The Man & His Guitar

When I was a student, my teacher used to show us documentaries on the photographers that inspired him the most.  We watched them on everything from Ansel Adams’ black and white landscape photography to top fashion photographers like Mario Testino and Annie Leibovitz.  But there was one documentary in particular called “War Photographer” that had an enormous effect on me. By enormous effect, I mean watching the documentary ten times for ten days straight and thinking I was actually going to become a war photographer. But not just any war photographer – I wanted to be James Nachtwey. If you don’t know who he is, I’m so sorry – you’re missing out. Research him – it might change your life. Or watch The Bang Bang Club… another of my favorites. Even if photojournalism isn’t your thing, I guarantee you’ll take something away from it. His images take my breath away.

A few weeks after we watched the documentary our assignment was – you guessed it – street photography/photojournalism. I was absolutely thrilled. But when I took my camera to the streets of Halifax I found it was much more of a challenge than I had anticipated. People were walking around with complete inertia, only stopping for red lights and maybe a stray pigeon. I was walking around with my 70-300 strapped around my neck, trying to sneak photos of people passing by – people going to work, people running to and from appointments, and people who had absolutely no clue that they were being watched.

I know. Creepy, right?

It felt so strange. I managed to grab a couple photos without anyone noticing, but they just weren’t what I was looking for. And it took me an hour to find anything at all that interested me. Picture this: I was sitting on a short stone wall watching the people walking by. As soon as they passed me, I’d quickly placethe viewfinder to my eye, focus, and press the shutter. After taking a short glance from side to side to see if anyone noticed, I’d try for one more. So undeniably creepy. And besides – people’s backs aren’t that interesting. Of course I had the ideal images in my head, but being able to produce them is a different story. And, if you know me, you know I want to be awesome right away. The perfectionist in me.

I finally worked up the nerve to ask a man playing the guitar on the street if he would allow me to take a few quick photos of him. You might recognize him, because in the summer he’s always playing on Spring Garden road. And this day wasn’t unlike the others - he was playing his acoustic and singing Beatles songs. I had to ask him. He graciously said yes, and I snapped away. Out of the 5 images I shyly snapped, 3 were usable. One stood out.

I remember that the streets were lined with people walking and I had trouble trying to capture an image through the crowds. It was warm, too. Warmer than it had been all week. This photo isn’t what I saw in my head as the “ideal” documentary image, but I managed to capture a private moment with this man. There is no doubt who the subject of this photo is. It’s quiet and reflective; almost sad. It’s personal. I wondered who he is, and why he was there. He looked directly at me for a moment, and his eyes were piercing blue.

I’ve walked by him a few times since that day; tossed a few coins from my pocket into the guitar case at his feet.  I doubt he remembers me - he probably sees thousands of people walk by every day. It sounds silly, but I feel like I know him now. Like I could stop and talk to him. But I doubt I ever will.

I’m going to bring him a copy of this photo when I get a chance, drop it in the case as if it were change. Maybe then he’ll remember me.

I continued walking and spotted an elderly man sitting on a bench down the street. At first I tried the silent approach, standing across the street and using my zoom to compose the shot. Again, it wasn’t working. I gathered up some courage and walked over to the man, sat down beside him, and asked if I could take his photo. He smiled and promptly asked "now WHY would you ever want to take a picture of me?" I explained my assignment, and asked if it would be okay for me to grab a quick shot of him doing exactly what he was doing at that moment. We chatted for a minute, and I learned that he was sitting down to taking a quick break. It turns out that this man owns one of the burger busses you see (and smell) during the summer as you walk by the old library on Spring Garden road. He happily agreed to the photo, and I tried a few different angles until I found one that worked for me. And yes, I realize that in the real photojournalism world I wouldn’t have been able to take that sort of time to get a usable image. But I was happy with it, and thanked the man. I still think about him and the shot I have of him that he’s never seen –just like the man with the guitar.

This is exactly what I love about photojournalism. The story. The simplicity, and also the complexity. The feeling you get as you take a look through a lens into the life of someone you will probably never know. The way you imagine that you know who they are.

I hope these are the first of many photojournalistic images I take in this area…and maybe even around the world. You just have to keep your eyes open. A little bit of experience, interest and curiosity might take you places. 

Atlantic PhotoComment