Holding Down the Court

Dominique Strauss-Kahn Returns To Court In New York, Getty Images

Strauss-Kahn leaves court amidst a mob of press on July 1. (Getty Images)

When Steven Hirsch arrived at 100 Centre Street on July 1, he grabbed his two cameras from the pressroom cabinet and went to find the stool labeled “New York Post.” A coworker had marked the spot among the sea of press gathering on the courthouse steps to await the arrival of Dominique Strauss-Kahn.

“Everybody knows it’s a media ‘gang bang,’” said Marco Caruso, who does freelance film work for Eurovision and had arrived at 5 a.m. that morning, noting the throngs of press people lining the sidewalk and steps. His partner Jeb offered the phrase “goat fuck,” while another photographer groused: “We’re sitting here like cattle.”

Hirsch, who has snapped for the Post at Centre Street for about five years and is the only photographer stationed at the Manhattan courthouse five days a week, was just one in the mob. As an observing court police officer put it: “Usually he’s a big fish in a small pond. Now he’s just a minnow.”

Throughout the summer, international media members have followed Strauss-Kahn’s trial closely, with photos of the French economist — on his “perp walk” and later, celebrating his freedom — splayed across the tabloids on both sides of the Atlantic. With the prosecution’s case teetering on his accuser’s credibility, the mass media had descended once more, disrupting Hirsch’s courthouse routine.

“We don’t have to do this thing on a regular day,” Hirsch grumbled to The Observer. “You know, stand out here.”

Bloomberg photographer Jin Lee referred to Hirsch as “the veteran;” while Hirsch, 63, called himself the “senior court person.” His sage advice for handling the Strauss-Kahn assignment? Follow everyone else.

Hirsch, however, didn’t heed his own advice. When Strauss-Kahn arrived a few minutes before 11 a.m., Hirsch was sitting on a bench outside the 13th floor courtroom, trying to talk his way in. (He was missing what photographers Joe Corrigan and Paul Zimmerman called the “bonding experience” of hours spent on the court steps.)

A photographer for The New York Times had already been designated the day’s pool photographer inside the courtroom, but Hirsch wanted in, too. For state trials like Strauss-Kahn’s, a photographer simply needs a media request signed by the judge in order to enter the courtroom, and Hirsch, along with two others, was hoping he could weasel permission at the last minute, a request that’s often granted on a normal day.

The benefits can be big. On his day as the pool designee, Polaris photographer Allan Tannenbaum caught a shot of Strauss-Kahn flashing a creepy smile, which became the ubiquitous image for weeks, even making the cover of that morning’s Post.  “My pictures went all over the world for that!” Tannenbaum said.

(The courtroom scenes are so compelling, and potentially lucrative, that news agencies even hire back-up. Four courtroom artists were present that Friday as “a protective measure,” artist Jane Rosenberg explained, in case the judge refused access to photographers. “Basically I’m trying to get the same things they’re getting,” said Rosenberg, who has drawn court scenes for over 30 years but says her workload has dwindled in recent years.)

Hirsch offered some advice for those unaccustomed to the court’s particular rules. He warned the nearby ABC cameraman not to film anything in the hall if he wanted to return. Even a girl who snapped a picture on her smartphone was confronted by a police officer and asked to delete it.

But Hirsch also has no qualms about defending his territory. A woman approached and stared where Hirsch’s black backpack took up coveted bench space. She asked if anyone was sitting there. He responded that his equipment was.

“Well I’d like to sit here,” she said, and he unhappily tossed his backpack to the ground, asking her not to touch his cameras.

“Why are you sitting here?” she continued.

“I work here,” he said curtly.

When Strauss-Kahn finally exited the courtroom around noon, Hirsch sprinted to the first elevator down, and scared away two people trying to squeeze into the overly packed space: “Okay, it’s not moving. Now get out.”

Hirsch arrived downstairs just in time to snap a dozen pictures of Strauss-Kahn entering his car, then helped a fellow Post photographer shoot the press conference, offering advice as they worked. After that, Hirsch decided he’d “had enough.”