“Take My Picture”

I originally posted this on my photo blog a year ago, but it seems to fit here better. Then again, I’m still struggling with what fits here at all. Most people seem to fill up their blogs with personal bits — and that’s perfectly fine — but I’ll not be doing that.

In any case, here is one (homeless) man’s story:

Tenleytown, Washington, D.C.

“Take my picture,” he said, after politely moving out the way of my shot of a closed barbershop. He spread his arms as if to say, “this is me, all that I am.” I took the shot, and he approached. If you are willing to listen, there is an abundance of people who are willing to tell you their stories. I avoid most street people for just that reason. They want me to listen, and listening is work.

“Have you ever seen Satan?” he inquired, testing. “They say Satan was the most beautiful of angels. I am Satan.” I knew instantly he was speaking half-metaphorically. He spoke with the conviction not of insanity, but of one who knows you couldn’t possibly believe or understand. I understood. I’ve met ones like him before. Then, “This city is full of beautiful people.”

Ah. Yes. Beautiful people.

“You wouldn’t believe I’ve seen God, been to God,” again, testing. He went on to explain that Satan had him, he had become Satan in effect.

“Satan is a pussy compared to God, but he’s still strong.” His eyes still searched mine for ridicule. I assured him I don’t attempt to judge what is real or not real. If one did somehow see God, or Satan, would not the incomprehensible power make one mad? Would not knowing no one could believe leave one feeling alone?

He told me that people like him aren’t nearly as crazy as people think. He assured me schizophrenia wasn’t talking. I knew that. I’ve talked to schizophrenics, and this wasn’t it. I could smell the alcohol on his breath — “a few beers” as he told it — but I knew he was telling the truth when he said it didn’t faze him. I’ve lived with alcoholics too.

“It just numbs me a little, you know?” He wasn’t numb though. His pain showed in every expression. Pain: constant emotional pain. I couldn’t feel it, don’t always have the gift of empathy when I’m shooting. To paraphrase Bruce Lee, I do not turn it off, it turns off all by itself. However, I know what hurting looks like just as I know what a tree looks like.

He was 54 years old, had been living on the streets for 5 years. “I’m not the shelter kind of guy.” In fact, according to him, he was no one, evil, an abortion that should have happened, but did not. He told me his back story, the son of a cleaning woman from the projects: illegitimate, illiterate, and depressed. He felt worthless, telling me he didn’t want to die, but rather wished he had never been born. He was evil, Satan, worthless. Looking back, I realize I should have asked him what he did to be so despicable, but honestly, I didn’t want to know. Empathy thrives in ignorance.

“See that squirrel? I wish I were that squirrel.” A squirrel has no worries, no problem. A squirrel just is.

I told him simply, “You can’t lose faith in yourself, because you’re all you have.” I touched his shoulder. He seemed surprised that I would. I knew he had faith in God, and his power, but somehow he was lost.

“If you believe in God, then you must know that God believes in you,” I offered. For a second, then two, he looked, wanted to believe. “It’s never too late to start.”

“Start what?” he gently sneered.

“I don’t know. That’s up to you.” Again, for a second, he wanted to believe. Then the darkness inside shrugged it off. Some darkness can shadow even the light. I wished him well, and stepped out of his shade and back into the sun.

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4 thoughts on ““Take My Picture”

    • Thanks. I can do candid shots; what I’m terrible at is doing posed work. People want to be told what to do, and I want them to be themselves. I rarely take posed shots, unless it’s someone I know very well.

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  1. The past and future are ever present. As allegorical as that may sound, it really isn’t. What matters is always in the present, whether that represents a notion of the past or a expectation of the future. But to not talk about the past, or one’s hopes for the future is to not acknowledge an important part of your present and what makes you who you are now. Like an imprint of an imagined life, that in retrospect seems so real and almost tangible, overlaying what you consider to be you in the now, these other interpretations of your selfhood as past and present selves become a convenient adjunct to purposeful transition from one memory to another. Linked together, remembered and projected in ensemble these memories form the pattern of a life which carries your stamp, your mark of recognition though no time has actually passed.

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    • In a very real way, that is what trapped this gentleman. He was incapable of letting go of his past transgressions, to the point where in it defined him. He was “the devil,” not for his current alcoholism, but because of what he’d been. Indeed, I think his (present) drinking was due to his living in the past. He wanted more for his future, but his past was too present, so to speak.

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