never been alone in a greenhouse before, and a morning spent proofreading Stephen King short stories is helping me see the uncanny behind every obscenely luxuriant plant. The orchids and bird-of-paradise trees seem to have responded to the lack of human interruption by blooming out into the pathways, turning the twee little indoor garden into a rain forest bursting its seams. Inside I take my gloves off and let my fingers thaw out. I take my camera out but the few shots I take look like 70s flower porn, and then the lens steams up completely. There are also no people to take pictures of; and the rules are that every picture must have a person in.
To my mind, this is the opposite of the way most men take photos. Give them a mountain or a duck or a row of beach huts and they are happy. In the past my own equation for a good photo has been party + drunken people + trial and error = Facebook gold, or at least good blackmail fodder. Now I find myself tracking down the sprawling park's other inhabitants like one of Angela Carter's huntresses. At first I hope to get them against the statues or formal gardens, on the steps of one of the dozens of museums or framed through a signed gateway. In the end I resort to snapping random pap-shots. Man on bike. Woman from a distance near a fake castle. The backs of people talking to other people or posing for a photograph taken by someone they know.
It is on the ferry where the game changes. Even out of season there's a good cast of potential subjects, but now the subterfuge is all on a smaller scale. It's the difference, I imagine, between playing in a marching band or giving an intimate recital. Standing in the freezing wind I take shot after peopleless shot to ease their suspicions, then whip the camera round as if some detail of the ferry itself has caught my attention. If they notice they frown and move away. I hear a group of German teenagers discussing how weird I am and am for once glad that I have forgotten most of my German.
But this time I've learnt my lesson. No shots of children - as if the paedophiles of this world would get their kicks from grainy shots of bundled-up Staten Island children when the internet offers up a whole depraved library of more graphic images. Still, I've no wish to lose my camera to the Hudson. Especially not round Staten Island. The pollution here would melt its insides, and all those pictures of people and things would be lost in the bleak wastes between Ellis Island and New Jersey.