I've had this struggle for a few years now. The power of street photography, of documentary work in general, draws me in like few other art forms can. I have a hard time even putting it into words. Raw. Vulnerable. Truthful. All of these things make my heart thump hard. And because I believe we are all full of beauty, not just those who meet the ideal held up by society this week, I am always captivated by images of people whose very skin tells a story. But here's where the struggle comes in. I watch photographers that I absolutely look up to like Steve McCurry, whose work is timeless and will be remembered for centuries, and I get all kinds of uncomfortable. Watching someone just walk around taking pictures of the people they encounter on the street, without always stopping to talk to them or ask their permission, makes the social worker in me about have a panic attack. Don't get me wrong, I don't think every single situation demands consent, and I know Steve does build relationships when possible, but those gorgeous close up portraits of people that I long to take, it doesn't feel right to "steal" those moments without a conversation.
And then I watched a documentary on Dorothea Lange in which she described taking photos of migrant workers during the Great Depression. She talked about inviting the subject into the process, sort of holding space for what they wanted to bring, and knowing that they both could benefit from this experience. She was trying to tell the story of rural poverty, which naturally leads to a sort of tension between being truthful and telling the story of a struggle, while still honoring the dignity of those she photographed. That helped it all fall into place for me. There has to be a sort of mutuality involved, a give and a take, not only a take. And dignity, always dignity, even when the situation you are documenting doesn't lend itself to this easily. We must always honor the humanity in each other.
Last week a friend messaged me and asked if I had seen the documentary I just described. I told her about my respect for Dorothea Lange and how much I want my work to be shaped by hers. Dorothea documented the Japanese internment camps and that work was impounded by the government. It was considered too critical, too dangerous, for the public to see. I told my friend that one day, I hope to have a body of work that is considered dangerous truth telling. She told me I would. I believe in story telling, deep in my bones I believe in the power of it. But I also long for the day when humans are moved by their fellow humans, not because of a photo that forced them to come face to face with the strength and dignity of a person, not because of misplaced pity, but because we know the importance of honoring each other, we know the way this will change the world.
Until that day, I'm going to keep working on developing my documentary work. And I do this by being willing to build relationships with my subjects. By telling them what I see in them and why I want to document that for others to see as well. That's what I did when I saw Steve standing outside an abandoned building earlier today. Steve is one of those people that most people in our town would recognize, even if they don't know his name. I think most small towns have at least one of those people. I've lived here for about 10 years now, and I've heard a lot of different stories about Steve. But I let Steve tell me his own story. We've chatted a few times over the years although I never know how much he remembers. So today when I was driving by and the way he was standing under an overhang, enjoying the last drags of a cigarette, watching it rain in his green boots, I decided to stop. I told him how I was drawn to the way he looked standing there stoically, and that I'd love to document it. He smiled and told me "Well, sure, but only because I want to be nice to you." We talked about my work, the rain, my children who were screaming in the car nearby. I grabbed a few quick frames and we wished each other a good day. Not everyone has always honored the humanity of Steve. I hope that these images bring you face to face with the beautiful child of God that he is.