Oh, did I ever mention that the Cuban people were some of the most wonderful people on the planet? When I visited, I expected to find dour miserable humorless folk,the same one would find in any other Communist country. Wrong again! They welcome you into their homes, they offer you coffees, show you their place of work, and try to talk to you even though they speak no English. It was impossible to walk down a street without some guy/woman coming up to you an asking where you are from. Every now and then someone would not want their photograph taken, but they politely asked you not to and always smiled. I think might be nice for a return soon—perhaps to on elf the many jazz festivals that are held each year.
My last post was about subtly taking pictures of people without their permission. This is not the first time I wrote about it and when I have, it usually evokes arguments on both sides. In fact some of them are quite vocal, accusing me of being sneaky, and “invading people’s privacy”. Absolute bullshit! If one is concerned or should I say obsessed with being “politically correct” when you shoot, you will be guaranteed to end up with a days worth of mediocre photographs. Good photographs come from everywhere–meaning you walk, you see you shoot and every now and then–perhaps more often then that you encounter people, get involved and still shoot good photographs. Why should you be restricted to shooting only one way.
Last week I was in Taos Pueblo, NM, wandering through the place looking at the buildings and taking a few shots. All I had ended up with at that point were a few shots of the church–something that was far from original–having being shot thousands of times before by thousands of photographers. I wander into one adobe and saw a photograph of President Nixon shaking hands with a native (The B&W photograph at the top of the photograph).
“Who is that?” I asked
Vernon replied that the photo was of his father. The land had been seized by the government for some reason back in the ’30s and it was now being returned to them. This little photograph was from the presentation ceremony. Vernon was very friendly and we chatted for a while and I was about to ask him if I could take his picture when I heard a shout from outside the hut.
“David! Help me”. It was my wife telling me to come outside. I ran outside to see her holding a Kleenex to her scalp. It was stained with blood. She said she had accidentally hit her head on a metal sign that was hanging outside the store. Vernon rushed out with some paper towels, told her to sit on the bench, and press the paper towel to her head. He said the bellied should soon stop, and he was right. He then suggested I go back to the parking lot, get my car and enter through the local entrance, tell them at the gat I was visiting him and picker her up, which I did. By the time I got back, the bleeding had stopped, I put her in the car and was about to drive off to find an emergency clinic. I asked Sharon if it was OK to stop for a quick picture. She said she was fine so I grabbed my camera and returned to the hut. Vernon asked if she was OK and I replied that she was.
“Mind if I take a few shots of you” I asked.
He smiled and told me to go ahead. I snapped a few, thanked him and off we went to the emergency care clinic in Taos. All turned out well. Sharon was fine. I had my shot. Hopefully I will make a print one day, return to Taos and give him the picture.
On the subject of asking permission to photograph people, I think about a third of my shots do not have people in them. Another third of my shots, the subject is very far away, in shadow, or partial—unrecognizable. The other third of my shots are like the one above where I encounter someone, get a bit involved and then take their picture with their permission. Probably about 2% of those are more subtle—meaning I just take it because of the moment. These the ones people complain about. Who cares. In my book every picture tells a story.
I have always considered myself to be a documentary photographer but I never really thought of myself as a journalist. The reason is that I probably would not have been very successful at it because I have frequently experienced looking for one story and ending up with another. In journalism, I think that is considered failure however having never studyed it, I really do not know. But it is safe to say that failures of this sort notwithstanding, what I do end up with is sometimes more interesting than what I was looking for. (I suppose that would make me an artist.) For instance, last week I went to New Orleans because I had an urge to photograph Mardis Gras. I wanted to show the color and spectacle of this annual event but alas I got sidetracked. What I found instead of color and spectacle were a bunch of drunks shouting at women on balconies to show them their tits. One can only go so far with this shit so, I moved on and started going to some of the parades. That was also pretty boring because all it was were these floats going by, and the crowds were intense to say the least. Then I noticed that the parades ended close to my hotel and that the floats were siphoned off in one direction and the marchers and bands directed in another direction to await the buses to take them home. That is where I planted myself and as the bands finished their 3-hour marches, they rested, joked around, and fooled around with their instruments. They were a nice crown of kids from high schools in Alabama, Mississippi and Norther Louisiana. Well-behaved, polite and always happy to talk, kid around and pose for photographs. I had a ball. I could not stay away and thats what I did for the next few days—sat myself at the end of the line and photographed the bands as they winded up their parade. As I said, the original story faded quickly but another one replaced it. pays to keep your options open.
