This week we profile Untapped Cities contributor Ben Helmer, a photographer and writer who has covered topics as wide ranging as Hurricane Sandy photography, to the play about Penn Station’s demolition, to his up close and personal experience with the Times Square New Year’s Eve Ball.
What’s your “day job”?
I’m a web programmer for NorthPoint Solutions, a web consulting company in Midtown Manhattan. Mostly, I design the backend/databases for web apps and large websites. Because I spend so much time in front of a computer, I spend every waking minute outside of work as a photographer (away from a monitor). It really is my second job. I started a 365 two years ago, and just kept going. It’s been nearly 700 days since the last day I didn’t use a camera.
What’s your favorite Untapped spot in your city?
That I’ve been to? The Brooklyn Army Terminal is up there, to be sure. My recent trip to the Times Square New Year’s Eve Ball was really fun. Generally, photography is my life, so anyplace beautiful and out-of-the-way is notable to me. Also, I know it’s overdone, but Central Park is one of my favourite places. Period
Favorite piece you’ve written for Untapped:
I think my coverage of the Rising Waters exhibit on Hurricane Sandy was my favourite. I had all of these photographers of the Sandy aftermath at my fingertips, and knew an interview piece was the way to go. As a photographer myself, I feel comfortable talking to anyone with a camera, and these guys had so many amazing stories to tell. I was interviewing people non-stop the entire night, and a lot of their stories never made it past the editing room floor. My own friend was featured in the exhibit, but I was so captivated by everyone else, I ran out of time before getting his own take. My biggest regret here is that I had to write the story in one night, and felt the writing was rushed. But that doesn’t matter. It was one of the best experiences with Untapped, and all of them have been amazing.
What’s the most surprising and/or valuable thing you learned at Untapped Cities?
The most important lesson at Untapped Cities is really a lesson I’ve been learning about New York in general. From the outside, everything looks big and impressive. I’ve gone into museums, or to big events, thinking “these guys are serious, and out of my league.” Then I get there, talk to someone, and realize they’re normal, down to earth people, and almost always could use some help.
It never hurts if you’re good at something, like writing or photography. These days, everyone is trying to do more with less, and we could all probably use a bit of help. I think it’s so important for people to understand that before they hesitate to put themselves out there, and contribute. So long as you hold yourself to a high standard, you can participate in ways you’d never imagine.
What’s the most memorable thing that happened while at Untapped Cities?
I signed up as the photographer for an interview with Alan Alda at the Museum of the Moving Image. He’s the star of M*A*S*H, and had a part on The West Wing, two of my favourite shows. When we found out there would be no interview, Untapped decided not to run the story, but I already had access to take his photo.
When a photographer from Getty Images arrived, I confessed that I had never taken a celebrity photo, nor was I comfortable using a flash. She was totally cool, helped me out, and I made it through. Instead of giving in to the huge pressure, or bailing because I didn’t know something, I just got in there, and made it happen.
Instead of playing it cool, I like to use my experience as an example whenever others are afraid to get out of their comfort zone.
What’s your favorite Untapped place you’ve visited while traveling? Where do you want to visit next?
It’s hard to narrow down to a single place. Hoellentalklamm, or ‘Hell Canyon” in the German Alps, which is a narrow hiking trail near Garmisch Partenkirchen, was pretty spectacular. We were hiking in July, through all of these caves, and suddenly hit the remains of a glacier. Continue on for several hours, and you reach one of the many “Huts,” which are these German Inns that can only be reached by foot. They’re also restaurants. There’s something amazing about walking 6 hours into the mountains and stumbling across a restaurant.
What’s your favorite obscure fact about your city?
One time I noticed a 7 Train at 59th Street on the R Line. This shattered a fact I thought was true about how numbered and lettered lines could not use the same tracks. I meet a lot of transit buffs during my reporting for Untapped Cities, and learned that numbered trains can travel on lettered lines, but not the other way around (and never when carrying passengers). The same guy also told me that Herald Square has a passage to the 1-2-3 station, but was boarded up during renovations, something revealed in an Untapped Cities guide to Penn Station.
What are some of your favorite websites?
Since my job is “The Internet,” I stay away from it while not at work. The few I do visit are Untapped Cities, Flick, and Boston.com‘s The Big Picture.