This is it.
It was Chinese New Year in New York City. 2014. I was a student at the International Center of Photography at the time and my final project was to document first-generation Chinese-Americans practicing the ancient art of lion dancing here in America.
The group I followed was Wan Chi Ming.
This was during the Chinese New Year Parade in Chinatown, Manhattan. It was ice cold, and I had already spent the past 4 months following them every day. This was a project I’ve always wanted to do since graduating from college, and I decided it was now or never. I’d probably regret it if I never allowed myself to pursue this.
Anyways, Wan Chi Ming is always the finale of the parade. And it’s sort of crazy because they actually do two parades at the same time on the same day. One in Manhattan. The other in Brooklyn. Yes, I did wish there was two of me that day so I could’ve documented both events, but alas, I decided to stay in Manhattan.
The finale is the highly anticipated double dragon. That’s right. Not one, but two dragons! They come flying past East Broadway and the people love it. The parade started towards Mott and Canal Street. I was capturing the event from the ground and planned to run up to the roof of their studio when they started to get close to the end. This was my highly anticipated final project of several years after all. I was determined to do the best I can. Plus, just the night before they hung this really beautiful flag outside their building that was now swaying in the wind. I knew it was going to be a great shot.
So everything goes well. I’m zigging and zagging between all the dragons and lions to capture as many different angles as possible. And as they came to about one block of the studio I sprint as fast as I could up to the roof. Their elevator was broken at the time, so naturally, I was huffing and puffing by the time I got up there.
The thing is, like most New York roofs, there is a big ledge that sort of blocks your view, so I had to climb on top of that in order to get a clear overhead shot. Once on top, I had about a 4-foot ledge I could stand on to try and get THE SHOT.
But as I’m sure most of you must know, you must lean pretty far forward in order to make sure you don’t get your feet in the photo.
Mind you. I’m already standing who knows how many feet above East Broadway and now I’m leaning over with nothing to protect me from a deadly fall. No, there was no guard rail. I’m lucky it didn’t snow that day. I guess my shoes were grippy enough, otherwise, I don’t know what could’ve happened.
Anyways, the double dragons come soaring past East Broadway and the crowd goes wild. The flag isn’t quite flowing the way I want it to though, so I keep leaning and tippy-toeing in order to get the shot I want. I really only had a couple seconds to do this because the dragons weren’t going to be stopping just for me. Nor did they know I had sprinted up to the roof of their studio to do just that.
Eventually, the wind picked up, laid the flag perfectly parallel to the double dragons and I take as many shots as possible, I get off the ledge as soon as I could and take the biggest sigh of relief. As I run back down the stairs to catch up with the crew I promised myself never to risk my life for a shot like that ever again. When I think back to it, I still get vertigo. It’s a very weird feeling. But it is very scary indeed. Most people say that is one of their favorite shots, and I’m flattered, but in my head, I’m often thinking to myself, “That was kinda stupid”.
I was in my early 20s at the time and sort of young and reckless but nowadays I don’t think it’s worth it at all to risk my life for a shot. Never again. But hey, that’s the story of the most dangerous photo I ever took.
by Jason Lam