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.”