Many photographers often put up posts of images and are kind enough to allow the viewer to be privy to a behind the scene glimpse of perhaps where or how the image was shot. They will discuss the equipment used, a lighting setup, or some other often unrevealed facet of the image. That is fine and great, but I wanted to cover something a little different with this one. I am going to tell the story of how I had to save my own ass taking this image.
Let me preface this by saying that in my own opinion, it is an okay image, not my favorite. I keep running across it in my archives and it conjures up funny memories of that night though, so I thought I would share.
I have driven past this plant that sits off the N.J turnpike hundreds of times on my way in and out of new York City and it sort of serves as a landmark for me to know that I am halfway home. There is always smoke billowing out of its stacks, and it’s lit up showing off its ominous size and quirky architecture. Needless to say it piqued my interest one night when I was out with my camera equipment so I decided to photograph it. It appears to run 24 hours a day, and is reminiscent of an industrial beehive with a constant stream of garbage trucks always coming and going in one side and out the other. Late one Friday night in winter I wove my way down to the area it was in which I know quite well and pulled into an area near its entrance off the road and parked in an a section adjacent to the complex which sits directly underneath the turnpike which runs directly overhead. I parked my car and walked down to start figuring out the best place to shoot from. It was a cold night, it was already very dark and I was not planning on staying that long to do this. While I was in this site which has a set of freight train tracks running along side it on a high and steep embankment, a train came rumbling through quite slowly and proceeded to squeal to a stop. After about 20 minutes I decided to pack it in and leave since it wasn’t really all I had hoped for picture wise. I jump back in the car and start to make my way out to the entrance down the dirt road, drive around the corner to the gate that leads back out near the entrance of the plant only to find the huge fence closed in front of me. I walk up to it only to find a thick steel cable wrapped through the latch and that is secured with a master lock. Not just any master lock, one of those giant ones that they only seem to sell in Newark.
I am thinking to myself this has got to be a joke, I have been here for only 20 minutes, its a Friday night, and I have been down here a number of other times and have never seen this gate closed. The only rational idea that I could come up with was that either I just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, or that someone at the site saw me go in and decided to close me in and make my life difficult. Needless to say I was locked in…. and in a big way. A quick assessment led me to this conclusion: It’s 7:30 on a Friday night, I’m alone, I’m in Newark, I’m locked in under the N.J Turnpike with a very high steel gate that’s shackled closed in front of me, the Passaic River behind me, a mile long freight train idling and stopped way up to the left of me, and the barb wire clad perimeter fence of this plant I was photographing to the right of me. I then realized that all I have is my camera, a cell phone, a tripod, and a pocket knife. I then run through scenarios in my mind of what I can do. I could sit and wait until morning and hope that someone comes to open the gate, not really ideal. I could call someone to come let me out, only problem is who do I call? There is no signs anywhere, and I don’t even know what or who’s property I am stuck in, not ideal either. I could call the police and have them come down and help me out, again, probably not the most ideal situation trying to explain to an officer through the other side of a fence why it is that you are locked in underneath the highway at night with a bunch of camera gear. That most likely would have landed me in their station trying to explain myself, again not my idea of how to start a weekend. I could try and drive my car through the gate and bust out of there like I always see in the movies…..problem is, I am pretty sure that only works in the movies.
After a few moments I come up with a plan that I figure is the best way for me to escape without getting frozen, arrested, starving, or doing any damage. I grab my pocket knife and mag light, throw on my gloves, and climb up to the top of the 12 foot fence next to the gate. I swing my leg over the top and now im sitting up on the very edge of the fence itself trying to keep my balance. I turn to look and not even 20 yards away is the security house with the guards checking the trucks in and out of the facility, so I think to myself, great they are definitely going to see me doing this and call the police anyway so chances are I am going to get caught regardless. At this point I have nothing to lose. Time is wasting, I am freezing cold, I am hovering 12 feet above the ground with the sharp twists of this fence digging into my butt so I may as well get started. I use the feeble set of pliers that are built into my pocket knife to start working the cotter pin out of the steel pin that supports the gate on its top hinge. I get it out and drop it to the ground. I then open the blade of my knife since its the only thing I have that is strong enough to use that fits into the gap under the assembly, line it up under the top hinge pin, and start beating the bottom of the knife with the mag light like it’s a hammer. Slowly but surely the pin starts to slide up with every strike. After hammering away for what seemed like an eternity, out popped the pin and the entire gate shifted down about 6 inches with a bang since the top support was gone. ”Super” I thought to myself, now I just have two more to go and I am free. I jump down from the fence and proceed to do the same with the lowest hinge. Once that comes out, the gate sinks lower. I then get to the final hinge which is at roughly eye level and repeat the procedure, all the while looking over towards the plant entrance a stones throw away and cant believe that they have not come out yet and approached me seeing and hearing some guy beating away at a gate with a flashlight in the dark.
After 45 minutes of working on these three pins, I collect all of the loose parts and put them in a pile next to the fence post ( I felt bad that I had no other real option but to dismantle the fence and wanted to make it easy for them to reassemble it) and then return to my car and put my gear inside and get ready to make a break for it. I walk back up to the gate, which I would like to add is roughly 10 feet high and 12 feet across made up from steel tube and chain link fencing, grasp it with both hands and give it a yank. The entire gate pops off of the hinges and is now tipping over with me under it. I struggle to try and maneuver it over to the side the best I can but the weight and size of it it really too great. I manage to sort of heave it over into the brush and get out from under it, all the while it is still securely cabled and padlocked at the other end. It lands with a bang and the sound of brush and trees snapping under its weight. I quickly run back to the car, get in throw it in drive and tear out of there, headlights off, plumes of dust shooting out of the rear, and come sliding sideways out into the street. I really would have had loved to stay and put the fence back on the, but there was no possible way I could have done that by myself.
I had made it out of there and thought it was quite an ingenious way of doing so. I also realized in retrospect that it probably wasn’t the best idea to go venturing around in an area like that without thinking it totally through first. Hey, you live and you learn.