I recently visited my Dad and, like a lot of us, was confronted with forgotten remnants of my youth that I assumed my parents had the good sense to throw away when I left to attend college. My mother passed some years ago and my dad has moved several times between different states so it wouldn’t be surprising if there was no hint of my youth in his house.
I noticed he had on prominent display in a spare bedroom a photograph I printed and mounted in a makeshift darkroom I had in Japan. I didn’t know the print still existed and never shared the story behind it. It’s a very important image to me as it represents an experience that I find myself reflecting upon often.
As was common in my early teens, I was venturing into the mountains on a Saturday just outside of Tokyo to enjoy my new hobby, photography. As I got out of the city the crowded train car thinned out to the point where I found myself sitting directly across from this stoic looking gentleman in an otherwise empty train. Even though it was close quarters, I nonchalently raised my camera to my eye and focused. Just as I began to depress the shutter he became aware of my actions and glanced directly into my lens. I was too shy to snap the photo. As I lowered the camera to my lap he realized he had intimidated me. He glanced down and noticed I still had the camera pointed in his direction with my finger on the shutter. With his gaze he gave me permission, he straightened his posture and averted his eyes slightly. Without moving I depressed the shutter and he glanced back with a satisfied nod of the head. With that bit of business out of the way, we sat in silence for a few more stops before he stood up, gathered his things and made his way to the door as we approached the station platform. As the train slowed to a stop the man turned to face me and gave me a formal bow before exiting.
It was a profound moment, a lesson in respect and the first of countless non-verbal conversations I would have with people on the other side of my lens. In that moment I understood the value of that connection and how profoundly the subject can dictate the tone of the work. While it’s not always possible, especially with the pace of today’s “asset collection”, I always try to foster communication and collaboration on some level with talent through various means. The more of a collaboration it is, particularly with regard to portraiture, the more honest and revealing it is to the character of the subject.
So now, many years later, I would like to thank a man that I never knew, who is almost certainly dead, for a minor act of kindness that has resonated and shaped an important part of my life.