I promise, this is the last one. Probably.
Here’s a story. On vacation in Thailand several years ago, there’s an old woman scrubbing pots on the sidewalk, a Monday morning right about 8:45, and she’s getting ready to start her business day of selling noodles for almost no money. Something about the light, something about the lines on her face, something about the commonplace nature of the moment … I saw it all as a beautiful thing and I wanted to keep it, so I raised my Canon SLR and snapped it.
Well, a young man was standing nearby, a 20ish young buck wearing the orange vest of a motorcycle taxi driver, and he made some hand gestures communicating his disapproval. We didn’t share enough vocabulary for messages in more detail, but I think I know what he was about: Go to the temples, or the palaces, find an elephant walking the streets if you like, or go to a museum or the zoo, and take pictures of those things. This is a human being in the midst of living her life and she is not a tourist attraction. She works hard and she’ll never be rich and she might die poor and alone, but your picture is not going to change that, so in the meantime just respect her, and don’t try to turn her into a souvenir.
I think that’s what was on his mind. I took the picture anyway and scurried off, but it didn’t work out the way I wanted – I’d gone out of the hotel intending only to shoot some old buildings I’d seen the previous day, and all I had with me was a wide angle lens, so the midrange camera angle didn’t convey what I had felt that morning … but I did ponder the altercation with the young man, and I’ve done so again from time to time.
See, I had taken the picture, wanted the picture, because – precisely because – she was a human being in the midst of living her life, and I knew even at the moment that her life was harder than mine has ever been, but there was something in the nature of clarity about it, just at that particular time, that particular morning, and maybe no one but me would ever have found it to be a moment containing such ineffable beauty as I in fact did at that time, and perhaps my picture would do nothing to communicate to anyone else, either … but there it was, anyway, the impulse to try and show it to people.
Most people don’t see anything beautiful about the ordinary, the everyday things we encounter so often that we don’t notice them. I’m convinced, though, that capturing it, or trying to, is one of the chief values of serious photography.