HOW STREET PHOTOGRAPHY CHANGED MY LIFE:
“Let Them Be”
BLOG SERIES BY ALEC RILL – Part 3
Welcome back to my blog and the lessons I have learned from street photography that have made me a better photographer and a more caring individual.
In my previous post, we went over the importance of being able to “read” a person—in photography as well as in life.
In this chapter, I share the importance of observing a person without judgement, and to accept and empathize with others as they are. In photography, this intimacy enables us to photograph the subject’s true self, their soul. In a social context, it helps us create a closer connection with our friends and even with strangers.
How often, in your travels, do you encounter people who are totally outside your community and live a very different life and possibly have a very different set of values and principles? How do you react?
I have lived in various countries for extended periods of time and have traveled to dozens of other places to photograph the way people live.
I thought I was good at empathizing with other cultures.
My childhood experiences never included playing with discarded tires or whatever we found in waste disposal sites. So, when I saw these children in Ghana in the middle of the day, out playing with whatever they found in the village garbage dump instead of being in school, I found myself feeling sad and maybe even pity for them. I thought they couldn’t be happy. I was passing judgement. I walked around the village to see how people live, and I encountered joy everywhere. And when I got close to the villagers, I felt their warmth.
Now, consider this photo of a family in a village in Ghana with no electricity and no running water. They all share a collective joy washing the village’s car. Look at that smile, and the pure happiness of the moment. It was contagious. Social bonds and family connections make a big difference in people’s happiness.
But it was close to home, in a small town in New Mexico, that my Ghana experience crystalized my ability to let go of preconceptions and stop judging. It happened when I decided to approach a group of people having a beer (or two or three) and smoking Marlboros at 9:00 in the morning.
They were unemployed in a town where years ago all the mines closed. There were limited work prospects, and not enough municipal services or assistance.
I saw a man way younger than me with barely any teeth, a guy who last shaved a couple of decades ago, and another guy with a voice so raspy from smoking that it was hard to understand. What do I do? I think to myself. I am afraid of approaching them. I don’t look like I belong—and I have an accent.
I could have taken my long lens and “sneaked” a couple of pictures and run away. Instead, I chose to engage. I told them the truth: that I live in New York City and that this town, this scene, was totally foreign to me and that I wanted to tell them my story and listen to theirs and photograph them.
I found that honesty is palpable and contagious. When I told them the truth about why I wanted to photograph them, they were delighted that someone came from far away to learn about their lives. I was honored that they let me inside their world.
And when we talked, they told me about the history of their town, the long past happy times, the hardship after the mines closed. Most notably, they told me who was who in the group and the various families that get together to enjoy each other’s company.
Them describing the family bonds of their town reminded me of the family in Ghana washing the car.
Yes, they did tell me about their politics, vaccines, etc.. I didn’t try to convince them of my views and they didn’t want to convince me of theirs.
I suspended judgment and didn’t let our differences affect our interaction. We were friends sharing a beer and getting to know each other and celebrating the things we have in common, at 9AM!
In my next post we will discuss how to approach stangers.