A Story Behind a Photograph

Angels Are Messengers From God

Recently I published the above photo. It’s been a popular photo and was selected yesterday by the TWIP (This Week in Photography) podcast this week as their winner for a recent photo challenge that they did on portrait photography.

The photograph has a lot of meaning for me and I thought I’d use this opportunity to talk about the story behind the photograph. I’m somewhat embarrassed and ashamed about the story behind such a beautiful portrait which is why I haven’t shared the story until now. But the photo has been a learning experience for me and I think and hope that the photo’s impact on me has made me a better person and a better photographer in terms of how I interact with strangers in the future. I hope that by sharing the story I can also encourage others with how they interact with strangers.

Below is the comment I left on the TWIP blog where they announced this photo as this week’s winner with the story behind the photo:

“Hey, thank you for choosing my photo for the photo of the week. I took the photo on a recent trip to Portland. On the trip I was pretty much shooting non-stop for 4 days and nights.

Every so often you take a photograph that has personal impact on your life. This photo is one of those for me.

I took this photo on the Burnside Bridge in Portland. The Burnside Bridge is one of the areas of Portland where homeless people congregate. There are a few homeless shelters there and lots of homeless people hang out just underneath the bridge. I was up shooting the bridge at night and the “Made in Oregon” neon sign that can be seen from the bridge.

While I was shooting I was wearing headphones and listening to music on my iPhone. As I was walking across the bridge this man, this beautiful man, approached me saying something while I had my headphones on.

In a moment that I am very ashamed of I did not remove my headphones. Instead I said back to the man that I didn’t have any money. I said this to the man without having heard what he was asking me. I could tell from his expression that he was annoyed by my response. At this point I took my headphones off to hear what he was saying.

What the man said to me was that he didn’t want my money. That he was not asking me for money, that he was asking me if I would take his photograph. I was very embarrassed. First off, I didn’t even have enough respect for another human being to take my headphones off and hear him out in the first place. And secondly I’d jumped to a conclusion that the man simply was trying to get me to give him money. I felt bad that I’d insulted this man. And I felt ashamed of the way I’d treated another human being.

The lens that I had on for shooting his portrait was not optimal. It was a 14mm ultra wide angle. I was too embarrassed to try and delay the man while I switched lenses so I took the shot with the 14mm. This meant that I had to try and get very very close to him to shoot the portrait. It also meant that I needed to stand far enough away from him so as not to exaggerate his facial features with the lens. To make matters worse I was shooting up on the bridge with a tripod and trying to get a hand held shot in low light with an f/2.8 lens is not easy. I fired off about 6 shots and one of the shots at 1/4 second exposure turned out.

After shooting the man I thanked him and he thanked me.

After our interaction on the bridge I could not get my interaction with this man out of my head for the next few days. I was so ashamed at myself for jumping to the conclusion that I had and for not removing my headphones to speak with the man when he approached me. This beautiful man had approached me and wanted nothing more than to be photographed by a stranger. He was giving his image to me and I felt that I’d treated him so badly. I also felt bad that I didn’t even try to get his name or an address or something afterwards to send him the photograph. I had been taken by surprise by the interaction and was flustered and had acted poorly and thoughtlessly.

After this interaction though I began to imagine that the man was an angel. And that he’d been sent to me by God to confront me about the way that I interact with, or rather the way that I typically avoid other human beings. That I needed to look at people more as human beings worth spending time with and less as annoyances that get in the way of my shooting. This interaction made me decide to try and make a greater effort in the future to connect with strangers on a human level.

I hope someday that I might meet this man again to let him know that our interaction had great meaning for me. And also to give him a copy of the portrait that I’d taken of him. I imagine that I’ll never know who this man is. And maybe he was not a man at all, but as I’d imagined, rather an angel who had shown himself to me only long enough to confront my own callousness and snap a photograph.”

Kathy Johnson did a painted version of this portrait here.

