A Footnote for Scholars

Sean Hammer


Today it was choking, which doesn’t photograph as well as you’d think.

You couldn’t know this because I’m the only one doing this project, but I have to get the camera right in there on a person and really see the root of the whole thing. Choking makes this difficult because it almost always happens at a restaurant, and unless you grease the coroner beforehand, you can’t move the body, so usually you’ve got to get one foot on the chair and the other on the table to get the good angle, right down the subject’s throat—I have this special lens that does it—anyway, fast food restaurants are better for this as they have those sturdy plastic tables welded to the floor. That’s the kind of thing I learn and put in a footnote for scholars.

Last week it was a car accident on the FDR. Car crashes are messy and don’t make for the best piece, because the police don’t let you get anywhere near the subject unless you’re from the Times, and from a distance it’s just twisted glass and a series of bad decisions. You might not think so but I’m actually not as interested when it happens as a result of things people have chosen to do, like turn left on a red light, or leap from a ledge. The shots are much better when a person is just run down by bad luck.

I’ve been hoping for an air conditioner to fall on somebody all summer.

Cancer is what I shoot most of the time. It’s true, it’s one of the sadder ones, you’d be right to assume that. But one of the best to work with. The families are surprisingly open and I also get to make up, a little, the root for cancer, because the hospitals don’t let me photograph autopsies. For instance, one guy died from stomach cancer, but he wasn’t fat or a traditionally unhealthy eater—those would be choices, of course—so I shot him with one of those wire cage-boxes they keep chickens in sometimes to show what the farming industrial complex does to good people; like if you eat x, then y. But truthfully I don’t know if he was a good guy, he could’ve been an asshole. Sometimes in art you can lie, if it makes something that’s already true even more so.

Drowning is useless unless I’m there when it happens. Ditto gunshot wounds, unless it’s a stray bullet, which would be gold. Hasn’t happened yet, but I’m confident the police scanner I bought will prove to be a good investment.

My favorite was the tourist who got kicked by the horse in Central Park. This was my first death, and it’s what actually gave me the idea for the project. I’d been in the park buying a dirty water dog because I have this theory they just taste better there, and the guy in front of me buys an ice cream cone, one for him and one for his wife, and as they’re about to cross that path by the reservoir he sees the police horse strolling through. So he tells his wife to get the phone out, take a picture, but the cop says no, which I thought was kind of weak. The guy can’t take no for an answer so when the horse walks past him he tells his wife, hey, let’s get a picture with the horse’s ass, by which maybe he meant the cop. He gets right behind the horse and he’s holding up his ice cream like, this’ll make a great photo! and the horse just uncorks a leg right into the guy’s skull. He snaps forward and his ice cream flies off his cone, splat, right onto his wife’s face which, come on, try not to laugh. She drops her own cone, screaming, and her phone, which I swoop in and snatch off the pavement; then I flee. I’ll admit, I’m impressed she captured the exact moment of impact. I’m still pestering the NYPD for a photo of the bloody hoof, but so far no response.

I’ve gone to a few galleries with the idea, but it’s too progressive for anyone, which happens sometimes in the art world. You have to wait for people to catch up to you. I even tell them that it’s not just like, framed photos on the wall. How I’d do it is I would paint the photos on big slabs of driftwood, like photo-realist paintings, and then I’d put them in this sort of watery yellow light so it would be like you’re looking at the photos but as though they’re projected onto the side of some old wooden ship, except not actually projected because they’re painted. You get what I mean. If I do it that way, people might think they’re supposed to look like they would if you were a caveman with your torch discovering them in some cavern, which would also be cool as the origin of man is another one of my artistic concerns.

The last gallery told me no one would want to exhibit this project, ever, but frankly that’s a shitty gallery and I was only bringing my stuff there because I have a friend who showed there once. Either way I don’t get down about it, because, on the way home, I notice death all around me.  Out-of-control taxis, rickety scaffolding, any number of brains primed for aneurysm. It’s important to believe in your work, I think, and when I look up, my faith is renewed: everywhere, wobbly air conditioners.


Sean Hammer is a graduate of Hunter College's MFA program in Creative Writing, where he was a Hertog Fellow for Jennifer Egan. He was born in Washington, DC and raised in nearby Silver Spring, Maryland. He is a graduate of Boston University and Johns Hopkins University. His writing can be found at Kindle Singles, The Prague Revue, and Mid-American Review, among others. He lives in New York City.