You probably heard this before. The camera never lies. Or does it?
The camera may not lie but the photographer most likely had a different agenda when he made the shot. The photographer could always hide what he does not want you to see. He may only show part of the subject that caught his eye and force his own impressions on the viewer. The photograph is only as true as the truth that the photographer wants you to know.
It was one of those work days when I didn’t have my homemade lunch so I was forced to eat outside. I bought a one-dollar can of coke from the company fridge before heading off to my favourite Japanese restaurant. As always, I had my trusty Olympus E-M5 and favourite 17/1.8 lens slung around my left shoulder just in case. I ordered the usual chicken karaage don which is quite tasty for something cheap – like $5 cheap.
On my way back to work I decided to take a different route hoping that I might find something interesting. I got into this small dodgy alley where the cops normally park their cars. It was a favourite hang out of youngsters and “hippies”. I saw this old man sitting and smoking along the walk path. I also saw two police officers and I thought they were going to talk to him or maybe arrest him but they did not. This got me really interested. I thought I found my subject for the day.
I quickly configured my E-M5 using my default preset: aperture priority, ISO 200, f5.6, JPEG. Although it was midday, the alley was quite dim so I opened up to f2.8 before approaching him. I was very hesitant to even go near him because I wasn’t sure how he would react. For the first time in my photography life I decided to speak to a homeless stranger. It was a very quick, “would you mind?” while waving my camera. He said yes in a very confident voice. “Go ahead”, was his follow up. Before I aimed my camera at him, I told him why I wanted to take his photo. I said that I like the way he looks, the shape of his face, and so on. I wasn’t lying mind you. That’s the truth. I really liked his friendly face. And so I crouched and took my first shot…and then another one for safety. Of the first two frames I chose this:
What do you see here? How does the shot make you feel? What does it say to you?
I could see a very confident man. A man who wasn’t ashamed to show who he is. I wasn’t really sure what was going through his head but he was very calm and very candid about it. I felt that he was quite comfortable with what I was doing. He kept smoking while he was staring right into my eyes. I took two more shots in landscape orientation hoping to get something different. I wanted to concentrate on his face because that was the thing that really got me interested in him. I didn’t even realise what he was holding with his right hand until somebody who saw my shot pointed it out. That’s how mesmerising his face was to me. And so I took more shots.
His face reminded me of Gandalf in Lord of the Rings. Very confident, calm and quiet but fatal if provoked. I could also see that he wasn’t happy but he wasn’t worried either. He looks as if he just wants to go with the flow. He goes wherever life takes him.
At that point I said to myself that my job here was finished. I got what I wanted. I knew I had a keeper. I showed the man the four frames that I captured of him. He just smiled. I said “thank you” several times, nodding my head in respect each time I uttered those two words.
Before I left I stepped back further to take a photo as a reminder of how I found him. A few more frames that tell the real story.
I entitled this shot “Wall Street” because that’s where I found him; smoking on the street with his back to the wall. Wall Street is where you find men in coat and tie playing with money. This man doesn’t have any of that.
It was also quite interesting that he had with him this colourful radio. Not sure if it even works and if it does then where would he find the money to buy batteries for it? I guess that’s what the empty plastic cup is for. The radio is probably his most prized possession. Music, as they say, is life. We had a bit of laugh when I showed this photo to others and I said that maybe the radio is broken and he has that screw driver to fix it. One of them pointed out that it’s not a screw driver but a fire starter – that thing you use to ignite an oven. Makes sense. That would be the thing he used to light his cigarette.
The lesson for me here is that even with the same subject and the same location, the story that the photographer tells the viewer could change so much from one frame to another depending on how the shot was composed. In one frame you see a typical old man having a relaxing smoke break and then on a different frame it tells of the sad situation that he is in. Smoking, which is an ordinary thing for a lot of people, has suddenly become a luxury. For this man, at that time it was probably the only thing he could do. I don’t even know when the last time he had a decent meal.
This series of shots have become very important for me. This is practically the first time that I managed to control my fear of approaching complete strangers for the sake of taking a photograph. A street portrait. My very first real street portrait. I hope that this is the start of a different and exciting photography journey.