After years of photographing friends, family members, clients that were friends of friends, or being hired to capture images for an event, the year of 2016 presented a few opportunities to step outside of the usual and capture images of “strangers” and spontaneously make connections.
The story of George was one of those moments…
In early September of 2016...
I received an email from the editorial team at VoyageLA Magazine. They like to highlight and promote local LA artists and they came across my work and asked if they could write a piece about me. I was beyond flattered. A link to the article can be found on my "Info" page.
For the article, I knew that they would need a few images. First, they would need samples of my work, and secondly a portrait to accompany the article. Those are the two worst things you can ask of me as a photographer. Please send us X number of images…That’s like asking a parent, choose the one child that best represents you and or your family. Impossible. I would submit 8 images in the end and second guessed them until the final click.
As for the portrait, I took to one of my least favorite tasks of creating a self-portrait. Perfectionism always kicks in and it takes a while to get something I can live with. For this one, I could at least envision it being outdoors so I grabbed my gear and headed over to Memorial Park just a few blocks away from my apartment in Pasadena. Memorial Park is home to a few statues/memorials, like the Armenian Genocide Memorial, the Levitt Pavilion, a key spot for the city’s Make Music Festival every June, and a Gold Line metro station.
I entered the Park and found a spot and tried a few portraits, naturally not liking the final results. After a few minutes, I got up and walked over to the Levitt Pavilion, thinking it’s beige exterior finish would make for a nice background. I set up my tripod and D90 and tried a few more shots. I would walk back and forth between the camera and a few made up marks to stand on. After a few attempts, I noticed a man sitting on a bench near by.
He looked like he was at ease, with all the time in the world. He looked relaxed. He noticed me doing my self-portrait dance and slightly smiled in my direction. I acknowledged him with a small smile and nod. After sufficiently disliking about four more attempts, I started to pack up my tripod and camera. The portrait magic was not happening. As I gathered my things the man on the bench spoke to me,
“That’s a good background huh?”
“I thought it would be. It’s not really working.”
“I was thinkin’ you could have me stand in the spot so you could focus it. I could do that.”
“Aw yeah, that would have worked. Thanks man. I’m finishin’ up though. It’s not working the way I want.”
“Yeah, I like photography a lot. I like all the cameras and stuff. You got a nice one.”
As I was packing up and folding up my tripod something came over me. I had an internal tug of war about whether or not I should speak to this man further. There was something I was thinking in particular about him, but I'll tell you what it was in just a moment.
For some reason, this moment felt like I was being convicted about my friendliness or outgoing nature. There were these two paths I could feel that became a thought bubble, "You can open up and talk with him, or you can 'go about your business.'”
I think traveling more during the year had opened me up to more spontaneity. I met new people in other parts of the world and engaged in spontaneous conversations. I had taken a few portraits of street performers in New Orleans, and felt very bold and confident afterward. It started to feel normal to reach out and start to communicate with or photograph "strangers", though I had never done it before. I think that's why I saw this moment with the man in Memorial Park as significant. Why do I have to be traveling in order to open up and be interested in people? Why can't I do that at home in Pasadena, CA as well. I absolutely can and should...
I approached the man on the bench, sat next to him and continued,
“It’s a Nikon D90. It’s really good.”
“Yeah. All that stuff is great…”
After a few moments, I told him how I had been a professional photographer for a long time. Then I simply asked him if it would be okay to take his picture. He agreed, and like most, if not all of my casual portrait sessions, I did not want to direct him. I wanted to see what would naturally come to the surface. The first image really showed how I first saw him; pleasant, at ease:
I showed him the image and it made him smile and laugh. And we continued. Again, I didn’t want to give him any direction, I just wanted to have an honest moment with him and capture it. To me, it was remarkable. He was comfortable with me and okay with me capturing his image. He shifted himself and put his hand to his face. When he did, I stepped in saying that was a good look and captured it:
And then a slight variation, where he looked a bit more focused:
I was fascinated. Who was this man? Where was he from? What was his life story?