84 Replies to “A Story Behind a Photograph”

  1. I loved this story. Thank you for sharing it. I don’t mean to get cheesey, but I think this story has a human element and honesty that I rarely see anymore. I know it’s very hard to admit to oneself and the world that you had a prejudice, that you jumped to conclusions, and that in the end, someone else’s humanity won out over your own. Thanks for sharing.

  2. I agree with Shannon b. We all make all sorts of mistakes. Some large some small. It shows humanness and strength to learn and grow from our mistakes. Of course the first step is to see it for what it is and to move on.
    Great photo! In a certain way, this beautiful man WAS an angel for you.


  3. Thanks for sharing the story. I was wondering what was behind this shot when you uploaded it to your stream.
    In December I took a portrait of a homeless couple that is one of my favorite portraits. They asked for a copy of the shot. Since he’s always around downtown, I was able to deliver a copy of it to him a couple of days later.

  4. If it makes you feel any better, most people would have run the opposite direction when approached by someone who appeared to be a “street person”. I’ve had some positive and not so positive experiences with the homeless and “dregs of society” so I don’t begrudge people. The fact of the matter is just like the rest of society some of them ARE violent and just looking for a handout. However some are really good people. I uploaded a couple of pics just now after reading your story. I don’t usually carry much money (if at all) when I shoot, so if I do take a pic of a homeless person I try to give them something even if only a kind word.

    Honestly though, I don’t know how you get away with shooting with headphones on, I’d be afraid I’d get attacked.

  5. I immediately faved the photograph when I saw it in your stream, but I love it even more now.

    I’m both delighted and humbled that you chose to share that story with the world, TH.

    Thank you ever so much.

  6. Thank you very much for sharing this story. It’s always a challenge while searching for the shot to really see the person, and you remind me of this. This makes you an angel, too!


  7. Great heartfelt story and lesson. Thanks for having the honestly to yourself to share it with us all. I tend to lean that same direction of avoiding uncomfortable interactions and have started to force myself to interact more with those around me.

  8. Very touching…
    Although I am not very religious and i don’t buy the “angel” part. I think this is simply a beautiful and humbling story.

    Now, maybe the thing o do would be to print that photo and go back there in a few months… you could just even leave the photo on display on the bridge with a simple thank you behind. He or one of his friends in misfortune might find it.

    Easier said than done. But isn’t it also good to do some act of kindness when someone has had such an impact on a person…

    Anyway that was my 2 pence! πŸ™‚

    Really good photo as always!

    PS: rather long post I know. But this also make me realise that having a story with the photo makes the whole more … complete/interesting…
    something I will probably start to do!


  9. It’s funny how things happen like they do sometimes. I definitely know what you mean about not wanting to be bothered. It’s hard not to get callous after being approached for money time and time again. I shoot downtown (Nashville) a lot and I’m always running into homeless people. It’s usually fine and I’ll talk to them for a min or so and move on, but this one time I just really wasn’t in a helping mood and came awfully close to “leaving my headphones on,” so to speak. I can’t imagine how disappointed with myself I would’ve been. God put this human in need in front of me and I almost blew it.

    Anyway, great story. Who knows why God puts people where He does when He does. I guess sometimes it’s just nice to know you were able to assist with His plans in some way.

    (If you get bored, here’s my experience.)

    Thanks again for sharing. It’s a fantastic portrait.

  10. My immediate thought after reading this was that you would probably change your previous judgement on Marilyn Monroe (sleep with vs. shoot) to match what the rest of the hetero male world’s. πŸ˜‰

  11. My immediate thought after reading this was that you would probably change your previous judgement on Marilyn Monroe (sleep with vs. shoot) to match what the rest of the hetero male world’s. πŸ˜‰

    Hmmmmm… good point Owen. Maybe you’d get to know her better that way and get even better shots. I doubt it in my case though. πŸ˜‰

  12. Great story. Thanks for sharing it so much. That picture was worth just as much as the thousand words that followed, but together has an immeasurable impact. Perhaps someone will help you find him, if only to deliver his picture.

