The Photo That Started it All
It was June 2012 and I was days away from moving to New York. I had been taking photos for about a year and a half by that time. It was more of a hobby than anything else - a hobby that I devoted quite a bit of my time to.
There wasn't a particular genre that appealed to me more than another. I was fairly new to photography and I was experimenting and learning. By that point I had taken what must have been thousands of (not particularly great) landscape and travel photos, including street and architecture. I shot a maternity session and even got paid to shoot a family session. Still, the idea of doing photography professionally or making money off my images has not really crossed my mind.
I brought my camera with me everywhere and I’d snap picture of whatever caught my eye. I loved being able to capture a moment in time, creating my own memories and a record of places I visited and people or things I saw. Plus, it felt amazing whenever I’d post a photo on Facebook and start generating the sought after likes from friends and family.
One day I was walking through a park in my home city of Milwaukee taking photos of a nearby cathedral when I noticed two men having a conversation on a bench nearby. There was something about one of them that kept me glancing back in their direction. He was a thin-framed African American man with a wrinkled face. He wore a cap and was expressive with this words and body language.
Having never photographed a stranger up close, I gathered my courage, came up to him and asked if I could take his photo. His immediate response, “Why, because I’m homeless?” Taken aback by his answer a bit I quickly fired back, “No.. I had no idea you where homeless. I’m moving to New York and I wanted to take as many photos of the city and people here as I can before I go.”
And that’s how the conversation started. He told me his street name was Wazuri and that he spent some time living in Brooklyn. He kept telling me stories about his time in New York. I kept asking him questions, occasionally snapping quick photos of him. At one point I said something that made him laugh. When he did, his smile revealed a mouth full of missing teeth which he quickly covered up with his hand. In that millisecond I brought the camera up to my eye and snapped a photo. It was the only one I got before the moment was gone.
Wazuri’s veiny hand and bony fingers covered his mouth while his eyes subtly looked away, avoiding direct eye contact. His posture is slouchy, with shoulders pointing up while neck slightly withdrawn into his body. The photo said so much, yet revealed very little.
Unbeknownst to me at the time, I had taken my first portrait that captured an emotion and evoked a feeling. It was my first photograph that told a story, although the story was vastly different depending on who was looking at the image. Some saw sadness and shame. Some saw despair. Others, happiness.
This image, or what it meant made me fall in love with photography on an intimate level. Photography became my voice, my way to express myself and share what I see. I no longer sought to just snap random photos. I wanted my images to have a purpose. I wanted them to tell a story. I wanted to connect with people I was photographing and I wanted the viewers to feel that connection. I wanted to see the world through my lens and I wanted the world to see it. This is what I wanted to do. This is what I do.