I would learn that his name was, George and that he was from Sierra Madre and we were having a nice impromptu moment with Photography.
But now, I think it’s time for me to share the subtext of the moment. Earlier I mentioned that when George started talking to me, there was something in particular that I was thinking or wondering about him.
Memorial Park in Pasadena is not only home to great events throughout the year, but it’s also a very public safe haven or gathering place for the homeless. Nothing has pulled at my heart more while living in Southern California than seeing and confronting homelessness in the city and on the streets. It’s an issue that bothers me very much. I don’t understand how we have a nation where individuals have so much wealth, yet we have people that resign to sleeping on a sidewalk at night. How does that happen? How do we “lose” or forget people? I know some of our homeless citizens are there by choice, but overall the issue is one of humanity and shouldn’t exist at all. I really want to learn more about it and find ways to contribute positively to those in need, specifically using Photography.
When first meeting George, I wondered if, and assumed that, he was homeless. I could absolutely be wrong. I could have read him wrong. He did not have a lot of items with him, just a light jacket. He didn’t directly say why he was in the park. He mentioned something about having a brother and “a game they played” with each other, something about the park and waiting for one another. It was a mystery.
It was a thought that lingered beneath the moment. The positivity of sharing this time with him and communicating with him through Photography was great. But it all ended up having a different weight to it thinking that he may be homeless. I thought about that first image he created, with his smile and the ease of expression. What if this was a man at the end of his rope? I wouldn’t know from that smile.
After those first few images, there came a slight pause, a lull and without any words exchanged. Again, I didn’t direct George, but I simply lifted the camera again. He tacitly allowed me to continue. This time, his face absolutely crushed me:
I could see it, and I could definitely feel it. I didn’t know where he had been or where he was going, but George had been through a lot. I let him settle and photographed him again while he was expressionless. It’s almost like he wanted me to, like he wanted someone to see what he was going through:
I can’t believe how quickly it all turned. He was happy, jovial, polite and outgoing, but now in front of me was a man who was tired and carried burdens. The years of his life were all over his face. If I was going to assume, I wanted to assume the worst in an effort to help him. I convinced myself that George was homeless. Once I saw his expressionless moment, I wanted to do something to help. I started to wrap up the images and thought of two things. First, I tried to keep things light and not condescending to his situation if he were in fact homeless or drifting; I offered to print out the images for him. I wanted him to have them. I wanted him to see himself smiling. He welcomed the idea.
With the promise to print out his photographs for him, the second thought entered my mind and that was to buy him some food. I offered that aloud and I don’t know if I offended him or embarrassed him or embarrassed myself with an incorrect assumption, but he declined and said he had money.
With that, I started to leave, but with the promise that I would return with his prints. I asked if he would be around in a few minutes and he said he would. Before I left, I captured a last image of him:
I left the moment with mixed feelings. Did I help him? Did I make George’s day better? Was that a positive thing to do?
If I returned with a bag of food and a few 4x6 prints, then absolutely, yes. Unfortunately that’s not the ending to this story. As quickly as I could, I ran to Target to get the images printed. While that was happening, I ran to a 99¢ Only Store and loaded up a bag full of food a few drinks. I ran back to Memorial Park with everything in hand and George was gone.
I searched the entire park to no avail. All that’s left is the story of how I reached out to a stranger in Memorial Park one day and took his picture. Maybe the moment was for me. Maybe it was all to open me up and to understand the power of Photography and connection. Maybe it happened for me to realize my responsibility or gift as a Photographer. I need to step outside of the comfort zones of where and how I shoot. My photography should be for everyone; people I know, and those I don't. Who knows what a single image can do? I can help people communicate with more just words. I can allow others to speak through capturing their image and sharing their story.
I’m glad George and I shared the moment, but I wish I could have followed through. To this day, I will check Memorial Park for him but he is never there. I still have his prints in an envelope on my dresser if I ever do see him again. Wherever he is, I hope he is well and that his smile is still inside of him.