  13. Thomas, this is a great image, and the story is just as amazing and powerful. Thank you, for reminding me about the human condition and my place in the race.

  14. What I really like about this shot, Thomas, is not only the back story, which is very poignant, but also that this doesn’t look like a Thomas Hawk photo. A lot of the time I can spot your stuff in Discover because of your style, but in this case, since you were uncomfortable, and also forced to shoot against how your instinct would have had you do it, it came out very different, yet equally awesome.

    I hope you push yourself more in this direction, as the results can be wonderful. I’m also confident that you (will) have made your encounter with this gentleman right.

  15. Fantastic story! It’s amazing how frequently God puts people into our lives that we often blow off. Kudos to you for being self-aware enough to catch this awesome encounter (and the self-reflection afterward).

  16. I’m grateful you took the time to interact with him, to use your skills to get a good portrait. For me, hearing the environment is part of my gut reaction to my surroundings, and listening to my gut helps me learn what and when to capture photos with meaning. Looks like an angel to me!

  17. I agree with Nick, the Blog post is as moving as the photo.

    I think a lot of people would have jumped to the same conclusion, but few would have had the honesty to admit they were wrong so publicly. Says more about you that you can do that than not taking the headphones off in the beginning.

    I wish I could take photo’s like that!!

  18. ‘Appreciate the heartfelt story behind the photo … personal encounters like that enriches not just you but some of us as well. I like experiences like that … they help us discover things about ourselves sometimes.

  19. god and such….that photo is all over the web stop preaching, fool. god is grea but don’t bs in his name

  20. you must monitor comments cuz you know the photo is bullshit.ask yourself this: would you post a negative comment? all of god’s creatures contain imperfections have you thought of this?

  21. Please do not think it is an Angel. From all what we know, Angels don’t exist. Humans do. If you feel you want to give the photograph (and I definitely would) its not so difficult: Go back to the bridge with the Photo and ask people living there.

    If you continue to think he’s an Angel, the only thing that will happen is that you end up with “Ah, the Angel knows already that I’m sorry”. Religion is always and only used for bad excuses, no matter where you go.

    I am not an Angel and I tell you: Try to give him the photo. You will make him happy.


  22. An inspiring story and I’m happy you shared it such open-hearted way.

    I believe you met your angel.

  23. Very inspiring. I like photos that has a story behind it. πŸ™‚ Keep shooting πŸ™‚ wonderful subjects that is.

  24. Great shot! Even greater story. This by far didn’t only help you. It helped all of us.

    Photographers have great power over people. Your story is something we all need.


  25. My suggestion is stop wondering if you will see him again. You should go to the bridge with copies of this photo and give it to the people there. It’s not like homeless people are isolated. They are their own community and tend to know each other. Hell.. You might even run in to him. I am not being judgmental, I am speaking from experience here.

  26. Also… another thought. Your phrasing of calling this man an “angel”, to me means that you have no intention of seeing him again and are actually de-humanizing him even more by addressing him in such a manner. He is another human being who taught you a valuable lesson. There is no reason that he should drop out of your life forever if he meant so much.

  27. If he REALLY means so much to you — and the story is a very interesting one — and he IS a gorgeous man with a fabulously complex expression, then make it your business to go back to Portland, to the bridge, bringing a dozen good prints of the picture with you and find him.

  28. WOW. So I read this article a few days ago, and thought to myself “That’s a nice story” and moved on.

    Then yesterday I had a disturbingly similar experience. I live in Boulder, CO which is also known for it’s homeless population, and it’s a rare day when I’m not asked for money by someone.

    I was riding my bike at the skatepark, and had a minor crash. It was towards the end of the day, so I decided to leave. I also was listening to my iPod, and was walking out of the skatepark when a homeless man asked me something. I almost had the exact same reaction as you, and my first thought was he wanted money. Then I suddenly remembered this story, took off my headphones, and asked what he had said. He was simply asking if I was alright after crashing.

