If you are in New York, don’t be surprised if you appear in one of Sheldon Serkin’s photographs. But there’s no way to know he’s taken your picture: He never holds his camera up to his face, and he never makes eye contact — let alone speaks — with his subjects.

Serkin is part of the growing mobile phone street photography trend in which images are surreptitiously captured of daily lives, oblivious to the lens pointed at them. It’s a democratic kind of photography, enabled by the advent of the iPhone and digital photo apps that let anyone try their hand at becoming the next William KleinHenri Cartier-Bresson or Robert Frank. The genre is often referred to as hipstography, after the Hipstamatic app, which became popular in 2010 and gave the trend a huge push.

“I like being able to do it undercover. I like that I don’t draw attention to myself, because I don’t like confrontation,” Brooklyn-based Serkin tells The Times of Israel.

An administrator for an adult education non-profit organization, Serkin, 47, had never previously practiced photography seriously. He earned an MFA in film production from Columbia University, but ended up going in a different direction professionally.

Had he not bought an iPhone about four years ago, Serkin may never have unlocked his passion for street photography.

A Modest Dressed Jew (photo credit: Sheldon Serkin)

A Modest Dressed Jew (photo credit: Sheldon Serkin)

“I’ve always been fascinated by the people I see as I go to and from work every day. New York is full of so many interesting characters,” he says. “But when I got the iPhone, it was like a floodgate opened.”

Serkin has thrown himself in to his photography and taken so many photos that he’s filled his computer’s hard drive.

Since downloading Hipstamatic, (which allows him to digitally apply different lenses and filters) he has taken some 160,000 pictures. Only 2,000 of them are deemed good enough to share on his Flickr stream, Tumblr blog and Instagram account.

“My phone is always in my hand and the app is always open, because I can’t bear to miss something,” Serkin shares. He’s been at it so constantly for the past few years, that he knows how to hold the phone and angle the lens to be able to take a well composed photo without looking at the screen.

“It’s second nature for me now,” he says. “I take my best photos when I’m on the subway with my daughter.” He says his wife and children have gotten used to his habit.

An iPhone app released Sheldon Serkin's passion for street photography. (courtesy)

An iPhone app released Sheldon Serkin’s passion for street photography. (courtesy)

Serkin jumped blindly into his photography, only starting to study up in the last year on some of the world’s greatest street photographers. His favorites are Cartier-Bresson, British photojournalist Martin Parr, and Vivian Maier, the nanny who was discovered to have been an outstanding street photographer only when a Chicago historian and collector happened to come across her 100,000 (mostly undeveloped) photographs shortly before her death at age 83 in 2009.

“They are very effective in communicating character,” Serkin says of these photographers. Like them, he prefers to focus more on portraiture than interactions.

Serkin dismisses similarities between what he and and other hipstographers do and Humans of New York, the wildly popular photography project by Brandon Stanton. HONY, as it is known, involves Stanton roaming the streets of New York with his digital camera, asking people if he can take their picture and engaging in conversation with them about their lives, or at least what they are doing at that moment.

“I think what he is doing is good,” Serkin remarks about Stanton. “But his thing has become more about the texts. The text seems to be growing and growing, especially with the book that came out recently. The photographs themselves seem quite average to me.”

Audra (photo credit: Sheldon Serkin)

Audra (photo credit: Sheldon Serkin)

Serkin, who has received four honorable mentions in both the 2013 and the 2014 Mobile Photo Awards (in the black & white and street photography categories), thinks his growing up in the only Jewish Jewish family in the Canadian prairie city of Lethbridge, Alberta has afforded him the outsider status that influences his photography.

“I’m able to disengage from my environment,” he says.

He applies the same outsider eye to the photography he does as he strolls through the ultra-Orthodox Jewish Brooklyn neighborhoods of Boro Park and Williamsburg.

“But at the same time, as a Jew, I somehow feel more of a responsibility with what I am shooting,” he says.

He’s also photographed ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel, where he and his family travel to visit his Israeli-born wife’s family every other summer.

“Last year, I went to an Orthodox beach and took pictures of the men there. I felt self-conscious about it, but I did it anyway.”

Absolom (photo credit: Sheldon Serkin)

Absolom (photo credit: Sheldon Serkin)

The confrontation-averse Serkin finds it easier to shoot in Israel than in New York. “When I’m in Israel, I can just play the part of the tourist and get away with it.”

So, if Serkin is not acquainted with his subjects, how is it that he often titles his photographs using personal names?

He may not speak to the people, but he does, to a certain extent, see who they are.

“I make them up,” Serkin explains about the titles. “It started as a way to identify the photos, rather than saying, for example, ‘the girl in red on the subway.’ But I very soon began to choose names as expressions of character.”

Passengers XVIII (photo credit: Sheldon Serkin)

Passengers XVIII (photo credit: Sheldon Serkin)