“How do you photograph people?"

If you have felt the need to ask this question before, hold on to your hat because I will let you in a little secret I’ve learnt from the masters. Actually, I’ll let you in two little secrets, for free:

  • You ask! Or better yet:
  • You forget about that camera of yours, put that zoom lens back on its bag, get closer, and honestly care to know more about the person in front of you.

Do you always walk away with a good picture? No. But most of the time (almost all of the time) you will walk away with an interesting story, and having the story is (in my opinion) the essential companion to any picture.

As an example, here is one story that did not produce the picture I wanted.

Jack parked his truck not very far away from one of Manhattan’s best ramen shops. I immediately knew I had to have his picture. Why? Because I was truly convinced that Jack was, in fact, Popeye, now eightysomething.

“Hey, can I have your picture?" I asked.

“Fuck off!" he said.

Off I fucked. I went for my ramen, had my beer, came out of the restaurant, and walked over to his truck again. There he was still, the cabin full of philosophy books and plastic figurines, wearing a worn-out sailor cap and sporting a body to match (both in terms of trade and age). I had given up the hopes of taking his photograph, but I definitely wanted to know more about him.

I put my camera away and asked ”…and, what are you doing here, then?", to which he responded “Why the fuck should I tell you?", “Oh, I’m very intrigued” -said I. Jack never told me what he was doing there, but after another five minutes, somehow (and I still honestly don’t know how) he ended up talking about the classics, the sea, and how the world was going to fuck itself, pretty soon.

He himself had travelled all over the world by sea and only stopped doing that when the big cargo ships came into the picture. To find some common ground I spoke of another Jack (Jack London), which turned out to be the right choice. He mentioned Coleridge and B. Traven, which was strange, I’ve never heard any English-speaking person mentioning Traven before.

I spent about an hour talking to the man. Hard to tell what part of him was his own imagination and what part was real, but his rhetoric seemed solid. At some point, I asked, “In your opinion and after all you’ve seen, what is, then, the purpose of life?"

He muttered: “Purpose? What is a ‘purpose’? You live and die, but today you are still alive, and you are here, what else do you want?!"

I thought Schopenhauer would have agreed. Jack was indeed a very wise old man (crazy or not) and by now I really wanted his photograph, but that was clearly not going to happen, so we negotiated a good middle ground: I got to take a picture of his pipe.

“Now go, and take care of yourself”, he said.

And so I did.

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