    It was incredibly humbling, I thought he wanted money, and he just wanted to make sure I wasn’t hurt!

    Thank you so, so much for posting this wonderful story, and for preventing me from making the very same mistake!

  29. Nice story, but come on, he was just some dude hanging out on the Burnside bridge. I know how it is walking around that area, I lived on 3rd and Burnside for a year and a half, and learned you really just need to put your headphones on and tune things out, or else you will get fleeced by at leat 25 people just on a walk across the bridge. It is ridiculous. Not only that but you will get asked if you want to buy crack, if you have crack, or you may even see someone just shooting up right there as I often saw. It’s just the kind of place these things congregate at. The reason he probably didn’t ask you for money is because the soup kitchen is right next to where you took this picture, he was probably just bored waiting for them to open up in the morning.

  30. What a jerk – so full of yourself. What makes you think an ANGEL would visit you?!

  31. I agree with the other Anonymous, you sound like a narcissistic douche, not to mention a sheltered romanticizer of people different from you. This guy is just a person, not an angel, not a symbol, not a tool for your own self-actualization. Get out of your own head already. Maybe go bowling (but just bowl, don’t become obsessed with it and start talking about the “zen of bowling” or some such nonsense).

  32. I think it’s a wonderful story, the fact that you were able to learn form your mistake and willing to share that mistake with the rest of the world makes you a truely unsual person. You might try to get back to the location where you took the photo and find the man.

  33. Wow, this photo, story and comments might just be the best on the internet. It has it all. A strange question (would you take my picture?), a guy who realizes he is a jerk, religion, sex, zen-less bowling, homelessness, soup kitchens and someone calling another a douche.

    Personally, I think its a nice picture, well done, a good story and has a good moral. It’s just missing one thing…

    This is obviously Photoshopped! I can tell from the pixels. (|:)

  34. Don’t over-analyze or over-value this experience or your initial reaction.

    You played the odds.

    Tell me, of all of the “street people” that have approached you, what percentage of them have asked for money? My guess: all of them except this guy. There is no guilt to be had in going with experience. The average “social hobo” (those who opt to approach people on the street) is looking for a handout.

    So, really, what lesson have you learned that you didn’t already know? Surely you knew that there were always exceptions to the rule. Obviously you’d already heard the expression “You can’t judge a book by it’s cover.” This couldn’t have been THAT profound, unless you just spent days over-thinking it and building it up into far more than it really was.

    The lesson you’ll eventually learn is “You can’t always judge a book by it’s cover, but generally you can.” The next 10 times you’re approached by a bum and offer your ear to them, they’ll fall into step with the others before them…”Got any change?”

    Decent shot.
    Lame story.

  35. thanks for your story. i got all emotional and it was great to know that i can still ‘feel’. thanks.

  36. Please don’t listen to the people who insult the meaning you assigned to this event. Even if most of the time that you’re approached by a stranger he’s asking you for money, it’s always worth listening to them because 1/100 times, they will enlighten you and give you new meaning to your life and you will never forget them. And if they’re asking you for money, chances are they put up with sooo many people downtrodding them all day, give them a break.

  37. Thomas, first, thank you for sharing the story behind the photograph. It is something that I often long for when looking at people’s photos…the why, the wonder and the feelings and thought processes. Second, my own thought was that this man was an angel sent to you. So, imagine my surprise when you admitted to that thought as well. Because of that I wanted to share this quote with you, “Forget not to show love unto strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” I have loved that quote since I first heard it and try (usually unsuccessfully) to live by it.

  38. Thanks Thomas, for being my muse. Your photography has inspired many of my paintings and I have just fulfilled a dream by being accepted into an arts festival, which I’ve never done before. Last year I also submitted a painting inspired by one of your photos, but didn’t make it past the judges. This year, the judges included the SF Chronicle’s art critic and the curator at the SF Legion of Honor Museum. I used your photo here for my painting. Your angel has touched me.

