“Well, if your name is Josh then who is Jack Harlem?”
This is a question I get asked all the time by confused clients. To me Jack Harlem is much more than a business name. To me the name means dedicating yourself to capturing stories, to push yourself to be a better photographer with every photo you take, to live for the next shoot. Jack Harlem is a living entity. And Jack Harlem is living – he’s the man in this photo.
I met Jack Harlem while I was in New York – the city with the beating pulse. I was there to exhibit some of my work at an art exhibition. At the time my life was absolutely hectic. I had decided to quit my full time photography job to pursue my own interests. I had also just ended my relationship, which had been a massive part of my life for over 5 years. I was ready to get lost in the high of New York.
The art show was a massive event. It was a long, hard four days of being on my feet for innumerable hours and barely having space to breathe. I craved to head out into the city and shoot some personal work, to find my own corner of New York to photograph. But I was never free. During the day I lived and breathed the exhibit and during the night there was always another party to attend.
Then I finally caught a break. That day I just headed out into the streets of New York. I just wanted to wander the streets and feel the buzz of the Big Apple – a feeling no other city has. I was near Central Park when I first saw him. He had the ragged signs of homelessness – torn and dirty clothes, beat up shoes, and he was all alone. But his face was the most amazing thing I had ever seen. His wrinkle-lined faced and tooth gapped smile told me had so many stories to tell. So much life had been seen by the man with the squinted eyes. And I had to capture it.
I immediately walked over and asked him if I could take his photo. He was quick to say: “Sure. But it will cost you 5 bucks.” He had a big fat smile on his face and I thought he might have been asked this question many times before. I took him up on his offer and took a photo. I asked him what his name was and he said: “Jack Harlem”. I remember thinking that it was such a cool name.
Eventually we got to talking about life. He told me of his hardships and his life as a homeless person. His situation was heartbreaking yet he was still happy, he was still doing okay. Suddenly, my failed relationship and the fact I didn’t have a job to return to back home felt like small problems. Jack’s situation was so much worse and yet he still had this absolutely amazing outlook on life.
He ended up letting me fire off three frames and then just like that he turned away and said:
Of all the experiences I had and of all the people I met in New York, meeting and chatting to Jack Harlem is the moment I remember most. Sometimes I wonder where Jack Harlem is in the world now. Did he make it out of his situation? Does he have a family to come home to now? I’ll never know. All I know is the Jack Harlem name will live on through my life’s work – my photography.