I rarely go back to the same place to take photographs but there are some spots that I am truly attracted to. For instance there is this wall, a wall in West Palm beach, another in Hollywood Beach, a corner of Madison Square Park in NYC—and many more. The interesting thing about these places though is that even if the spot remains the same, there is always a different photograph that is waiting for me when I return.
In the Northwood section of West Palm Beach is this grocery store which serves the local population for cigarettes, beer, and perhaps, on occasion even some food. Its pretty seedy and once I went in to get some bottled water. Inside, there was this guy at the cash sitting behind a plate of bullet-proof glass with a small slot at the bottom where people would shove their money through and their change would be received. No words were exchanged. It was very sad. However when you exited and turned left and left, there was this wonderful wall of the building where the setting sun would bathe this wall with a beautiful golden glow. Over the past few years, I have spent a lot of time in front of this wall just photographing the passing parade of people on their way to and from this dismal store
Way back in the last century, from 1971 to 1984, I worked as a medical photographer in a Montreal hospital. In many ways I enjoyed the work but in others, it was also quite depressing. When things became barely manageable, I would escape down to the animal quarters in the research institute and chat with my friend George who ran this small department. He had had some accident a few years earlier, and was confined to a wheelchair, and i was always amazed at his attitude when dealing with this unfortunate event. Last year I wanted to look him up and see him again after such a long absence, and I found out he had passed away a few months earlier.
The two men in this photograph (Mr. George, and Mr. Paul), worked for George as animal attendants. One day as I was talking to George, he mentioned that they had worked for him for at least ten years and they absolutely hated each other. Mr. George was from Barbados and spoke with a thick Caribbean accent. Mr. Paul was Greek and spoke with a very thick Greek accent. He chuckled when he mentioned that to me because he did not really understand how they managed hate each other when they could not even understand what each one was saying when they spoke to each other. (George on the other hand, came from Hungary and I could barely understand him but that was fine with me.)
Anyhow, after George told me this I grabbed my camera and asked the two men if I could take their picture and they said yes.
The photo above is of Donald who I met in a bar a few years ago in Houston. It is one of the photographs in self-published a book called “Along the Way” consisting of portraits I have made of strangers who I had a brief interaction with. Most of the time, my photographs are of people who are unaware of being photographed but every now and then, contact is made. Sometimes, it is because I have approached them, and on other occasions it is the other way around. I have found that people sometimes approach my for a variety of reasons. They might be lonely, curious, or just friendly. Al;though many years ago, I avoided these encounters because I thought my cover was blown, over the years I have welcomed them because I now know that there is more to taking pictures than the images themselves. The experience is just as rewarding.
It is a bit pricey ($110.00) because it is hardcover and printed individually, instead of a run of 1000 or more which cuts the price down considerably but if you wish, you can download a pdf of this book for $14.99 If interested, you can click on the link below.
We are off to New York this weekend. It is not really about taking photographs, but so we can spend some time with friends who we rarely see. Of course I will have a camera with me just in case.
A few years ago while visiting, we were in Madison Square Park and I spotted this guy with his dog. They were both wearing sunglasses. I asked him if I could take his picture and he agreed. Thank god he was a cool dude and did not smile. I have been asking people a lot these days for permission to photograph them. It is something new that I am trying out and it seems to be working but every now and then they give me this stupid grin and it just turns me off. I tell them to ignore me but they just keep grinning. In a way I prefer looking at paintings where the subjects who had to sit still for long periods while their portraits were being painted kept up various serious expressions. They were usually big shots who had an image of themselves and wished to keep it. This is now the age of the common man and they just grin. Who ever you are man—thank you.