Getting the Story Behind the Image

I have always enjoyed and admired the work of documentary and street photographers, though I lacked the sheer nerve to capture more than a candid shot from a long distance. But taking these photos from afar like a sniper hidden in the belltower armed with a long lens always left me feeling disconnected from my subject. I wanted to get up-close and personal and walk away with more than a detached image; I wanted to capture the story behind their face.

Making the transition from “street sniper” to “storyteller” was not an easy one for me, especially with my social anxiety. The idea of striking up a conversation with a stranger to get their portrait posed major roadblocks in my mind. I’d see someone I’d love to have a portrait of, but didn’t quite know how to read them and had no plan nor social grace to approaching them. The first few I tried ended in just utter failure. The conversation went something like this:

Me: “Hello, I’d like to take your photo - is that ok?”

Stranger: “Who are you and why do you want my photo?”

Me: “I’m just a guy with a camera, and, uh… you look interesting.”

That usually ended the conversation with an unfired-shutter and would halt any further attempts that day. Everyone would look unapproachable after that and I’d go home with a couple “sniper shots” that I wasn’t proud of and would eventually delete. I realized I was doing it all wrong. No one really wants a stranger jumping in their face and asking for a photo. They are taken off-guard and they immediately put up a strong defense. I needed to connect.

Since those disaster days, I have really fine-tuned my approach to people on the street. My secret ice-breaker is actually unobtrusive: I carry an interesting camera. Really. I have found that people are super inquisitive when I walk around with old film cameras like a Pentax 67, Leica M2, Plaubel Makina 670, or a Rolleiflex. The folks that approach me are already wanting to talk about the camera and open to conversation.

For example, the photo above was taken in Little Italy in New York City. This gentleman approached me as I was carrying my Plaubel Makina 670 and asked about the camera. I told him all about it and let him take a photo with it.  Then I asked him if he was from the city, what he did for a living and so forth. The conversation went back and forth for a bit, and when I saw he was quite relaxed, I asked if I could take his portrait and offered to send him a print (which I did).

The image below was almost the exact setup. I was walking in Newburyport, MA with my Rolleiflex 2.8 and this character was walking down a narrow side-street. He was admiring the camera a bit, so I asked him about the neighborhood, how long he lived there and so on. Then he began asking about the camera. After a short conversation, I had his story, asked for a portrait, and sent him a print.

I now find myself fairly comfortable talking with people, striking up conversations, getting their story and finally their photo. The photo almost becomes an afterthought to the conversation, and it is rare that I get a decline after their anecdote. I always make it a point now to get a print to them as well. Oh, and if the person happens to be a business owner/vendor, I always make a purchase while striking up the conversation, like my morning fruit from the vendor below in midtown Manhattan on frosty October morning.

Lately, the stories I have been getting have evolved as well. In the beginning, the stories were more about who they are, how long they lived here or there, and so on. Today, the stories have turned into documentaries on my website, like the photo at the top of this article which was a full story on his commercial fishing in the North Atlantic Ocean (The Nice Guy from Rye) or supplemental stories within stories like the image below taken during a photo walk in Greenville, Mississippi (Mississippi Delta and Beyond). Here, I was given the unabridged tale of blues legend Robert Johnson.

Not only did I get the story, but he also took me on a tour of his private museum and gave a back-story on living in Baptist Town in the early 1900’s. We talked a good hour and at the end of the day, I had a warm conversation with a wonderful soul, learned about his neighborhood, and sent him a print of our encounter. The portraits have become the icing on the cake.

Above, another portrait that was part of a full documentary style post on the making of maple syrup from last spring (Republic of Vermont). This one is actually evolving into a multi-part series documenting the various pieces of his farm (tapping trees, syrup production, raising bees, etc.). I’ve come to realize that so much richness in life would be missed if I only “sniped” these shots. Having met and talked with so many of these kind, warm, sharing people has truly given me a greater outlook on my craft and I feel has enriched me so much.

Getting the story has become quite an obsession of mine. So much so that I started a side-project (Physical Grain) in December 2016 to showcase other photographers by having them tell their own story behind a special photo they have made. It’s not at all about the end result for them, it’s about the journey to the image.

The idea for the website was crafted in my mind right as I released the shutter for the image below. It was a sort of epiphany moment where I thought, I want to know the story behind everyone’s photo! And by how things have been going for the last year, so do many other people.

Though I still have anxiety each and every time I approach someone new, knowing I will have a new connection, hopefully, a good story, and possibly an image to go with it has made all the difference in the world.

My approach has become all about the story behind the image.