What is the value of a photograph to a man who seemingly has nothing?
My documentary project in the Los Angeles freight yards, photographing tramps and runaways, ended after ten years in 1983, but in 2001 I returned to the yards just for old times’ sake. As I walked alongside the mainline tracks into L.A. a voice called out. “Hey Mr. Picture man where you headed?” I remembered the unchanged voice instantly and turned to see my old friend smiling at me. He hugged me hard with one arm and with the other, drew his prized possession from his pocket and held it up for me to see, a horribly mutilated, tattered beat up piece of paper. A photograph I had made and given to him in 1974.
We were two old guys hugging by the tracks, each with tears in his eyes as we looked at the tattered photograph that meant so much to both of us. I thought, how could this be? First of all, how could that little photograph have lasted this long carried in the pocket of a wandering man, a rough and tumble man of the road, super tramp among men. He did what most men cannot do. He could be anywhere with nothing and survive and be happy doing it. For 27 years he had been doing that with my photo there in his pocket, ready to be brought out to make him smile. He had tough times, but my photo brought a smile and some comfort to a poor, huddled and cold man who lived this very dangerous lifestyle and would take it out in good times to show off.
“The road is going to get you” the older men will tell you. The freight train is an iron beast that will beat a man to death in a few hundred miles. A boxcar door can slam shut on your dangled legs when the brakes go on and those big steel wheels take your legs away, leaving you to bleed out by the right-of-way. There is no right of way for the tramp, only for the railroad and “if the railroad don’t get you, a predator tramp will wait and hit you upside the head and you dead.” The road gets most men in five years at the most.
He survived, because he was not an alcoholic and he knew in his mind that he was doing something that most men and women could not do. “Put me down anywhere and I will find scrap metal and copper wire and I will be sitting pretty.” He lives his way along the railroad “right of way” and is at peace with himself.
The greatest and most emotionally moving shock that I ever got was when he pulled out my photograph from his dusty pocket. How could this be? What is the worth of a crumpled photograph of a group of bums sitting around together in a trash filled field hard by the main line tracks? They sat at the end of the line and I took a picture and then gave a print to my friend. He is not even in the picture that he loves so much. No one can ever take this experience away from me, or him, and that makes me cry.
My photographic journey has lead me on a search for truthful photographs that might speak to men of other men and each man to himself, and to make photos that could lead to a better understanding and love for others. Oh yes, the camera and my heart have led me to places where maybe some understanding is needed. The camera records the emotion and personal reactions of us as we make photos with the hope that something of value will result from this collaboration of heart mind and soul. This is my love story of my searching journey of love and understanding through photography, and with it reach out with visual poems that might have the power to sooth and make a smile.
During my ten years in the yards, I made photographs of men and women who I would meet again and again over the years as they passed through on the way to nowhere. Many became friends and I always tried to give them photographs, because I saw them swell with smiles and thanks as they held my photos. No one had ever given them a photo of themselves. They called me the “Picture Man” and I love them so. The photographs that I do on assignment are paid for and then go away, the photographs that are purchased by collectors give me money and pleasure, but the pictures I give away, are mine forever.
My photograph had come back to me and I wanted to make a photograph that would somehow preserve the feeling of that special meeting there by the tracks. . The question for me when making a photograph is always what to include in the frame and why? How much information do I need to show in order for the viewer to understand the situation in the photograph? What is the center of interest and what details should I include that might give more strength and meaning to the center of interest and result in a meaningful photograph. What do I need in the image to tell the story?
In this image the center of interest are his hands and the tattered and torn photograph that he held and that was so dear to him and to me. No face. Including the face would distract from the photograph and the face is not important to the story. There are no names when one is on the road.
The most important requirement for the social documentary photographer is to get in close to the subject. Close in with the camera and close in with understanding and compassion for the subject. Getting in close is always difficult in sensitive situations and the method I used to get close to the tramps is for another blog post.
My workshops are designed to show photographers my technique for getting in close, without disturbing the subject and without getting into trouble. I have worked the streets of the world and have developed methods for avoiding any trouble and also methods for getting out of any trouble. The street can be a dangerous place for the unwary or unprepared photographer. I enjoy sharing my technique and philosophy about this wonderful medium.