  39. I just happen to know this man. We attend the same Mosque in NE Portland. He’s definitely the type of individual that inspires others with something as simple as just walking by. Thanks for the story, I’ll pass it on. Peace Be Unto You.


  40. Glad you learned something – don’t forget it and carry it into everything you do in life. We are far to judgemental as a species. Be open minded about all you meet

  41. Great photo and great story. Each experience we have is a learning experience, if we make it one. There is no narcissism here — it’s the polar opposite of narcissism. Your empathy might have been a bit delayed, but it was there nonetheless. Thanks for telling us about it.

  42. You should be equally ashamed of how poorly this is written and how dishonest it is. If you really hoped to meet him again, you would go back to where your interaction (interaction interaction) occurred.

  43. I love the pic… but the angel bit is really offensive.

    If God could send an angel down to make a difference in someone’s life, it shouldn’t be you. Maybe some diamond miner in Sierra Leone who’s face has been mangled and who’s missing limbs. Or some subsistence farmer in Ethiopia. Or a sex slave kidnapped from an Eastern block country. Really, there is plenty of misery to go around and your insignificant offense doesn’t even compare.

  44. You apologized about 20 times. Get over it. You’re human. If you thought about yourself less, you wouldn’t be so worried about what people thought about you, or what you thought about yourself.

    I’m somewhat embarrassed and ashamed about the story…
    In a moment that I am very ashamed of I did not…
    And I felt ashamed of the way I’d treated another human being…
    I was too embarrassed to try and delay the man while…
    I was so ashamed at myself for jumping to the conclusion that I had…
    I also felt bad that I didn’t even try to get his name or an address…
    and had acted poorly and thoughtlessly….

    What are you, gay?

  45. Dear Tom, You will be surprised to know that you share this moment in your life, with exactly the same experience by Prophet Mohammed. He was speaking with some important people and a blind man came over and spoke to him. The prophet was visibly irritated. However, later a verse from Quran admonish the Prophet with the words: You raised your eyebrows and turned your face away on the blind man coming over to you. Prophet had to make amends. It is good that your own conscience made you realize that you had not treated another human being, with the kind of dignity and respect that we all should extend to others. May Almighty guide you, a blessed soul, to the right path. Ameen.

    Ghulam Muhammed, Mumbai

  46. if this man really made that big an impact on you and the way you’re going to live you life, then don’t just stop with this blog article buddy.

    go to Poland again and give him his picture yourself.
    you only life once, so don’t be afraid to follow each of life’s meandering paths to its end each time. =)

  47. Have you every found him? I know we go down to the Portland Mission and Union Gospel Mission and feed the “Beautiful People!” Thanks Giving and Christmas are my daughter and my favorite times. Perhaps you should take your daughter and wife on Thanks Giving, I bet you just might cross paths with your angel, again. God is Great, all the time! Thank you ‘Beautiful Man’ on the bridge for making this story possible by asking for your picture to be taken.

  48. Amazing, stunning, breathtaking real life story. This portrays how human and wonderful you are Thomas, and also the situations people face while interacting with strangers. If I were you, I’ll print large 2 copies of the pic and send it to any Church around the area and definitely someone will know him.

    I came across this post while searching for pics of Portland as I’ll be there in Feb 2010 for Ocean Sciences Conference when I leave Nigeria, and this story has given me an invite to go and take a photograph at that point! I will also give a bit of a charity to any of the homeless there!

    Thanks for sharing!!!

  49. Thankyou so much for this story! I am currently writing an essay in argument with a book on how someone explains that photographs are only taken to convey really good memories..and even though this is a good memory it also shows your embaressment! I could not find any book that does the same you are the first photographer to admit a story like that x

  50. Great image, and better life lesson. Good for you.
    I like your comment about shooting non-stop day and night. Isn’t that the norm for you? I don’t think you ever stop to rest. Take care.

