By Jonathan Sperling
It’s a situation any community news editor in New York City can relate to.
With a deadline fast approaching and a photo hole to fill in a newspaper page, reporters and editors across the city seek copyright-free images from sites like Wikipedia. In doing so, they inevitably land on a photo taken by Jim Henderson, the unsung hero of community news.
Though most people probably haven’t heard of Henderson, you’ve probably seen his work.
Henderson, a 70-year-old Hells Kitchen resident, has spent the last 12 years uploading thousands of original photographs to Wikipedia. His snapshots feature many of the city’s most prominent — and not-so-prominent — institutions, intersections and places of interest. Henderson began taking photos and building vital Wikipedia pages in 2006. Henderson retired from his job as a switchman at the The New York Telephone Company in 2010 after 41 years on the job.
“It is useful,” said Henderson, who goes by the username Jim.henderson on Wikipedia. “The encyclopedia covers a huge number of things, and so do I.”
Armed with a Nikon P610 camera and a Nexus 6P cellphone, Henderson navigates the city by bicycle via the streets and — when visiting the city’s most diverse borough — the Brooklyn-Queens Greenway.
Henderson said he has uploaded more than 9,000 photographs, depicting places like Queens Library’s Flushing branch and the Grand Army Plaza fountain in Prospect Heights.
One of the first Queens photos he published on Wikipedia was the Civic Virtue statue that once stood outside of Queens Borough Hall. It is now located in Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery.
Early on, Henderson also took a photo of Brooklyn Borough Hall that appeared on the institution’s Wikipedia page for years. Henderson’s photograph of the Brooklyn Museum has been featured in hundreds of articles.
But Henderson no longer seeks out the most prominent borough institutions when deciding what to photograph next. Instead, he uses the Wikimedia app to determine which sections of the city have not been so well-documented on Wikipedia, like neighborhoods and sites in Southeast Queens.
“For one thing, Southeast Queens is pretty light on account of there not being many famous places,” Henderson said. “There are few registered historic places there, there are few New York City landmarks there, however there a few old and interesting buildings in Southeast Queens.”
Though his photos have appeared in Gothamist, City Limits, DNAInfo, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle and, of course, the Queens Daily Eagle, Henderson says he has never sought payment for his photographs.
“I’ve never been compensated for my photos. I’ve never been paid a dime, never looked for it,” Henderson said.
Henderson’s early photos are listed under the public domain — meaning the photo can be used for any purpose, without citation — but his more recent photos are categorized under a Creative Commons 3.0 tag, meaning that anyone is free to distribute the photos, as long as Henderson is given attribution in the form of “Jim.henderson via Wikimedia commons” or by providing a link to the license.
Nevertheless, Henderson said he often encounters media outlets that either do not cite his work properly or that neglect to cite it at all.
Henderson said he has no plans to stop taking photographs and will soon surpass over 10,000 photo uploads on Wikipedia.
Ozone Park is one of the next targets on his list of places to photograph. Henderson said he plans to visit the the Worksman Bicycle Factory on 100th Street. He will also travel to LaGuardia Airport and the soon-to-be-built Kosciuszko Bridge that will connect Maspeth and Greenpoint.
“I hope to die this way, I’ve found my place,” Henderson said. “For someone who is fairly bright and well-read, but scatterbrained, this is the place.”