To take a man's portrait is to, in a way, translate his humanity into an artistic interpretation of who he is. Portraiture exploits his personhood and acquires his story for the purpose of artistic intent. But imagine if this portrait, this art, this exploitation could expand beyond a photographer's purpose for the image? What if a photographer's art could become a means by which a subject experiences deep emotion within himself? And what if his expressed emotion, in turn, deeply affects the photographer, bringing him into a fully experiential relationship with his subject?
Today I took my first step towards overcoming a fear of asking a perfect stranger for a photograph. It was a magical experience. As I set out to photograph parts of this city they call Budapest, I decided to take a main street for a mile or two. About a half mile into my journey and a dozen architectural images later, I felt drawn to take some of the less travelled streets. I wanted to see the side street markets, family owned cafes, flower shops, and grocery stores. I wanted to see the entrances to apartments and the local people on their way to wherever they were headed.
As I turned a corner, I noticed a man in a wheelchair across the intersection. I could only see him from behind, but something compelled me to navigate towards him. He was in his wheelchair inching himself along, pausing every so often to take a drink from a bottle of alcohol he held tightly so as not to drop it. His textured skin and his missing leg lent themselves to so many questions about who this stranger might be. I didn't have enough information to legitimize any assumptions, but I did sense that he was lonely, sad, and seemingly aimless. I passed him trying to note all I could and wished I had the courage to stop and ask for his photograph. I did not. I waged war in my mind, wanting to turn around, but lacked the needed bravery. What was I afraid of? Rejection perhaps, but more so, I was afraid of hurting his feelings. I was afraid of what he might assume about me in my asking for a photograph. I almost allowed my fear to lay closure to the opportunity, but something in me forced myself to turn back. In my fluent English, I spoke to his fluent Hungarian, and with body language asked him if I could photograph him. He seemed surprised that I had stopped to pay him any attention, maybe even a little confused, but assured me I could take his picture with the nod of his head. He tried to hide his bottle under his right arm so it would not show.
As I took several portraits, all I could think of was myself and how exciting this moment was, that this man was actually offering himself to me as a subject. Thinking only of my portrait, I asked him if he'd reveal his bottle in the picture, to lend itself to his story. He assertively, but kindly communicated no. I did not push him. I took a few images and thought he might like to see the back of my camera to see how they turned out. As I scrolled through the first few images, this stranger began to weep. Tears filled his eyes and his body began to shake from a lack of control. Suddenly, my art, my image, my portrait felt insignificant in the presence of his tears. This man before me was hurting and in need of love. I put my camera down, wrapped my arms around him as tightly as I could from the left side of his wheelchair, and let him sob in my arms. He was trying to explain to me in his fluent Hungarian all that he was feeling. All I could understand was his gesture of pointing to his amputated leg. He touched his face almost as if he had not seen himself and the intensity of his textured skin in years. As I stroked his back, touching him tenderly to show love, but hard enough that he would feel it and remember it, all I could think about was the fact that my image had produced in this man a response that was deeper than anything I'll ever understand.
I had so many questions. Why was he crying? Why did he want to hide his bottle? What happened to his leg? Were his tears fully his or were they partially due to intoxication? Was he even intoxicated? Did he have a family who loved him? Or was his life filled with rejection? When was the last time somebody touched him to express affection? Was he going somewhere or was he idly wandering the streets? Did he have any regrets? Was he proud of anything? Did he have any sense of self respect? Or was he just having a bad day? What was it about my picture of him that caused him to feel so deeply that he was unable to contain his tears and emotion in front of a perfect stranger?
In an effort to respond to what was taking place before me, I wanted to take another portrait. THIS portrait was not for me. It wasn't for my artistic pleasure, and it most certainly was not a callous effort to exploit his emotion for my gain. It was no longer about me, but rather about him. It was closure to this moment. It was documenting the fullness of what had just taken place in his heart and mine so I could remember.
While mystery will forever surround my understanding of this man's tears, what WAS revealed to me through this beautiful exchange was an small evolution in my approach to portraiture. Yes, I want portraits that will affect my audience. Yes, I want to produce skilled work. Yes, I need people who are willing to offer themselves to me for my gain; however, I also want to see my work as a platform for understanding the human heart, as an opportunity to enter into relationship with my subjects, and for giving voice to anyone who needs one, even if I'm the only one who will ever hear it.
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