  51. hey thomas,

    i have this website (one of a thousand) where i write about social experiments. you can see it here: http://ilovesocialexperiments.com/ involved in that are my writings about encounters with homeless individuals. it’s not a gimmick… they are simply a population that strikes a deep chord in my heart.

    anyway, i’d love to publish {?} part of your writing or link to it, if you’re into it. πŸ™‚


  52. What a beautiful face this man has!
    I hope you shared your success with him!
    He is divine.

  53. Hi, real story you got there…i also had this kind of story during my trip in San Francisco, in Mason neighboorhood…i was taking photography of a school in the street and a homeless came and (i was thinking the same way as you at this time) and he only explained me the history of the neighboorhood and walked away and said “god bless you”…wihout asking me for money or anyhthing else…we all have a lot to lean about this kind of men…and as you I will always think about this man…thanks for the story

  54. I’ve had similar “angel” encounters, passing random humans being during a typical day that make me pause and think about my life. But you shouldn’t beat yourself up for making the money comment or the headphones. I live and work in Santa Monica California (extreme homeless problem) and have to say to “the question” once or twice a day. Occasionally I say yes and hand them what’s in my pocket.

    I have also tried on several occasions to engage them, find out a little more about them before the money transaction. But all too often they are incoherent, confused or simply content and have accepted long ago that this is life.

    And why does a homeless want his picture taken? It may not be a message from God for you to snap out of anything. It may simply be just one crazy guy looking at another crazy guy with a camera. πŸ™‚

  55. Oh if we could only go back and un-do the mistakes we have made in our lives. I appreciate your story as it makes me look at myself and how I am interacting with my fellow breed. Your interaction may have been just for that purpose. Taking the time would not have given you the story to share, and I am sure that your words have touched others as it has myself. I am sure a lot of us are doing some self reflection on your interaction and how you did or did not react to this man at your first moment of contact. God places us where he wants us to be for His purpose. I am thankful you had this story to tell. The man had his photo taken as he requested and was his only request, You can put your earphones back on. It’s ok, you did well to tell the story. Thank You

  56. I’m sorry, but I had to translate his story into Portuguese. this kind of story inspires people like me.

  57. you were a complete dickhead to the guy and here you come telling of your good deeds as though you were now entitled to our praise. no. fuck you, you insensitive bourgie creep. your guilt doesn’t mitigate what you’ve done just as white guilt doesn’t fix institutional racism.

  58. Whoa Victor..racism?

    For the record, “whitey” (aka Gates, Jobs, Zuckerberg, Larry Page, Sergey Brin, Jack Dorsey, Berners-Lee, DeWolfe, etc) is responsible for getting the internet to a point where 1) our first Black President was able to tip the election in his favor and 2) you are able to sit there and waste time reading blogs.

    Come on brother, stop the hate.

  59. Hello there, thanks for sharing this story. I had a similar headphone experience with a man named Joe in NYC. I’m glad that you were able to see this man for what he was, even if only for a brief moment. Even if you didn’t catch his name or story. In case you see him again, or if you run into others and get to know them better, I’d love to have you contribute to my blog about – well, just that… getting to know the people that nobody seems to want to know. I started it in honor of my friend Joe.

    Check it out:

    Contact me if interested (this is an open invite to anyone else “out there” on the interweb)!

  60. This post has left me in shock!
    Just this weekend I posted a blog http://byronancel.wordpress.com/2011/04/23/making-a-past-for-the-future about how I would rather be known as a “The photographer who cared more about giving us a lasting memory, than taking our money”
    I am sure that the gentleman who you photographed probably has already forgotten about the picture but the memory is now something that will last forever.

    Thank you for sharing this with us.


  61. Thank you for sharing this personal story. You’re human and you’ve gained my respect for sharing your feelings before during and after this shoot.

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