Sad Stories on the Street

Half the world will tell me, “You are exploiting these people.” The other half will say, “You need to publish this photograph.” In the end it is a matter of conscience and the agreement among J. H. pictured here seated, the folks with the signs, and me.

I had permission from each person present to make this photograph. I told them that I would not embarrass them or present them in a negative way.

Ambiguity already. What does “negative way” mean? Some kind of communication went on. But you do not know that for certain. You do not know the “rest of the story” as Paul Harvey, radio commentator, used to say. The photographer does, from his point of view. Because of the ambiguity at this moment, you the viewer are free to make up your own story.

Obviously, there is some type of demonstration going on. There may be something about race relations, or the racial divide, or something more presented here. What is the story? Write down what you think it is before you read about it. Write it down and later consider what was in your mind that informed your initial response.

I was in the Marietta Square area photographing. I noticed on one of the corners a group of demonstrators carrying signs calling for peace and love. Sounds very 60’s but these folks do not look the part as presented by popular media.

I approached them and asked them all, directed at no one, “What’s this about.” One woman and one man spoke simultaneously and then the woman permitted the man to explain. I heard his testimony directly, so I am a witness. You read it second hand. To you it is hearsay. Now you have a question to answer: Am I , the photographer trustworthy?

The leader of the group explained, and the rest of the group agreed, that they were on this same street corner every Friday to proclaim peace, to denigrate war and those who profit from it. Large corporations were specifically mentioned.

The man wore a pin which read, “Pass the Amendment”. I asked him what it means. He said that corporations in America have too much power and influence over our government. Congress needs to pass laws to resend corporations’ treatment as entities with personal rights, same as people have.

We talked more.

Then J.H. strolled up supported by his walker. I had seen him before in the park. The people in the group know him by first name and they talked. They were familiar enough to know how he normally dresses, and they remarked how sharp he looked. He related sadly, “I just left a funeral… (pause)… for my son. For my son,” he emphasized. “He was killed by a stray bullet. He was only 19. He don’t do drugs or nothin’. He was helping his grandma out of the car and a bullet hit him in the temple and he dropped dead. Right in front o’ her.”

There was shock among the group and sympathy, maybe empathy. This same story is so common in Atlanta, way too common, almost daily. I heard two similar stories last week. One person died. Another person, a little four year old girl in bed, was hit in the foot. (I have a four year old granddaughter.) A bullet came through the wall of her house. She will recover, but the stupid, the hateful, the violent just grow more violent and evil every day. I was among the right people to hear J.H.’s story. This time his common story became personal.

Do you know how many people I know personally who have had family and friends murdered, and who were murdered themselves, here in Atlanta? Awful!

Condolences and prayers for J.H. and his family were said. This photographer became part of the sad story. J.H.’s story became my story because we were all sharing his grief. Time passed. More conversation, but it began to wain. What more can be said in response to such evil in the world? What could I do?

Then the thought: Do I photograph this man in his grief? How private is private? How would a photograph of him be perceived out of context. How can I tell even part of the story? Should I ask him? Should I impose? Should I insert myself when I just met the man? All these questions simultaneously swirled in my head.

My request came out of the blue, and it shocked me. It seemed like someone else was asking, “May I photograph you?” The mere question in my universe was an imposition. Like I said, probably half of you, or more, will say I exploited the situation and the people there. On the other hand, doesn’t this man deserve to have his story told in a sympathetic way that is perhaps part of the message in his soul?

He answered, “Yes, just let me turn this walker around.” He posed himself. Maybe he composed himself. I took two photographs. They were pretty much the same except the expression on the woman with the sign.

The image was birthed in RAW format, so it originated in color. Here.

For this photograph, for this story, color does NOT work at all. This color photograph is not right.

I converted the image to black and white. Black and white is THE medium. It supports J.H.’s grief. It sweeps away the distractions, it clears the air. In fact, it becomes part of the story itself. You are left with the essence of the message, the signs and the man.

We were all participants in the story; the demonstrators, J.H. who suffered the loss, and me, the photographer who just happened by and asked if I could make a photograph of people carrying signs and proclaiming peace.

Pray for J.H. and his family.


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