Dina Litovsky says she knew “right away” what her next project would be when she stepped out into the night scene of New York’s Meatpacking District in 2012. “I saw all the themes laid out in front of me on the cobblestone, beautifully lit by colorful spotlights,” the Ukrainian-born, New York-based photographer tells TIME.
She photographed the scene for three summers in 2012, 2014 and 2015, observing the rituals of female self-presentation—and male observers— in the area popular for its nightlife. Careful not to alter the scenes unfolding before her, Litovsky said she chose to shoot the project with ambient light, turning away from the flash that is present in many of her other projects. She found that the club-goers largely did not mind her camera, with the larger problem being those so interested in the attention they would try to pose for her photographs. Litovsky, who studied psychology, says she was interested in the relationship between “exhibitionism and voyeurism.”
“Recording the scene up close with my camera gave it another layer of voyeurism, looking at both the observers and the observed.”
The Manhattan neighborhood is ubiquitous with exclusive clubs, bustling nightlife and swaths of couture-clad partiers. The district borrows its name from its previous tenants—the meat lockers and markets that once lined the cobblestone streets. But the meat market’s characteristics have not gone completely to the wayside, as Litovsky observed at the entrance to a popular club where a line comprised almost entirely of women waited for admission. “To me, this is kind of representing the meat market,” she said.
As she waded into the scene, Litovsky was surprised to see that women were largely impervious— and even at times receptive—to men’s catcalls and lingering stares. Such behavior would typically be “considered vulgar and not okay in any other setting,” she says, “but in that space and time, the women seem to be okay with it.” She says the ‘sexual politics’ paraded out in the open drew her into the project that crystallizes a neighborhood that is unabashedly provocative, peppered with sexual nuances at every turn after dark.
“It was mostly women— a lot of single women— going in packs, with men really outspokenly vulgar, just outside of swiping left and right.”
In one photograph a man grabs a woman whom he’d never met, pulling her towards him to pay her a compliment. It’s a scene Litovsky saw repeatedly, where women who didn’t return the advances still seemed indifferent to outwardly reprimanding them. Litovksy herself was the subject of such advances from time to time, beguiling her admirers as she rebuffed them. “I felt there was a kind of surprise, like ‘Why doesn’t this girl want to talk to me?’ And I feel like they’re used to the girls stopping and at least saying thank you.”
Dina Litovsky is a freelance photographer based in New York. Follow her on Instagram at @dina_litovsky.